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June 10, 2015


Tasmania's Hare-Clark is the fairest system to adopt, with an appropriate minimum number of preferences so that the last candidate is not elected on too much less than a full quota. This puts all the power in the hands of voters and not in any other vested interests, preference swaps or party lists.

COMMENT: Hare-Clark works well on a quota of 10,000 in the ACT and Tasmania. However, it may not scale up to a quota of 600,000 in NSW, especially when who the candidates are in the Senate receives such little coverage in the larger states.

Could I raise one query? You say that in 1984, "Labor and the Coalition use their new power over preferences to block the election of the Nuclear Disarmament Party's Peter Garrett". I can see how ticket voting gave the smallest parties a "new" power over preferences, since up until then they hadn't really been able to direct them, because they lacked the resources to hand out how to vote cards at each polling booth. The big parties, however, had been able to hand out how to votes before 1984, and therefore had been able to direct preferences (very substantially), because voters had become so dependent on how to votes to get their numbering right. So was the power which Labor and the Coalition enjoyed in 1984 really "new"?

In fact, the thinking about the 1984 changes at the time was that they just represented the institutionalisation of the habit voters had fallen into of copying how to votes. What was less clearly understood was that the changes put all the parties and groups on an equal footing as far as directing preferences was concerned. The potential significance of that was not appreciated at the time.

I agree strongly with your points about ensuring that any reforms don't recreate the informality problem. It's also worth noting, however, that the current system is fundamentally discriminatory, in that some preference orderings, ie those included as tickets, are dead easy for voters to record, while others are almost ridiculously difficult. The classic example of this is the voter who want to vote for all the women candidates: he or she has no choice but to vote below the line.

COMMENT: I see your point over my use of 'new'. I have several times tried without success to track down the ticket votes from 1984. Both Labor and Coalition preferences put the Democrats ahead of Garrett, but I also understand (but have never been able to confirm) that they also put each other ahead of Garrett. I suspect Garrett might have still been beaten by the Democrats without ticket voting, but it would have been closer. Garret started 2.5% ahead of the Democrats.

I suspect an old fashioned how-to-votes would have brought much more voter attention to the 1984 preference swaps than was noticed with the '1' above the line option. In the same way that were it not for GTVs, a major party would not attempt the sort of preference swap that Labor did with Family First in 2004. Of course, without GTVs, the multitude of little parties probably wouldn't be there anyway.

Antony, I don't understand how the size of the constituency has any relevant impact on the civic engagement of the constituents. Why would a South Australian be more aware of their Senatorial representatives, than a Victorian? As a Victorian, I am perfectly capable of marking 6, or 12, or 20, or however many names in order of preference on a ballot paper. Each of the major parties nominate a similar number of candidates in each state (4-6). I don't see how the quota required is relevant, just because a state is bigger, doesn't mean it has a greater percentage of disengaged voters, just a higher gross figure proportional to its overall population. The US and UK have vastly different sizes of constituencies, yet the same electoral system. I don't see how Senator Parry or Senator Edwards are more well known than Senator Sinodinos or Senator Fifield.

COMMENT: At the 2013 federal election, media in Tasmania covered five House contests and a race for six Senate seats. In NSW media covered 48 seats and a six seat Senate race. It is perfectly normal for the Tasmanian media to cover every House seat in detail and many candidates in the Senate contest during an election campaign. In NSW the media cover only some House seats (there are more seats than days in the campaign) and give only cursory coverage to the Senate. This greater attention to the Senate contests in Tasmania and South Australia is the reason why the two states are the only ones in the last four decades where an Independent candidate has achieved a Senate quota in their own right.

"However, it may not scale up to a quota of 600,000 in NSW, especially when who the candidates are in the Senate receives such little coverage in the larger states."

If true STV were adopted, Senators' election would depend much more on cultivating a personal vote, unlike the current system which effectively functions like a closed-list system where the position on the list, given by the party, determines what chance candidates have of getting elected. Under real STV candidates will therefore have a real incentive to campaign for themselves and coverage of Senate elections should change substantially along with that, even for big states.

COMMENT: That may be so, but no bill for such a system will be introduced. Tasmanian style Hare-Clark is not an option which is being considered. I doubt there would be one vote for it in the current Senate.

Suggestion: Why not simply allow us to number above the line? If the parties are already deciding the order in which their candidates appear, preferences can be distributed in descending order from the 1st party's top candidate down, before moving to the 2nd party's top candidate etc.

This would allow the people to decide where their preferences are directed, rather than having them directed by party alliances that often have nothing to do with ideology, politics or belief.

COMMENT: You are describing the NSW Legislative Council system which is what the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters has recommended. It comes down to whether preferences above the line should be optional or compulsory. The problem of compulsory preferences is that it would put the informal vote through the roof, and it would produce a 20-fold increase in the number of ballot papers the AEC would need to data entry.

Welcome back Antony.

For my part I think the Senate has outlived its usefulness and simply needs to be abolished. It was originally supposed to be the "States House" but hasn't voted along State lines for a long time.
(I'd love to take that proposal to a referendum and see how it went!)
In one of Paul Keating's (in)famous quotes, he once described the Senate as "Unrepresentative Swill." The more time passes, the truer his words become.
There is much to be said for the NZ parliamentary model being adopted here.

However, it's unlikely that wish will come true in my lifetime, so the best way to improve what already exists is to abolish GVT's for a start.
Next would be the introduction of OPV ATL - whilst this may increase the number of exhausted votes, it should also reduce the number of informal votes.
The big positive is that this puts control back in the hands of the voters. If you only want to vote for one candidate or party, then that's all you need to do.
As a voter I would much prefer to deliberately choose only the candidates or parties I want to vote for and if all of my choices were eliminated in the count, then so be it.
Better that than having to number every box ATL and have your vote rendered informal if you've made one unintentional mistake.

COMMENT: Abolishing the Senate would require a yes vote at a referendum in all six states. I don't think it is likely.

> "old fashioned how-to-votes would have brought much more voter attention to the 1984 preference swaps"
Didn't this occur in Queensland with the 1980 half-Senate election? Joh Bjelke-Petersen overrode Bob Sparkes to push Flo to the top of the Nationals' Senate ticket, demoting two sitting Senators (Glen Sheil and Ron Maunsell) in the process and causing Maunsell to lose his seat. Grass-roots National voters resented this and the non-ticket-following vote for the two lower candidates was unusually high -- 14,557 for Sheil and 42,282 for Maunsell, as against 252,783 votes for Bjelke-Petersen. Even today the second, third and lower candidates on a major party Senate ticket are pushing to crack four figures, and this was in 1980 when the population was about half what it is now. It's also unusual for a candidate's personal votes to exceed those of a candidate higher on the same party ticket, at least by the nearly three-to-one ratio that Maunsell achieved.
Mind you, there were only 33 Senate candidates in Queensland in 1980. There was no ticket-voting, but since ticket-voting does more to increase the complexity of voting than to reduce it (by encouraging more micro-party candidates to stand, in the hope of getting their own square above the line as a preference funnel), this meant it was easier for dissenting National Party supporters in 1980 to ignore the party machine's directions.
It is also plausible that a lot of NSW Labor supporters in 1984 -- especially the younger and/or more left-wing of them -- would have baulked at putting Peter Garrett after Liberal/ National candidates if that had meant actually writing numbers next to candidates' names on a ballot-paper.
Like the requirement to initial every page in a contract as proof that you've actually read it (or at least skimmed it), the requirement to write a number next to a candidate before your vote can go to that candidate is a safeguard against unexpected surprises (hello, Steve Fielding!) being hidden in the "fine print" of a long and complex document.

COMMENT: The 1980 Queensland Senate history is a little more complex than that. The Liberals and Nationals had a bust-up and the joint Senate ticket agreement was abandoned. In those days when party names were not on the ballot paper, the Nationals wanted a big name at the top of the ticket. According to Hugh Lunn's biography of Joh, Sparks wanted Joh to resign as Premier and head the Senate ticket, but he refused to move and they settled on Flo Bjelke-Petersen. The tactic worked very well in allowing the National ticket to outpoll the Liberals, the reverse of the House result. The Nationals would have won a second seat except there was a big leakage out of the Liberal ticket to the Democrats who ended up winning the final seat and costing Malcolm Fraser his Senate majority.

The first few years of your timeline reminded me of an odd clause in the Constitution and I was wondering if you knew anything about the history of this passage:

"But until the Parliament of the Commonwealth otherwise provides, the Parliament of the State of Queensland, if that State be an Original State, may make laws dividing the State into divisions and determining the number of senators to be chosen for each division, and in the absence of such provision the State shall be one electorate."

Do you know why Queensland (and only Queensland) was given this privilege, and why they never used it? Reading the history of the previous line, particularly the similarly unused "until the Parliament otherwise provides", put me in mind of this.

COMMENT: From memory it was something like this. At the time of Federation there was debate in Queensland about whether North Queensland should have separate representation. There was also debate about splitting the state in two. The first election in 1901 was conducted under state law, with Section 7 of the Constitution specifying that Senators be elected as a whole under state laws, except for Queensland where the provision you refer to allowed the Queensland Parliament to sub-divide the state.

Once the Commonwealth passed its own electorate law, the method of election had to be the same in each state, so the special provision for Queensland can no longer apply. That is unless the Commonwealth repeals the entire Commonwealth Electoral Act and fails to replace it.

I would take issue with the proposition that the passage of the first Commonwealth Electoral Act exhausted the power of the Queensland Parliament to create electoral divisions for Senators from that State.

In fact, that power was eliminated by the Senate Elections (Queensland) Act 1982, which was introduced as a private member's Bill by the late Senator Mal Colston, but supported by the Fraser government.

An earlier version of Senator Colston's Bill was debated in the Senate on 29 October 1981, and during the debate, Senator Peter Baume, for the government, referred to recent advice from the then Solicitor-General that the Queensland Parliament at that time still had the power to create electoral divisions for the State's Senators. Senator Baume also discussed the history of section 7 of the Constitution in some detail. (The Hansard is available online.)

When the 1983 amendments to the Commonwealth Electoral Act were going through, the Senate Elections (Queensland) Act was repealed, and its substance incorporated in what is now section 39 of the Commonwealth Electoral Act.

Antony, In light of the fact that under the current rules, a Senate group must have a minimum of two candidates for an above the line voting square, then would an ideal happy-medium be to introduce above the line preferential voting, but only require a voter to mark a minimum 3 boxes above the line (or a minimum 6 boxes below the line) for her/his vote to be formal (with further preferences optional)?

In the Senate and the Victorian Legislative Council, you have the issue of preference harvesting (and having the option of only marking 1 to 5 below the line in the latter, seems to have had little impact on minimising preference harvesting), but in the NSW Legislative Council, you have the issue of exhausted votes.

Having the option of only voting 1, 2, 3 above the line or 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 below the line would eliminate preference harvesting, but at the same time would result in a lower amount of exhausted votes in that many micro party voters, who might have otherwise just voted 1, would likely give their 2nd and/or 3rd preference to a group that would remain in the count.

Sure there would still be exhausted votes from those who vote 1, 2, 3 above the line for three micro parties, but at a guess, the proportion of exhausted votes would still be substantially lower than NSW Legislative Council elections (and as long as AEC staff stress to voters when handing out ballot papers, that a minimum of 1,2,3 above the line is required, I'd imagine there wouldn't be too many informal votes as a result of said reform).

COMMENT: Yes, but I wouldn't obsess about the number of preferences. I'd adopt the ACT procedures where the ballot paper instructs that five preferences be filled, but formality requires only a single first preference. You could do that in the Senate because surplus to quota votes can be weighted out in the transfer formulas. You can adopt ballot paper instructions that try and increase the number of preferences without pushing up the number of informal votes.

Hi Antony,

I read in a political biography that even though the Senate was originally designed as the States' House, that it has always voted along party lines.

Can you confirm this?

If so, are there any recommendations which you know of that could ensure the Senate operates as originally intended?

COMMENT: The original draft of the Constitution in 1891 specified that the Senate be elected by the state parliaments with equal representation from each state. By the final draft this read popular election with equal representation from each state. The change was significant in making Senators responsible to voters, not to state interests. This could only be changed if voters started to vote in a manner that put state interests ahead of national interests.

In a debate during the Fderation Conferences of the late 1890s Alfred Deakin noted that the popularly Senate was more likely to vote on party lines than as state blocs. This in an era when political parties were far looser organisations.
The Senate has assisted the States by putting more representatives of small States into the caucuses of political parties.

Antony, if your objection to Hare-Clark is that voters won't know the candidates, then why not let the parties decide the order of their candidates or to hand out how to vote cards with that info on it?

COMMENT: There will not be a bill moved that introduces Hare-Clark with Robson rotation and bans on how to vote cards for Senate elections. For all the advocacy for Hare-Clark, there are no votes for the system in Parliament.

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