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This grubby senate power grab

By Philip Lillingston - posted Tuesday, 15 March 2016

In politics parties can attain power by presenting themselves as responsible and forward-looking to voters, or by rigging the electoral system to rid them of troublesome fringe players. With regards to the current situation of proposed Senate electoral reform, one has to ask which road the Coalition, in conjunction with others, are taking.

Apart from the legitimate need for reform with regards to party identification, below-the-line optional voting and 'ghost' parties controlled by other parties, the major thrust of this "reform" is to abolish Group Voting Tickets (GVT) with the result, which few deny, of eliminating so called micro-parties, their Senate seats to be obviously filled by the major parties, with the Coalition benefiting the most.

One of the two reasons given for change is that most voters are unlikely to understand where their preference votes are going via their party's GVT, tickets allegedly planned during "behind closed doors hidden preference deals". Of course there is nothing hidden about them. They are all published by the AEC before elections and the more interesting ones are also highlighted in the media.


However, to respond with an analogy, if it could be proven that someone was paid to vote for a party they knew nothing about, then that would be justification to, amongst other things, invalidate that vote. But what if the reason for supporting an unknown party was advice from a trusted mentor? Are we to invalidate votes made solely after guidance from the church pastor? If not, then why is it a problem when micro-party supporters allow their trusted parties to direct their preference flows? The criticism is that the listing of preferences does not always follow the ideological line, but often becomes strategic swapping where the loyal voter would be surprised to realise some of the parties he was supporting. But why should that be a problem if the ultimate goal is a chance to win a seat, as compared to perennial failure?

Also, past election analysis has shown that there actually is a blind, donkey vote whereby candidates drawing number 1 on the ballot paper attract more votes than they otherwise would. For years government has done nothing to address this influence by the uninterested and unknowing, despite the feasibility of introducing voluntary voting, or the 'Robson Rotation' of ballot card printing. Yet ironically, when voters are not blind in their primary vote, but maybe in later preference votes, this caring that "Australians [must know] where their preferences go, transparently, clearly", to quote Prime Minister Turnbull, for some reason becomes cause for change.

Additionally, if one googles 'how to vote' cards printed by the Liberal Party for recent lower house elections, it is very interesting to note that nothing is done to enlighten their own supporters as to where their preferences will flow. When listing the order of voting they want their supporters to follow, all the information given is the candidate's name beside the box to number, while party affiliation is left out.

Doing such would not be that difficult considering lesser resourced parties such as Australian Christians, Secular Party of Australia, Rise Up Australia, Bullet Train for Australia, Katter's Australian Party, and even some independents, do give affiliations for every name on their preference list. Thus the Liberal Party is changing the electoral system because it cares that Australians are kept "transparently, clearly" aware of their preferences, yet it doesn't even keep its own supporters informed of where their preferences flow.

With regards to the second criticism of winning Senate seats on a low primary vote, one has to ask why any primary vote count is relevant if the preference votes also won make up the difference for a quota? Whatever the makeup, the successful candidate would have won 14.28% of the votes and will be acting for 14.28% of the voters (normal elections)who will still want someone to represent them, even if that someone was not their first choice. For an Australian who has gone to the trouble of attending a polling place, waited in line and gone through all the formalities, to have your party's 87th preference elect a candidate is still a better feeling than for your vote to mean absolutely nothing.

This 'only a miniscule primary vote' criticism seems to be on the premise that if a voter fails on their earlier choice candidates, then, apparently for the sin of not supporting a popular candidate, they should be punished by being denied the franchise until the next election. Whether by multiple elections or sequential voting, preferential voting, otherwise internationally known as choice, alternative or instant-runoff voting, is the modern day answer to the problem of voter lockout, whereby voters are figuratively kicked out of the voting booth if their earlier choices fail to join up with enough other votes to elect a candidate.


In the 1998 federal election Pauline Hanson won 36% of the primary vote in the seat of Blair, more than 10% ahead of the next placed candidate and even further ahead of the Liberal Party candidate Cameron Thompson. And yet, due to preference flows, it was Thompson who won the seat. One doesn't seem to remember the Liberal Party then complaining about someone winning with only a fraction of the primary vote.

Over the last two centuries there have been many reasons for reforming electoral systems: giving the vote to people irrespective of wealth, to women, to Aborigines, to political minorities, as well as adhering to the 'one person, one vote' principle. However surely the most spurious reason for change, which in this case will cause millions of votes to become exhausted and irrelevant, is that it is not right that those deciding to vote above the line are prepared to trust their chosen political parties with their preference choices.

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About the Author

Philip Lillingston, has previously taught political science and now maintains the website Why Not Proportional Representation?

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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