Australian Senate reforms need to go further to put voters back in control

Doug Cowan, Head of Digital

Posted on the 30th April 2019

Ill-thought-out plans have a habit of coming back and biting you, and it’s no different in politics. In fact, the risks of unintended consequences are even higher, as politicians on one side have an incentive to push through quickly rules they think will favour them, and politicians on the other side have huge incentives to find loopholes.

The upcoming Australian federal election on Saturday 18 May is a case in point.

Each of Australia’s six states elects 12 senators and there are two senators for each of the two autonomous territories (the Northern Territory and Canberra). Half of the state senators are elected every three years for six-year terms, while all territory senators are elected every three years.

Australia’s Senate is elected by the Single Transferable Vote (STV) system. In the polling booth, voters write numbers next to each candidate with their favourite as number one. These numbers provide instructions to the counters for what to do with the vote if your favourite candidate already has enough votes to be elected or stands no chance.

In a vote for state senators, each candidate needs to get 14% of the vote to get elected. If a candidate receives more than this, they are elected and any votes above the amount needed are moved to a voter’s second favourite candidate. If no candidate gets 14%, then the worst performing candidate is eliminated and their votes are moved to each voter’s second favourite choice. This process continues until all the seats are filled.

If a candidate gets 28% of the vote (double what they need), rather than randomly picking half of the votes to transfer, every vote is transferred at half value.

It’s a good system as the results are proportional and it puts power in the hands of voters.

But any system that puts power in voters’ hands, takes it away from parties. In Australia, they added a few extra rules to wrestle that power back. Since 1949 voters have had to rank every single candidate, even if the voter has no opinion at all on them.

With sometimes a hundred candidates standing for six seats, this is an epic exercise and one where your vote is spoilt if you make a mistake. This pointless rule meant that usually between 9% and 11% of votes cast this way are dismissed as spoilt.

But how does this give parties more power? That comes with the second rule. Because numbering all the candidates is such a toil, in 1983 they allowed each party to prepare a numbering for you. In addition to listing all the candidates, the ballot paper now also has a list of parties ‘above the line’ which allows voters to vote for a party instead of numbering candidates in order preference. In effect, this means voting for a party’s suggested numbering.

Australian Senate

As voting ‘below the line’ is so complicated, 95% choose to vote above the line, meaning that, as Marian Sawer of the Australian National University put it, “Senate elections have become a closed party list in all but name”.

This power grab has had some unintended consequences though. Most of each person’s vote will be used to elect the people that they want. In an election in Scotland or Ireland, after helping your favourite candidates get elected, the last remaining fraction of your vote will usually go to waste. But in Australia, as you have to put a preference for every candidate, tiny fractions of votes continue to collect around candidates.

Parties do deals with each other to try and collect these tiny fractions, in the hope they may get enough to get at least one candidate elected. The first evidence of coordinated ‘preference harvesting’ was in 2004, when Victorian Steve Fielding of Family First was elected to the Senate on a first preference vote of 1.9%, beating candidates with a higher number of first preferences. The Australian Motoring Enthusiasts Party gained a senator on just 0.5% of first preferences in 2013.

These victories were essentially random, and because there is a chance of a random win, there is a big incentive to get on the ballot – hence the high number of candidates contesting the election.

Australian comedian Michael Hing is standing this year for his One Asian Party (a pun on the One Nation party) to mock the whole process.

In 2016 we covered attempts to reform the Senate. The final reforms meant that voters would no longer have to put a number next to every single candidate for their vote to be counted. But, they felt the need to specify that you have to put a number next to at least 12 candidates.

The big change was in ‘above the line’ voting, where, rather than each party putting forward a list of all the candidates running, they now put forward a list of just their candidates (two parties can run a ‘joint’ ticket and independents can run together). Voters then put numbers next to each party, in effect building a full list out of each party’s smaller lists. But, they felt the need to specify that you have to put a number next to at least six parties.

Naturally, this means that everyone has to put at least one minor party on their list.

While provisions allow ballots that have at least one preference above or six preferences below the line to be counted, these rules are still excessive.

Many hoped that the days of micro-parties winning seats at random may be over.

In 2016 the whole Senate was elected in one go – In effect halving the number of votes needed to win a seat. But even with the new rules, a senator was elected from Family First even though only 2.9% of South Australians put them as their favourite candidate or group and the libertarian Liberal Democrats won a senator in New South Wales on 3.1% of the vote.

Even taking into account the lower entry requirements, something is still going on.

Parties may not be able to do deals anymore, but by telling voters to preference at least six parties, tiny fractions of votes can still accumulate on unpopular candidates.

The solution to excessive numbers of candidates, preference harvesting and micro-parties is to simply let people vote for as many or as few candidates as they want and scrap above the line voting entirely. The experience from Ireland shows that independents will still get elected, they just have to be actually popular.

Rather than bolting on yet more complicated additions, it’s time that Australia let the natural benefits of the Single Transferable Vote shine through.

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