Senate Voting Reform


We are still waiting here in Australia for the final outcome of the Senate election held a week ago. It is likely that we will be waiting for some time yet. The thing that has caused the greatest concern is the election of a number of minor party representatives whose primary vote was minute, but who have slipped in thanks to the “behind the scenes” preference deals. Kate Edwards has a post about this here.

There has been a great deal of comment about this in the media, with calls for Senate Voting Reform of all kinds. Some of the proposed reforms are pretty complicated.

Well, here’s what I think (it’s my blog, after all).

I am a “number all the boxes below the line” voter. I don’t want other people determining what my preferences are, especially when I have not been told what their preferences are. This can be daunting, when the Senate voting paper is over a yard long (holding the paper in my left hand, it reached right across to my right shoulder) and has 97 names on it.

Here’s my question: Why are we only given two options (a) put a 1 only in one party box above the line or (b) number all the boxes below the line?

Why can’t we simply be given a third option, namely to number all the party boxes above the line according to our own preference?

Such a change would be a minimal reform, but make a lot of difference. It would still be possible for micro-parties to register themselves, and maybe even get elected, but they would be elected on the people’s preference, not on the backroom preference deals of the parties.

I have absolutely no problem with a few “colourful” characters in the Senate. There should be room for more “Joe Blows” and independents in my opinion. Originally, back at Federation, the intention was that the Senators would represent the interests of the State they came from. I don’t know if it ever particularly worked as it was designed to do. But I do have a problem with the major parties being in control of the Senate simply to do their bidding.

I don’t know how things work out in the UK, where people are appointed to the House of Lords rather than elected. Would such a system work here? It might, but I suspect that it would not be a popular model, given that republicans in Australia tend to favour even a directly elected President.

People want to have their say. I say, let them. Let’s bring in the third option of numbering all the boxes above the line. And let the dice fly high!

About Schütz

I am a PhD candidate & sessional academic at Australian Catholic University in Melbourne, Australia. After almost 10 years in ministry as a Lutheran pastor, I was received into the Catholic Church in 2003. I worked for the Archdiocese of Melbourne for 18 years in Ecumenism and Interfaith Relations. I have been editor of Gesher for the Council of Christians & Jews and am guest editor of the historical journal “Footprints”. I have a passion for pilgrimage and pioneered the MacKillop Woods Way.
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21 Responses to Senate Voting Reform

    • Schütz says:

      Well. That’s certainly exhaustive. I agree with him in the main – but my proposal is just a simple champ eg to the above the line voting, without all the other tweaks he proposes.

  1. Peter says:

    A good suggestion David.Trying to follow preference flows on the senate ballot paper just does your head in. eg. In SA the Greens preferenced the climate sceptics ahead of Nick Xenophon.How is that for hypocrasy.

  2. Ttony says:

    I think it might be better to think first of what the second chamber is for. In the UK it developed during the twentieth century as a revising chamber and the idea of reforming it into something elected hasn’t prospered because of the potential conflict between two chambers each with a mandate from the electorate. An appointed chamber made up of people selected for life can work well as long as that chamber has no possibility of stopping legislation (beyond a session) for which there is a popular mandate. It’s not a model for anybody else but it might at least serve as a focus for discussion, even if just the clarification: “why wouldn’t this work here?”

    It helps in the UK that we tend to be more comfortable with ambiguity than in other societies.

    • Joshua says:

      The Senate was meant to be the “States’ House”, each State having an equal number of Senators, as opposed to the House of Representatives, with numbers of MHR’s apportioned according to population (with the proviso that each original State always have at least five MHR’s).

      (Persons in the ACT and NT – who have representation in Federal Parliament on sufferance, by special legislative grant of the same – are sometimes irked by Tasmania having 5 MHR’s and 12 Senators, despite Tasmania having a lower population than both Territories combined; well, that was the deal done in the lead-up to Federation, which persuaded my paternal ancestors and their fellow Tasmanians to vote in favour thereof, and it’s most unlikely such rights and privileges will ever be taken away.)

      In any case, the Senate has never really worked as a States’ House; instead, since 1948 when proportional representation in the Senate was introduced, it has more and more acted as a balance to the House of Representatives, which is elected using preferential voting in single-member electorates.

      It may be considered that the two Houses of Federal Parliament are checks and balances on each other precisely because each is elected in a different manner; in the same way, of the five States that have upper houses, those of NSW, SA, Vic & WA have proportional representation using the Hare-Clark (STV) method, while their lower houses are elected by preferential voting – just as the Federal Parliament is arranged – while here in Tasmania, the reverse is the case: the House of Assembly is elected by Hare-Clark (with 5 MHA’s from each of 5 electorates), while the Legislative Council is elected by preferential voting in single-member electorates, a few electorates voting each year (so there are by-elections all the time, but never a general election for the upper house).

      It seems to me that if a bicameral system is used, it is important that the terms, number of members, mode of election and so forth of each chamber be different – otherwise, what would be the point?

  3. Peregrinus says:

    Appointed members of the upper house are not unique to the UK; the Italian Senate has a (small) number of life senators, appointed by the President of the Republic, though most senators are elected on a regional basis. Eleven of the 60 members of the Irish Senate are appointed by the Prime Minister of the day, but not for life; only until the next general election. And no doubt there are other examples

    This can make a lot of sense, if it’s accepted that role of the Upper House is to be a revising chamber. Expertise can be introduced in this way, and a greater diversity of perspectives than tends to be found in a lower house, particularly one where the members represent single-seat electorates.

    As Joshua points out, though, the original role of the Australian senate was not to be a revising chamber, but to be a mechanism a majority in the populous, industrialised urbanised states of NSW and Victoria could not dominate the national discourse, to the exclusion of more rural and remote areas. But I don’t get the sense that it works like this any more (if it ever did); party discipline is as strong in the Senate as in the lower house, and senators line out by party and not by state.

    There’s a strong sense in Australia that elections are the means by which people chose a government, rather than choosing legislators, and indeed they choose who will be in government – hence the widespread view that Julia Gillard lacked a mandate as prime minister until she had fought an election. And it’s also the sense that the election in which they express this choice is the lower house election.

    The thing is, though, that it’s rare for any government to secure a majority of the vote in the lower house election – the last time it happened was in 1975, when the Coalition won 53.1% of the popular vote; the last time before that, in 1951. So, one the one hand, there’s obviously a value in a system which returns reasonably stable and secure government. On the other hand, almost every Australian government takes office in the knowledge that a clear majority of the voters have expressed a preference for someone else.

    Given that, there’s a good argument for an upper house which, while it can’t easily threaten the continuity of the government in office, can publicly scrutinise its executive actions and its legislative proposals.

    David’s proposed reform – allow preferential voting between party lists – has a lot going for it, but to my mind one drawback. It enables political parties to parachute favoured candidates into the Senate simply by putting them at the top of the party list. In nearly all cases, in every state, the first two names on the ALP list, and the first two names on the Liberal list, will be elected – that makes 24 senators who are, in effect, simply nominated by political parties, which doesn’t augur well for their filling the thoughtfully critical role that I think a senator should fill. If there is going to be an appointed or partly-appointed upper house, I think there needs to be a culture in which the appointments are [i]not[/i] made on the basis of loyalty to party. Disguising the appointments as elections through a party list system doesn’t make for this. For that reason I don’t like party list systems for the upper house.

    I suggest abolishing above-the-line voting entirely. I appreciate that below-the-line voting is difficult when there are ninety names on the ballot paper, but of course without above-the-line voting there wouldn’t be 90 names on the ballot, or anything like it. At least two-thirds of those names are only there in the hope of taking advantage of the inter-party preference deal system; without that system, they wouldn’t nominate.

    I also suggest abolition of the astonishingly stupid rule that a vote is only valid if the voter preferences every candidate. The notion that my preference for the ALP over the Coalition should be ignored because I cannot meaningfully express a preference between the Country Sports Party and the Shooters and Fishers Party, never having heard of either, defies common sense. Voters should be allowed to express as many preferences as they actually have, and then stop. (This would have the added benefit of further discouraging candidates from nominating if they have no intention of seeking, or expectation of receiving, public support.)

    • Schütz says:

      Yes, Perry, I agree with you, in the main. Voting in the upper house should not be construed along party lines, even if that is the way the parties choose to behave in the Senate itself.

      Your “abolish the upper line” suggestion would be in the right direction to achieve the admirable aims you outline, but I think would scare everyone witless. There would not, as you say, be so many names, and yet the bloke (or blokette) at the top of the list would have an inordinate advantage even if there were only half as many names.

      You would have to mix this with printing the voting papers with a mix of different orderings. Then people would still want to know what party the individuals belonged to… it really would get rather difficult.

      • Stephen K says:

        I don’t see why you would have to mix the printing with a different order of names, David. What Peregrinus and others who recommend optional preferential voting anywhere short of the total names (up until you no longer wish to give any preference) are advocating does not take away the voter’s right to order the names in any order they wish. (I voted for Doug Cameron over Bob Carr, for example, even though Bob Carr was listed first) Of course the top name will always advantage the lower name because of the way our culture and education trains our minds; but it is not insurmountable and there is probably a limit to which you can expect to handfeed considered choice to every voter. Some voters are simply plumb lazy! Voting is a powerful civil right, and anyone with serious intent or care about who governs them and what policies might ensue will get off their backsides and research to at least the degree that they will know broadly who’s who in the zoo and what they generally stand for. I fear your proposal for a mixed printing ballot paper would actually be unfairly discriminatory and lead to higher mistaken or informal votes.

        • Schütz says:

          “Voting is a powerful civil right, and anyone with serious intent or care about who governs them and what policies might ensue will get off their backsides and research to at least the degree that they will know broadly who’s who in the zoo and what they generally stand for.”

          Alas, because we have compulsory voting in this country, I fear that the above high sentiment does not describe all voters by a long shot.

          • Stephen K says:

            Yes, I realise that not all voters do this, but I have not concluded that compulsory voting should be abandoned, in much the same way one might argue that plainchant ought not to be abandoned simply because a lot of people don’t understand it the way it could be!

      • Joshua says:

        You refer, of course, to the Robson rotating ballot: a sensible reform implemented in Tasmania thirty years ago, whereby (to cancel out the donkey vote) ballot papers are printed with several different arrangements of the candidates’ and parties’ names. Imagine that, the rest of Australia having to catch up to Tasmania!

        • Stephen K says:

          Joshua, can you explain how mixing the ballot order avoids donkey votes? After all, each person only gets one ballot paper each. I can see that it would play havoc with party or candidate ‘how-to-vote’ card distribution but there will always be capacity with any order for someone to make a donkey vote (i.e. simply numbering from one end to another). All I can see is that mixing the ballot printing orders would result in a different spread of donkey votes, but possibly heighten the likelihood of unintentional informal votes. Do the statistics show the numbers in any election of donkey votes have altered?

          • Schütz says:

            it wouldn’t stop donkey votes, Stephen, it would negate the effect of them. The case we have in mind is the election of the LDP senator in NSW – at least in part a result of his name being at the top of the list. Whoever is at the top of the list always gains an unfair advantage, because, as you pointed out, some voters are just lazy.

      • Peregrinus says:

        “There would not, as you say, be so many names, and yet the bloke (or blokette) at the top of the list would have an inordinate advantage even if there were only half as many names.”

        Actually, there’d be many fewer than that.

        In the first place, it’s a safe bet that more well over half of the parties now appearing on the ballot paper wouldn’t nominate any candidates at all.

        And, of the remaining parties, they would all nominate fewer candidates than they do now.

        Why? Because in an optional-preferential-voting, multi-seat election, the optimal strategy for any party is to nominate as many candidates as they can, optimistically, hope to get elected, plus mayby one more in case even their optimistic hopes are exceeded. Running any more than that confers no advantage, and risks splitting the party vote so much that your candidates get eliminated early on because, individually, they have fewer votes than parties with much less support, but fewer candidates. Plus, running many more candidates than can possibly win encourages competition between candidates of the same party or, as observers of the contemporary ALP rightly call it, shambolic in-fighting.

        So, if there are six seats to be filled, the Liberals and the ALP will each nominate, at most, four candidates, the Nats two or three and all other parties that contest the election one or, at most, two. So, somewhere between fourteen and eighteen candidates, and you don’t have to assign a preference to any names you don’t have a view on. I think most voters could deal with that.

        As for the donkey vote problem, it arises because people have to vote, and they have to fill out all the preferences. Even if you retain compulsory voting (maybe that’s a topic for another day) if preferencing is optional, even disengaged voters can usually form a preference between the ALP and the Coalition, and if you can vote validly simply by numbering the ALP candidates, or the Liberal candidates, there’s really very little impetus to “donkey vote”.

        Yes, the ALP candidate whose name is Aardvark probaly still has a bit of an edge over his party colleague Zzyzzymurgy, but it’s not going to affect the distribution of seats as between the parties. But if you’re bothered about it you can print ballots with the names randomised in different orders. That, of course, make it more difficult for parties to hand out “how to vote” cards, which is something they would probably want to do, but it would be no bad thing if they disappeared as well.

    • adam says:

      A colleague of mine (and junior to me, if I may say that), left the organisation I was with at the time in London and about a year later was appointed a Baronness, and a member of the House of Lords. This was because in the UK, each of the three major parties can nominate some people to the Lords. This former colleague now became a lawmaker of the United Kingdom, a country of 63 million. Totally unelected. Joined the other 500 or so unelected members of the House of Lords, some of whom are Ministers in the Government. In her previous job she was bright and intelligent. But never gained promotion. Now she is a member of the House of Lords for life (unless the House is abolished). There have been moves to abolish, alter, change the House of Lords and nothing has come of it. But after Blair was elected in 1997 he had a massive majority of over 150 in the House of Commons and could have abolished the Upper House and replaced it with an elected chamber. He did not. And it is very unlikely it will ever change. Possibly the best club to be in on the planet. The members can turn up when the House is sitting and get paid around A$300 a day. And you can be there 30 minutes or 3 hrs and still get the same payment for attendance.
      Great if you can get it.

      • Peregrinus says:

        But look on the bright side. The House of Lords has about 100 sitting days a year. So for $30,000 (at most) the UK has a legislator who, by your own account, is “bright and intelligent” and, because her appointment is indefinite, is not under pressure to placate the government of the day in order to keep her place, and is therefore well positioned to provide some much-needed critical scrutiny of governments of all stripes, and their legislative proposals.

        What’s not to like?

  4. Louise says:

    I’m greatly in favour of your idea, David.

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