Big players call time on the Senate upstarts

Malcolm Turnbull was all smooth assurances at the introduction in Parliament on Monday of an electoral reform bill to abolish group and individual voting tickets in future Senate elections. The changes, he said, would give voters greater understanding of where their preferences would flow, and ensure that candidates with minuscule first preference votes could not be elected to the Senate. "Every Australian that votes in the Senate will determine where their vote goes, and that's democracy".

The bill, which the Coalition and the Greens both support (meaning its enactment is a mere formality) will certainly prevent gaming of future Senate elections by so-called micro parties using elaborate and opaque preference distribution deals. Whether that's what  voters want, or whether indeed, it marks a restoration of democratic ideals subverted by grubby political deal-making, is open to argument, however.

The reform bill's genesis is a report by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters into the unexpected "success" of the micro-parties at the 2013 federal election when some candidates were elected despite winning fewer than 2000 first-preference votes. Though entirely legal under Senate voting rules, these enabling preference deals were criticised as a subversion of voter intentions, and their proponents charged with "gaming" the system.

In response, the committee recommended the abolition of group voting tickets, allowing for optional preferential above-the-line voting (numbering either just one square or up to six) and partial optional voting below the line – that is, numbering at least six candidates (or at least two in the Territories). It also sought an increase in party membership from a minimum of 500 to 1500 members to weed out fly-by-nighters. 

Not all of these sensible measures appear in the Coalition's reform bill however. Partial optional voting below the line is the most notable of these. The bill will sanction an increase in the number of allowable "mistakes" from three to five for voters determined to allocate preferences their way, but the absence of a mechanism to facilitate this allocation will be read for what it is: an attempt to stem the trickle-down of preferences which might aid minor party candidates.

Cross bench senators like David Leyonhjelm and Bob Day are, not surprisingly, furious at the proposed changes, with the former accusing the government of a "dirty little deal" concocted between it, the Greens and independent Senator Nick Xenophon. As no independent senator was part of the JSCEM's deliberations, and as Senator Xenophon's large personal following in South Australia means he will be relatively unaffected by the changes, there's some basis to this charge.

For all the accusations of gaming levelled at that the micro-parties, the past masters of cosy deal-making are Labor and the Coalition parties. Indeed, their mutual back-scratching (and casual contempt for voters) is one reason the Senate is now more rubber stamp than house of review and vigilant guardian of states' rights. The unexpected influx of minor party and independent senators in 2013 changed just that, to the great irritation of the Coalition. Invocations and assurances aside, this bill is, in many respects, a ploy to rid the political sandbox of meddlesome minor players.