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Feb 17, 2016

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Regular readers will be aware of my feelings about Australia’s strange system of automatic ticket preferencing for the Senate (see here and here for example). I regard it as an undemocratic outrage, distributing votes in ways that the voters would not approve of and in practice can do almost nothing about.

So I strongly support the recommendation of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters to reform the system, and I’ve been very pleased by recent reports that the government looks like pressing ahead with the changes, albeit with slight modifications.

But the bamboozlement of voters by the current system isn’t confined to the voting booth. Because its workings are not immediately obvious, and most people (sensibly enough) have better things to do with their time than study voting systems, its easy for those with vested interests to mislead the public about what’s going on. And since ignorance extends deep into the media as well, there’s usually a shortage of countervailing sound information.

Witness the story in today’s Fairfax papers by Heath Aston, relying on “A review of voting data by Graham Askey and Peter Breen”, trying to derail the reforms. Their particular objective is to discourage Greens support for reform with the argument that “the Turnbull government and future Coalition governments would have the option of trimming the Greens back to 8 by calling a double dissolution” – and, moreover, potentially win a Coalition Senate majority in the process.

This is sweepingly dishonest, although it’s hard to apportion responsibility for that between editors, reporter and sources.

Let’s start with the basics. The Greens currently have ten Senate seats, having won six in 2010 and four in 2013. So unless they can improve on their 2013 performance, they will go back down to eight anyway after the next election – even without either voting reform or double dissolution.

It’s probably true that, other things being equal, a double dissolution would work to the Greens’ disadvantage. As Askey is quoted as saying, “Under any system of proportional preferential voting the Greens will always find it harder to elect two senators [in a state] at a double dissolution than to elect one at a normal half Senate election.”

But that’s got nothing to do with voting reform. By taking the lottery of front groups out of the equation, the proposed changes if anything would improve the Greens’ chances a little. But Fairfax chooses not to tell its readers that.

It also chooses not to tell them just how strongly invested Askey and Breen are in the current system. Breen was elected to the New South Wales upper house in 1999 – at the infamous “tablecloth” election, when the unreformed system produced an impossibly large ballot paper –  off just 1.0% of the vote. That prompted reform in that state to stop such things happening again, and Breen is now crusading to prevent the same reform at federal level.

Its workings may be complex and unpredictable, but the basic logic of the unreformed system is easy to understand: it takes power away from voters and gives it to political parties – and to their consultant preference wizards who sew up Byzantine deals to try to enable some lucky microparty entrepreneur to win the Senate lottery.

What about the chance of a Coalition majority at a double dissolution? Of course it’s possible: with the right assumptions you can get pretty much any result you want. If you just use the same voting patterns as at the 2013 election, a double dissolution without automatic preferencing would produce something like 32 Coalition, 24 Labor, nine Greens, six Palmer United, three Xenophon group, a Liberal Democrat and a Family First – still a long way short of a Coalition majority.

But voting patterns won’t stay the same; for one thing, the Palmer vote is going to largely disappear. If you assume it will all go to the Coalition, that would put them in a strong position. Ditto with the votes currently locked up in right-wing minor parties, since voting reform will discourage some from standing and reduce the vote of others (the Liberal Democrats won’t get 9.5% again in New South Wales, even if they do draw the first spot on the ballot paper).

Getting to a majority, however, is a very big task. For example, consider Queensland, one of the three states where Askey and Breen claim the Coalition could win seven seats. Seven quotas in a double dissolution is 53.8%. If the voting system is reformed, some votes will exhaust so the last couple of vacancies won’t need a full quota; 51% would probably be enough for seven seats. Even so, in 2013 the LNP only had 41.4%.

Palmer had 9.9%, Bob Katter 2.9%, Family First 1.1% and the Motoring Enthusiasts 0.7%. If you add those to the LNP total, you’ll easily get that seventh seat. But is that really plausible? I doubt that more than about a third of the miscellaneous right-wing vote is going to find its way back to the Coalition; more likely most of it will stay with the forces of disaffection in some form, either electing a minor party candidate or else benefiting the major parties equally by reducing the votes needed for the final vacancies.

So I think Askey and Breen’s calculations are deeply flawed and tainted by self-interest. But at a deeper level they’re also irrelevant. Voting reform isn’t about getting the results we want, it’s about letting the voters make the choice for themselves.

I’m no fan of Lee Rhiannon, but as quoted in Aston’s story she’s got it exactly right: “In a democracy the outcome of an election should reflect the will of the voters. The current system doesn’t do that.”

If you don’t want the Coalition to have a Senate majority, don’t vote for them. Simple.

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One thought on “The continuing struggle for Senate democracy

  1. Senate Voting Reform. Don’t Listen To Me | Forensics, Fossils and Fruitbats

    […] these reforms and don’t have any significant self-interest in the outcome: Antony Green, Charles Richardson, William Bowe, Henry Schlecta and Kevin Bonham (sadly this sort of psephological geekery seems to […]

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