February 24, 2016

Horse 2079 - It's The Senate, Carol Brown.

There has been something of a kerfuffle in the media of late with regards the proposed legislation to change the way that Senate ballot papers work. Having read through the proposal, I personally think that it's an ace idea and that it probably should have been how the system worked all along.
The way that elections to the Senate currently works is that the members of the chamber are elected on the basis of proportional representation. To be elected, a member needs not a 50% + 1 majority of votes but only needs to secure that particular proportion of votes to be elected.
As it currently stands, each state gets twelve Senators. This means that in every half-Senate election, six Senators are chosen. The number of votes required works out to be a quota which ends up being one sixth of all formal votes within the state. However, since there can be more than two hundred candidates, getting to that one sixth of the vote can be a complex process.
Under the current system, voters can mark a "1" above the line which assigns a group ticket based upon how that group has chosen to allocate their preference flow. Voters are still perfectly free to number every box below the line (I am proudly a below the line voter) but the number of people who do, is only a small fraction. As a result, the deals worked out in negotiations well before election day, ends up being quite important. One of the criticisms of above the line ticket voting, is that voters don't really know where their preferences are flowing and this means that parties who can best manipulate the system can secure the best results, even though they may have only taken less than 1% of first preference votes.

The change to preferentially numbering the groups above the line would mean the instead of parties being able to negotiate long chains of preferences, the would really only have a say in how their own group was numbered. The two major blocs, the Liberal & National coalition and the Labor Party, like the idea that they probably will have a greater chance at winning the last seat when it comes down to preferences, and minor and micro parties will no longer be able to engage in manipulation and negotiation to secure that last seat to such a degree.
Ricky Muir of the Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party, got a paltry 0.51% of first preference votes and still managed to elected; despite achieving 0.0354% of a Senate quota. The rest came through preference deals through such manipulation and negotiation.
I kind of suspect that David Leyonhjelm of the Liberal Democratic Party was elected to the Senate, with 9.5% of first preferences, probably as a result of such manipulation and being in the first position on the ballot paper, after having gained about 1% in previous state elections.

Although I like the idea of lots of different voices speaking into the parliament, I like the idea that by changing the way that group tickets are distributed, more control over how someone votes is handed back to the voter. This of course assumes that you are voting above the line; if you vote below the line, you still have total control over where your preferences go as before.

I think that the change to the group voting system is likely to have several obvious effects. Firstly that I suspect that the number of candidates all competing for the Senate will fall markedly. If micro parties realise that they won't derive the same benefits from unseen negotiations, then I suspect that this will discourage lots of them from registering. Strangely I think that this will also result in wedge parties having a greater say in future. Parties like the Democrats who even used to have the slogan "keep the bastards honest" in the past and The Greens at the moment, are likely to find that their wedge is likely to become larger. I can very much see The Greens having as many as twelve Senators in a future Senate and the balance of power to boot. The majors are probably aware of this but I suspect that they'd prefer to negotiate legislation with a group who has open manifestos and is predictable than someone from a party of one whom nobody has ever heard of before.
If Clive Palmer's United Party remains a thing, then there is a possibility that it might retain seats. Though given that Clive himself has an approval rating in his lower house seat of Fairfax of 2%, that he was elected in 2013 on a majority of 36 votes and that several of his party went rogue, it is equally likely that they may not continue to exist either. If however it doesn't just disappear below the surface of the waves (in the way that the replica Titanic also failed to do), then the change in group voting could help them. Put it this way, if the Palmer United Party had existed in the bunfight that was the 2010 election, then I suspect that the PUP could have held the balance of power in both houses of parliament; the world could have looked quite different.

It's definitely worth remembering as the Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten thunder at each other from a distance of two maces away, that the major parties wouldn't even be considering this unless they could first see some benefit in it for them. Forget all notion of improving democratic process, no.
In the words of former Liverpool FC manager Bill Shankly: "If a player is not interfering with play or seeking to gain an advantage, then he should be". I think that this is exactly what is going on here. If no advantage is being seemed, then it wouldn't have been pursued. There are more red herrings going around at the moment than red herrings being served in a red herring casserole on board the HMS Red Herring.

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