- Explainer: Senate voting reform - what is being proposed?
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At last Australia is to take one step towards strengthening our democracy with changes to Senate voting laws. The Greens have been pushing for this reform for 12 years, to better reflect the will of the people.
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Senate reform goes to parliament
The government is legislating to change senate elections. Malcolm Turnbull says the current system has been 'gamed' by 'preference whisperers'.
Bob Brown introduced legislation on the subject in 2004, 2008, and 2010. In fact, a commitment to Senate voting reform was a condition of Greens support for the minority Labor government in 2010 – a condition they agreed to, but failed to deliver on. In 2013 we witnessed the emergence of micro-party preference whisperers who've really figured out how to game the system.When I raised the need for reform with Prime Minister Abbott before the new senators arrived in 2014, he rejected it – not on any democratic grounds, but arguing that the Coalition needed to keep the incoming crossbenchers on side to pass his legislation. Therein lies the problem.
As a child in the 1960s I used to walk around our dairy farm with my dad. Sometimes he'd lean on the fence, smoking his pipe while looking out towards the coast, and say, "things are crook in Tallarook." As kids we got the gist of it: the world was in a pretty bad way. If he were alive today, he would be saying the same thing about the state of politics in Australia.
There is a crisis of confidence in our democracy. It's apparent in everything from mining approvals to ministerial indiscretions. It's embedded in the Turnbull-Abbott-Rudd-Gillard-Rudd-Abbott-Turnbull merry-go-round of the past six years. It's a product of the plutocracy we have become with big corporates running governments via political donations, revolving doors between boardrooms and cabinet, and back room preference dealers.
Leaving things the way they are now, without the proposed reforms, means voting 1 above the line on your Senate ballot paper is like putting a ping pong ball in the mouth of a fibreglass clown at the Easter Show. You never know where your vote is going to end up. It could be used to elect a Senator who'll support policies you abhor. It could bounce around before landing with a candidate you've never heard of and who you don't want anywhere near the decisions that affect the nation.
You wouldn't tolerate a system like that for your university applications, or even your coffee order. So why accept it for voting – the most fundamental process in our democracy? If your first choice doesn't work out, shouldn't you be able to specify your second preference? Or your third, fourth, fifth and sixth?
Voters should be allowed to number parties 1 to 6 above the line in whatever order they choose, not the pre-determined order negotiated behind closed doors. The outcome the Greens want would allow voters to direct preferences to both major and minor parties, without having to pull out the magnifying glass and number every single box below the line. It also protects small and emerging parties by not making it harder for them to obtain registration. Once registered, they will be listed above the line and you can choose to vote for them or not, rather than ending up voting for them by accident.
I support Senate voting reform because it's a step in restoring power to the people. The only arguments against it are coming from those who rely on the broken system to win. If we get rid of back room preference deals, then the parties that receive the highest primary votes are the ones that win. As Antony Green wrote last week, "It rather strikes me that rewarding parties based on their vote is one of the purposes of an electoral system."
Taking back our democracy must ultimately involve proportional representation, a national ICAC and political donations reform in addition to Senate electoral reform, but this is a start. We've seen how our votes can be pushed, funnelled and manipulated by backroom dealers, so we shouldn't accept the status quo for another minute, let alone another election.
Christine Milne is a former senator and leader of the Australian Greens.