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Who wins in Senate electoral reform plan?

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Lee Rhiannon 9 May 2014

This article was published in The Big Smoke on 9 May 2014.

The secret back-room deals for Senate preferences that plagued the 2013 Federal Election look set to end and become  a bad memory if the recommendations from a parliamentary committee are adopted.

Public disquiet has been considerable since a candidate with less than one percent of the vote won a Senate seat after engaging in a complex array of preference deals.

While these preference swaps between parties are not “illegal”, in many cases it has meant that voters’ preferences have gone to parties with policies inconsistent with their voting intention. If the recommendations published today by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters are legislated, we have a real chance of fixing what has become widely recognised as a broken electoral voting system for the Senate.

The recommendations include optional preferential voting above the line, partial preferential voting below the line, removal of group voting tickets and some changes to party registration. The main benefit is that the incentive to form front parties and to harvest votes through preference deals is removed. Preferences will still be allocated but under the new system of optional preferential voting, the voter decides where preferences flow.

These reforms largely replicate what was introduced into NSW in 1999 after similar problems with group voting tickets saw preferences funnelled on a mass scale.

The case for Senate voting reform became compelling after the 2013 election when the Motoring Enthusiasts Party won a Senate spot in Victoria with 0.51 percent of the vote. In Western Australia the Australian Sports Party came close to winning with just 0.22 percent of the vote. The quota to get elected is 14.3 percent of the vote.

This was not the first time perverse outcomes in Senate results have occurred. In 2004, Family First took one of the six Victorian Senate seats with 1.88 percent of the vote. This included a substantial preference flow from the ALP, highlighting that the issue is not about the existence of micro parties but instead with party deals,  rather than voters, determining preferences.

Electoral reform to ensure voters decide their preferences is a passion of the Greens. The NSW Greens spearheaded the 1999 Upper House voting reforms introduced in response to the giant “tablecloth” ballot paper election. In that election voters had to manage a ballot paper one metre wide and decide who to vote for out of 264 candidates representing 80 groups.

The NSW Greens proposal for optional preferential voting above the line was agreed to by state Labor and the Coalition and that system has now successfully operated in three NSW state elections.

Former Greens leader Bob Brown took the cause to the federal parliament, introducing a similar bill so voters in the Senate ballot would determine their own preferences. The major parties were still then still resistant to this reform.

“The report recommends an increase to party membership requirements, which is lower than the figure pushed for by Labor and the Coalition in their submissions. Additionally a party will be able to register to field candidates in a particular state or territory with a lower membership determined on a proportional population basis.

The committee did not recommend an increase in any registration or nomination fees associated with running in an election. However, existing fee levels are high and make it difficult for emerging parties, so the Greens have introduced the “Reducing Barriers for Minor Parties Bill” for debate in the Senate.

This bill, if passed, would see nomination fees revert to $1,000 per Senate candidate and $500 per House of Representatives candidate. These amounts were doubled in 2013 on the combined vote of the Coalition and Labor. 

At a time when Australian politics is becoming increasingly discredited by reports of government decisions in return for political donations, corruption allegations, and ministerial resignations, the proposed reforms to democratise an election system that has been rorted are significant.


Strengthening the role of the voting public is the key to cleaning up politics in this country and these recommendations once adopted will help achieve that.

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