All that time redesigning the site has prevented me making a timely entry into debate over the report of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters. The main headline-grabbers have been voluntary voting and four-year terms, which are respectively dead-on-arrival and likely to land in the too-hard basket due to the need for a referendum (at least on the current Prime Minister’s watch). Of greater significance is recommendation 37, "that compulsory preferential voting above the line be introduced for Senate elections, while retaining the option of compulsory preferential voting below the line". Antony Green has had a fair bit to say on this one:
A stinker of an electoral reform idea … a recipe for an informal rate of 20% or more. Sure you wouldn’t have had to fill in preferences for all 78 candidates below the line on the 2004 NSW Senate ballot paper, but you will have to fill in 29 preferences above the line. Whoopee! … Above all, the Committee’s mindless insistence on refusing to countenance any form of optional preferential voting is breathtaking. In his speech to the Sydney Institute last week, Senator Abetz stated that apart from the first five preferences, and perhaps the last five, voters don’t really care about their preference sequence and probably end up filling in the numbers randomly. If that’s the case, what exactly is the point of making voters fill in all their preferences?
Writing in yesterday’s Crikey email, Charles Richardson broadly agreed but noted that the abolition of preference tickets would mean an end to the use of dummy parties for preference harvesting, thus reducing the number of boxes to be numbered. The estimable Dr Graeme Orr of Griffith University Law School went so far as to dispute Antony’s basic premise, suggesting a requirement to number every box would bring the two houses’ systems into line and reduce "’1′ only" informal voting for the lower house. Antony has responded to both in typically persuasive fashion with another article in Crikey.
Ultimately, this is a disagreement about the second best system – all concerned agree that optional preferential voting for both houses is the best option. It is the only solution to the preference lottery that will not inflate the informal vote, and it will deliver the last two seats in any given Senate race to the candidates who come nearest a quota on the primary vote, as natural justice demands. The Coalition and the Democrats, and hence JSCEM (the committee includes five Liberal, one Democrat and four Labor members), have concluded otherwise. The Greens are not represented on the committee but they evidently concur – Bob Brown introduced a bill to the Senate earlier this year to require that all above-the-line boxes be numbered, with no provision for optional preferential voting.
It is clear why the Liberals and Nationals are not keen on OPV as their votes could no longer be relied upon to reinforce each other through preferences. This would compel them to avoid three-cornered contests in the House and run joint tickets in the Senate, provoking an eruption of turf wars they would prefer to avoid. Presumably the Democrats favour full distribution of preferences as it boosts the prospects of parties who underperform on the primary vote, which is the regrettable position in which they find themselves. The Greens’ wariness about OPV for the Senate (the House is a very different matter) makes less sense, as I argued in April.
An interesting observation was made at Palmer’s Oz Politics by "Sceptic", bearing in mind that anonymous blog comments should be treated with due caution:
The interesting side issue will be the attitude of the party administrations. I don’t think either (Liberal federal director) Brian Loughnane or (ALP national secretary) Tim Gartrell will be too impressed with changes to the ATL Senate voting. More informal votes lead to less public funding for the major parties. It is an open secret that Mr Loughnane leaned on John Howard to junk the option of voluntary voting for this very reason. Imagine if these reforms lead to a financial crisis for the major parties in the future. You would assume that the PM, a loyal party man, would consider this very carefully.
For this and other reasons, my expectation is that the Government will invoke concerns over the informal vote to justify the abandonment of recommendation 37, which will join voluntary voting and four-year terms in the graveyard of major reform proposals resulting from the committee inquiry.