EDITORIAL: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
Senate reform proposals undemocratic
, May 24, 2014
Amid the chatter of political commentary and oceans of printer’s ink devoted to the Budget, most Australians are unaware that the major parties are planning changes to the Australia’s voting system which will entrench the larger parties’ representation and seriously damage the chances of smaller parties being elected to the Senate.
The Joint Parliamentary Committee on Electoral Matters has tabled an interim report into the 2013 federal election, focussing on the role of small parties in swapping preferences to give them a chance of election. As a result of such preference deals, a party which won only 0.5 per cent of the primary vote won a seat in the Senate.
There is reason for concern about the way in which the electoral system was manipulated by people forming political parties purely for the purpose of funnelling votes. But the solution should be to protect the interests of the 20 per cent of voters who support the minor parties, not to entrench the interests of the major parties.
Before the 2013 election, a plethora of minor parties was formed, in some cases having the same office-bearers, in order to exploit the “above-the-line” voting system introduced in 1984 to reduce the incidence of informal voting.
Under the present system of above-the-line voting, voters can choose to vote for a ticket by placing the number “1” in one of the boxes above the line. (Alternatively, the voter can vote for individual candidates by numbering all the boxes below the line).
The fundamental flaw in the present Senate voting system is that votes are distributed according to the party or group voting ticket registered before the election with the Australian Electoral Commission, not according to the voter’s individual wishes.
The Joint Parliamentary Committee on Electoral Matters clearly understood that this was the problem.
It said, “Combined with pliable and porous party registration rules, the system of voting for a single party above the line and delegating the distribution of preferences to that party, delivered, in some cases, outcomes that distorted the will of the voter.”
The committee concluded, “The system of voting above the line has encouraged the creation of micro parties in order to funnel preferences to each other, from voters who have no practical way of knowing where their vote will ultimately land once they had forfeited it to the parties’ group voting tickets.”
The solution to the problem is clear: introduce full preferential voting above the line, so that voters are required to indicate their party preferences, instead of giving parties control over the distribution of preferences. (Voters retain the right to indicate their individual preferences when they vote below the line).
However, the parliamentary committee has recommended a radically different course.
In addition to sensible suggestions to discourage the formation of minor parties for frivolous reasons, which makes ballot papers unnecessarily complex and unwieldy, it has recommended that the above-the-line voting system be abolished, and that an optional preferential system be adopted for what is now below-the-line voting.
Optional preferential voting has already been introduced in some parts of Australia, so its effects are now well understood. It radically distorts the voting system in favour of the large parties.
That is the reason why, in Australian federal elections for the House of Representatives and the Senate, voters are required to allocate all preferences. The optional preferential system has been considered, but for good reasons is considered inferior to the present system.
Where the major parties do not preference minor parties, they effectively disenfranchise the 20 per cent of voters who have supported minor parties.
Surely, if 20 per cent of people vote for minor parties, and the Senate vote is proportional, the minor parties are entitled to expect that they will have some representation in the 76-member Senate, however inconvenient it may be to the major parties.
Under the committee’s proposal, where the ALP and the Greens continue to swap preferences — as they have done in the past — the result will be to aggregate their combined vote, and share the available seats among themselves.
The recently-elected senator from South Australia, Bob Day, representing Family First, put the case forcefully on ABC television’s Lateline program recently.
He described the proposed changes to the Electoral Act as “un-Australian”, and added, “We’ve all been elected and they’re trying to sack us before we’ve even started.”
He went on: “At least let’s see how we perform, and if the Parliament becomes dysfunctional or gets bogged down in gridlock, then fine, then make a case. But until we’ve all actually taken our seats — who knows, we might actually improve things.”
Although the report from the Joint Parliamentary Committee is an interim one, it is probable that its final report will support the same conclusions.
There is an urgent need for ordinary Australians to express their views on these changes, which could deny 20 per cent of the Australian population representation in the Senate.
Peter Westmore is national president of the National Civic Council.