Shrapnel parties use preferences in stealth attack
There should be optional, above-the-line voting for the Senate.
Last week I mentioned Victorian Democratic Labor Party senator John Madigan. He won his Victorian Senate seat in 2010 purely on the freak distribution of preferences after his party obtained just 2.3 per cent of the primary vote.
Two elections previously, Victorian Family First senator Steve Fielding similarly won with 2 per cent of the primary vote.
It would not be surprising if this election, the Freak Senate Preference Show elects another fringe party candidate somewhere in Australia on a couple of per cent of the vote. Moreover, this election is going to be complicated further by the introduction of another shrapnel party - Katter's Australian Party. (I will refrain from making any reference to a rhyming Lewis Carroll character who also had a party.)
The trouble is the electoral system which was introduced when Labor was in government for the 1984 election. Something had to be done to fix a growing problem, but the solution was not a good one.
The problem was the growing number of candidates in Senate elections, particularly in the more populous states. For a valid vote, a voter had to mark preferences for every candidate. Sometimes there were 70 candidates or more. It was easy for voters to mess it up. Many votes were invalid or contested, holding up election results.
Labor, which relies on votes from lower, less-well-educated voters, wanted to simplify the system. So it made it as simple as possible for voters, by giving them the option of marking a 1 in one party box above the line. Such a vote was deemed to follow the preferences lodged by that party with the Australian Electoral Commission.
Voters, of course, had no idea how their preferences were being allocated, so senators like Madigan and Fielding can hardly argue that their election was the will of the people.
These days about 95 per cent of voters vote above the line. They mark 1 and walk away. Who can blame them when the only alternative is to fill in preferences for all candidates when there might be 70 or 80 of them?
The system further permits political parties to lodge up to three preference splits so a third of their vote is deemed to go one way, another third another way and the last third another way still.
It is an invitation for backroom deals between parties to trade preferences. The trouble is there is no telling how the vote will unfold as preferences spill to the last candidate to be elected as other candidates are eliminated and their preferences distributed.
Overall, with six senators to be elected, you need one-seventh plus one vote to get a quota - 14.3 per cent - to get a seat. The two major parties get two each, taking 28.6 per cent of their vote, but they need 43 per cent of the vote after preferences to get a third. The trouble for the majors is they do not get many preferences from shrapnel parties, so they need nearly all their quota from primary votes. The shrapnel parties tend to give preferences to each other, especially as most of them are from the lunar right. If you get six or seven shrapnel parties with about 2 per cent each, the last shrapnel party candidate left standing is sitting with about 14 per cent of the vote, having gathered all the little bits and pieces on the way. That is how Fielding and Madigan were elected. This is more likely than ever this election because both major parties are on the nose.
Oddly enough, it might be the preferences of the major parties which determine which of the shrapnel parties gets a seat. This is because after having provided 28.6 percentages points of vote to get two candidates up, they have (on recent polling) between 4 and 14 percentage points left dangling. That might be enough to get a third Coalition senator over the line in some states, according to present polling, but the Labor excess is likely to determine which of the shrapnels gets a seat. Labor has messed it up in the past with silly preference deals that denied Australian Democrat or Green candidates a seat.
In all, don't be surprised if another Fielding, Madigan or Katter Party candidate (who will take some votes from Labor, no doubt) gets elected despite a derisory primary vote in one or more states.
It is ironic that the 1984 changes which Labor designed to help major parties get their way, is now biting them on the backside. The tightness of the preference flow means that preferences move tightly from successive excluded shrapnel candidates to the last shrapnel candidate left standing - that is more by good luck than popular acclaim.
If voters were permitted to exercise above-the-line preferences (for example, Coalition 1, Katter 2, Labor 3, Greens 4 or Labor 1, Greens 2, Coalition 3, Katter 4, and so on), the preferences would shatter and candidates with only 2 per cent of the primary vote would all get eliminated.
It would also provide a more democratic outcome - one that more closely reflects the will of the voters.
There should be optional above-the-line preferential voting for the Senate. In less populous states and territories, where there are fewer candidates, the percentage of above-the-line voters falls - from 98 per cent in the most populous NSW to 76 per cent in the ACT.
So where it is manageable, voters prefer to make their own choices, not have one foisted upon them by a political party. But faced with 60 or 70 candidates, voters quite reasonably mark a single 1.
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By the way, the Senate race will have a profound effect on the Australian political landscape. It is quite possible the Coalition will win a majority in its own right or a majority with one or both of Madigan (who is not up for re-election) and independent South Australian Senator Nick Xenophon who is likely to be re-elected.
But the new senators will not take their seats till July 1, 2014. That will give Tony Abbott 9½ months of waiting games in which he can delay the repeal of the mining and carbon taxes and then argue they are too embedded to unwind.
My guess is we cannot expect Julia Gillard to have the political panache of Paul Keating. Remember Keating in 1993 telling the electorate not to expect Labor in the Senate to save them from the worst excesses of John Hewson's Fightback.
If you elect Hewson, you get the whole package, he said.
Can you imagine Gillard saying, if you elect Abbott do not expect us to use our Senate numbers to stop him from moving resources from the low and middle class to the rich?
Rather, if there is an Abbott government, expect Labor to take up the oppositionism practised by the Coalition since 2007.