September 24, 2015

Horse 1990 - Reforming The Senate Voting System

I think that the number of different voices that we have in the Senate, that is the upper house of the Australian Parliament, even if they are completely bonkers is one of the best features of the Senate. One of the problems with the method of elections in the Senate is that  because we have proportional representation and group ticket voting, candidates from micro parties are elected because of deals made behind closed doors; which the electorate is almost entirely oblivious to. I'm not saying that there's anything wrong with micro parties but something is wrong with a system that allows candidates with only 0.2% of the popular vote to be elected to the house on the hill.

In voting for the Senate, we use a single transferrable voting system with proportional representation. A candidate needs a certain quota of the votes before they are elected; which I think in theory should make sense but in practice is something of a logistical nightmare. The problem is that when you have a ballot paper which is usually more than a metre long, which voters are trying to fill in with a stubby little pencil, in a cardboard voting booth which is only 60cm wide, and then you expect then to number a great deal more than a hundred boxes; with labels that are so small that for some elections voters have had to be supplied with magnifying glasses, you can hardly expect the average voter who finds filling in a tax return a chore to be able to fill in a ballot paper.
From a practical standpoint, this forced the advent of ticket voting above the line in 1984 but in the thirty years that have followed, this has resulted in creative election strategists who work to carve out deals underlying that magical 1 above the line. Number every box below and you decide where every single one of your preferences goes but number one box above the line and those preferences then fall under the control of the group ticket writer.
It is in that space that strategists work to secure preference deals which has resulted in some truly bonkers candidates being elected by an unwitting electorate. This might have been initially fine in the days when there weren't that many micro parties but as time has gone on, it appears that the micro parties have got better at gaming the system; which is always going to be an inevitable outcome of any system which is put in place.
In the 2013 Senate election for instance, David Leyonhjelm who is a prime exponent of gaming deals, was probably both a member of his own Liberal Democratic Party and the Stop The Greens Party which also appeared on the Senate ballot paper in New South Wales. He was probably elected on the basis of a combination of back-door deals and the donkey vote because he appeared in the first column and the first box on a very very big ballot paper, rather than actually being popular and campaigning.

I think that the solution is as obvious as the nose on my face. If I was Grand Poobah and Lord High Everything Else, my solution would be to do away with numbering one box above the line only. Ticket voting is fine but I would have it such that all of the boxes above the line would be numbered and the preferences which flowed on as a result would only apply to the individual groups.
Suppose a voter wanted to vote for the Banana Party, the Insane Jackhammer Party, Eclipse Party, Regressive Party and Burn The Forests Party in that order; and that for the purposes of this example each of the parties were fielding seven candidates. They would then number:
1 - Banana; and the preferences would flow 1-7,
2 - Jackhammer; and the preferences would flow 8-14,
3 - Eclipse; and the preferences would flow 15-21 and so forth.
I would even allow provisions that where an voter has put down a few preferences, say from 1-11 on the ballot paper, then the preferences would still flow in order but starting from 12; with already numbered candidates not included again in the list.
This might result in fewer candidates from totally bonkers micro parties being elected but it would probably help to decrease the level in informal voting. Of course over time it would naturally result in a totally new set of behind the scenes voting game chicanery being played but at least it hands a further degree of control back to the voter.

The major parties' biggest problem with the micro parties appears to be that they hold the balance of power in the Senate. In the days of a purely two party system, complaints were hurled at the fact that on most occasions the Senate was hostile and that a party which forms government thinks that it has a mandate to rule as it sees fit.
Ever since Australia moved from a broad system of appointment of Senators by the States to the infinitely more democratic method of appointment that we have now (which was implemented in 1949), the level and noise of complaints by the major parties has only increased. In 1984 which saw the addition of extra Senators from ten to twelve per state, it meant that suddenly there was six senators being elected at a half-Senate election and the numbers play in such a way that when you get down to the actual arguments in the ballot box over that last 16% of the vote (assuming that the other 84% already resulted in the appointment of major party candidates), that the minor parties have a field day.
From the 1970s to the 1990s this 16% was almost the exclusive domain of the Democrats whose job according to leader Don Chipp at the time was to "keep the bastards honest". Their last piece of lasting influence on legislation was in the debate over the GST and it must be said that in the late 1990s that politics was generally far more conciliatory than it is now. Even Paul Keating who threw so much mud in the parliament that one would think that the national colours of Australia were three shades of brown, probably won the 'unwinnable' 1993 election because of his reasonableness with his statement that if Dr John Hewson's Liberal Party was swept to government, that Labor would respect the mandate and pass the legislation through the Senate. Now in the days where political discourse has been reduced to that of a perpetual Celtic/Rangers Old Firm derby and where the balance of power is held by the fruits and nuts, the two majors are more inclined to blame the system rather than their own toxic politics.

In Westminster democracies, Party Politics more or less began in the 1830s. By 1901 and the Federation of the Australian colonies into the Commonwealth, politics had already coagulated into distinct globs. The micro parties because they are so chaotic, are kind of a return to the sorts of politics which existed before the 1830s and this scares the majors. From a practical standpoint, when voters mostly have no idea where their preferences are flowing, this is bad for democracy.
I as always will continue to vote below the line. My preferences are valuable.

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