The tablecloth election

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Did you vote on a tablecloth? Sandra Hajda and Anton Hajda believe the number of minor parties in the Senate is out of hand and may be damaging our democracy.

A bemused voter examines a Senate ballot paper. (Image via willskis.blogspot.com.au)

WALKING INTO the polling station at Melbourne Town Hall, I was given a voting card — and a tablecloth to keep my voting card clean.

Or, at least, that's what I thought I was handed.

Turns out the tablecloth was also a voting card. The smaller card was for the House of Representatives, the larger (and that word really does not do the beast justice) was for the Senate.

If you voted in the Australian Federal Election 2013, you bore witness to the last gasp of a phenomenon that will surely expire ‒ perhaps crushed by the weight of ever-thicker stacks of paper ‒ before the Australian Federal Election in 2016. That is, the phenomenon of barely-regulated small-party proliferation.

We have now all experienced the absurdity of it first-hand. Reform was all but assured as Australians heaved a collective sigh, folded that tablecloth up, and slotted it into the ballot box.

The offending items will become the stuff of Australian electoral legend — a green House of Representatives voting card the size of a man's palm and a Senate card on which you could print the collected zingers of Paul Keating (in other words, really damn long).

They handed me a magnifying glass and sent me along with my new items. I felt like I was in some kind of surrealist reality TV show. Soon, the time came to place numbers in boxes. And boy, was I sweating.

Honestly, I have no idea if there is a difference between the Outdoor Recreation Party, the Shooters and Fishers Party, the Australian Motoring Enthusiasts Party and the Australian Fishing and Lifestyle Party. Is there a difference? Looking at their websites (after the event), it seems like you have the same people in every picture and the same policies in every paragraph.

Please don't think my confusion was caused by a failure to do any research.

You cannot expect people to learn about every highly-specialised party, though there is a helpful trend towards summarising your stance in your party name. For example, the Bullet Train for Australia Party has just one policy: a high-speed train network. The name of the Palmer United Party hints at its agenda of cushioning the overfed in Australia from reform. The Building Australia Party ‘grew out of discontent from within the building industry and the building design profession’ (the name is also a double entendre, alluding to progress and consolidation). Less helpful is the name of the Liberal Democratic Party; the party is neither liberal nor democratic, as voters in New South Wales will soon find out. Like the name of the Liberal Party itself, it is not recommended as a retrieval cue.

In other words, the recreation parties I listed (shooting, fishing, motoring) represent only the tip of the iceberg. In 2013 there seemed to be three to five parties for and against every policy you could think of: public transport, green energy, privacy, guns, hunting, taxes, sport, drugs, immigrants and euthanasia.

I appreciate the choice I have in placing shooting before fishing and fishing ahead of lifestyles, but there might be such a thing as too much choice. Yes, minor parties are essential in a democracy, but after a point voters will start to feel terrorised by bureaucracy.

When ninety-five per cent of people vote above the line you know something is off. And even if you are one of the five per cent who vote below the line, patting yourself on the back achieves nothing.

The system is broken and it needs fixing.

For reasons different (but related) to those given thus far, voting above the line in 2013 was also a farce.

Did you know that by selecting the Greens above the line you preferred the Pirate Party to the Labor party? And that's actually one of the more respectable vote transfers; there was some public discussion about it before Election Day. Less popular parties made less intuitive preference deals.

For example, by voting for the Sex Party you gave your second preference to the Voluntary Euthanasia Party. Wouldn't that be a damper on the orgy you were trying to attend?
“Sorry sir, the orgy got cancelled, but might we interest you in this euthanasia kit for Grandma instead?”

Yes, euthanasia advocacy and sex positivity are both “progressive” stances, but that close link is jarring somehow (sex = life, euthanasia = death). Maybe you could call it a "philosophical dissonance".

The Victorian Senate Ballot paper was over a metre long (Photo: Joe Armao / The Age)

It gets worse. Once you reach the Advance Australia Party or Socialist Alliance you half expect there to be a write-in option for Hitler or Stalin on their preferences.

After you subtract all the parties with copycat names trying to game voters who see Liberal and don't read the rest of the boxes (I’m looking at you, Liberal Democratic Party) and finish sighing over the dodgy preference deals (something we have no say in) there is little left.

In many ways, the system is much worse than a simple majority vote. This isn't how things are supposed to work. Pretty soon, people will see that parties no one supported ‒ or, rather, no one thinks they supported ‒ have gotten into the parliament. Hopefully this will catalyse reform; we need voting reform now before the ballot becomes any larger. If any minor party enjoys unexpected success, it will encourage others to register and distort the process even further.

Of the reforms that could be implemented, the two simplest are: above-the-line preferential voting and requiring that a number of unique signatures (say five thousand per million people) be collected before a party may register.

Some states have already tried to price small parties out by increasing registration fees. New South Wales increased it from five hundred to two thousand dollars but that did not seem to work: a record-breaking forty-two parties signed up. As long as there are people with more money than sense vanity parties will keep popping up and we will see more elections like the one that just finished.

Bring on the reforms.

That marathon-track of a ballot paper ‒ now lodged in our national consciousness ‒ may yet succeed where Pauline Hanson failed, and unite us as one nation.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia License
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