Changes To Senate Voting Methods Recommended; Liberals, ALP And Greens Agree To Stamp Out Preference Gaming

An interim report of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters has recommended the abolition of group voting tickets in the Senate in a move, supported by Liberal, Labor and Greens members, that will cripple micro-parties and prevent them from “gaming” the electoral system.

The Committee’s chairman, Tony Smith, the Liberal member for Casey, and his deputy, Alan Griffin, the ALP member for Bruce, presented the report today and held a media conference to discuss its recommendations. The Committee includes members from all parties and both houses. Its report was unanimous.

Ballot

The report recommends:

  • Abolition of group voting tickets, whereby the political parties control the allocation of preferences cast by electors who vote above-the-line.
  • Optional preferential voting above-the-line, whereby voters may cast as few or as many preferences as they wish for party groups.
  • Optional preferential voting below-the-line, whereby voters will be required to number a minimum of six candidates in a normal half-Senate election, or 12 in a double dissolution. Territory voters will be required to vote for a minimum of 2 candidates. In practice, the major parties nominate as many candidates as there are places to fill.
  • An increase from 500 to 1500 members for registration of a political party, with provision for lower membership numbers for state-based parties.
  • The Government to determine the best mechanism to require candidates to be resident in the state or territory in which they are seeking election.

Around 95% of electors vote above-the-line in Senate elections. Their preferences are allocated according to tickets lodged by the political parties with the Australian Electoral Commission. This enables parties to engage in preference swapping deals.

The “gaming” of the system has occurred when micro-parties have formed predominantly for the purpose of harvesting preferences from other micro groups. This resulted in the election last year of Ricky Muir from the Motoring Enthusiast Party, despite it receiving just 0.51% of the primary vote in the Victorian Senate election. In Western Australia, Wayne Dropulich of the Australian Sports Party was elected with just 0.23% of the primary vote. Dropulich failed to win a seat in the re-run election in April, although his vote increased to 0.33%.

If legislated, the recommendations will put preference decisions back in the hands of the voters. Senate how-to-vote cards are likely to become more important, which will advantage the major parties because they are more likely to be able to recruit volunteers to hand out how-to-vote cards at polling booths. Overall, preference harvesting via group ticket deals will now be impossible and only those parties that campaign and achieve a significant primary vote will be able to win election.

Moreover, the introduction of optional preferential voting, above- and below-the-line, will be welcomed by voters who resent being forced to allocate preferences to all candidates on the ballot paper. This may lead to pressure to introduce optional preferential voting for House of Representatives elections, although it is difficult to see the major parties agreeing to this. The Committee recommended a “comprehensive voter education campaign”, to prevent confusion over the two systems.

In making its recommendations, the Committee rejected submissions that it set a threshold quota below which preferences would not be allocated. The arbitrary nature of such a change would also have robbed legitimate voters of the right to have their preferences counted. The recommendations announced today will effectively take preference allocation out of the hands of political parties and return it to the voters.

Toughening the registration requirements for political parties, including banning registered officers from acting for multiple parties, may also lead to fewer candidates and reduce the size of Senate ballot papers. At their media conference, Smith and Griffin held up the NSW Senate ballot paper which reached the maximum possible size last year and forced the AEC to provide magnifying glasses for voters.

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