Dear the Internet,
Because I don’t want to spend an entire View from the Street column delving into the minutia of the Senate ballot, I thought I’d put the thing here where reading it was rather more optional. And thank you, incidentally: I know you upper-house obsessives like to party!
In case you can’t remember the process that occurred between you queuing up and hitting the sausage sizzle last election day, here’s how the Senate ballot has traditionally worked: either one vote for the party of your choice (voting “above the line’), or numbering every single candidate in order (“below the line”).
Unsurprisingly, most people vote above the line – 95 per cent, specifically, according to ABC statistical machine and stone-cold genius Antony Green – partially because it’s a lot quicker, partially because the majority of people vote for either the Coalition or Labor and therefore don’t need to worry about if their vote will be assigned elsewhere on preferences, and mainly because the only real motivation to number literally hundreds of boxes is to make a point of putting the most overtly bigoted parties last on the balllot.
(As those waiting for me to get out of the damn booth can attest, it really does take a while: the NSW state election was similarly arduous, but commitment to putting Fred Nile last requires certain sacrifices.)
It’s also worth pointing out that in a normal election half of the 12 senators per state are on the ballot (Senate terms are six years, as opposed to the House of Representatives which is three – NT and ACT have two senators each, who also sit three year terms, incidentally), and thus in order to win they have to get 16.67 per cent of the vote.
Remember that number – it gets significant shortly.
If you’re first or second on the Coalition/Labor ticket, you’re all but guaranteed to keep your job (Eric Abetz is #1 on the Liberal senate ticket in Tasmania and Cory Bernardi is the same in SA, so job performance is evidently not a huge deciding factor in who gets pole position). In South Australia Nick Xenophon are also safe, and most states will also vote in a Green every election or so.
The interesting things happen at the bottom, for those parties that don’t get that 16.67 per cent vote in their own right.
Those parties allocate their preferences to other parties, and while it’s portrayed as a secretive and sinister process of “preference harvesting” it’s a) fairly predictable since for the most part the left-leaning parties preference to the left and the right leaning ones to the right, and b) that group ticket is registered with the Australian Electoral Commission, who do the counting. However, voting for one microparty makes it fairly likely that your vote will go somewhere else.
That process is affected by the number of microparties – the more there are, the harder it is to predict the outcome – and it reached its apogee (or nadir, depending on your political outlook) at the 2013 election when the Motoring Enthusiast Party’s candidate Ricky Muir won a Victorian senate seat despite only gaining 0.51 per cent of the primary vote.
The new system that’s being proposed allows above-the-line preferencing (in other words, instead of only voting 1, voters can rank the parties in order), thus ending the back room preference harvesting in favour of direct democracy, right?
Well… here’s the thing.
The new system will make it all but impossible for any new parties to emerge in the future – so you can see why it appeals to the existing ones – and with the exception of the popular Nick Xenophon in SA pretty much guarantees that the only candidates that will get into the upper house are professional politicians.
Of course, these laws wouldn’t be getting passed if it was just a good thing for Australian democracy. They’re being passed because they’re to the advantage of those passing them.
For the Coalition it’s a slam dunk: a quick glance at the cross bench will confirm that most of the independents are right-leaning and therefore easy pick-ups under the new system (which, again, shows how that both whatever else the Abbott and Turnbull governments are, they’re lousy negotiators – how can they have passed so little legislation past a bunch of people with whom they largely agree?)
Labor too are hypothesised to benefit under the new ballot – not as much as the Coalition, hence their reticence to pass the laws – and since Nick Xenophon easily romps in his SA ballot in his own right, a preferencing system would do his new party a lot of good.
It gets more interesting with the Greens, who would probably lose seats – but, crucially, in a Senate with fewer independents the Greens would be very, very likely to hold the balance of power.
The problems with implementing the laws now and then calling a snap Double Dissolution are many – aside from the fact that DD is a huge Constitutional event designed to short-circuit a major parliamentary crisis rather than being used as a petulant excuse to hold an early election before a leader’s popularity slips.
One is that it leaves the Australian Electoral Commission very little time to change the systems, although they’ve supposedly been quietly preparing for this likely eventuality for a while, if my journalistic contacts within the public service can be trusted.
Secondly, there’s the fact that it leaves very little time to educate voters about how the Senate ballot has changed after 30 years, but again: a slew of informal votes, while bad for democracy, would be unlikely to hurt the government. Exactly which votes will count is a far bigger deal than it might immediately appear, incidentally, and Green explains it with great clarity at his blog.
A third problem is rather more tricky for Turnbull, which is that DD is a full Senate election – and with all twelve senators per state, the quotas are therefore halved to 8.3 per cent.
That’s a much, much lower bar – and there’s a solid chance that high profile cross benchers like David Leyonjhelm, Jacqui Lambie and Glenn Lazarus would clear it. How does Turnbull fancy a Senate where legislation is dependent on a cross bench fuming over how the government attempted to destroy their careers?
The alternative of course would be to go full term – or at least follow-through on the already-expressed plan to hold an election around September – which would give the AEC time to get software up to scratch and educate the public about this fairly important change to the method by which they vote.
But strategically – and let’s be honest, that’s why the change is being made – it would be better for Malcolm if he choses the dramatic and expensive option to go early before the government’s popularity slips any further amid disappearing ministers, children being sent back to Nauru, moves to privatise Medicare and the growing concerns over Australian property and share prices that seem to presage an economic slump.
Also, a snap DD would give the independent senators less time to remind their electorates that they exist – although who could be unaware of the sheer animal charisma of rock star senators like Family First’s Bob Day in SA and PUP’s Zhenya “Dio” Wang in WA?
And more importantly, if Leyonhjelm and Lambie carry out their threat to vote down any piece of government legislation if the new ballot becomes law, it would give the government a legitimate crisis for which a DD would be the only obvious solution.
In other words: if the changes pass – and they will – an election will not be far behind.
So don’t expect the government to rule out a GST hike, or privatising Medicare, or anything else that might be risky to take to an election: Turnbull will hanging on to them now in order to claim that he had a mandate to implement them later.
After all, there’s never been a more exciting time to be a manipulated Australian voter!