Senate reform reformed

A three-day parliamentary inquiry process yields an important result on Senate reform, with below-the-line voters no longer required to number every box.

The obscenely hasty Senate reform process yielded an important result today, when the government promptly adopted a Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters proposal to allow optional preferential voting below the line. The bill as drafted would have directed above-the-line voters to number at least six boxes, but those going below the line would still have had to number every box. Now the ballot paper will direct below-the-line voters to number at least 12 boxes, although votes with as few as six will still be admitted into the count. Among those who had advocated a 12-box minimum were Kevin Bonham and Antony Green, with the latter noting that a lower number might reintroduce the difficulty the six-numbers-above-the-line proposal sought to avoid, with voters limiting their choice to a single party and then allowing their votes to exhaust. Particularly stern criticism of the original proposal came from Malcolm Mackerras, who found it offered the exact opposite of what he proposed – a continuation of group voting tickets and single numbering above the line, but with optional preferential voting below the line. Michael Maley, a former Australian Electoral Commission official and occasional contributor to psephological discussion boards, also submitted the original proposal was “incoherent”, since votes that could be cast formally above the line would be informal if rendered identically below the line. Constitutional law expert George Williams was also critical, echoing Antony Green’s complaint that effectively deterring voters from going below the line would enshrine the power of party machines to determine the order of election of their own candidates.

Also around the traps, the Greens are being given a lot to think about in their apparent enthusiasm to sign on to the government’s immediate electoral strategy for the sake of its coveted electoral reform:

Mark Kenny of Fairfax reports that a union-commissioned poll by Essential Research found 54% of Greens-voting respondents opposed a deal with the government on Senate reform, with only 27.2% in support. This sits uncomfortably with Essential Research’s regular published poll this week, which explained the proposal to respondents in some detail and left the matter of a Coalition-Greens deal out of the equation. From an admittedly small sample of around 100 Greens voters, 46% approved of the proposal, versus 29% disapproval.

• Richard di Natale has stood firm against a move by Family First Senator Bob Day to legislate a starting date of August 22 for the reforms, so they would not apply at an early double dissolution. Di Natale told the Financial Review this would “create a situation where the Australian Electoral Commission would be preparing for a normal election under new rules, with the continued possibility of a double dissolution with the current rules”, and render it “impossible to begin a public education campaign”.

• The micro-parties are doing whatever they can to pile on the pressure, by threatening a co-ordinated campaign of directing preferences to Labor.

Rightly or wrongly, suggestions that the reforms don’t even meet the test of self-interest for the Greens have also gained traction:

• The analysis of Phillip Coorey of the Financial Review is that the Nick Xenophon challenge leaves the party most vulnerable in South Australia, but that it is also “at risk in Western Australia and Victoria, and to a lesser extend in Tasmania”.

• “Parliamentary Library modelling obtained by The Advertiser” suggests the Greens would not win a seat in South Australia at a half-Senate election, presumably since it would return a result of two each for the Coalition, Labor and the Nick Xenophon Team, and that only one of its current two seats would be retained at a double dissolution. However, “the modelling shows in other states the Greens either get another candidate up or stay the same”, suggesting two seats in Victoria, Western Australia and Tasmania and one each in New South Wales and Queensland.

• Unless the Senate reform controversy starts to do them electoral damage, the current state breakdowns in BludgerTrack suggest the Greens would easily win a second seat in Victoria; would lose their second spot only in the event of tight micro-party preferencing in Western Australia; and might even be a chance of a third seat in Tasmania.

• Simulations conducted by Kevin Bonham suggest a Labor-Greens Senate majority would currently be in place if the 2010 and 2013 elections had been held under the proposed system, and that the 2013 election would still have been a “crossbencher picnic” under the new rules if it had been a double dissolution, with most states electing two non-Greens cross-bench Senators.

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.

60 comments on “Senate reform reformed”

  1. The Government has lodged a notice of motion that, if agreed to, will guarantee a final result for the bill by the end of next week. In short, the Senate will continue sitting until it and a list of other bills are passed.

    A notable absentee from the list of bills are the ABCC reinstatement bills. This almost shuts the door on these bills becoming a trigger for a DD election.

  2. 50

    So it rules out a snap DD that either definitely (the declaration of polls before the 1st of July) or possibly (the declaration of polls after the 30th of June) has Senate terms commencing on the 1st of July 2015 (except in the unlikely event any state gets only 12 nominations and thus its Senators are elected on nomination day, which must be before the 18th of June).

  3. Tom @ 52: Of 2, 9 or 16 July for possible DD election dates, 2 July would seem by far the most likely because (a) the already long campaign will be shortest if that date is chosen; and (b) it will maximise the likelihood that the AEC will be able to get the Senate count done before Senate ministers have to vacate their positions through the operation of section 64 of the Constitution.

  4. [Perhaps that could be fixed by increasing membership requirements, both numbers (again?) and their commitment, maybe require them to pay a registration fee to the AEC to be counted as an official supporter (by traceable means).]

    Signing up for free should be banned – it makes it too easy to get sham numbers up – money (even if only $1) focusses the mind – and what stops a free membership just being renewed for ever. Free membership also encourages membership of multiple parties.

  5. Kevin, what’s the chance of a successful “Vote 1 Lisa Singh and number 5(or 11) other squares” campaign now that people aren’t being bluffed out of voting BTL?

  6. Government amendments are now included and the savings provision included saves any BTL with 1 to 6 numbered correctly.

    What is odd, on my reading, is that this doesn’t save some votes currently saved, such as someone who numbers every box but includes two 4s.

  7. Jack A Randa@56

    Kevin, what’s the chance of a successful “Vote 1 Lisa Singh and number 5(or 11) other squares” campaign now that people aren’t being bluffed out of voting BTL?

    If it’s a half-Senate election very low. Labor will get two quotas on primaries and then probably won’t win the third spot at all. If they do win the third spot Singh would need to be getting something like 5% of all votes as BTLs to her to win, which seems unlikely.

    If it’s a double-diss it might be possible. There Labor would be angling for five quotas (38%) and it’s more plausible they would get four on primaries and then be needing some preferences to get the fifth. So something like 33% Labor ATL or down the ticket and 3% Labor (1 Singh) puts her in the mix to beat ALP #5 (which would presumably be John Short) and win.

  8. Thanks Kevin – pretty much how I’d guessed it but I thought I’d seek a Tasmanian’s opinion.

    And re 57, your reading is pretty clearly correct. The Example under proposed s 268A makes it clear, if the section itself doesn’t, that you have to get 1-6 right. You can start repeating numbers or omitting them after 6 and they’ll count up to the last correct number. Not really a terribly onerous requirement. I do believe in principle that even a 1 by itself should be counted, but I’m not going to get too upset on behalf of those who can’t pass a “1 to 6” test.

    For those who really like reading Parliamentary Bills, the Govt amendments (the new ones, tabled in the Senate) are at

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