The September 2013 Senate election results generated a storm of reform agendas. But six months later the re-run of the Western Australian Senate election may have taken the wind out of some of them, while adding another. This is despite many similarities between the two elections.
Last year there were a number of issues that enraged voters and commentators alike. It seemed that the electoral system was being held up to ridicule. Though none of these issues was totally new to aficionados of elections and voting, criticism reached a frenzy.
One was the growth in the size of the Senate ballot papers, reaching 110 candidates in New South Wales. This made voting below the line and numbering each candidate in order extremely difficult. Voters were considerably inconvenienced if they wanted to do this.
Second was the emergence onto the national arena of so-called preference harvesting, whereby a faceless man by the name of Glenn Druery manipulated the above-the-line voting method to put together networks of micro-parties who would exchange preferences between themselves. They would do so seemingly regardless of what they stood for. This was not new at the state level and Druery himself had been around plying his black arts since the 1990s.
Third was the fact that some micro-parties with extremely small primary votes ended up being elected. This too had sort of happened before when Senator Steve Fielding was elected in Victoria for the Family First Party in 2004 with a tiny vote of 1.9 per cent. But this time Ricky Muir of the Motorist Enthusiasts Party in Victoria was elected with just 0.52 per cent, and in Western Australia it looked like Wayne Dropulich of the Australian Sports Party was also going to be elected with an even more micro proportion of the primary vote (0.22 per cent).
These problems demanding solutions arose because of developments in both electoral systems and society itself.
In 1949, proportional representation, using the same single transferable vote method as the House of Representatives, was adopted for the Australian Senate to replace first-past-the-post voting. Slowly, new minor parties came to benefit from this change. It gave them a chance of election that they didn’t have in the lower house. The Democratic Labor Party was followed in by the Australian Democrats, the Greens, One Nation, Family First and ultimately, in 2013, the Palmer United Party.
In 1984, above-the-line voting was introduced for the Senate as part of a package of Labor reforms. This simplified what had become a most complicated process. In particular it aimed successfully to reduce high informal voting.
There were associated social developments that showed themselves, firstly in the minor parties and later in the micro parties. The social base of the two/three major parties was weakening and their share of the total vote began to fall. Electoral diversity was increasingly seen as a good thing without a downside.
A number of solutions have been suggested to turn back the tide of 2013. These and other matters, including the constitutional ramifications of suggested changes, are being considered at a free and open all-day Workshop on “A New Senate Voting System?” to be held in Canberra on Friday. Advocates of reform, including Antony Green of the ABC, will speak under the banner of the Electoral Regulation Research Network (ACT).
The possible solutions include making it harder in various ways for the micro parties to stand, introducing optional rather than compulsory preferential voting so as to undermine the model used by the preference harvesters, and introducing a primary vote threshold (say 4 per cent) below which no candidate remains in the count.
But last Saturday’s Western Australian Senate election, in which 77 candidates stood, has intervened.
First, the apparent failure of the micro parties to win a seat may have taken the wind out of the urgency for reform. Making the micro parties a target may have been an over-reaction. They may not be a trend but a blip.
There was always a certain amount of snobbery in the reaction to the micro parties’ exploitation of the system anyway. Even their names seemed gross. Motorists and Sport after all! It was like Summer Nats had won a seat in the ACT Assembly.
Granted that their primary votes were incredibly tiny there was really nothing to prove that the quality of the candidates elected was below that produced by the established major and minor parties. Ricky Muir of the Motorists, in particular, was pilloried. Yet look at who has now been elected in Western Australia. Labor’s new Senator Joe Bullock seems to be a bumbling buffoon with little to offer. The Palmer United Party’s Dio Wang has hardly said a word and appears to be under Palmer’s thumb. The point is that whatever their virtues they are not obviously better than those put forward by the micro parties.
Finally, one of the traditional big issues, the role of campaign money in manipulating the system, has resurfaced in another guise. The PUP apparently clearly outspent the major parties, not to mention the Greens, by up to 10 to one. Such was his dominance that Prime Minister Abbott called for new regulations to rein in electoral spending by billionaires like Palmer.
The major parties get no sympathy from me for their new-found interest in electoral justice because they have always been very happy to outspend the minor parties. Now a minor party with big bucks has emerged, to their horror. The major parties also were the first to initiate preference harvesting and to manipulate the order of their Senate tickets to frustrate popular will. It may be that they are just getting some of their own medicine.
John Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University. The workshop on A New Senate Voting System? is on Friday, 9.30am-4pm at the Sparke Helmore Theatre 2 at ANU