Senate Elections – 14/9/2013

by Stephen Lesslie

The half Senate election to be held in conjunction with the House of Representatives election on 14 September 2013 will be a disaster. It will not be democratic and will not be proportional.
And proportional representation – or specifically, the single transferable vote (STV) currently used in Senate elections – will be blamed.

In an STV system, a member is elected when they receive enough votes to obtain a quota. For half Senate elections the quota is 14.29%. In most States, four or five Senators will be elected because they (or their party) received sufficient first preference votes to reach this quota and be elected in their own right.

The fifth and sixth positions, however, will be elected after candidates who fail to reach a quota are excluded and their votes are transferred to more popular candidates. If a number of parties can combine and persuade their voters to exchange preferences then, provided that they have sufficient combined votes to reach a quota, one of their candidates will be elected.

In practice, however, these parties do not need to persuade their supporters to exchange preferences; the system gives the parties the power to direct their preferences wherever they choose via above-the-line voting and registered group voting tickets (GVTs). At the next election it is very likely that some candidates will become Senators solely because they won the preference harvesting game.

Does anyone really believe that the elections in 2004 of Senator Fielding (Family First) and in 2010 of Senator Madigan (DLP) were the result of the genuine democratic expression of the people voting in a free election? Or were they the result of an STV system corrupted by the addition of above-the-line party boxes, registered group voting tickets, excessive preference requirements, low electoral deposits and a superfluous number of micro parties and joke candidates?

Would these Senators have been elected had voters had the opportunity to choose their own preferences rather than having them dictated by the party machines? How many Christian Democratic voters in Victoria knew at the 2010 election that their third preference went to the DLP, even ahead of Family First? Would every one of them have agreed with that decision? And, had they actually checked the registered group voting tickets, would they have understood their implications? [See the companion article in this newsletter.]

Christian Democratic Party voters can certainly vote below the line (although only 5% of all voters do) and choose their own preferences but, had they done so, remembering that up to one voter in ten will make a mistake and therefore vote informally, would that result have been democratic?
At the next Senate election, there will be up to fifty groups contesting the election. 37 parties have registered with the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) and presumably most will run. In the 2010 Senate election in NSW, there were also eleven unnamed groups that contested the election; that number could rise.

Why are there so many groups and parties, given that, with only six Senators elected per State, it seems that winning a seat would be a big task? At the last election a quota in NSW was 593,218 votes; even in Tasmania the quota was 47,242 votes. At the last Senate election in NSW, only three of the 32 groups running reached the 4% threshold required to get their electoral deposits back. Most failed to even reach 1% of the vote.

As most cannot realistically expect to be elected, there must be another reason why they run.
It is because the micro parties know that they can direct the preferences of the voters wherever they choose.

It is because if enough groups run and there is agreement, both spoken and implied, to put the major parties last, then one of the micro party candidates will take the last position.

It is because if they can just win the preference harvesting game, one of them will become a Senator for six years, with a basic salary of $190,550. With an electoral deposit of only $2,000 it has to be the best bet in the world!

STV is, in its pure form, the most democratic form of election and the most responsive to the wishes of the electorate. It is the accretions such as above-the-line-voting and group voting tickets – there purely to keep decision-making in the hands of the political party power brokers – that bring the system into disrepute. The reforms suggested in the next article would allow STV to work and would leave Australian democracy where it belongs: in the hands of the people.