Double trouble

As parliament prepares to resume, it appears action is finally brewing on Senate reform – auguring a double dissolution election in July, if some media reports are to be believed.

UPDATE: The legislation has been introduced, and you can read all about it here. Contrary to the impression given below, the savings provision has not turned out to be retaining group voting tickets, but simply allowing one-box only votes to exhaust, along the lines recommended by Antony Green, even though the ballot paper will direct voters to number at least six boxes.

With all the talk lately of Senate reform and a possible double dissolution, I thought this site could use a thread specifically for the discussion of such matters. The Senate reform train finally began gathering momentum the week before last, when it was reported that a deal with the Greens and Nick Xenophon had produced a set of reforms which the government hoped would be through parliament by the end of the autumn session on March 17. The proposal was to abolish group voting tickets and require that voters number at least six boxes either above or below the line, with votes dropping out of the count when there were no numbered parties or candidates for them to pass on to. Antony Green, for one, is alarmed about this proposal, as it would render informal the votes of those who failed to notice the change as simply numbered one box above the line. Perhaps for this reason, Special Minister of State Matthias Cormann has kept open the option of retaining group voting tickets essentially as a savings provision for those who don’t vote in the favoured manner. Antony Green’s preference is for the ballot paper to direct voters to number at least six boxes, but nonetheless to allow voters to number fewer boxes and have their vote drop out at any earlier point of the count than envisioned.

Further raising the stakes, the government has been putting it about that the passage of the legislation will create the opportunity for a double dissolution election on July 2 — late enough to avoid the mid-year cut-off point, before which the Senate term would have been backdated to the middle of the last year, causing the next half-Senate election to fall due in two years’ time. As a double dissolution cannot be called in the six months before the final day of the parliamentary term, the last day such an election can be called is May 11. This raises two problems for the government: the seven-and-a-half week campaign that would ensue to stretch the election timing elastic all the way to July, and the fact that the budget is to be brought down on May 10. The former is a cause for wariness on the part of the government if only because of the precedent of the 1984 election, at which a Prime Minister who had a lot in common with Malcolm Turnbull was run unexpectedly close by an Opposition Leader who was in a similar position to Bill Shorten. The latter would require the spectacle of the government guillotining the budget through both houses of parliament, perhaps in a matter of hours.

It’s possible there are procedural hurdles that have been overlooked in this scenario, either in terms of getting the budget through in such haste, or initiating the election through the Governor-General and state Governors in whatever time might be left available. While there is no indication the government would proceed on any basis other than getting the budget through first, there has been a fair bit of discussion about the potential for the budget to be postponed until after the election, and an interim supply bill passed to cover the gap. The Hawke government was obliged to rush just such a bill through parliament when it called a July double dissolution in 1987, albeit that this was in the age of August rather than May budgets (although the government had brought down a mini-budget in May that had yet to make it through the Senate). It’s also possible that the government would not need to pass a supply bill in any case. The departmental budgets that are funded by the regular supply bills account for only about 20% of total expenditure, which is considerably less than in Gough Whitlam’s time. Departments might well be able to struggle by on their reserves until such a bill was passed — although it’s been noted here in comments that this may not extend to the funding the Australian Electoral Commission would need to conduct the election.

More of my take on such matters, including the obstacles that the Australian Electoral Commission would face in implementing the reported reform proposals, in a paywalled article in Crikey.

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.

75 comments on “Double trouble”

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  1. Kevin@38

    I meant the crossbench senators are more normal from a socio-economic perspective rather than ideological.

    They arent products of the machine that requires prospective candidates to know and influence the right people, or be famous for something else to get selected in a winnable seat. (i guess Glenn Lazarus is the exception)

  2. I don’t see the problem with the current system. It is preferential. So what if Muir only got 0.5% primary. The balance of voters preferred him to the remaining candidates. Even if they didn’t realise they did.

    On the normality of the cross bench. Folk need to mix more ignorant is normal. And since she got a minder Lambie is better informed and more sensible than most of the Coalitions Sennate team. They are thick with haters, racists, homophobes.

    Seriously you want an electoral system that helps more of these shadow dwellers to get elected.

  3. Most of the efforts to explain the ALP’s hostility to these latest reforms have been based on silly notions of how the coalition might somehow get a majority because of them.

    My guess is that two other factors are dominant. First, the ALP probably thinks that it has an inherent advantage when it comes to dealing with the sorts of characters who get thrown up as cross benchers under the current system. Union officials spend a a fair bit of their life dealing with the Lambies and Muirs of this world, whereas someone like Senator Brandeis probably thinks they are little different from aliens.

    Secondly, I suspect the ALP is terrified that if optional preferential voting comes in for the Senate and is well accepted, it will only be a matter of time before someone makes the very sensible suggestion that it be adopted for the House of Representatives as well.

  4. “They arent products of the machine that requires prospective candidates to know and influence the right people”

    Leyonhjelm’s a political insider.

  5. Normally, I like to run the “all politics is pragmatism and principle, it’s a false dichotomy to say only one or the other” line. In this case I find it difficult to see the principle in the ALP stand. The ALP appears to me to be motivated by

    1. Oppositions oppose
    2. Buddying up with cross bench is good tactics

    They are possibly motivated by
    3. We iz good at GVTs
    although I fail to see how they could be justified in that.

  6. DisplayName: That’s pretty easy to do. Just look at the AEC’s Senate First Preference results from 2013. In a state, any group with more than 14.29% elects a candidate (multiple candidates, if they have a multiple of that quota). After that, allocate candidates to the highest remaining groups until you get to six.

    For 2013, that gives you:

    NSW: 2 ALP, 2 LNP, 1 LDP, 1 GRN
    VIC: 2 ALP, 3 LNP, 1 GRN
    QLD: 2 ALP, 3 LNP, 1 PUP
    SA: 2 ALP, 2 LIB, 2 XEN
    TAS: 2 ALP, 3 LIB, 1 GRN
    WA (2013): 2 ALP, 3 LIB, 1 GRN
    WA (2014): 2 ALP, 2 LIB, 1 GRN, 1 PUP

    Of course, take this with a pinch of salt – an election run under the new rules would see different voter behavior – for example with less micro parties on the ballot, PUP could easily have overhauled the third Liberal in Tasmania.

  7. “Of course, take this with a pinch of salt”

    I suspect that’s pretty close. I would raise the following caveats:

    NSW: Give the LDP back to LNP.
    QLD: GRN v PUP for the last could be close
    SA: XEN obviously depends on whether he is personally standing or not. 3
    WA: I’d go 2013 results.

  8. ” election run under the new rules would see different voter behavior”

    People who vote 1 for a major under the old system are almost certain to vote 1 for the same party in the new system (taking overall electoral shifts into account). The first order question is how many Lab or Lib voters will write in second preferences for Green, and the second order question is how many first or second preferences will minors get.

  9. Martin

    My guess will be that the majors will get pretty much the same vote as last time in PV, possibly with a slight shift from Labor to Greens in line with polling.

    There will be a consolidation of votes into a few minor party groupings
    1. the religious right – FF, DLP, Christians
    2. the red necks – Shooters and Fishers and anti Carbon taxers, MEP and One Nation and RUA etc, possibly with Katter
    3. The mushy middle – Democrats, AJC, Republicans, Drug law reform, Hemp, sex

    The only here to harness votes – pirates, , secular stable population, anti banks etc will just disappear.

    The PUPs are an unknown quantity along with the two accidentals LDP and Muir.

  10. I just do not get this whole stuff about there not being as big a split in the RW vote. In fact I think there is rather more.

    On the left side of the ledger you have Labor and the Greens. I guess you can sort of add in the Sex people as they are big enough to win seats, but I rather think they are a votes harvesting party, than a real entity.

    On the right side of the ledger, you have Liberals, Nats in WA and SA, FF, DLP, One Nation, Katter, and the original Shooters and Fishers. None of these started life as vote harvesters and would probably continue post changes. They effectively splinter the RW vote. Probably add in the Libertarians and possibly now too the Xenophobic parties.

    In the middle you have Xenophon and the remnant Democrats.

    What these changes mean is that the newly emerged one line parties will disappear as will some of the real parties that have passed their use by date eg PUP.

    However at the end of the day the Right is more split than the left.

  11. The Sex Party isn’t really “left”, their philosophy is most closely aligned with the Libertarian movement (which yes, can make common cause with the anti-authoritarian Left sometimes, eg. drug policy but on economic policies they align with the Right). In many ways the Sex Party are the polar opposite to the Nationals.

  12. The Sex Party is sort of left in terms of social issues but they were founded by sex industry’s interests so there’s a few economically liberal policies in there geared towards small businesses in general. Not quite sure what their views of the big end of business is though.

  13. Keyman@48

    I am surprised the issue seems to be about these very destructive micro parties rather than the preference deals that see them elected with OTL voting. Wow, they have wreaked so much damage compared to the major parties – not! I would much rather have people like Lambie, Day, Lazo, Muir etc in the Senate with all the checks and balances that our system provides (eg advisors, Parliamentary Library Resources etc) than more party hacks without real life experiences. Lambie was not motivated to run by anti-Islamic beliefs – it was the plight of ex-military’s poor treatment at the hands of DVA that motivated her, or at least her perception of it. Whether she was right or wrong in that I believe it is still represents a reasonable motivation. Moreover, there are many religious zealots current Parliament who are elected thanks to the major parties, so why is Day any different?

    The difference between Day and Bernardi is that Bernardi is an embarrassment to the Liberal Party which voters can hold accountable if he goes much too far and they do nothing about him. But voters can have no control over Day under the current system since should he keep getting elected with a few percent of the vote through dodgy preference deals, most voters can do nothing about that.

    Both Day and Bernardi are not as extreme as Family First’s Peter Madden who came within 1000 votes of winning in Tasmania, with the preferences of virtually every party favouring him, including the silly Greens who had him in their top half! A slightly higher primary for FF or a slightly different distribution of minor party votes and we would have had one of the worst homophobes in Australian politics in the Senate – a guy who supports Russian-style anti-gay laws – as part of a powerful two-person block with Day. I did a huge amount of work to save Australia from this person and I do not want to have to go through that again.

  14. I’m finding it difficult to read some of the posts of the Laborites on this and the Newspoll thread without getting a fit of the giggles. Leyonhjelm, Day and Lambie more “normal” indeed! Stand up for the rights of minor homophobe and Islamophobe parties to get elected unwittingly by voters. Victorians wanted Ricky Muir as a Senator even though they didn’t realise they did (and, once he was elected, moved from bring a “class in itself” to a “class for itself”: Ricky Muir as Australia’s Lenin, how wonderful).

    I really hope for all your sakes that the legislation fails, Shorten wins the election in the House, and finds himself dealing with a Senate where RWNJs hold the balance of power because they beat the Greens in a couple of seats on Labor preferences.

    And don’t worry, I have a good memory and if any of you complains about it, I’ll be quoting back what you said about this legislation. It’ll be schadenfreude on steroids.

    Senate Reform: JSCEM Submission Take Two
    Links to my submission to the current JSCEM enquiry, which took me a little over a day to do on the weekend, with comments.

    I provide detailed simulations of what results might have happened had the proposed system existed at previous elections. The party most benefited in seat terms is the ALP (yes the party that is opposing the reform). Had this system existed prior to 2010 then based on the votes cast Abbott would have come to power facing a blocked Senate. Had a double dissolution been held in 2013 it would have elected 20 crossbenchers, 12 of them non-Green. People saying this will result in a double dissolution where the micros are exterminated and the Coalition is advantaged just have no idea at all.

  16. Kevin, 71

    Good analysis. I’m not sure on a couple of points though:
    -PHO being able to pass legislation in (sole) cooperation with the government during a 2001 DD (as 34+3=37, one short)
    -Greens missing out on a Senate seat in a 2007 DD in Victoria
    -PUP being able to pass legislation in (sole) cooperation with the Coalition during a 2013 DD (32+5=37, one short)

  17. Repeated post from the other thread:

    Cormann announces in the Senate further amendments to the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment Bill 2016 to introduce optional preferential BTL votes. Voters will be directed to number 1 to 12 below the line, with a savings provision in place if someone only votes 1 to 6.

  18. Airlines@72

    Kevin, 71

    Good analysis. I’m not sure on a couple of points though:
    -PHO being able to pass legislation in (sole) cooperation with the government during a 2001 DD (as 34+3=37, one short)
    -Greens missing out on a Senate seat in a 2007 DD in Victoria
    -PUP being able to pass legislation in (sole) cooperation with the Coalition during a 2013 DD (32+5=37, one short)

    There were a few errors in the original where I had a case of brainfade and had 37 as the majority number instead of 39. Thanks to a reader comment (which for all I know may have been you) these were fixed.

    Vic 2007: Yes this is also a mistake, the correct result would most likely be 6 ALP 5 Liberal 1 Green. Ta.

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