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.