The Turnbull government’s proposal, supported by the Greens, to allow optional preferential voting in Senate elections should be adopted by all senators as a matter of basic democratic principle, whatever the motives of the proponents. After all, the Constitution requires that senators be ‘directly chosen by the people’. And that is how it should be in a democracy worthy of the name.
But since 1984, the politicians have been stealing the peoples’ votes, possibly in breach of the Constitution. After all, the High Court has ruled without any clear constitutional provision that closing the rolls on the day an election is called is unconstitutional. Here we have a very clear provision which directs that the Senate be directly chosen by the people.
Because the politicians effectively force voters not only to vote but also to express their preferences − even for people and parties they think should never be allowed near Parliament − the Senate ballot paper long ago became unmanageable.
This was exacerbated in 1984 when the Hawke government quite unnecessarily increased the size of the House from 125 to 148 members. Because the Constitution requires that the Senate be half the size of the House, the number of senators from each state was consequentially increased from 10 to 12, with the quota for election falling to 14.28 per cent. (In a double dissolution this is a low 7.69 per cent.) The result was that the ballot paper would be even larger and more complicated. To answer this and make voting simpler, an alternative method of voting was introduced, Above The Line (ATL) voting. Instead of voting for a candidate, the voter could vote for a group, usually a party.
There was obviously then an incentive to vote above the line (ATL). And as with Below The Line (BTL) voting, this was to be by preferential voting. But in a sordid sleight of hand, the politicians decided that rather than the voters choosing their preferences, they would steal them. So the voter would write ‘1’ alongside one group or party, and that group or party would decide where preferences relating to votes over the quota would go.
Under this scheme, each group or party would set out its preferences in up to three Group Voting Tickets (GVT), lodging these with the Australian Electoral Commission. Now you would think that at the very least, these GVTs would be displayed prominently in every polling station. Instead, voters are told they can look them up on the AEC website − if they’re prepared to set aside several hours to find each one and then compare them all to make an informed judgment.
The fact is that each GVT represents a series of back door deals between the politicians. So not only is it difficult for voters to find out how their preferences are to be allocated, they are left completely in the dark as to the deals done and consideration given for the allocation of those preferences.
From the point of view of the establishment parties – the Coalition, ALP and the Greens − this worked very well. But more recently, the so-called micro-parties have worked out how to do this – much to the chagrin of the others. It was only then that the establishment parties became interested in cleaning up this scandal, although Labor has since retreated on this. The unpredictable workings of this rort can be seen in the 2013 Senate election results. Wayne Dropulich received 108 primary votes, and his party, Australian Sports, received 2866. This magically rose, through preferences, to 187,183 votes. Mr Dropulich would be in the Senate now but for the cancellation of the WA elections for an unrelated reason.
In Victoria, Ricky Muir received 479 votes and his Australian Motoring Enthusiasts Party received 16,604. Again, preferences turned this into 483,076 votes. This included a transfer of 143,118 Sex Party votes, more than half of which flowed from preferences from even more parties. Under the proposed reform. voters will be instructed to give six preferences to political parties when voting ATL, although just one preference will be valid. In addition, the government has agreed to the recommendation of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters that optional preferential voting be extended to BTL voting. There the voter will be instructed to indicate at least 12 preferences for candidates. But voting for only six would still be valid. Some of the crossbenchers seem to be saying they will go on strike and, in retaliation, reject all government bills. This is wrong. They should always cast their votes based on their judgment concerning the merits of each bill. They are of course entitled to fulfill their other threat, which is to campaign against the Coalition or the Greens in the next election.
More recently, the crossbenchers, with Labor support, are proposing that the reform take effect only on or after 22 August. This is to ensure that any double dissolution sought by the Turnbull government would be held under the old rules. No doubt they are hoping that this would discourage the government from seeking a double dissolution. This will only succeed if the Greens support it, and if the government then accepts this. If they are successful in delaying the introduction of the reforms, the government should still proceed with them as a matter of principle.
Rather than seeking either to delay the introduction of the reforms until 22 August, or to wreak vengeance on the Coalition, the crossbenchers should accept the principle which should apply. This is that if we are to have preferential voting, it should be the voters and not the politicians who determine their preferences. The cross-benchers would be better advised to campaign to persuade voters to give them their preferences rather than campaigning to keep such a scandalous denial of democracy.
Other reforms could easily be implemented at the same time, including:
– linking the roll electronically so that, on voting, the voter’s name would be marked off on every roll, thus stopping multiple voting
– sending out to every voter a voting card with a barcode for presentation at the polling station
– a requirement that everyone vote on the same day with strictly limited exemptions
– and the calling of a convention to consider recall elections making politicians accountable between elections − just as most Australians are accountable constantly in their work.
David Flint, a regular contributor, raised the issue of senate preferential voting in Give Us Back Our Country (with Jai Martinkovits), Connor Court
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