Senate Election 2013 – a potential train wreck

Stephen Lesslie

In our last newsletter (June 2013) in the article entitled “Above-the-Line Voting – a worked example” we predicted that the 2013 Senate election would have 50 groups and 120 candidates. We were almost right; in NSW there are 44 groups, plus 4 ungrouped – a total of 110 candidates.

We also stated that this election will be a disaster and that proportional representation will be blamed. We still believe this because:

  1. The oversized ballot paper with its tiny font will overwhelm many voters who will simply refuse to participate. Remember that most polling booths are in poorly lit community halls.
  2. Voters who try to vote below the line will just become frustrated and many will vote informally.
  3. It will not deliver a truly democratic result as there is a high probability that someone will be elected who has minimal electoral support. The result will be determined by the manipulations of group voting tickets by party bosses, subverting the will of the people.
  4. Proportional representation, which is the fairest and most democratic electoral system, will be unfairly perceived to be a failure.

What should be a demonstration of democracy at work and an expression of a citizen’s involvement in their democracy will be viewed as a chore. This will alienate the Australian people.

The government and the major parties will be blamed – but the real culprit is above-the-line voting and the parody of proportional representation that is being used.

We predict that a six-year Senate seat in NSW will be won by one of the “joke” parties.

At the 2010 Senate election, the result in NSW was:

Party % Quota Seats
Lib/Nat 38.9 2.73 3
Labor 36.5 2.56 2
Greens 10.7 0.75 1

To be guaranteed election, a party must obtain a quota (14.3%). To win three seats, the quota is 42.9%. Provided the Greens can keep their vote above Labor’s third candidate – and this seems likely – the combined Labor/Green vote can withstand a swing against it of 4.3% and still win a combined three seats. This is because Labor is sensibly (possibly having learned a lesson when Senator Steve Fielding was elected) not playing games and has given their preferences directly to the Greens. With above-the-line votes, there will be no leakage.

Should Labor/Green fail to reach the magic 42.9%, the Greens will still be directed preferences by a small number of left-leaning groups.

The Liberal/National coalition will have to increase its 2010 vote by 4.0% to reach the 42.9% that guarantees them the election of three Senators.

Under normal Senate voting, and in the present political climate, this would seem likely, but with the excessive number of candidates and groups they may fall short. Should this occur, they will struggle to pick up the extra votes needed, as most of the micro and 30+ joke parties contesting the election have entered into a round robin of preference harvesting and have placed the Liberals near the end of their tickets.

We believe that the third Liberal candidate, Senator Arthur Sinodinos, is the major party candidate most likely to be defeated. This would parallel the result of the 2010 Victorian Senate election where the DLP beat Senator Julian McGauran for the sixth and last seat.

One of the micro or joke parties will be the beneficiary but it is nearly impossible to tell which group will benefit. Minute changes in voting strength will determine which groups are eliminated early and which groups will leapfrog their competitors. The Liberals will receive very few preferences from these groups.

Those groups that have not entered into this preference harvesting game as enthusiastically as most tend to give the Greens an early preference. Because the Greens will not have a quota in their own right, they will soak up these preferences before they reach the Liberals.

Should Senator Sinodinos lose his seat, he can blame those parties and groups that the Liberal/National coalition would have considered as natural allies. The Christian Democratic Party, Family First and the Shooters have all placed most of his major threats ahead of him.

It is amusing for an observer to note the destructive and self-defeating tactics of the Christian Democratic Party and Family First.  Both of these parties have placed a number of groups ahead of the other as well as ahead of the Liberals. This prevents either from benefiting from the other’s preferences, effectively eliminating both from the contest.

Do you think the supporters of the Christian Democratic Party would approve of the decision to support One Nation (12), No Carbon Tax Climate Sceptics (17) and the DLP (19) ahead of Family First (21) and the Liberals (37)? Would the supporters of Family First themselves have chosen to support No Carbon Tax Climate Sceptics (23) and One Nation (29) ahead of the Christian Democratic Party (44) and the Liberals (71)? And how many of these voters, once having made their protest vote, would have preferred to support Labor or even the Greens?

Would these supporters believe they have been cheated and misled? Such is the outcome when voters are denied control of their own preferences.

What Can We Do?

Although it is too late for this election, this problem will not go away. And if you think this is bad, a double dissolution election with a quota of only 7.7% would be even worse!

To give voters a real choice that they are comfortable with and are able to make for themselves, we need to:

1. Abolish above-the-line voting and the associated group voting tickets

Voters will find the party of their choice and vote for it. Those that choose to make a protest vote will choose their own second and subsequent preferences. Joke parties would not be able to direct preferences or participate in the preference harvesting game, and would lose most of the incentive to run in the first place. The ballot paper will be smaller and, without the distracting big black line, much simpler.

2. Allow fully optional preferential voting

Informal voting would be greatly reduced and confined mostly to those who choose not to participate in the election by either deliberately spoiling their ballot paper or merely leaving it blank. Any increase in exhausted votes would be compensated for by the reduction in informal voting. ACT Legislative Assembly elections amply demonstrate that, even with fully optional preferential voting, the great majority of voters will vote for all the candidates in a group.

3. Introduce the Robson rotation

The Robson rotation randomises the order of candidates in a group. Every candidate would share equally the top and bottom positions.  This spreads the votes of the more popular parties, helping to ensure that micro party candidates are not elected at the expense of more popular candidates or parties. It also helps to ensure that those voters who only vote for the top candidate in a group, perhaps thinking it is still above-the-line voting, would still have a high probability that their vote will never exhaust. (For a quick explanation of the Robson rotation, see our June 2013 newsletter).

4. Increase the electoral deposits

The Senate electoral deposit of only $2,000 per candidate is woefully inadequate. Since each party must have at least 500 members, this equates to a maximum of $8 per member for the two candidates. If the party membership is genuine, then $8 per member is a pittance; if the party membership is not genuine, then the candidates should pay for the sham.


Election to the Senate should not be decided by back room deals made by party apparatchiks. It is not a game or a lottery to be won by the party with the cleverest name and a hundred joke candidates are not an indication of a thriving and healthy democracy.

We need to start trusting the Australian people and give them back control of their Senate vote.

11 thoughts on “Senate Election 2013 – a potential train wreck

  1. Bernie Omodei

    I suggest that voting for the Senate in each state be done in 2 stages.

    Stage 1.
    Each registered elector would be sent a machine readable postal ballot form to decide which 12 candidates would be included in stage 2. The voting method for stage 1 could be the same as the current method or it could be quire different. Voting in stage 1 need not be compulsory. The deadline for the return of postal ballots could be one week before the official election date to allow the AEC sufficient time to process the machine readable ballots and to print the ballot papers for stage 2. Some compromises may be necessary in stage 1 to make the the method workable.

    Stage 2.
    The ballot paper for the Senate would have the 12 candidates that were successful in stage 1. Above the line voting should be eliminated. I would favour optional preferential voting without the grouping of candidates. The order of the candidates on the ballot paper could be decided by a random process. Candidates from a particular party would not be grouped and the political party of a candidate would be shown beside the candidate’s name.

    1. Stephen Lesslie

      Implement our suggested changes and the excessive number of parties will be reduced to sensible numbers as they quickly discover that all their power to influence the result is dissipated.
      We don’t need further disincentives to voting. With a sensible sized ballot paper and the control of preferences in the hands of individual voters Stage 1 of your proposal is unnecessary.
      I agree with the need to abolish above-the-line voting and to introduce optional preferential voting. Political parties however are recognised in the Australian Constitution so I don’t see why we need to make it more difficult for voters to find the party of their choice.

      1. Bernie Omodei

        Your proposal assumes that the number of candidates in the ballot will be reduced to a reasonable number. It also discourages candidates by making it more expensive to participate. I do not like the notion that having lots of money enables you to be a candidate. People like Clive Palmer could still manipulate your system.

        Stage 1 of my system would guarantee a limited number of candidates in stage 2. Furthermore, stage 1 would not make it more difficult to participate in the election because participation in stage 1 would be optional. Local government elections is South Australia are conducted by postal ballot and so the AEC has some experience with postal ballots.

        Our shared objective is to fix a system that is broken. Because your proposal is based on assumptions that may not be valid, it may be better to advocate a system that does not have as many assumptions. Your assumptions will make an ideal target for your opponents including the major political parties.

  2. Woody

    Baby Steps – how about preferences written above or below the line over-ride the party preference systems. This would allow an environmental motoring enthusiast to vote 1 AMEP, 2 Green, 3 Liberal.
    If the AMEP candidate didn’t get in, full vote goes to greens. Greens get 1 and a half allocations, so 2/3 of this vote goes to Green, the remaining 1/3 goes to liberal when greens get eliminated, maybe a liberal gets 1.2 allocations, leaving 1/18th of a vote to whatever the 4th and subsequenh AMEP preference were…

    This would make it easier for someone to embrace preferential voting without having to number up to 110 or so…

    1. Stephen Lesslie

      What is hard about voting?
      A voter places a 1 against the candidate they most want. If they have further preferences then they continue numbering until they no longer care.
      Should they vote for a popular candidate then the No.1 vote will most likely remain in the count until the end. Should they vote for a micro or joke party candidate then, unless they indicate further preferences, their vote will have no influence on the outcome of the election. This however is the choice of the voter and should be respected.
      Just abolish above-the-line voting. Party bosses should not control the preferences. Allow the single transferable vote (STV) proportional representation voting system to work.

  3. Michael Ward

    Why can we not be allowed to say ‘No’ if we think a candidate is not acceptable? The preferential system forces us to express some degree of preference for every candidate, in order to cast a formal vote in favour of the one candidate, or perhaps the few candidates we do want.
    If we could use a zero on a ballot paper, to mean “I do not want this person on the same planet, never mind in the Parliament” that would be more democratic than the present arrangement, and very simple to implement.

    1. Stephen Lesslie

      If a voter puts a candidate last on a ballot paper then that effectively means “I do not want this person on the same planet, never mind in the Parliament”. What we in Electoral Reform Australia are trying to achieve is a reduction of candidates to reasonable numbers so voters can actually list candidates in their own order of preferences. If they feel that a number of candidates are unsupportable then the voter should be able to leave all these candidates off the ballot paper.
      Abolishing above-the-line voting and associated group voting tickets coupled with optional preferential voting gives voters back control of their own preferences.

  4. In Amber Clad

    Above-the-line preferencing would make things a lot easier than they are now. If NSW can do it, why can’t Australia?

    1. Stephen Lesslie

      This would be a very minor improvement. The number of candidates would increase to match the number to be elected. Those that feel the electoral deposits are too high (not me) would complain that the electoral deposits would triple. There are already too many candidates standing who actually don’t want to be elected. We should not encourage more to stand.

      My comments to the previous response also apply here.

      Keeping above-the-line voting and preferencing across the party boxes will not work. If the preferences in such a scheme are optional then very few voters will avail themselves of the opportunity to vote this way. The NSW Legislative Council uses this method and most of the micro and joke parties just die on the vine. If preferencing above-the-line is made compulsory then the informal vote will skyrocket. (See Largest remainder No.6 (Sept 2009) for the open letter to former Senator Bob Brown detailing why his Commonwealth Electoral (Above-the-Line Voting) Amendment Bill 2008, which advocated such a scheme would not work.)

      Fiddling with the system will not work. We need major reform and we need to keep the ballot paper as simple as possible.

  5. Chris Dunkerley

    Enjoyed the piece – the outcome will be of much interest

    Agree with some of your recommendations, but not all.

    group voting tickets – yes, banned (never forgave my party the AD for that one), but above the line could be ‘saved’ (as a trade off perhaps) if people can preference across the boxes

    optional preferential I also do not wholly support – 110 is too many, and even half that is – they should number at least the 6 (or 12 in DD) positions to be filled, with perhaps a 50% addition for preferences to mean anything – so in this case 9

    Robson rotation in groups – yes, yes

    Very much do not agree about deposits, as has been proven this time with their increase – loonies and front parties are not always poor, and genuine ideas parties are not always rich. That $8 is nothing out of a membership is elitist.

    1. Stephen Lesslie

      No one understands the power of the Robson rotation.

      It allows fully optional preferential voting without the consequence that exhausted votes will reduce voter participation. Exhausted votes do rise marginally but informal voting falls substantially.

      Commentators also forget that exhausted votes are not dead votes. They are counted and credited to the candidate. They may not manifest until later in the count and may result in different election outcomes if different candidates are excluded earlier in the count. Should the electorate at large vote differently then they may never exhaust.

      Introduce the Robson rotation and within groups exhausted votes are not an issue. ACT elections, which use the Robson rotation, amply demonstrate that most voters fill in all the squares in a party grouping and most, especially if they have voted for a group that they know is unlikely to be elected, then go on and find another group.

      Keeping above-the-line voting and preferencing across the party boxes will not work. If the preferences in such a scheme are optional then very few voters will avail themselves of the opportunity to vote this way. The NSW Legislative Council uses this method and most of the micro and joke parties just die on the vine. If preferencing above-the-line is made compulsory then the informal vote will skyrocket. (See Largest remainder No.6 (Sept 2009) for the open letter to former Senator Bob Brown detailing why his Commonwealth Electoral (Above-the-Line Voting) Amendment Bill 2008, which advocated such a scheme would not work.)

      Compulsory preferencing for as many candidates as there are to be elected is another red herring. Another manifestation of the Australian fear of exhausted votes. The system for election in the Senate is proportional representation. We are electing individuals – we are not electing party blocks. The vote does not go on and on. It stops when it reaches a winning candidate or the first runner up. If an elector chooses to vote for a candidate who has no chance of election – say an ungrouped candidate – then voting for the number to be elected may do no good anyway. If the elector chooses a candidate who made a substantial portion of a quota – say a Xenophon or a Green – then their subsequent preferences are never counted. If the elector chooses to vote for a major party candidate the Robson rotation will spread the votes so that in most cases none of the candidates, on the first count, have a quota. For those few that do (only Katy Gallagher in the ACT did out of seventeen winning candidates) the vote will either, if it is a single No.1, remain with the candidate or in the great majority of cases be transferred to one of their colleagues.

      We need to stop interfering with the right of the voter to choose how they wish to exercise their franchise.

      Electoral deposits? We don’t know! We predicted 120 candidates and fifty groups. Maybe the increase in the electoral deposits did prevent some candidates. The problem with most of the joke parties is that they are not political parties but lobby groups. Check out the names. If the names reflect their aims then they have failed because by running they alienate both sides of politics. If the names are merely a clever ploy to attract attention and to participate in preference harvesting then they should pay for the privilege of being on 4 million ballot papers.

      Fifty plus parties also prevent the rise of genuine new parties because they are drowned out in the noise. Definition of a joke party – any group that cannot reach 1% of the vote. They won’t be easy to recognise – because they won’t be outside your polling booth.

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