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Reforming the Australian Electoral System

The scandalous preferential voting system for the upper house must be changed.

By Bob Brown

The grabbing of Senate seats by micro-party candidates with a handful of primary votes and a manipulated preference flow, while other party candidates with hundreds of thousands of votes are bypassed, is a matter demanding reform.

The problem is that neither Labor nor the Coalition want to give up their own potential to manipulate the system by hijacking preference flows. Maybe now they will.

As leader of the Greens, after the 2010 election I took a simple reform to the Gillard government. It was rejected. Perhaps the Abbott government will take it up.

As everyone will remember from voting last Saturday, in the Senate we are required to either put ”1” in the box of the party of our choice above the line, or number all the candidates in the order of our own preference below the line. Fewer than one in 10 voters bother with the second choice. As the number of Senate candidates has grown, the second choice has become less and less attractive.

The problem with the easier option of just voting ”1” for a party above the line is that the voter cedes control of her or his flow of preferences to the backroom operators of that party. Across Australia millions of votes cascade to other parties in an order the voters would not select themselves. The law requiring parties to lodge, pre-election, their choice of preference flow has led to the dark art of manipulation of preferences for unwarranted electoral advantage.

Any party that does not join the behind-closed-doors trade in preferences is a mug. It is left to lick its wounds and watch the best manipulators win out as the vote count unfolds after the election. This sordid process should be swept out and the control of preferences given back to the voters.

Reform is simple. Six senators are elected from each state. Voters would be required to number the parties from one to at least six in the order of their own choice above the line. That’s it.

There is an average of three or four candidates for each party so voting one to six means voting for 20 or so candidates, enough to expend the full value of a vote in most cases. Those keen to utilise every last drop of electoral influence could fill in every box above the line, even if there are 50 parties to preference in order.

Below the line voting could be maintained, or abolished if this is needed to minimise confusion for ordinary voters. The corrupting system of parties dictating preferences would come to an end.

When a double-dissolution election is called and all 12 Senate seats are up for election in each state, voters would need to number 12 boxes in the order of their choice. The Senate vote would be no more complicated than that for the House of Representatives.

A few other reforms, short of electronic voting, which seems inevitable, should be considered. The most obvious is proportional representation in the House of Representatives, like the Hare-Clark system used to elect governments in Tasmania and the ACT. This offers the closest means available to meet the basic democratic principle of one person, one vote, one value. Proportional representation is stiffly resisted by the major parties because it would lead to a plurality of political parties in the House of Representatives, representing more exactly the plurality of thinking of the modern Australian community: quelle horreur! It will be quite a while before Australia advances to the proportional representation that is the bedrock of the more sophisticated electoral systems in New Zealand and Europe.

In the last parliament, I made an unsuccessful call for the government to set up a commission for truth in election advertising. This idea is also anathema to the old parties. But just as gratuitous fact-checkers burgeoned during this election campaign, some good and some bad, surely such a commission should be attached to the Australian Electoral Office to check pre-election advertising to make sure it is in accord with established facts.

The establishment of new parties needs more rigour. In NSW, a Senate seat may go to the Liberal Democrat Party because it was allocated the left-hand column on the ballot paper and so got the ”donkey vote”. The use of well-established party brand names should be prohibited because it can so easily deceive voters. I am currently challenging the registration of the Stop the Greens Party: all this micro-party has to do to trick green voters is to use a diminutive ”Stop” on its material. Perhaps after Saturday’s disaster in NSW, common sense will take over at the AEC, but the law should be made more specific.

The donkey vote could be killed. As the Senate ballot papers are printed, the order of parties would be rotated so that each had an equal turn on the left end of the paper.

After every election a parliamentary committee reviews the election and makes recommendations for reform in the public interest. The cross-party committee’s report usually contains worthwhile recommendations that are then shelved and ignored. A public furore would be much more effective.

If, after this latest bout of skewed Senate results, there is no such furore, we can expect greater manipulation of preferences at future elections, with even sillier outcomes.

If there is the political will in Canberra, simple reform is available to consign legally induced frauding of Senate votes to the Australian book of ignoble electoral history.

Bob Brown is former Australian Greens leader and Senator for Tasmania.

09/11/2013 – 18:53


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