Senate Voting Reform. Don’t Listen To Me

Most of what you read about Senate reform will be self-interested, or at least biased. That includes anything I could say. Not so much because of benefits to the Greens, although that is part of the story. Mostly, however out of personal self interest.

My expertise has meant that, hard as I try to get out, I have put under a lot of pressure to be involved with preference negotiations, and I find them repulsive and traumatic. Being placed in a situation where you have a choice between taking a deal you find ethically doubtful and throwing away the hard work of thousands of people which which you expect to be sufficient to get a candidate 80% of a quota is horrible. Even more horrible when you know that not taking the deal will likely mean some shonky candidate with a tenth of your candidate’s support will get in because they are happy to take the same deal. I don’t want to be back there, and naturally that biases my view on the reforms.

Therefore I urge everyone to consult the small number of people who both understand these reforms and don’t have any significant self-interest in the outcome: Antony Green, Charles Richardson, William Bowe, Henry SchlectaKevin Bonham and Sarah John of Fairvote.


I think so far the score is five favour with one still to declare. All the criticism I have seen has come from people either with a very significant stake in the fight, or who have made clear they simply don’t understand the way the system works/will work.

That is not to say the proposal is perfect. Nobel prize-winning economist Kenneth Arrow proved that it is impossible to design a perfect voting system, and the size of the states as electorates and relative disengagement with the Senate mean that even some options that are close to perfect in principal don’t work too well here.

Nevertheless, I would argue that the version that will be voted on this week is about as good as one could get – greatly improved, by the way, by the efforts of the psephologists referred to above to get reform of the below the line voting added in.

The idea of putting more power in the hands of the voters, and less in the hands of party machine men (and just as with psephology, it almost always is men) is pretty much a no-brainer.

Consequently the arguments against have pretty much been:

1) It could give the coalition control

2) It could reduce diversity by extinguishing minor parties

3) The process has been rushed

I agree with 3), but the reason it has been rushed is largely because some of the cross-benchers were threatening to hold the government to ransom, refusing to support legislation they agreed with because they resented the possibility of losing their place in parliament. I can’t think of much better evidence that these individuals (and I note not all the cross-benchers seemed to be part of this) shouldn’t have been there in the first place. Hardly a reason to oppose good legislation just because it happened a bit fast.

On the other two points; as noted, there are others who you should believe rather than me. But the evidence is that these fears are overblown. Yes the coalition could gain control, but they did this under the current system in 2004. The real question is: Is them gaining control more likely under the proposal than the existing system. It’s actually very hard to say. One can construct scenarios where the proposed system helps them, but others where it does not. There is a fair chance that under the proposal they would not have won control in their own right in 2004, and certainly they would not have had the extra vote of Steve Fielding in the cases where they couldn’t get all of their official team to back them.

Nor will all minor parties miss out. The Palmer United Party would easily have won a seat in Queensland at the last election under the proposal, and possibly WA as well. And of course there is Xenophon, who would have a mate there as well under the proposal. If minor parties form coalitions, as Antony Green has suggested, it is likely we will have quite a few of them elected in future, and a good thing too.

There is a long term trend away from the Coalition and Labor, and the factors driving this will continue. As time goes on we will see more votes for independents and minor parties, and more of these people elected.

What will change is that the minor party that will win will be the one with real support, rather than one that flukes it, or gets a lot of preferences because they lie to people about their true positions. Do people seriously think this is a bad thing?



About Stephen Luntz

I am a science journalist, specialising in Australian and New Zealand research across all fields of science. My book, Forensics, Fossils and Fruitbats: A Field Guide to Australian Scientists is out now through CSIRO Publishing. I am also a professional returning officer for non-government organisations. I'm very politically active, but generally try to restrict this blog to scientific matters.
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5 Responses to Senate Voting Reform. Don’t Listen To Me

  1. @thebigmeeow says:

    It annoys me that people argue “but the coalition will win!”
    Yes. They might win. If people vote for them. That’s the point of voting.
    “But Labor will lose seats!”
    Yes. Labor might lose seats – if people don’t vote for them. If voters are so concerned about Labors numbers in parliament then they need to vote for them.
    The proposed changes will make it much clearer to see who the people have voted for. If it turns out that they voted for the LNP then that is something we have to work with.

  2. occupyjane says:

    Is it true that the major parties could advocate for a ‘just vote one’ vote taking advantage of the savings provisions? Richard Dennis is concerned about this.

  3. In theory yes, occupyjane, but in practise almost certainly not. The reason is that there is a well established tendency for people to get confused between the Senate and House of Reps. If a party tells people to “just vote 1” in the Senate they’re likely to confuse people and lead to a lot of them doing the same people in the House of Reps (as happened the first election when above the line voting was brought in for the Senate). Of course they will confuse other party’s voters – as Labor deliberately did in 1998 in Queensland.

    However, any party’s propaganda obviously works best on its own voters. In the Qld 98 example this didn’t matter – Labor didn’t care if most of its voters just voted 1 or not, as long as a least a few of their opponents did. This time, people stopping after 1 in the House will invalidate their vote there. So any party pushing a “just vote 1” strategy is risking losing hundreds of thousands of votes in the House of Reps. Neither Labor nor Liberal care enough about the Senate to do that, and even if they did, the benefits for them from a “just vote 1” campaign there are pretty small. I can’t see why anyone would put at risk lots of Lower House seats for that.

    About the only argument I have seen that seems to me to have any merit is that this will eventually lead to Optional Preferential voting in the House of Reps, as people will get used to it and like it in the Senate, promoting a push in the House. It’s possible, but saying “Look we shouldn’t introduce a system because people might like it so much they decide to introduce it somewhere its not appropriate in about four elections time” strikes me as a pretty weak.

    • Chris says:

      Queensland state parliament is completely different. For starters they have no senate so you only get one paper to choose your local member and that voting system is optional preferential unlike federal house of reps. The last state election in Queensland the Newman Liberal government campaigned something along the lines of ‘just vote 1 – thats all you need to do….’ And went around putting up posters that were trying to convey a message that numbering all the boxes was tantamount asking for chaos or something stupid like that. Well the liberal party got dumped after one term probably first and foremost cause they were a hopeless government but trying to tell people that filling out your voting slip properly is somehow tantamount to asking for chaos is pretty dumb.

  4. David says:

    As for those who may not have been ready for the senate, Have you read Ricky Muirs press releases? Matured and a far cry from the poo throwing episode in Victoria.
    Everyone is fixated on this two party system. Turnbull is already running the chaos strategy. Abbott, who is backing Turnbull to the hilt, Is no better. BTW I have been an LP voter and a member.
    When you have the greens and Labor and the Liberal/Nationals all running the same agenda, something is afoot. Wasn’t there a landslide victory for the LNP based on the Carbon Tax? and on Illegal immigration?
    Current policies
    Increased refugee intake.
    Imposition of an emissions trading scheme (Already under way with abatement being auctioned through the clean energy corp)
    Increased spending

    Now, whether you like it or not, our democratic process saw a majority of people vote against all of these policies and yet the very government who got in because of our changing votes just rearranges the method to end up with the same outcome.

    Blind freddy can see it is a global push down this path and people are waking up to it. 2013 saw a 12% minor party vote and early predictions were 15%. The latest is between 25 and 30% which in itself is enough to hold BOP not only in the senate but also in the house of representatives.

    We can also see we do not need a stack of Lawyers running the country. Average people with average jobs that truly reflect society thoughts, not the thoughts of the aristocracy and the media.

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