Family First Senator Bob Day’s legal challenge against reforms to the Senate electoral system reached the full bench of the High Court yesterday, which concluded by adjourning the hearing until tomorrow. Day’s case was advanced before the court by barrister, Peter King, who was the Liberal member for Wentworth before Malcolm Turnbull despatched him in a preselection challenge in 2004. King probably didn’t have the best day, having been admonished for failing to provide the court with the requisite three-page outline of his argument, and straining to have the points of his case understood by the assembled justices. You can view the transcript of yesterday’s proceedings here, both sides submissions to the court here, and my paywalled preview to the hearing in Crikey here.
The most promising lines of argument against the Senate electoral system run through the Constitution’s requirement that members of parliament be “directly chosen by the people”, which arguably mitigates having candidate ordering determined by the parties themselves, as is done for those who vote above-the-line. The obvious problem here is that this was even more true of the system that preceded the passage of the reforms in March, where that control extended beyond the party’s own candidates and ran the full gamut of the ballot paper. When this system was introduced in 1984, an independent candidate sought an injunction to prevent the election from proceeding, which was heard by the then Chief Justice, Harry Gibbs. Gibbs concurred that the Constitution required a candidate-based system, but put a spoke in Bob Day’s wheels by saying it was “not right to say that the Constitution forbids the use of a system which enables the elector to vote for the individual candidates by reference to a group or ticket”.
Of the various argument put forward by Day, only one carries the implication that the Senate system has been unconstitutional all along. This involves the use of the Droop quota, which requires that successful candidates receive a quota, either as first or subsequent preferences, equal to one divided by the number of seats up for election plus one (with a single extra vote on top to get them over the line). At a typical half-Senate election for six seats in a given state, this means the count progressively whittles the field down to a final seven candidates, each of whom essentially holds one-seventh of the overall vote. This includes six Senators who are elected, and a seventh who is left carrying a big swag of votes that were no use in getting anyone elected. It doesn’t need to be this way – the quota could simply be one divided the number of seats up for election without the plus one, which would mean one-sixth in the previous example rather than one-seventh. The count would end with six elected candidates, with no unlucky spare holding a “wastage quota”. Since the Droop quota has been in use since proportional representation was introduced in 1949, this is a pretty adventurous line of argument. It also invites the inference that a voter in the lower house is disenfranchised merely if he or she votes for the losing candidate.
The other lines of argument avoid the implication that the system has been unconstitutional for years, by identifying new changes that transgress in ways the previous system did not. First, there is the argument that the changes introduce a second method of choosing Senators, contrary to the provision of Section 9 of the Constitution that parliament is empowered to “make laws prescribing the method of choosing senators” — with emphasis on the singular. Under group ticket voting, the argument goes, above and below-the-line voting were different in form but not content, since both were treated as completed ballot papers so far as the count was confirmed. But with the savings provisions under the new system, a voter can number one box above the line, but has to number at least six below it. Unlike the old system, this means one can now vote above-the-line in a way that could not be replicated below-the-line. Among the ripostes that might be made to this is that the old system had a savings provision too, in that below-the-line votes with a small number of mistakes were still included in the count, and this too introduced a subtle discrepancy between what could be done above and below the line.
Another argument is that the newly proposed ballot paper violates the principle of a “free and informed vote”, which was invoked by the High Court in its findings that a constitutional protection existed for freedom of political communication. This is said to be violated by the incorrect instructions to be offered by the new ballot paper, which will tell voters to number at least six numbers above the line or at least twelve below it. In fact, the previously noted “savings provisions” will allow ballots with as few as one box numbered above-the-line or six below it to be admitted into the count. It is argued that this is in breach of Section 239 of the Commonwealth Electoral Act, which makes it an offence to “mislead or deceive an elector in relation to the casting of a vote”. Finally, it is argued that the optional preferential system impermissibly reduces the value of votes that drop out of the count due to incomplete numbering. This one is particularly dubious, as it would seem to invalidate any first-past-the-post or optional preferential regime, which self-evidently is not what the drafters of the Constitution had in mind.