Interest in the Australian political system has been building over the last couple of weeks over a proposal to make some notable reforms to the electoral system for the Senate.
Each of Australia’s six States elects 12 senators, regardless of population, and there are two senators for each of the two ‘autonomous territories’ (the Northern Territory and Canberra). Normally half of the Senators are elected every three years for six year terms.
While Australia’s House of Representatives, its lower house, is elected using the Alternative Vote, Australia’s Senate is elected by the Single Transferable Vote (STV) system, but with some unusual additions. In this system voters usually number the candidates standing in order of preference. Each candidate needs to get a set percentage of the vote (14% in a six seat Senate vote) to get elected. If a candidate receives more than this quota, they are elected and any votes above the amount needed are redistributed on the basis of voters’ preferences (ie numbering the candidates). If no candidate reaches the quota then the worst performing candidate is eliminated and voters’ preferences redistributed. This process continues until all the seats are filled.
The process may seem complex, but it is simple for the voter and provides the strongest ability for a voter to influence who their representatives are. Voters can vote not just for a party candidate but for their preferred candidate within a party or for an independent, and a vote can move between and within parties depending on a voter’s preference.
However, unlike in Ireland or Scotland, the Australian implementation of STV features compulsory preferencing, where voters must rank every candidate or their vote is considered spoilt. With sometimes a hundred candidates standing, there can be mammoth rankings of candidates and a high number of spoilt ballots. Usually between 9% and 11% of votes were dismissed as spoilt, as much as five times the rate for the House of Representatives.
To solve this, rather than let voters rank as many or as few candidates as they wished, as used elsewhere (eg in Ireland), Australia’s politicians introduced group ticket voting.
Now Australians can either vote the traditional fully-preferenced Australian way, known as ‘below the line’ voting, or they can cast a single vote ‘above the line’ for a party. In doing so, voters let the party decide where their preferences go. Parties don’t just distribute preferences to their own candidates, but often create convoluted deals to send preferences to other parties.
In recent years there has been a tendency for extremely minor parties to make deals with one another, regardless of ideology, in the hope that one will be elected. As minor parties are eliminated their votes will accumulate together, with the hope that they will reach a quota. It was this that allowed the Australian Motoring Enthusiasts Party to gain a Senator on just 0.5% of first preferences in 2013.
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 says, “Senate elections have become a closed party list in all but name“.
The Australian Government’s new solution to this issue isn’t to bring Australia into line with all the other countries who use STV and allow voters to decide how many candidates they preference*, but to allow optional preferencing for parties above the line.
Voters will now be asked to number as many or as few parties as they wish, sending their preferences through each party’s candidates in the party’s order of preference.
Ending preference deals is an improvement, and it may well encourage more voting below the line, especially as fewer candidates will stand as minor parties won’t be able to get fluke candidates elected.
But the failure to allow voters to decide how many candidates they rank below the line, or combining that with abandoning above the line voting altogether, is a wasted opportunity to create a Senate made up of Senators who genuinely represent voters and not party elites.
*[Editor’s note: In a victory for voters, the final act of parliament did introduce optional preferencing below the line. Although voters have to preference at least 12 candidates below the line, or at least 6 parties above]