Two weeks ago I wrote a piece for the Guardian putting the case for reform to the system of Senate group voting tickets, in response to a number of pieces arguing against reform on the basis of who is for the reform, or who supposedly will be favoured.
Today I want to write about a few points I didn’t get to cover in my post, and respond to stories about politicians (primarily in Labor and the Greens) expressing hesitation about supporting the reform seemingly due to concerns about the partisan impact on their parties, and the proposal of a (very bad) idea to keep group voting tickets but impose a minimum vote threshold of 4% for any candidate to be elected.
Antony Green has previously conducted an analysis of how the proposed system of above-the-line preferencing and optional preferential voting would likely change the make-up of the Senate, assuming no major change in voter behaviour. His predictions would have seen Labor and Coalition each hold two additional seats in the current Senate. The Greens would hold one less seat, with a number of other crossbenchers missing out. Nick Xenophon would have likely been joined by his #2 candidate under the proposed system.
It seems some people in Labor and the Greens seem to think that their respective party could be disadvantaged by these reforms. The problem with making predictions about how the system would work (as acknowledged by Antony Green) is that a change in system will change the behaviour of parties, candidates and voters. The changed system would likely result in fewer parties running, and over time this could see different voting blocks developing. A smaller ballot paper would likely have hurt the Liberal Democratic Party, who won in NSW on the back of substantial confusion over their name.
While it looks like the Coalition would have been the chief beneficiary of no group voting tickets in 2013, at other times the reforms would have more likely benefited Labor. This has been explained by Kevin Bonham.
Others have opposed these reforms because they have been pleased with the impact of Ricky Muir and others on the Senate crossbench. Like with any lottery, it’s possible for it to produce a positive result, but that doesn’t mean it is fair or that it can be predicted to produce another result you like in the future.
Ultimately, you need to make your judgement about Senate reform on its impact on the system as a whole, and whether it is fair, not whether it advantages your side, or politicians that you like. That may seem naive, but in the medium term it’s the only sensible approach to electoral reform.
We have seen the impact of short-term thinking in New South Wales and Queensland, where past Labor governments introduced optional preferential voting, in part to benefit from division between Liberal and National candidates (and Queensland Labor went further in benefiting from vote-splitting between the Coalition and One Nation in 1998, encouraging voters to ‘Just Vote 1’).
Since then, the Liberal and National parties have merged in Queensland and gotten better at avoiding three-cornered-contests in other states, and One Nation has disappeared, while the Greens now take a much larger part of the left vote, and those same ‘Just Vote 1’ messages first used by Peter Beattie were used by Campbell Newman for the opposite effect earlier this year.
In addition to us not being able to make any certain or long-term predictions about the partisan impact of a reform, there are deeper issues with the current Senate system, beyond which candidates might win.
The group voting ticket system, with full preferences and almost-complete control of those preferences by parties, tends to produce results where the exact order of elimination of candidates is critical to the result, and small changes in the order can produce dramatically different results. We saw this in Western Australia in 2013, when a gap of 14 votes (or was it 12 votes?) changing who won two Senate seats.
This problem hasn’t gone away, and if we continue down the current trend of increasing numbers of parties and candidates, it will continue to get worse. We may well see another very close contest at the next election, resulting in another recount and more pressure on the AEC to go above and beyond its normal responsibilities.
So this isn’t just about who wins and who loses, this is about having a democratic process which is understood, respected, and not seen as producing arbitrary results which have little to no relationship to the votes cast.
Finally, a number of media outlets have reported that some in the Greens including new leader Richard Di Natale are open to an alternative reform, which would keep the current system but exclude from election any candidate from a party that polled less than 4%.
This is a terrible idea, and would be worthy of the criticism that minor parties have directed at the reform process so far. It would be a bald-faced case of the major parties using their position to entrench their power at the expense of small parties, and would not fix the problem.
Preferences are not only abused by small parties – they can be abused by larger parties. In 1984, the major parties effectively used the new group voting ticket system to starve Peter Garrett (then of the Nuclear Disarmament Party) of preferences, and have often directed preferences away from the Greens.
A threshold system would be particularly bad for the Greens, who would still be vulnerable to losing Labor preferences.
Using thresholds would also completely fail to deal with the lack of transparency in the current system, and allow backroom deals to continue to be made, with results that are very hard to predict.
While the above-the-line voting system is unlikely to elect anyone with less than 4% of the vote, it keeps the option open, as down the track parties get better at encouraging their voters to mark preferences. It’s also completely out of keeping with the Australian system to impose an arbitrary threshold, where 4.1% makes you eligible to win and 3.9% means you can’t win.