Electoral justice, in a manner of speaking

Electoral justice is not necessarily the same thing as democratic justice. For that reason electoral reform linked to a three-week parliamentary timetable and an early double dissolution to abruptly get rid of micro-party senators is a bad idea. Rushed politics is often poor politics.

Nevertheless, I understand the rationale behind these reforms and broadly support them. The introduction of optional preferential voting has been a long time coming at the federal level. The states have already seen the merits of this idea. Introducing party logos onto ballot papers also cannot do any harm and the added clarity will assist some voters in making a more reasoned choice.

The reforms have been sold as being directed at eliminating those micro-parties which occasionally manage to get themselves elected on a tiny percentage of the primary or first preference vote. They may also assist in reducing some apparent anomalies. This motivation is reasonable when it is pure and not contaminated by self-interest. Unfortunately that is not always the case.

There are also other issues such as voter comfort. Large numbers of candidates have made Senate ballot papers unwieldy in the larger states like NSW and Victoria. As a consequence voting above the line for a single team rather than below the line for a mix of candidates has become unduly attractive as a means of coping with voting on polling day. Yet an opportunity to also introduce optional preferential below the line has been missed.

Furthermore it is not enough just to react viscerally to the success of these micro-parties. It may be true that they have brought it on themselves by being too successful. The prominence of so-called preference whisperers has also called attention to gaming the system by stitching together preference deals between squadrons of micro parties.

But there is also more than a whiff of self-interest and hypocrisy on the part of the major parties in all of this. Preference deals are an established part of the Australian electoral system. Preferential voting of any sort, not just compulsory preferential voting, encourages it. So let's not be too self-righteous about the system.


These preferential deals have been used by major parties in the past to squeeze out genuine Senate minor parties which, like Peter Garrett of the Nuclear Disarmament Party in NSW in 1984, have failed to win election even after polling well. Deals between minor and major parties are also mutually self-interested as Senate and House of Representative preferences are cross-bargained.

There is also a larger democratic context. Preference whispering has only been possible because the vote share in Senate elections of the established major parties has fallen to a very low level. There is an anti-major party feeling among a significant minority of voters. This voter disillusionment cannot just be condemned as populism. Some is related to alleged government failings of many different types. Some is about policies and some about arrogance and elitism among major party parliamentarians.

But much of the disillusionment relates to the obvious internal failings of the big parties. This is important because they, rather than voters, essentially decide more than 90 per cent of our parliamentarians. All of our representatives in safe seats are decided not by voters but by major party pre-selection bodies whose processes are dominated and abused by the controllers of internal party factions.

Justice for voters as an inspiring rallying call for electoral reform looks empty when these considerations are taken into account. Party leaders who rail against backroom deals overlook the factional backroom deals that are common within their own parties. They are there for all to see whenever a safe seat is being 'divvied up' by factional bosses.

Some commentators are also bemused by the fact that preference whisperers stitch together deals between micro parties which stand for very different values. They say this means that whoever is elected becomes a lottery between the 'left' and the 'right'. However they fail to understand the "anyone but a major party" motivation that now drives many voters.

Such voters, somewhat like supporters of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders in the US presidential primaries, are just sick of insiders dominating politics. Voting then becomes a symbolic anti-establishment statement rather than a carefully considered policy choice. Minor parties like the Democrats and the Greens have always attracted some of this type of voter.

The performance of the Senate cross-bench since July 2014 actually justifies this approach. Some of these senators are ideologically driven but most aren't. They seem to be open to considering issues on a case-by-case basis. Certainly they are less ideologically driven than the major parties.

Judgement of these micro-parties was initially highly personalised and the personal qualities of individual cross-bench senators was compared unfavourably with those of major party senators. The media lampooned some of them as uneducated idiots. But being elected with a tiny first preference vote should not be confused with being an inappropriate person to cope with the duties of a Senator. There is a wider pool of Australians who can do a good job in politics than merely the small pool of party activists.

The government, assisted by the Greens and Nick Xenophon, would like to keep the debate about electoral justice as narrow as possible because then they are on stronger ground. They do have a reasonable package to sell.

But they shouldn't be allowed to rush its introduction and certainly the ideas contained in the package should be separated from the attraction to the government of a double dissolution driven by a wish to cut short the terms of those sitting micro-party senators.

John Warhurst is an emeritus professor of political science at the Australian National University.