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The Senate voting reforms have fractured democracy

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Mathias Cormann of the Liberal Party and Penny Wong of Labor talk (image via Twitter).

The Senate voting reforms of 2016 has reduced the crossbench numbers and weakened democracy, writes Andrew Vincent.

THE ELECTION RESULTS in the Senate, announced this month and the first since the 2016 Senate voting reforms, show the new system of "partial preferential voting" fails to reflect voters’ broad support for the major or minor parties.

In an election that saw more than 14 million formal votes cast, the Senate result shows that up to one million voters were disenfranchised, with their first preference for a minor party either transferred to a major party at a lower preference or "exhausted" and discarded during the Senate count, under the new system.

Previously, with full preference voting above or below the line in the Senate, elections produced a highly diverse Senate, including a crossbench some derided as "the bar scene from Star Wars".

For the Liberal-National Government and many in the media, it was easy to sell the voting reforms to the public. It seemed to many that the tiny first preference votes that Ricky Muir (Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party Senator, 2014-16) and some other crossbenchers received was enough evidence that the system was broken.

The Greens are also winners from the reforms, which they helped pass along with the vote of Nick Xenophon, who has since retired. The Greens have escaped unscathed from the election – clearing the threshold of about 9 per cent first preference support in each state to retain their Senate seat in each state. Ironically, the candidate for the party started by Xenophon, Skye Kakoschke-Moore, was not elected in South Australia.

Crossbench parties were "gaming the system" with group preference deals, so the popular narrative went at the time.

While Australians thought they were buying a better version of their unique democracy, the Senate voting reforms have seriously undermined Australia’s democracy.

The Liberal Party received more senate seats to which its first preference vote entitled it. In a future election in which Labor was the dominant party, it will be the beneficiary. It is how the system has been designed. The fix is in, as it were.

The Liberals were the beneficiary of the reforms, growing its total Senate numbers from 31 to 35 — a massive increase considering it was a half-Senate election with 36 seats up for grabs.

The casualties in this brutal calculus were the crossbench: six went out and only two have come in.

Yet, the Liberals’ first preference vote only climbed by between 2 per cent and 5 per cent.

The number of crossbench party senators dropped significantly (but not among the Greens), even though the percentage of first preferences for non-major parties continued its long term upward trend.

Despite non-major parties attracting about 30 per cent on average of first preference votes (actually between 27 per cent and 35 per cent, depending on the state), they only secured 22 per cent of the 36 Senate seats up for grabs (equating to eight seats, made up of six Greens, Malcolm Roberts of Queensland and Jacqui Lambie of Tasmania).

So effectively, the Liberals were able to increase their position in the Senate because about eight per cent of support for the cross-party has either been redirected or gone missing.

In an election of more than 14 million formal votes — that’s more than one million first preference votes that ended up discarded or moved to major parties or the Greens via preferences. It should be noted that with seats allocated according to quotas of the overall state vote, it’d difficult to be precise.

Despite no media reporting on the disparity — the reason for it is written in black and white on the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) website.

Under the heading “exhausted votes” it says:

As a result of the Senate voting reforms to a partial preferential rather than fully preferential voting method, it is likely that there will be an increase in the number of exhausted votes. A vote is considered “exhausted” when there is no next available preference for any continuing candidate meaning that it must be set aside from the scrutiny at that point.

In the past, group preference agreements between minor parties retained the first preference vote in that block of parties. It was complicated and opaque, but it resulted in a Senate that reflected, overall, the electorate’s support, or not, of major and minor parties.

But in the last Senate election, preferences were limited to as few as six above the line (or 12 below the line), meaning that very few minor party candidates could amass enough votes, by the time the sixth preference was counted, to remain in the race.

Those candidates were discarded, along with the thousands of votes they had amassed to that point. Votes that have found their way to candidates still in the running after the sixth preference is counted, remain to continue in the count.

Based on the senators who have been elected, the threshold of first preference votes a candidate needs to survive "the cut" after the sixth preference, appears to be about 10 per cent — well out of reach for most minor parties.

So what we have now is a partial democracy and the Coalition and the Greens will be well-chuffed at the outcome they achieved, under the noses of the national media, which largely supported the reform.

The AEC has now published the Senate results in each state and the numbers do not lie:

State by state:

South Australia 

  • Liberal Party: 37.8 per cent of first preference votes; awarded 50 per cent of the senate seats available (3).
  • Minor parties (excluding the informal vote): 26.9 per cent of first preferences; one Senate seat (16.6 per cent of the seats available - awarded to the Greens’ Sarah Hanson-Young)
  • South Australia has lost one crossbencher — outgoing Senator Tim Storer.

Western Australia 

  • Liberal Party: 40.9 per cent of first preferences; awarded 50 per cent of Senate spots – three seats.
  • Minor parties: 28.1 per cent of first preferences; one seat out of six (which went to the Greens’ Senator Jordon Steele-John). In WA the minor parties received a higher first preference vote than Labor (27.6 per cent) but Labor received two Senate seats.
  • Western Australia lost one cross bencher — One Nation’s Peter Georgiou.

Victoria 

  • Liberal Party: 35.9 per cent of first preferences; 50 per cent of seats available – three seats.
  • Minor parties: 29.0 per cent of first preferences; one Senate spot  (going to the Greens’ Janet Rice).
  • Victoria lost one cross bencher — independent Derryn Hinch.

New South Wales 

  • Liberal Party: 38.6 per cent of first preferences; awarded three out of six seats up for grabs.
  • Minor parties: 27.3 per cent of first preferences; one seat won (the Greens’ Mehreen Faruqi).
  • NSW lost two cross benchers — Liberal Democrat David Leyonhjelm and the United Australia Party’s Brian Burston.

Queensland

  • Liberal National Party: 38.9 first preference votes; three seats out of six awarded.
  • Minor parties: 35.2 per cent of first preferences; awarded two seats out of the six seats available (Greens’ Larissa Waters (with 9.9 per cent of the first preferences) and One Nation’s Malcolm Roberts (10.3 per cent of first preference votes).
  • Labor received 22.6 per cent of the first preferences and just one Senate seat out of six — to rookie Nita Green.

Tasmania 

  • Liberal Party: 31.5 per cent of first preferences; awarded two out of the six seats available.
  • Minor parties: 34.3 per cent of first preferences; awarded two out of the six seats on offer (Greens’ Nick McKim (12.6 per cent of first preferences) and independent Senator Jacqui Lambie (8.9 per cent of first preferences).
  • Labor won the remaining two Senate seats in Tasmania.

The results are in

The writing is on the wall, with the crossbench cut from ten to six senators and many journalists tipping that most of the four current crossbenchers (none of whom faced re-election), with three years yet to run in their terms, have no chance of survival.

For the record, they are Rex Patrick and Stirling Griff of Centre Alliance, Pauline Hanson of One Nation and Cory Bernardi (who has indicated he is considering leaving Parliament).

The two new crossbenchers – Roberts and Lambie – won’t face voters for six years and may be the only remaining crossbenchers in the Senate following the next election, depending on the fate of the Patrick, Griff, Hanson and Bernardi.

Irrespective of what you think of many of the past and current crossbench, the fact is that, as a group, it reflected the broad voting intentions of Australians in supporting non-major parties.

The new system disenfranchises many thousands of Australians, if not more than one million. The AEC should do be made to reveal the precise number of votes that were "exhausted" (that is, binned).

By fixing one perceived problem, the Senate voting reforms, backed in by the major's parties and the media, have created a much bigger one — wholesale voter disenfranchisement.

But they are now on the books and producing an ever-tightening hold on the Senate by the major parties.

The chances of fixing this and reinstating full suffrage to Australian voters is about Buckley and Nunn.

 

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