Media commentators have lined up since Saturday night to pour scorn on a system that has seen candidates with "less than 1 per cent of the vote" potentially elected to the Senate.
While the apparent irony makes for an enticing story, the implication that the candidates are undeserving of their seats based on first-preference results incorrectly erodes confidence in the electoral system. There is nothing in the preferential voting system used in the senate that demands that there is, or should be, any particular reverence afforded to the number one spot as a thermometer of public opinion.
On the contrary, the system is designed to reflect accumulated weight of opinion across the ballot paper.
The “undeserving” argument rests on the assumption that the success of the minor party candidates (notable exceptions such as the Liberal Democrats aside) lies with preference harvesting and cynical back room deals.
But there is an alternative explanation — that the results do in fact mirror public opinion, and that the specific minor parties chosen didn't bubble randomly to the surface from the large pool of sometime quirky contenders, but rather are those that the public as a whole are relatively comfortable with. In other words, the preferential system has done its job.
Every voter who on Saturday battled with the long white scroll below the line will be familiar with the feeling that, after the first dozen or two candidates, one is not so much choosing which platforms one subscribes to the most, but which platforms one finds the least objectionable.
This is natural in a democracy that supports diverse and opposing views — effectively you are not ranking candidates in the order in which you would like to have them installed, but rather voting for some and against others, with varying degrees of conviction. A more descriptive system would assign zero to the candidate you are most neutral about, positive numbers to those you wish to win, and negative numbers to those you don't.
As more polarising candidates fall away in the tally room, the votes of constituents who ranked them most highly give way to votes for candidates those constituents can live with. These candidates gain support irrespective of their first-choice status. A positive way to look at this is simply as a formal system for reaching a compromise on a large scale.
While the data are yet to be revealed, this is a plausible explanation for the outcome in my own state, where a candidate running on what may be perceived as a relatively benign ticket promoting sport and healthy lifestyles may be destined for success.
Why, then, is the effect more noticeable in this election? Have the preference touts been so much smarter, or the back room deals craftier? Perhaps, but again there is an alternative explanation.
The macro system of cumulative support reflects the micro system of the individual voter with the long white scroll. While the preferential system is more complex than adding voters' positive and negative leanings, there will be a gradual shift in the origin of support going down the rankings. One can imagine a "point of inflection", above which support comes primarily from first and high-ranking preferences, and below which it comes primarily from the more benign alternatives chosen by voters who's first choices have been eliminated. Put simply, from the "most wanted" to the "least unwanted".
Where this inflection occurs in the raking will depend on macro issues, such as the mood of the voting public.
In an election year where there is strong confidence in two or three major parties, the point of inflection will likely be forced down below the top six candidates, and the senate will be dominated by the major parties — a more "traditional" senate. Where there is large dissatisfaction with major parties, the point of inflection will rise — not because those bubbling into contention are most liked by the populace, but because they are least disliked.
Of course those voting above the line hand over responsibility for "most liked" and "least disliked" to a third party. The above analysis does not preclude the influence of preference harvesters, though their influence might not be as great as they would like to believe. Nor does it preclude parties distributing their preferences in contrast to their stated leanings or ideologies, perhaps surprising their above the line voters. However it does suggest that neither of these are necessary for the outcome we are seeing, and that the senate results may provide a better reflection of underlying voter sentiment than it first appears.
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