Stephen Lesslie, President, Electoral Reform Australia
As I write this report, I note that the Prime Minister has been granted a double dissolution by the Governor General. The 150 seats of the House of Representatives will be all single member electorates and, as in the past, most voters will not have any influence on the outcome of the election. Mr Turnbull’s seat of Wentworth and Mr Shorten’s seat of Maribyrnong will both return their sitting member, as will about a hundred other seats in the Australian Parliament. Voters in these ‘safe’ seats may vote with passion or indifference but the result will be the same.
The campaigns of both Liberal/National and Labor will be concentrated on the marginal seats. If you live in a marginal seat then congratulations: you are one of the lucky voters who will help determine the fate of our nation. If you don’t live in a marginal seat, your vote is effectively worthless.
The old joke about the results of next month’s North Korean election being stolen is not that funny when we consider that the results of at least half of the results of our next election could also be stolen and no one would notice.
Of course it doesn’t have to be this way. Should the election be conducted using the single transferable vote (STV) with electorates returning around ten members each, your vote would be equal with and, as effective as, the vote of every other Australian citizen.
Think about it. Campaigns would have to be based on ‘what is good for Australia’ and not on ‘what is good for the marginal seats of Australia’. There would be no safe seats – the citizens of Wentworth and Maribyrnong would have the real choice of choosing another candidate instead of their current member. Every electorate would be represented by both Government and Opposition MPs and no region could be ignored by any future Government.
So Mr Turnbull has his double dissolution. If he wins, he can claim a mandate, and if he loses, then so be it. But without changes to the Senate voting system he would not have been able to call a double dissolution. Because all Senators are up for election, the double dissolution drops the quota for election from 14.3% to 7.7%. With the previous voting system this would have resulted in two or even three Senators being elected from every State simply because they chose an emotive party name, participated in a preference harvesting round robin and had a favourable draw on the ballot paper. These candidates would not have been elected on merit.
Let’s examine these Senate changes. Are they reforms or merely changes designed to help engineer a political fix?
I believe the changes are reforms. Their greatest, and probably only, achievement is that they return control of a voter’s preferences to the voter. The abolition of group voting tickets means that party operatives no longer have the right to direct the preferences of every voter who chooses to vote above the line. The introduction of party logos will also help reduce confusion as to the identity of the parties.
Electoral Reform Australia and the Proportional Representation Society of Australia have been campaigning for reform of the Senate voting system for many years but it is so disappointing that the Government, having taken the step towards reform, managed it so poorly. The limited nature of these reforms clearly indicates that politicians do not trust the voters and that the reforms, while an improvement, are also just a political fix. It is easier to show what was not achieved.
1. Above the line voting has been retained.
There will still be an oversized ballot paper with two sets of voting instructions and a large distracting black line through the centre of the paper. Once group voting tickets were abolished there was absolutely no need to retain above the line voting.
2. Fully optional preferential voting below the line not implemented.
This is particularly odd as the Government has effectively allowed for fully optional preferential voting above the line. A single  for a two member micro party will exhaust once the lead candidate has been excluded because the makeweight second candidate will have long since been excluded. Since most voters will still vote above the line, why punish those who wish to make a personal choice?
3. The Australian Capital Territory preference allocation procedures were ignored.
The ACT Legislative Assembly allows single preferences given to candidates who gained over a quota to be retained at full value by the candidate and for the other preferences to be then allocated to further candidates. Fewer preferences are allocated but each is given a slightly higher transfer value. The Government’s failure to implement this simple reform will result in more votes exhausting.
The Government’s retention of above the line voting and their failure to implement fully optional preferential voting will result in an increase in informal voting and a massive increase in the number of votes that exhaust. Our fear is that, as a consequence, the next Government will take the easy option of increasing the formality requirements for voting, thereby further eroding the rights of citizens to be able to express their democratic right to choose candidates to the extent that they deem necessary.
This cynical and undemocratic step to reduce the rights of our citizens has just been made by the Labor Government in Queensland which has just reintroduced compulsory preferencing for its elections. This single action will disenfranchise over 100,000 of its citizens. [Even ignoring the ethical and moral values, this action is politically foolish and likely to backfire on the Queensland Labor Party as the Liberal National Party (LNP) is highly likely to split into separate Liberal and National Parties.]