Getting the upper house in order

Bob Brown and the Greens have a worthy but self-interested bill before the federal parliament which aims to correct the injustice whereby Family First won a Victorian Senate seat at the Greens’ expense with barely a fifth of their primary vote, and very nearly did the same in Tasmania. Similar issues arose in the Western Australian election, when a similar system very nearly delivered seats to the Fremantle Hospital Support Group and Christian Democratic Party despite miniscule public support. Brown’s solution is to require above-the-line voters to number all boxes sequentially, rather than just one. This will solve the current problem where 95 per cent of voters never engage their mind about where their preferences will go, that decision being made for them by the party machines.

While this is a logical solution to an acknowledged failure of the current system, it inevitably presents its own problems. One is the matter of ungrouped candidates, who for whatever reason do not lodge grouped tickets and are placed in the far right column of the ballot paper, with supporters required to number every box. This column would have to be done away with and each candidate given their own column and above-the-line option. At last year’s election there were four such candidates in New South Wales along with 29 grouped tickets. A repeat situation under the Brown model would require voters to number 33 boxes, which brings us back to the reason above-the-line was introduced in the first place: the high informal vote when voters are required to number too many boxes. Thirty-three was the exact number of candidates who ran for the Senate in New South Wales in 1980, the last half-Senate election before the situation was deemed to necessitate an above-the-line option. This number leapt to 62 at the double dissolution election of 1983, and there would presumably be a similarly enlarged field if a double dissolution occurred today. This would mean a return to the high informal voting rates at those elections – 9.4 per cent in 1980 and 11.1 per cent in 1983, compared with 3.5 per cent last year.

At this point counter-measures begin to suggest themselves, each of which is a subject in itself. They include optional preferential voting, with voters only required to number as many boxes as they choose before their vote exhausts, and placing greater obstacles before candidates wishing to nominate. These options have parallels with reforms implemented for the New South Wales Legislative Council after the farcical "tablecloth" election of 1999; these reforms and their relevance to the Senate will get a going over in a forthcoming post.

Author: William Bowe

William Bowe is a Perth-based election analyst and occasional teacher of political science. His blog, The Poll Bludger, has existed in one form or another since 2004, and is one of the most heavily trafficked websites on Australian politics.