The New Faces Of Democracy


With Tony Abbott and the Coalition elected, all the focus on the 2013 election has turned to the weird and wacky results in the Senate.

Australia’s upper house has long been the easiest place for minor parties to gain a parliamentary foothold, because of the unique rules of that august body.

But the results of Saturday’s vote in the Senate may begin the process to reform those rules. That’s because minor and micro parties appear to have systematically gamed the Senate rules in ways that allow parties with tiny primary votes to get themselves elected to Australia’s upper house.

And that’s the sting in the tail of the Senate results. Who gets elected has a huge bearing on the fate of critical legislation, such as carbon pricing, tax cuts – even the budget itself.

When Andrew Inglis Clark first sat down to draft the Australian Constitution, he had just returned from a trip to the United States. Clark was much impressed with the powers of the US legislature and Supreme Court. His thoughts eventually contributed to an Australian democracy that was a kind of hybrid between the Westminster system of Britain and the American republic. The Senate that resulted is one of the most powerful upper houses in the world.

Our Senate ended up with the full power to block legislation from the House – and, therefore, to frustrate the policies and platforms of the government. The Senate’s most impressive power is to block “supply”, which means to refuse to vote for the government’s budget bills. As Gough Whitlam discovered, blocking supply can effectively shut down the government.

The Constitution mandates some, but not all, of the current aspects of the Senate. Notably, it specifies that each state will have an equal number of Senators, and that they will be elected from a single electorate. In other words, the Senate is what’s known as a “multi-member electorate”. In effect, there are eight seats, one for each state and territory, and there are multiple Senators elected in each.

Since 1948, the Senate has been elected via proportional representation. But it was the introduction of so-called “Group Voting Tickets” in 1984 that laid the foundations for the current scenario.

Most attention has so far focused on the most obvious winner of Saturday’s election amongst the minor parties: the Palmer United Party. The PUP recorded strong votes in the lower and upper house, particularly in Queensland. It looks set to send two Senators to Canberra: former rugby league champion Glenn Lazarus in Queensland, and soldier and military policewoman Jacqui Lambie in Tasmania.

With 10 per cent of the Senate vote in Queensland and nearly 7 per cent in Tasmania, the Palmer United Party’s success is down to its strong showing in the poll.

The same cannot be said of some of the other likely winners of the Senate lottery, such as Ricky Muir from the Australian Motoring Enthusiasts Party in Victoria, and Wayne Dropulich of the Australian Sports Party in Western Australia.

Muir and Dropulich look set to be elected by a quirk of the Senate’s arcane preference distributions. By cross-preferencing with all the other minor parties, obscure candidates are able to gather many of the votes not cast for major parties and eventually get themselves elected. In the case of Dropulich, he looks set to become a Senator despite attracting only 1900 primary votes.

The reason micro parties can do this is that the Australian Senate allows so-called “group ticket voting”. Under this system, if you vote above the line, you don’t get to choose your Senate preference allocation. Instead, your party chooses that preference. This allows parties to cut deals, agreeing to preference each other. If enough micro parties cut enough cross-preferencing deals, obscure candidates with tiny primary votes can collect enough second and third (and seventh, eighth and the ninth) preferences to get up to a Senate quota.

Whether you think this is democratic probably depends on your definition of democracy. The idea of preference voting is that it allows voters to express their intentions beyond their first preference of the candidate they want to win. In a sense, then, the Senate is simply the logical extension of that idea.

But above-the-line voting, combined with group tickets allocating their own preferences, does throw up some bizarre results. In Western Australia, no fewer than 20 parties polled more primary votes than the Australian Sports Party. Is it right that Dropulich becomes a Senator with 1909 votes, when the Palmer United Party, which looks it won’t win a Senate spot, polled 45,217?

The micro parties counter that they are simply playing by the rules. As Dropulich told the ABC’s Simon Santow yesterday, “it's the system that the Government's had in place for a long time, and every party had the same opportunity to use the system.” 

Dropulich is correct. As mentioned, above-the-line voting in the Senate was introduced in 1984, and as early as 1999, this Parliamentary Library research note was warning that “Group Voting Tickets can possibly lead to the election of micro-party candidates by dint of preference deals rather than by the number of first preference votes.”

What’s changed in recent times is the proliferation of micro party candidates. This has made voting below the line a nightmare for citizens, who are confronted with perhaps a hundred candidates across ballot papers more than a metre long. At the same time, micro parties appear to have realised the potential of the system for harvesting preferences; there is speculation some of these parties are in fact fronts devised entirely for this purpose. All in all, it’s not the smoothest way to determine who sits in Australia’s upper house.

There are already calls to reform the system. One way to fix it would to be to introduce a simple cut off. This would mean that below a certain number of primary votes – say, 1 or 2 per cent – micro parties could not get elected. Another suggestion is to take away the ability of the parties to decide their own preferences. Instead, voters could list their preferences above the line. No doubt there’ll be some sort of Parliamentary committee formed to deal with suggestions. You can be sure that current Senators will themselves have plenty to say.

But perhaps we shouldn’t be too hasty in restricting the franchise for those who want to vote for minor parties. If Saturday’s results show anything, they show that many voters are thoroughly dissatisfied with the major parties, and with the way our democracy currently works. The major parties would do well to heed that message, rather than trying to crack down on the expression of popular will. 

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.