Features Australia

The sordid state of voting for the Senate

Thanks to a foolish Bob Hawke decision, our constitution now allows shady backroom deals to determine the Upper House

3 January 2015

9:00 AM

3 January 2015

9:00 AM

Australia is one of the oldest continuing democracies in the world. As our constitution says, the politicians are ‘directly chosen by the people’.

Not always. We now have senators who rather than being chosen by the people, sit in the senate as a result of shady backroom deals.

At times they even hold the balance of power on issues crucial to the nation.

This scandal must be corrected before the next election.

This is much more important than talk about a reshuffle or some commentators’ curious inability to see the government’s ‘narrative’. Surely this is stopping the boats, repealing the CO2 and mining taxes, and above all (as Tony Abbott says) delivering a country that can look its kids and grandkids in the eye and say, ‘We are not leaving you with unsustainable debt; we are not going to practice intergenerational theft to sustain our own spending’.

But back to that senate scandal. The good thing is that because other carpetbaggers have worked out how to do it, the major parties are at last interested in cleaning up this mess. And what a mess it is.

At the 2013 Senate election, Wayne Dropulich received 108 primary votes, and his party, Australian Sports, 2866. This magically rose to 187,183 votes. He’d be sitting in the Senate now but for the cancellation of the WA elections for entirely unrelated reasons.

In Victoria, Ricky Muir received 479 votes and his Australian Motoring Enthusiasts Party 16,604. Again, this became 483,076 votes, including a transfer of 143,118 Sex Party votes. More than half of theirs cascaded in from other parties.


This sordid blemish on Australian democracy began back in 1984 when Bob Hawke decided to enlarge the House of Representatives, knowing the constitution requires the Senate to be half the size of the House. Accordingly, each state now has twelve rather than ten senators, thus reducing the quota of votes for election to 14.28% (7.69% in a double dissolution election).

Because politicians require voters to indicate their preference for every candidate on the ballot, including those they would never want to see anywhere near the Senate, voting formally had become a challenging and time consuming exercise.

The politicians’ remedy in 1984 was the decision that a 90% correct ballot would be acceptable.

More importantly, they introduced voting above the line (ATL) for a party rather than a candidate. The latter would continue as below the line voting (BTL), but few now use it. The politicians still wanted the voters to declare their preferences for every other party, although most would prefer not giving any preference to, say, the Communist Party.

Rather than the voter listing his or her party preferences, the political parties graciously decided to do it for them when voting above the line.

That must be emphasised. Any votes surplus to the quota of the party you choose are allocated not by you but by the party. The justification is the voter is still able to make an informed vote. This was because the party’s instructions had to be set out in a Group Voting Ticket (GVT) and then lodged with the Electoral Commission.

Through a complicated formula, all voters for a party have a notional share in the surplus. So a percentage of each vote − the so called transfer value − can end up eventually supporting someone you never heard of, or worse, someone you strongly object to.
So how can anyone make the informed vote the politicians promised? You just go to the AEC website and find the GVTs of the party or parties you’re thinking of voting for. This is not simple. Each party can have up to three. The first time I tried, the exercise took me about 30 minutes. How many voters have the time for this?

But even if you find the several GVTs you want, you are still completely in the dark as to the reasons for and the deals made behind each preference. E.g; why in 2004 did Victorian Labor rank the conservative Family First Party ahead of their allies, the Greens, thus ensuring the election of Family First Senator Steve Fielding?

And how many Labor voters would have been happy to see Family First elected on their votes?

Both major parties now agree the answer is simple – democracy. You are actually to be allowed to choose your preferences and how many you will give. It’s called optional preference voting.

They should forget about another suggestion, prescribing a minimum threshold of primary votes, say, 4%. First, optional preference voting should cure the problem. Second, there’ll be endless debates about what the threshold should be. Finally, it is constitutionally dubious.

Just bring in optional preferential voting – then anybody sitting in the Senate will be there because he or she is directly chosen by the people, not by some carpetbaggers.

And while we’re at it, let’s make all politicians accountable all of the time, especially those on six year terms. After all, every employee in Australia is accountable on every day of every week to an employer. Every person in business, every farmer and every professional is constantly accountable to their customers, clients and patients. Why should voters have to wait years, especially when they did not actually choose some senator who is only there because of backroom deals? The voters should be entitled by petition to recall any politician to an election, as in parts of the US and Canada. This is more necessary in Australia because of the stranglehold exercised by the factional powerbrokers, greater than in any other comparable democracy. To set this in place we should go back to the Corowa Plan without which we would never have federated. We should refer the issue of making politicians accountable − along with fixing up the federation and the constitutional recognition of indigenous people − to an elected and unpaid standing constitutional convention.

That would get things moving and fundamentally improve the governance of this country.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

David Flint is co-author with Jai Martinkovits of Give Us Back Our Country, 2nd edn., Connor Court.

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Show comments
  • Rainier Wolfcastle

    Well argued, though I do worry about recall elections. Such things have resulted in endless feeding frenzies of signatures in the US to get somebody recalled. I’d prefer to see the next person(s) listed on the senate ballot paper at the time of the election filling any vacancies, or revert to the relevant state voting for the replacement senator by 2/3 majority of both houses (and not necessarily of the same party as the lost seat; you don’t feel like serving your six years, then tough luck buddy!).

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