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Senate reform reformed

A three-day parliamentary inquiry process yields an important result on Senate reform, with below-the-line voters no longer required to number every box.

The obscenely hasty Senate reform process yielded an important result today, when the government promptly adopted a Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters proposal to allow optional preferential voting below the line. The bill as drafted would have directed above-the-line voters to number at least six boxes, but those going below the line would still have had to number every box. Now the ballot paper will direct below-the-line voters to number at least 12 boxes, although votes with as few as six will still be admitted into the count. Among those who had advocated a 12-box minimum were Kevin Bonham and Antony Green, with the latter noting that a lower number might reintroduce the difficulty the six-numbers-above-the-line proposal sought to avoid, with voters limiting their choice to a single party and then allowing their votes to exhaust. Particularly stern criticism of the original proposal came from Malcolm Mackerras, who found it offered the exact opposite of what he proposed – a continuation of group voting tickets and single numbering above the line, but with optional preferential voting below the line. Michael Maley, a former Australian Electoral Commission official and occasional contributor to psephological discussion boards, also submitted the original proposal was “incoherent”, since votes that could be cast formally above the line would be informal if rendered identically below the line. Constitutional law expert George Williams was also critical, echoing Antony Green’s complaint that effectively deterring voters from going below the line would enshrine the power of party machines to determine the order of election of their own candidates.

Also around the traps, the Greens are being given a lot to think about in their apparent enthusiasm to sign on to the government’s immediate electoral strategy for the sake of its coveted electoral reform:

Mark Kenny of Fairfax reports that a union-commissioned poll by Essential Research found 54% of Greens-voting respondents opposed a deal with the government on Senate reform, with only 27.2% in support. This sits uncomfortably with Essential Research’s regular published poll this week, which explained the proposal to respondents in some detail and left the matter of a Coalition-Greens deal out of the equation. From an admittedly small sample of around 100 Greens voters, 46% approved of the proposal, versus 29% disapproval.

• Richard di Natale has stood firm against a move by Family First Senator Bob Day to legislate a starting date of August 22 for the reforms, so they would not apply at an early double dissolution. Di Natale told the Financial Review this would “create a situation where the Australian Electoral Commission would be preparing for a normal election under new rules, with the continued possibility of a double dissolution with the current rules”, and render it “impossible to begin a public education campaign”.

• The micro-parties are doing whatever they can to pile on the pressure, by threatening a co-ordinated campaign of directing preferences to Labor.

Rightly or wrongly, suggestions that the reforms don’t even meet the test of self-interest for the Greens have also gained traction:

• The analysis of Phillip Coorey of the Financial Review is that the Nick Xenophon challenge leaves the party most vulnerable in South Australia, but that it is also “at risk in Western Australia and Victoria, and to a lesser extend in Tasmania”.

• “Parliamentary Library modelling obtained by The Advertiser” suggests the Greens would not win a seat in South Australia at a half-Senate election, presumably since it would return a result of two each for the Coalition, Labor and the Nick Xenophon Team, and that only one of its current two seats would be retained at a double dissolution. However, “the modelling shows in other states the Greens either get another candidate up or stay the same”, suggesting two seats in Victoria, Western Australia and Tasmania and one each in New South Wales and Queensland.

• Unless the Senate reform controversy starts to do them electoral damage, the current state breakdowns in BludgerTrack suggest the Greens would easily win a second seat in Victoria; would lose their second spot only in the event of tight micro-party preferencing in Western Australia; and might even be a chance of a third seat in Tasmania.

• Simulations conducted by Kevin Bonham suggest a Labor-Greens Senate majority would currently be in place if the 2010 and 2013 elections had been held under the proposed system, and that the 2013 election would still have been a “crossbencher picnic” under the new rules if it had been a double dissolution, with most states electing two non-Greens cross-bench Senators.

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60 comments

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Matt
Guest

Oooh, I like this outcome. Still lukewarm (at best) about the changes overall, but this is a significant improvement.

Jack A Randa
Guest

Thanks Kevin – pretty much how I’d guessed it but I thought I’d seek a Tasmanian’s opinion.

And re 57, your reading is pretty clearly correct. The Example under proposed s 268A makes it clear, if the section itself doesn’t, that you have to get 1-6 right. You can start repeating numbers or omitting them after 6 and they’ll count up to the last correct number. Not really a terribly onerous requirement. I do believe in principle that even a 1 by itself should be counted, but I’m not going to get too upset on behalf of those who can’t pass a “1 to 6” test.

For those who really like reading Parliamentary Bills, the Govt amendments (the new ones, tabled in the Senate) are at http://parlinfo.aph.gov.au/parlInfo/download/legislation/amend/r5626_amend_897458ff-65ce-40a4-a018-534f363adf5d/upload_pdf/B16JP109.pdf

Kevin Bonham
Guest

Jack A Randa@56

Kevin, what’s the chance of a successful “Vote 1 Lisa Singh and number 5(or 11) other squares” campaign now that people aren’t being bluffed out of voting BTL?

If it’s a half-Senate election very low. Labor will get two quotas on primaries and then probably won’t win the third spot at all. If they do win the third spot Singh would need to be getting something like 5% of all votes as BTLs to her to win, which seems unlikely.

If it’s a double-diss it might be possible. There Labor would be angling for five quotas (38%) and it’s more plausible they would get four on primaries and then be needing some preferences to get the fifth. So something like 33% Labor ATL or down the ticket and 3% Labor (1 Singh) puts her in the mix to beat ALP #5 (which would presumably be John Short) and win.

Kevin Bonham
Guest

Government amendments are now included and the savings provision included saves any BTL with 1 to 6 numbered correctly.

What is odd, on my reading, is that this doesn’t save some votes currently saved, such as someone who numbers every box but includes two 4s.

Jack A Randa
Guest

Kevin, what’s the chance of a successful “Vote 1 Lisa Singh and number 5(or 11) other squares” campaign now that people aren’t being bluffed out of voting BTL?

Tom the first and best
Guest
Tom the first and best

53

I agree entirely.

blackburnpseph
Guest

[Perhaps that could be fixed by increasing membership requirements, both numbers (again?) and their commitment, maybe require them to pay a registration fee to the AEC to be counted as an official supporter (by traceable means).]

Signing up for free should be banned – it makes it too easy to get sham numbers up – money (even if only $1) focusses the mind – and what stops a free membership just being renewed for ever. Free membership also encourages membership of multiple parties.

pedant
Guest

Tom @ 52: Of 2, 9 or 16 July for possible DD election dates, 2 July would seem by far the most likely because (a) the already long campaign will be shortest if that date is chosen; and (b) it will maximise the likelihood that the AEC will be able to get the Senate count done before Senate ministers have to vacate their positions through the operation of section 64 of the Constitution.

Tom the first and best
Guest
Tom the first and best

50

So it rules out a snap DD that either definitely (the declaration of polls before the 1st of July) or possibly (the declaration of polls after the 30th of June) has Senate terms commencing on the 1st of July 2015 (except in the unlikely event any state gets only 12 nominations and thus its Senators are elected on nomination day, which must be before the 18th of June).

ltep
Guest

The Government has lodged a notice of motion that, if agreed to, will guarantee a final result for the bill by the end of next week. In short, the Senate will continue sitting until it and a list of other bills are passed.

A notable absentee from the list of bills are the ABCC reinstatement bills. This almost shuts the door on these bills becoming a trigger for a DD election.

ltep
Guest

[If the amendments do not apply to elections where the writs are issued before the 1st of July, that rules out a DD]

The amendments make it clear that it’s only for elections ‘whose polling day is before 1 July 2016’. It specifies that ‘things may be done before 1 July 2016… In relation to elections whose polling day is on or after that day’.

Tom the first and best
Guest
Tom the first and best

10

I agree Lambie had a good chance in a DD (with some chance in a half-Senate election, although she is not up for re-election this time).

I doubt that Muir will be re-elected. He seems to have less of a brand and the Motoring Enthusiasts Party is a bit to single issue (and not even a particularly major political issue at that) to be a real force.

I agree about Day.

Lazarus may be in with a chance at a DD.

Tom the first and best
Guest
Tom the first and best

46

If the amendments do not apply to elections where the writs are issued before the 1st of July, that rules out a DD (unless the government decides to hold it under the current system and end up with at least 11 micro party Senators).

If the amendments do not apply to elections where polling day is before the 1st of July, then there are still 3 potential DD dates left (the 2nd 9th and 16th of July).

Kevin Bonham
Guest

ltep #42 is quite correct – there doesn’t seem to be any movement at the station for today. There was some “debate” – if we can call Senator Day spouting complete nonsense like that 90+% will just vote 1 such – but that was triggered by a side-issue about production of documents and not actually on the Bill itself.

Raaraa
Guest

ltep@44

Senator Rhiannon has circulated amendments that would provide that certain provisions not apply to any elections held before 1 July 2016. I’m not really sure what the point of the amendments are, but there you go.

I believe this is to give the AEC enough time (about 3 months) to prepare for a new electoral method.

Raaraa
Guest

Some of the arguments for pushing the reform of the Senate elections later is so that the government won’t hold a double dissolution, which would among other things, bring bills like the ABCC and the abolition of the CEFC onto the table.

I haven’t done my polling numbers but my understanding is that regardless of whether there was a Senate reform or not, the numbers of the House of Rep usually overwhelms Senate numbers to make passing those bills possible after a dissolution.

Unless of course the government returns with a much thinner majority in the House, to the point where an extra 2 Senators would make a difference. Of course, in that case, the primary votes the government get is poor enough that their support in the Senate too would collapse.

ltep
Guest

Senator Rhiannon has circulated amendments that would provide that certain provisions not apply to any elections held before 1 July 2016. I’m not really sure what the point of the amendments are, but there you go.

frednk
Guest

Good outcome. I have no interest in ordering right wing nutters from best to worse and on priciple I won’t vote above the line.

ltep
Guest

[Senate debate adjourned for the day. 13 non-government amendments listed so far. Government amendments not yet seen. Assume it is resuming tomorrow but don’t know yet.]

Yes, listed as the first order of the day in government business. However, unless a deal is struck between the Greens and the Coalition to change the usual Thursday proceedings, it’s likely it won’t even come on for debate. Most of Thursday is given over to private senators’ business, with only a small window between 12.45 and 2 pm quarantined for government business deemed ‘non-controversial’. The Opposition can easily stonewall other things so that all the time that would possibly be available for the bill runs out.

Incidentally, one of the things that hasn’t been considered in an analysis of whether the Building and Construction Commission resurrection bills will likely form part of a DD trigger is that it’s highly unlikely that the bills will be negatived again before 12 May. Without agreement the bills can only first be debated from 15 March, at which time the Senate will sit for three days, then adjourn until budget week. During these three days the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment Bill 2016 will be mostly considered – so when exactly will the ABCC bills be brought on and negatived?

The only possible way they would be brought on would be by agreement, which would either mean that the Government had obtained the numbers to pass the bills, or a party or group of parties were tacitly supporting the idea of a DD.

Finally, could the Senate’s failure to pass the bill prior to 12 May be interpreted as a ‘failure to pass’ in the constitutional sense? I don’t think so – the High Court has said that the Senate ‘cannot be said to have failed to pass a Bill because it was not passed at the first available opportunity; a reasonable time must be allowed’. What exactly is reasonable, I suppose, would turn on the individual case, but isn’t dependant on views of individual members of either House. This is an academic point given they already have at least 1 trigger, and to include the ABCC bills would only need to satisfy the GG.

Apologies for monster post.

Rod Hagen
Guest

bug1 at http://blogs.crikey.com.au/pollbludger/2016/03/02/senate-reform-reformed/#comment-2345799 , you might find Antony Green’s paper outlining (amongst other things) the many faceted history of Australian Senate electoral procedures at http://www.aph.gov.au/senate/~/~/link.aspx?_id=6EAB2F2521E8462CBBBF9EAE79C5229C&_z=z worth a read if you would like to know more about what went before (and the problems involved with the various incarnations)

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