In the wake of the 2013 federal election, major electoral reform in the senate now appears all but inevitable. The Liberal, Labor and Greens parties are all in support of abolishing group voting tickets and implementing optional preferential voting.
The growing certainty comes after the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters (JSCEM) held a hearing on Monday, as part of its inquiry into the 2013 election. While JSCEM’s inquiry covers all matters regarding the election, its short term focus is proposals to change the senate voting systems, which will need to be agreed upon soon if there is any hope of them being implemented before the next election.
The proposals are part of an attempt by the major parties to cut down on so-called “micro-parties” getting elected to the parliament after receiving miniscule numbers of first preference votes, as the Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party managed in Victoria, despite registering just over 0.5 per cent of first preference votes.
In their submission to JSCEM, Labor argues that “The election of Senators who attract only a very low primary vote and rely principally on preference arrangements to get elected do not reflect genuine voter intention and need to be addressed”.
The Liberals agree, saying, “The current electoral arrangements have loopholes which are being exploited to distort the intent of Australian voters through complex and hidden preference deals.”
And the Greens argue in their submission that “Voters must be empowered to choose where their preferences go whether they vote above or below the line.”
Along with significant numbers of public submissions, all three parties (with varying levels of enthusiasm) advocate the abolition of group voting tickets and the establishment of some form of optional preferential voting. It seems likely that this will eventuate, although the exact form of the system is yet to be worked out. The Nationals support abolishing group voting tickets, on the condition voters be required to reference every candidate, either above or below the line.
Reforming the system in this way is a good thing. It takes the power of allocating preferences completely out of the hands of parties, ensures that voters control the order of parties they preference. It should lead to more representative outcomes.
All up 183 individuals and organisations made submissions to the inquiry. Very few submissions discuss the method of counting votes for senate elections, although some do advocate for a method called the Wright system. The counting system for the senate will need to be considered in JSCEM’s future deliberations.
There seems to be a broad consensus around a number of other changes that would crack down on so-called “preference harvesting”, whereby micro-parties collude to try to ensure their preferences end up accumulating. These include tightening nomination requirements for candidates, tougher registration rules for political parties, and adoption of the Mick Keelty recommendations. These are all sensible as well.
But there are many more divisive recommendations which will need to be looked out for as the committee continues its hearings.
One of the concerning proposals is contained in the Liberal Party submission, which includes a discussion of (although not an outright endorsement of) the minimum thresholds that candidates must receive before preferences are transferred. The Liberals suggest that a party must receive at least 1.4 per cent of the first preference votes before they can be distributed.
While it would ensure candidates secure a minimum level of support before being elected, this change would also disenfranchise large numbers of voters. In essence it means you would have your right to have preferences distributed restricted if you vote for a particularly unpopular party. It would be very brave of the Liberal Party to seriously advocate this requirement.
A number of submissions advocate trials of electronic voting systems, including those of MPs Clive Palmer and Cathy McGowan as well as Australia Post and the Department of Communications.
Palmer argues we wouldn’t accept a financial system based on paper, so shouldn’t accept a paper based election system either. With typical bombast, he compares the largely administrative reform to a major scientific project that inspired awe and wonder among millions of people around the world. “JFK challenged America to get to the moon — and they did. I challenge Australia to get an electronic voting system in place for the next Federal election,” his submission reads. Moving to electronic voting would be a grand challenge indeed, here’s hoping it can be done for less than the $25 billion the Apollo moon landing program cost.
Another proposal that has come up multiple times in the submissions, including those of the Liberals and Clive Palmer, is to require that voters present identification before they are permitted to vote. This is to crackdown on multiple voting and voter fraud.
While it is possible for a person to vote twice or more in an election by simply visiting multiple polling places, evidence suggests that this is not something that happens very often and is unlikely to affect the result in any electorate. The case has not been satisfactorily made that the benefits of removing this opportunity for fraud outweigh the negatives of disenfranchising voters that arrive at a polling place without ID or do not have appropriate photo ID (such as those without drivers licenses). In the United States, moves by Republicans to increase ID inspections have been accused of targeting minorities and attempting to disenfranchise groups who traditionally vote Democrat.
This measure has been strongly endorsed by Palmer, and it will be interesting to see if it gains any traction. Given it is not relevant to the senate voting systems, however, it is unlikely the joint standing committee will even consider it for some time.
As is the case with all discussions around electoral matters, each party appears to be advocating changes that stand to benefit themselves electorally. It just so happens that in this case, the changes that seem to be approaching a consensus are also those that will intuitively lead to results that more accurately reflect the will of the people.