Do we need a change to the Senate voting system?

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.



Join the discussion 11 Comments

  • Doug Hurst says:

    Thanks Don – a clear review of what I see as a mess. I favour optional preferential voting as I object to giving even a preference vote to some candidates and feel I should only have to vote for those I would like to see in the senate. I also believe the outcome should, as near as possible, reflect the wishes of the voters, not the machinations of ‘preference whisperers’ or any other shady, backroom operators. Thus, I support the proposed changes.

    • Mike says:

      I second your thanks to Don, Doug and agree that something ought to be done. The current Senate means that the current federal government does not have the ability to run the government. We are in a bad economic position debt keeps on climbing but any provision to cease the uncontrolled spending is blocked. My expectation is that a government voted in has the right to try and fix the economy but this one has been denied that. How different would it be if just about any every economic provision had not been blocked. I remember the seven dollar fee on bulk billing the outrage! I have read in many places that this really was about overservicing but even though it was a fairly minor cost to the general public it was stopped and all in sundry of those departed were vilified. I must confess that I cannot remember when I last voted above the line because I’m sure I did. These days I have to do research to work out who I’m going to vote for before I go to the polling booth it is that complicated.

  • gnome says:

    It’s easy for you, in the ACT to vote below the line, but voting in NSW I had 106 of the creepy little nonentities to decide from.

    Having a short little attention span, I vote a few down from the top, then a few up from the bottom, and so on, and hope my numbers meet somewhere in the middle. This time they didn’t! I was voting comfortably seated in a court-house ante-room in a sleepy Qld town, so it didn’t matter how long I took to find and correct the mistake, but imagine if it had been a busy polling-station on election day.

    I don’t know if these changes will benefit one side or another, minor or major parties, but I sure am convinced they will benefit the voters.

    • Don Aitkin says:

      Thanks, Gnome, but even in the ACT (from memory) I had sixty or so. Like you, I start of by thinking whom it is that I absolutely don’t want to represent me, and fill inn from the bottom. That done, I start at the top and sort out what I think are sensible preferences. That prettywell exhausts the people and parties I know. The rest go in the middle where they will do no harm.

  • Aert Driessen says:

    Thanks Don, informative (as usual) and interesting. My own views would mirror Doug’s. From some of the historical events that you describe I feel justified for some of the cynicism I feel about political strategies, to wit that ‘the party good’ outweighs the public good. Steele Hall deserves a place in the Politicians’ Hall of Fame.

    • dlb says:

      I think the progressives would agree with you also.
      From Wikipedia:
      “In August 1988, after the then opposition leader John Howard expressed his wish to control Asian immigration in Australia,[4][5][6][7] Steele Hall (along with Ian Macphee and Philip Ruddock) dissented by crossing the floor of parliament and voting with the Labor government on a motion against the use of race as a criterion for selecting immigrants.”

  • Jake says:

    Any changes to the electoral system must not, be made just before an election where it’s obvious to further remove any sense of democracy that voters think they have. The idea of pandering to the ‘apathy’ of the compulsory voter is in itself ridiculous. Once in three years to fill out a simple form by number, a five year old can do it. The two things mentioned in your article ‘ a law to criminalise non voters’ and ‘ preference exchanging.’ Abolishing these two items may fix everything. and actually lead to some sort of democracy in the voting results. I would have ‘no’ above the line at all. That’s just for the lazy.. who will not bother once voting is ‘Free Choice’ as it is in the rest of the world.
    The criticism of the idea of new senators not knowing ‘everything about the system’ is ridiculous,
    Thanks for your article, it did confirm much of what I did not know but suspected.

  • Don Aitkin says:


    Thanks for your comment. Re new Senators not knowing anything about the system — inasmuch as it is my comment, what I had in mind was that some of them had no expectation that they could be elected, and were standing for PR reasons to do with their single issue. If you want to be an MP or Senator and have some chance of getting there you would actually know a good deal about the system (otherwise why would you be interested in being elected)? I was referring to those who had no real intent.

  • Don, you (and many others) seem a little too glib in the justification for these changes to Senate voting.
    “Some of the Senators had plainly not expected to be there; some had no particular perspective on politics or policy. My guess is that most voters felt …more and more irritated.”

    That might be reason to increase the allotment of advisors to minor party parliamentarians but does it really justify effectively disenfranchising approximately three million Australians?
    And I’m guessing that those voters feeling irritated are not the supporters of the micro parties but of the major parties. So if the big parties get annoyed with the smaller ones that becomes justification to use their combined majority to change the system?

    You also obliquely refer to GVTs as a reason,

    “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.”

    “This or that result” certainly sounds sinister, but no matter how far back in the building the room is, and no matter how may cigars are being chewed, is not the goal a legitimate attempt, later made quite public, to obtain electoral success for their party?

    • Don Aitkin says:


      I’m sorry that you think my reasoning was glib. We are often faced with a choice between something that is not the best but an improvement, or no change at all. I’m for the improvement. I think this bill is an improvement on what we had. It doesn’t, at least in my view, disenfranchise anyone. The reason that some of these cross-bench senators were elected had little to do with their first preference votes, but with the contortions that went into the preference distribution that they agreed to. There is no reason to suppose that those who voted for them had such a preference order in mind, as I said in the essay.

  • Marcus says:

    Hi Don – I think a highly underrated problem with the Senate is that it is not only unrepresentative in substance, but also in time. To illustrate: until yesterday, half of the Senate reflected Australia’s voting intentions when they put Gillard back in power in 2010. I’ve written more on this here:

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