JSCEM interim report on Senate reform

An interim report by the parliamentary committee looking into last year’s election suggests the parliament will proceed sensibly with the once-in-a-generation task of tackling Senate electoral reform.

The Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters has today released an interim report on its inquiry into last year’s election, which very pleasingly establishes that the Coalition, Labor and the Greens have agreed to pursue sensible reform to the Senate electoral system. The recommendation is to follow the New South Wales example in having optional preferential voting above-the-line, meaning voters can number as many boxes as they choose and their preferences will exhaust at the point where the numbering of party boxes ends. Those who vote below-the-line will be required to number as many boxes as there are vacancies, meaning six at normal half-Senate elections, twelve at double dissolutions and two at Senate elections for the territories. Crucially, this means an end to group ticket votes, whereby above-the-line voters have a full suite of preferences allocated for them by the party of their choice. As well as closing the door on preference harvesting such as has enabled the election of candidates from as little as 0.5% of the vote, this will discourage the proliferation of micro-parties and the consequent swelling of ballot papers, greatly reducing the very considerable number of voters whose vote does not express their true intention. A further recommendation to make life harder for micro-parties is a requirement that they have 1500 members to register as a party rather than the existing 500, which if anything was less onerous than the equivalent rules at state level and allowed those who cleared the hurdle to field candidates in every state, regardless of how little presence they had there.

The electoral implications of this with respect to the last election have been mapped out by Antony Green, who calculates that “the Coalition would hold 35 seats not 33, Labor 27 not 25, the Greens 9 not 10, and others 5 not 8”. However, this assumes no change in the first preference voting results, when the new system with its less cluttered ballot papers would assuredly have limited such phenomena as the Liberal Democratic Party vote in New South Wales approaching 10% on the back of confusion among Liberal supporters, and voters opting for a micro-party after giving up on locating their true party of choice out of as many as 44 options listed. While it is clear that the new system will make life harder for very small parties, the exhaustion of a large share of the vote due to the optional preferential aspect of the system will mean that the winner of the last seat will usually be elected on well under a full quota, leaving a door open for smaller concerns with a genuinely substantial basis of support. By Antony’s reckoning, “a minor party would probably need about 5% of the vote to have any chance of winning a seat”.

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.

35 comments on “JSCEM interim report on Senate reform”

  1. Well this is basically exactly what I was hoping for so I’ll be happy if this is what is in the legislation that passes.

  2. At first glance, I can get on board with those proposals. Although, I remain philosophically opposed with the idea of making it too hard for a minor party to qualify for the ballot.

    However, the preference games (and subsequent elections of candidates with 0.5% of the primary vote) that stem from overwhelming and confusing tablecloth ballots needs to stop.

  3. So, what would happen if everyone where, for example, to vote 1 for their favoured party and stop there? Say the Greens had 1.5 of a quota, Labor had 1.6 of a quota and the Liberals 3.7?

    Would that mean the Liberals would end up with 4 seats?

  4. BC – I imagine so, but:
    a) not everyone is going to ‘just vote 1′ – probably a lot will, and almost all of the major partys’ voters will going off history, but a good portion of Greens voters will probably still direct preferences (though there will be leakage)

    b) the Liberals are never going to get 3.7 quotas.

    I will be interested to see what the majors and the Greens do with regards how-to-vote recommendations, and the ALP-Greens face the biggest issues with leaking votes. Since Greens voters appear to comprehend the voting system better and be more engaged with their voting I think the ALP will still get a majority of Greens preferences, but the Greens are at risk of losing overflow from the ALP.

    But clearly the Greens aren’t too worried about that.

  5. I guess I don’t like the optional bit. I can also see voters getting confused when voting for the HoR and not numbering all the boxes.

  6. [It says a lot about the intelligence level of Liberal voters if they confused the Liberals with Liberal Democrats.]

    Perhaps, but smug Liberals are quick to trot out similar lines whenever the disadvantage to Labor of a high informal vote is noted.

  7. I would prefer compulsory preferencing, either above or bellow the line, however it will be good to have ATL preferencing available.

    The party membership requirement is quite sensible and should make it harder for fake parties to get their name on the ballot paper and generally shrink the ballot paper.

    There also seems to be no move to change the minimum number of candidates in a group, unlike what happened in NSW.

  8. BC –

    I can also see voters getting confused when voting for the HoR and not numbering all the boxes.

    We already have quite distinct Senate vs HoR voting systems. Given that 95%+ currently use ATL for Senate voting, a mismatch between Senate and HoR voting clearly isn’t causing that much confusion at the moment.

  9. I don’t see parties saying Just Vote 1 precisely for the reason set out by BC. Its completely different electing 6 compared to 1. It will be in the interest of like minded parties to advocate preferences among themselves.

  10. These look like a sensible set of recommendations – much, much better than the threshold idea touted by the Liberals.

  11. As I like optional preferential (if I could I wouldn’t vote for the rest if you paid me), I reckon this is pretty dam good.

  12. Another good feature of the report is its unanimous complete indifference to the Wright system advocated at one of its public hearings by democracy@work.

  13. 14

    However there has been no movement on switching from Inclusive Gregory to Weighted Inclusive Gregory ans the means of surplus distribution in the Senate.

  14. Tom the first and best@15


    However there has been no movement on switching from Inclusive Gregory to Weighted Inclusive Gregory ans the means of surplus distribution in the Senate.

    Yes I’m hoping this one remaining stain will be swept away when the full report comes out.

  15. @ KB, Tom

    Anywhere I can get a rundown on the differences between these Gregory systems? Never heard of any of them.

  16. Arrnea Stormbringer @ 19: Look at chapter 4 of David M. Farrell and Ian McAllister, “The Australian Electoral System: origins, variations and consequences”, UNSW Press, Sydney, 2006.

  17. Kevin Bonham @ 17: You would be a brave person indeed to advocate the Wright system for a national election, given that as far I have been able to figure out, it has never been used until now to elect anyone anywhere, and is therefore, in the most literal sense, nothing but a figment of Mr van der Craats’s imagination.

  18. It’s extremely unlikely that the Committee will have anything more to say about the battling Gregorys. They basically don’t give a rats about the issue, because it’s by no means obvious that the choice of one approach rather than another will systematically advantage or disadvantage any of the political players. Inclusive Gregory has been in use for 30 years now, and the oft-expressed view of the JSCEM seems to be that it has, all things considered, not worked too badly. They acted on ticket voting because it was widely perceived to have produced a seriously anomalous result, for reasons which were pretty obvious. The people in Australia who understand and care about the Gregory/IG/WIG issue would fit comfortable in a small marquee tent, and the politicians know that.

  19. It’s actually a really bad tactical error on the part of activists to advocate before parliamentary committees untried, untested systems like the Wright idea, or extremely complex systems like Meek which they can’t readily explain. The case for WIG would have been much stronger if it had been put purely in terms of implementing federally a scheme that had already worked in WA. Talking about Wright and Meek in the same breath served only to damage the case for WIG. (And that’s quite apart from arguments about Droop quotas!)

  20. Given the smartest people in Parliament are generally serving on the front bench rather than committees I’m not sure most of the committee would understand the arguments any better than the rest of the community.

  21. lefty e @ 26: Calling voting tickets an “abomination” is more than a bit over the top. Back in 1983 the GVT mechanism was the only change to the Senate system which had a hope of getting the support of the Australian Democrats, who held the balance of power in the Senate, and the alternative was to continue to live with the scandalous levels of informal voting which had marked the preceding decade. Ticket voting worked very well for 20 years in getting the informal vote right down, thereby enfranchising literally millions; and if the micro-parties hadn’t started to game the system, the broader public would probably have been happy to keep the ticket system forever. The important point is that a system’s operation is determined not just by its intrinsic features, but also by how the parties adjust their strategies around it.

  22. 27

    On what grounds would the Democrats have opposed full preferencing ATL?

    I know they were in favour of full preferencing, so would have opposed optional preferential ATL (like it looks we are going to get) but I still see no reason why they would have opposed voters controlling their own preferences. It also would have prevented the jump in informal votes in the HoR in 1984.

  23. Also, as what the micro parties have increasingly tended to do over the last couple of decades shows, if you create a loophole then eventually someone will take advantage of it until you close it.

  24. [Yes I’m hoping this one remaining stain will be swept away when the full report comes out.]

    From the report:

    [It is the Committee’s view that the current quota calculation system be retained and the NSW system of transfer calculation of exhausted votes should be adopted.]

    Someone correct me if I’m wrong here, but far from removing the stain of inclusive Gregory, are they not suggesting a return to the barbarous random selection method?

  25. William Bowe @ 30: I think that needs to be read in the context of Antony Green’s arguments before the Committee that the NSW approach of treating only transferable votes as eligible to be moved in a surplus should apply. They certainly aren’t seeking a return to random sampling.

  26. Wouldn’t random selection make a recount impossible? (Perhaps after the WA mess, not such a bad thing.)

    As for the OPV recommendation. Hooray. Long overdue.

  27. Tom the first and best @ 28: Your question is a bit like asking about Napoleon’s attitude to the hydrogen bomb. The idea of OPV above the line flowed from preference harvesting at NSW elections in the 1990s: it simply wasn’t in anyone’s mind in 1983. What was there, rightly or wrongly, was a strong sense that full preferencing, however achieved, was desirable. The Joint Select Committee on Electoral Reform in fact recommended a more expansive “savings clause” for BTL votes than was ultimately enacted: the more restrictive version was put in place at the initiative of Senator Michael Macklin of the Australian Democrats.

  28. I do prefer full preferencing ATL, so a vote retains as much value as possible through the count. And I do prefer a not having a losing quota as I feel that devalues the franchise.

    And to respond to Kevin Bonham’s question from a post in the distant past: the injustice of the ‘wastded quota’ system is different to the malapportionment between states because it requires a Constitutional change or breaking up the larger States and a lot more politicians. Constitutional reform is worthy, but electoral reform, I think is the subject here. I support a federal system for Australia, but I’m not overly attached to the historic numbers and borders. I understand and respect, however, that many do have such attachments.

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