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Turnbull Announces Senate Voting Reforms; Group Voting Tickets Abolished

Senate group voting tickets are to be abolished and optional preferential above the line voting is to be introduced, in electoral reforms announced today by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

The reforms are the result of an agreement with the Australian Greens and independent Senator Nick Xenophon. The agreement guarantees 44 Senate votes to pass the legislation.

The key change is the abolition of Senate group voting tickets. This will mean that political parties will no longer control the direction of preferences cast by electors who vote above the line in the Senate. This eliminates the preference harvesting that has resulted in candidates with tiny first preference support being elected as the result of complex preference swaps.

Optional preferential voting is to be introduced above-the-line. Voters will be asked to number six preferences above-the-line, although votes that number fewer than six will still be formal.

For the small percentage of people who vote below-the-line – just 3.51% at the last federal election – it will still be compulsory to number every box, although a voter will be allowed to make five errors before the vote is invalidated.

The changes will also allow political parties to include their party logo on the ballot paper, to assist with party identification and to reduce voter confusion. At the 2013 election, David Leyonhjelm was elected as a Liberal Democrats senator from NSW, partly as a result of confusion with the Liberal Party’s name.

In addition, the reforms will ban any one person from being a registered officer for more than one party. This is designed to restrict the ability to create a network of micro-parties in order to harvest preferences.

The legislation to enact the changes was introduced into the House of Representatives this morning. It will go to the Senate on March 2 and is expected to be passed by Easter. Talk of a double dissolution in July has increased as a result of the move. Seven of the current eight crossbenchers would most likely lose their seats in an election.

Note: An explanatory statement from Turnbull appears below, together with transcript of his press conference and a copy of the bill.

  • Listen to Turnbull and Cormann’s press conference (21m)
  • Watch Turnbull and Cormann (21m)
  • Watch Greens Senators Richard Di Natale and Lee Rhiannon (9m)

Statement issued by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.


Transcript of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Special Minister of State Senator Mathias Cormann’s press conference.

TURNBULL: Good morning. Five years ago – just a few minutes ago – was of course the great Christchurch earthquake. And we note again our sympathy to the people of New Zealand, the people of Christchurch, for the loss they suffered then, and our unbounded admiration for the courage and resilience they showed in rebuilding that city.

Of course, Christchurch was hit by an earthquake only a few weeks ago. And when I met with John Key last week, I conveyed our sympathies on that account, but also the remarkable regard that every Australian has, and I think people all around the world have, at the way in which New Zealanders responded to that shocking earthquake and the resilience and the optimism and the courage that they showed.

Now, turning to matters more domestic, we will be introducing into the House today legislation that responds to the recommendations of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters into the last election.

What these changes will do, what they seek to do, is to ensure that Australians – Australian voters – determine where their Senate votes go, so that Australians will determine where their preferences go – transparently, clearly, accountably.

At the moment, as you know, with the group voting tickets, a person who votes ‘one’ for a particular party may find their preferences going – well, they won’t know where they’re going, unless they bother to look up the group voting ticket on the AEC website, and of course parties are entitled to register three group voting tickets, so they may not – there’d be three options for where their votes may go, or perhaps a third of their vote goes in separate directions.

The system has been taken advantage of. There is no doubt about that. The last Senate election was widely criticised. Australians were astonished to see people elected to the Senate whose primary votes were a fraction in the case of one senator from Victoria, about half of one per cent of the vote.

So what these changes will do is ensure that above the line, voters will be invited or directed to number six squares – one to six. If they only number one, or less than six, their vote will still be formal. So, contrary to what Senator Dastyari said today, this change will not increase informal voting – quite the contrary.

There are other changes made of a more technical nature to ‘below the line’ voting, but the fundamental change is in terms of ‘above the line’ voting, which is where the vast majority of voters do vote. They will determine – all of us – every Australian who votes in the Senate, will determine where their vote goes. And that’s democracy. This is an important reform. It’s been called for by all parties – the Labor Party supported the recommendations of the Joint Standing Committee. I don’t think, the Special Minister of State, I think would agree that there’s been no more forceful advocate of this change than Gary Gray himself, you know, Labor’s spokesman in this area.

So this is an important change, it’s an important reform, it’s an important electoral reform. It’s an important economic reform because it goes to the governance of Australia, our strong economy. Our destiny depends on the strength of our democracy. This strengthens it because it gives the power, the choice, back into the hands of voters – clearly and accountably.

Mathias, do you want to add to that?

CORMANN: Thank you very much, Prime Minister.

Some two years ago, or thereabouts, the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, in a unanimous cross-party report, a report endorsed not just by the Coalition but Labor and the Greens as well, made a series of recommendations on the way the current electoral system for the Senate could be improved.

Right now, under the current system, 97 per cent of people at the last election voted one ‘above the line’. That is all people across Australia can do right now, when they vote in the Senate above the line.

At that point, they lose control of their preferences. Parties then, through insufficiently transparent group and individual voting ticket arrangements, direct what happens with people’s preferences. What we are wanting to do for voters is to ensure that you, the voter, determines where your preferences go, not just your first preference, but also your second, third and fourth and subsequent preferences, through the reform that the Prime Minister has just outlined.

This is a very important reform. Obviously we are putting it to the Parliament based on consultation that has taken place over the past two years, and we are hopeful that the Parliament will endorse this very important reform, but that is going to be a matter for the Parliament.

QUESTION: On informals, say you do vote one to six, so you say go (inaudible) Christians number one, and you go for Democrat loonies number two and so on and so forth, and you have got six micro-parties, what happens to that vote in the end? It’s effectively informal, isn’t it? If you are not voting for any of the bigs?

TURNBULL: No, it’s not. It’s a perfectly formal vote. It’s a perfectly formal vote.

QUESTION: But it doesn’t count, in a sense.

TURNBULL: It does. Every vote counts. Perhaps you could, Mathias can…

CORMANN:: So what happens in those circumstances, in the end, it’s a matter for the individual voter to determine how many preferences they want to issue. The Senate ballot paper will provide guidance if you want to vote above the line, the right way to vote above the line is by numbering at least six boxes.

Obviously, it is a matter for the voter which boxes they tick. The vote is absolutely formal but it might well be if they fill in six boxes, as in your scenario and don’t express a preference for one of the major parties, then at the end of those six votes the vote is exhausted, that is in the ordinary course of events.

Just think about the alternative. The alternative is that a political party trades those votes away in secret without actually reflecting the true intention of the voter. What we’ve focused on here, taking on board what the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters has said to us unanimously, what we’re trying to do here, is to empower the voter to determine their preferences.

QUESTION: If you don’t vote just one above the line, do your preferences just go to that party and then that’s it?

CORMANN:: That’s right, that’s right.

QUESTION: So there’s no further…?

TURNBULL: If you voted one above the line, your preferences would just go to the said candidates in that group, but of course it would be in reference to Andrew’s question, it would be perfectly open to, if you wanted to, to number every single box.

QUESTION: Is this now a battle with the crossbenchers – you’re effectively taking them on. What if this leads to some sort of boycott in the Senate with legislation from this time up until the election?

TURNBULL: Well, the – we would hope that Senators, crossbenchers, will vote on legislation on its merits and without regard to whatever they may perceive to be their personal, electoral agenda. They are, after all, elected to serve the people of the State or Territory from which they’re chosen, and they should act accordingly.

QUESTION: This is one of the strongest signal yet that you will be ready soon for an election. How quickly do you expect the legislation to pass, and have you been told by the AEC they’ll be able to implement these changes if they get through?

TURNBULL: I might ask the Minister to address that.

CORMANN:: Well, obviously as part of our consultations on the legislation, we did consult with the AEC and the AEC have advised us that they would require about three months to implement these changes between passage of the legislation and implementation at an election.

The way the process will work from here is that, as the Prime Minister has indicated, we are introducing this legislation to the House of Representatives today.

It will be referred for inquiry to the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, with a reporting date of 2 March and we are proposing to debate this reform proposal in the Senate from 2 March onwards, for as long as it takes.

TURNBULL: Hang on, perhaps one to you and then to Phil.

QUESTION: [inaudible] Australians who want to know what you’re planning, what do you say to that?

TURNBULL: Well, nothing has changed. I’m working on the assumption that the election will be held at the normal time, which is August/September/October, in that period. And I know there has been speculation about a double dissolution election.

Our aim is to ensure that the – is to persuade the Senators to pass the Registered Organisations Bill and indeed to pass the Australian Building Construction Commission Legislation, the legislation that would reinstate that. So that’s why we’d urge them to do that, and I think in the light of the recommendations and the findings of the Heydon Royal Commission on trade unions, I think the case for that legislation is stronger than ever.

QUESTION: Prime Minister [Inaudible] would it be your preference to have the Labor party support [inaudible]?

TURNBULL: Well, this is important – our obligation, our responsibility as the Government is to present important reforms. This is an important reform. As Mathias has said, it was unanimously recommended by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, the Labor Party’s own submission supported the introduction of this change, of this optional preferential voting, optional preferential voting above the line. That’s what we’re introducing.

There has been unanimous condemnation, I suppose, of the group voting tickets and the practices associated with that, by commentators and academics, business groups right across-the-board.

I think Australians were shocked by some of the results of the election. So we’re responding to that.

I would hope the Labor Party would support it. Their opposition could only be based on a, very very tactical political judgment that it didn’t suit them at this time because as a matter of principle, they have been in favour of it in the past.

QUESTION: [Inaudible] do you believe the Australian [inaudible]

TURNBULL: The only – I will just make this observation, this is critically important: these changes will advantage only the voter. That’s the only – the only person that will benefit from these is the voter because the voter will determine where their preferences go. So it’s up to the voter.

QUESTION: Prime Minister a briefing note distributed within the Coalition today claimed A) the inclusion of logos on ballot papers for the first time, and secondly said that the AEC will be running a pre-election awareness campaign to make sure that the changed arrangements are well understood. First of all, what’s the thinking behind the distribution, sorry the location of logos, and secondly how much are you planning on spending on this awareness campaign?

CORMANN:: Well in relation to those two questions, firstly, this is actually the party logo issue – this is an issue that was canvassed by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters. At the last election there was a level of concern around voter confusion in relation to parties with similar names. A very efficient and elegant way to deal with this is to enable political parties, at their discretion, to have their logo included next to their name on the ballot paper. So that proposal, I think, is self-explanatory.

Now, in relation to resourcing of the Electoral Commission, in the lead-up to any election you would be aware that the Electoral Commission runs a series of public awareness campaigns around encouraging people to vote, making sure that people understand that they have to vote, and various matters related to it. This would obviously happen in the lead-up to this election later this year as well, except that there will be an emphasis by the Electoral Commission, as appropriate, to ensure that voters properly understand the changes that have been made and why, and how that empowers them to direct their preferences in the Senate above the line according to their wishes.

QUESTION: Will the AEC need any more money to do that? And Prime Minister, if the election were held at the weekend would the latest polls mean that you would lose?

CORMANN:: Well, in relation to the resourcing of the Electoral Commission, the technical terminology is that for the Electoral Commission, elections are a demand driven program and obviously they get the appropriate resources for that purpose. What that means in detail, we will be working out in the next few weeks.

QUESTION: You’ve been critical how some Senators were elected on timing of primary votes. What about their performance in the Senate over the last couple of years? Are you saying this has been a bad outcome for the Parliament, for the nation, for being dud Senators?

TURNBULL: I wouldn’t, I’m not, I won’t be drawn into comments on the performance of individual Senators. I’d simply say that the operation of any electoral system, any voting system, should be to clearly and transparently translate the wish of the voter into a parliamentary result. The current system for voting in the Senate is anything but transparent. People can vote for a party, a big party or a tiny party, it could be one of the micro parties. And they have no idea where their preference is going to go, and as you know, I think we all know that so-called preference-whisperers have been adept, very ingenious, in working out how to game the system, as it were, and use a range of micro-parties some of which share the same offices and are closely associated with each other and are created purely for the purpose of harvesting preferences.

So, the system has been gamed and it is simply not transparent. I mean, we believe fervently, passionately, in a transparent democracy so that you should know who you vote for. If you want to vote for a small party, fine. If you want to vote for a big party, fine. If you want to vote for a small one and preference a big one or vice versa, fine, but you should do that transparently so that you determine where your vote goes. At the moment they are determined behind closed doors and as I said earlier, with so many group voting tickets, sometimes you couldn’t even work out where your vote was going.

QUESTION: [inaudible] economic message and Newspoll a measure of the job that you’re now in. [inaudible] reasonable for people to look at your performance so far this year [inaudible]?

TURNBULL: Well, Chris, it’s kind of you to invite me to comment on myself. But how could I presume to do the job of such a distinguished commentator as yourself? You can form your own conclusions and I’m sure they will be very eloquent.

QUESTION: Prime Minister, can you tell us whether you’ve locked down the deal with the Greens yet on Senate voting reform? Are there any outstanding issues with the Greens or is that all done and dusted?

CORMANN:: The proposal that is here before us reflects firstly the recommendations, it’s our response to the recommendations of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters. It’s obviously based on broad consultation in recent weeks. We’ve consulted with all of the parties and interested members of the Parliament, and that will be a matter for the Parliament. We won’t speak for other parties. We’ll let them speak for themselves.

QUESTION: Does that mean that you would be willing to negotiate on amendments to what you’re putting forward today?

CORMANN:: We are putting forward a proposal today that is based on consultation. Obviously, we would like to see the proposal we’re putting forward today passed by the Parliament, but that is ultimately a matter now for the Parliament to consider.

TURNBULL: Wait a second, excuse me. Excuse me Sir, sorry, you’re talking over the top of Lenore.

QUESTION: One of the experts I spoke to last week who was broadly supportive of the rationale of the changes that you’re making said that they would also have the consequence of advantaging the Coalition’s Senate vote to some extent. Do you accept that that could be a consequence of these things even if it is not your purpose?

TURNBULL: Well, we don’t have a view on that, Lenore. You’ve got to remember, different pundits will express different views on this. This is a reform that was recommended unanimously, as Mathias said some time ago by the parliamentary committee. We’re taking it up now. It needs to be done now so that it is in place before the election, whenever that election is held, in the second part of this year.

So the time has come to do this, but as to who may be better off, the truth is that the only person, people that will be better off are the voters because their wish will be clearly translated into a parliamentary outcome, and surely that’s what this whole mechanism, this great edifice here is designed to translate the will of the Australian people into Senators and Members of the House, and that’s what this will do is make that translation more transparent and more effective.

QUESTION: [inaudible] is there going to be any changes to party registration?

CORMANN:: There were a number of recommendations made by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters in relation to increased membership requirements and so on. Based on our consultations we formed a view that there is no prospect of a consensus across the Parliament at this point to pursue some of these recommendations, so we won’t, with the exception of one proposed change. At present, individuals can and some individuals are publicly registered officers for more than one party, presumably negotiating preferences with themselves. As part of these reforms, we will introduce a measure to ensure that people cannot hold relevant public offices in more than one party.

QUESTION: Will the Government have an idea of how much revenue it will gain from the foreign investment [inaudible]?

TURNBULL: Finance Minister? It’s probably really a question for the Treasurer, I would suggest you raise that with him. Yeah, well, Finance Minister wishes to…

CORMANN:: I am focused on making sure that we spend only as much as necessary and as little as possible to ensure we don’t need to increase taxes on the Australian people like Labor proposes to do. Our focus of course is on stronger growth, more jobs, less spending, and better, more efficient, lower taxes.

TURNBULL: Stronger growth, more jobs, fairness, those are the three key priorities and I’m really delighted, Bonge, that you’ve arranged so elegantly for us to conclude the press conference on that note. Thank you very much.

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