Once upon a time in the days before YouTube, before Twitbook, before FaceSpace, before internet banking and before digital radio and television (shock & horror, it seems so ancient), when I was working in the cheque acceptance department of a bank, I saw something truly phenomenal which few others know about.
At the end of the day (declared to be 04:30pm) we would switch off the big cheque reading machines and collect several tubs of cheques which had been sorted into bank and branch numbers. These tubs would be placed into black suitcases and the suitcases into the back of a stationwagon to be taken to the next place.
At 04:45pm every day; almost to the minute, in perfect synchronicity, about forty stationwagons would arrive in the underground car park of the GPO, where suitcases containing the tubs of sorted cheques would be swapped so that the cheques could be returned to the originating branches to be checked and cleared.
Although this is an interesting tale, it serves as an allegory for what happens with preference flows in the above the line vote for the Australian Senate. What happens when a person chooses to be lazy on their Senate ballot paper, which shockingly is between 85% and 95% of all people, they surrender control to their flow of preferences to the backroom operators of that party; the unknown traders of suitcases from and to the back of stationwagons if you will.
As former Greens leader Bob Brown said: "Any party that does not join the behind-closed-doors trade in preferences is a mug."
I personally have no problem with the fact that a member of the Liberal Democratic Party or the Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party from NSW has been elected to the Senate if they legitimately worked through the rules and were able to horse trade suitcases to obtain preference flows. Politics is a sport and like any other sport, people should have the freedom to play under the rules in so far as much as they allow.
The problem is that the rules themselves are probably quite quite wrong. By definition and from its roots, the word democracy coming from "demos" the people and "kratos" rule, a democracy should be "rule by the people" and not rule by otherwise hidden forces hiding out in metaphorical car parks.
Yet even a seemingly good idea of removing the power of the ballot box away from metaphorical suitcase traders in car parks back to the voters is fraught with problems:
Tony Abbott has issued a warning to the disparate group of senators likely to hold the balance of power that they should not try to stymie the Coalition's agenda.
The prime minister-elect also said he supported change to tackle the Senate voting process after micro party candidates in WA, Victoria and NSW look likely to be elected under complex preference deals.
Mr Abbott said his job was to be ''respectful and courteous'' to all members of Parliament, including minor party MPs.
''But in the end I think they all need to respect the government of our nation has a mandate and the Parliament should work with the government of the day to implement its mandate,''
- WA Today, 9th Sep 2013
It seems obvious to me that any proposed changes to reform the voting process which originate from either of the major parties are probably likely to benefit those same major parties. Limits to the numbers of candidates who can appear on ballot papers or even imposing minimums on the number of pre-poll supporters based on party membership or some other mechanism, even raising the required fee to stand as a candidate, must by design benefit the existing party machines.
If I was Grand Poobah and Lord High Everything Else, I wouldn't look at increasing the barriers of entry to candidacy but look at seriously removing the ability of people to negotiate preferences.
Currently an above the line Senate vote involves placing a 1 in one box. I'd suggest that all the boxes above the line be numbered and the preferences which flowed as a result of the order of party lists would follow.
I think that would more than likely remove the race for back office deals and minor parties in particular would have to campaign harder to engage with voters rather than merely engineering votes through preference deals.
Second to that, I would impose a limit to the number of candidates that any given party might put forward for candidacy. If there were 6 Senate seats up for grabs as there usually are in a Senate election, then every party would be limited to only 6 candidates.
This itself does open up the possibility that a major party might start setting up "shadow" parties just so that they could field more than six candidates on the ticket but what's to say that that hasn't already been done in the past? How does the poor voter on election day know that the Stop Preference Mining Party isn't just another shell for the Pioneer Australia Party?
Thirdly, I'd make below the line voting more attractive by decreasing the number of required boxes to be filled in below the line. I don't honestly think that in a race for only 6 seats that they could possibly ever get down to number 30 could they?
Having voters number 30 boxes instead of 110 (which we saw at this election) would encourage more below the line voting. Below the line voting completely negates and destroys any ticket system which a political party sets up. As much fun as it was to write 110 next to that prize eejit at the election, I know that I was very much in the minority as heaps of people were in and out of the polling place long before I'd managed to number that very last box.
Really I don't want to see the plurality of voices disappear from the parliament. I think of the tragedy of the American Congress which only ever sees a very few number of independents but the house of fun across the Tasman which is the House of Representatives of New Zealand; currently housing nine different political parties. Although the Beehive stands next door, the flower of government which has arisen in New Zealand puts our own great steaming mound on the hill to shame.
I like different voices in the parliament and I'd prefer it if those voices actually came from the people instead of metaphorical men in car parks, in blue and red ties and badly cut green suits.