For many years I studied electoral systems, worked on a Green Paper at the request of the then Australian Electoral Commissioner (which went into a bottom drawer when the Minister changed), and tried to explain the whole rigmarole to students in a textbook. It was a lot of work, and took a lot of time. I’m not sure anything I said, wrote or did had much effect on the body politic.
But in a few days Parliament is very likely to pass a bill that will make profound changes to the outcomes of Senate elections, as the consequence of a few small changes to the way we fill in the Senate ballot paper. Labor has decided to vote against the likely Bill, and its doing so is what I would call a ‘tactical’ move. My guess is that Labor is in favour of the Bill, but doesn’t wish to say so publicly. No matter. The Government, Senator Xenophon and the Greens have the numbers. Senator Xenophon has built up a constituency for himself in South Australia, much as Senator Harradine once did in Tasmania, so he’ll be safe. Who would be the losers? Well, most of the minor party, cross-bench and Independent Senators, who would find it virtually impossible to get back into Parliament if the Bill is passed. Does that matter? Well, it does to them. It doesn’t, much, to me. I think that the outcome of the 2013 elections was almost farcical, with respect to the Senate, and I don’t like farcical outcomes in important areas.
What happened then was something like this. From 1984 until the present voters have had to choose between numbering all the squares (‘below the line’) or voting 1 to their preferred party (‘above the line’). If they voted above the line they handed the allocation of their own preferences to their preferred party, which did deals with the Independents and small groups to secure this or that result. What then occurred may not be what you would have had in mind, but you opted out. Since I like electoral systems I vote below the line, which gives me some pleasure but also takes considerable time. Most voters just shrug and vote 1 for one of the parties.
The outcome in 2013, or more accurately, in mid-2014, when the new Senators took their seats, was amusing and distasteful in about equal parts. Some of the Senators had plainly not expected to be there; some had no particular perspective on politics or policy; some had little idea of what Parliament was; and most had little idea of how crucial their support for this or that Bill was going to be and what the likely impact of the Bill(s) would be. I don’t think that either Labor or Coalition back-room strategists had expected the results, and they became more and more irritated as Parliament progressed. My guess is that most voters felt much the same. Parliament is not a kindergarten, even if some MPs behave as though it were.
The consequence is a new Bill to alter the ways in which we record our votes for the Senate. You are an above-the-line voter? You will now have to indicate at least six ordinal preferences for parties or party groups above the line, from 1 to 6. You, not the back room boys, will indicate what your real preferences are. If you forget that you have to choose six, and just put in your traditional 1, that will be accepted, but your vote will go no further.
OK. What about the below-the-line people, like me? Well, we’re given a little more scope to make forgivable errors, as long as 90 per cent of the ballot paper is filled in correctly.
Is the Bill a good one? Well, it’s better than the present system. It would be better still if below-the-line voters were allowed to record optional preferences, provided that they had indicated an ordinal set for at least as many seats as are to be filled — six in an ordinary Senate election in a State or 12 in a double dissolution. Ross Gittins has proposed that a useful change would be to exclude any candidate from consideration if his or vote was less than 2 per cent of the total, and to distribute preferences to the others. I think that is sensible.
Why didn’t the Government provide for such procedures? My guess is that their strategists could not decide whether such changes would be harmful or beneficial to the Coalition, and opted to do nothing. Does that mean that the Bill is intended to serve the Government and not the electorate? Well, yes, but there’s nothing new about that. All changes to electoral laws are done to assist, or at least not to harm, the Government that introduces the Bill. The most obvious examples are the introduction of preferential voting in 1919, introduced to stop the new Country Party from splitting the non-Labor vote in rural electorates. It worked, was defensible in democratic terms, and has remained a feature of our system.
Compulsory voting is another example, introduced in 1924 (as a private member’s Bill), but very much in the interest of the parties, who would not need thereafter to spend money in getting out the vote. It is true that turnout had dropped a little after the Great War, but my conclusion is that the principal reason the Bill got up was that the Government of the day thought it would save it money at election time. It too is defensible in democratic terms, and if you don’t think so, you’ll find out all argued out in that eminent textbook Australian Political Institutions, by Singleton, Aitkin, Jinks and Warhurst (10th edition), the only one of my 16 books that ever made any money.
The only counter-example I can think of is the action of Steele Hall, when Premier of South Australia in the late 1960s, in passing an Act which changed the State’s electoral system to something much fairer, knowing that it would make life harder for his administration; indeed, he lost office in 1970.
Two little footnotes. The first is that if and when the Bill is passed the Government will find it hard to get any agreement from the Senators likely to be affected by the change, and will need to rely on the Greens and Senator Xenophon. That suggests an early double-dissolution election.
The second is that the resulting Act may come in for a challenge in the High Court. The Constitution in Section 7 ordains that The Senate shall be composed of senators for each State, directly chosen by the people of the State, voting as one electorate. Does that mean that electoral systems have to be candidate-based? More specifically, if I vote 1 for the Good Food Party, which has six candidates, does that mean I wanted to vote for them in the order in which their names appear on the ballot paper? Or am I voting for a party list, and is that constitutional? There was an unsuccessful challenge in 1984. Some of the pundits are sure that there will be another one now if the present Bill is passed — too many political careers are at stake!
Later: You can find a useful discussion discussion of the new arrangements by the Constitutional Education Fund Australia here.