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A quick overview of the proposed Senate electoral system

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A quick overview of the proposed Senate electoral system

Posted 22/09/2015 by Damon Muller

In an interview with the ABC’s Radio National on 22 September 2015 the new Special

Minister of State, Hon Mal Brough MP, indicated that he intended to pursue reform of the

Senate electoral system. Citing the need to strengthen Australia’s democracy and

democratic engagement by implementing a more representative system, the Minister stated

that ideally the new system would be in place for the next election (due in the normal course

of events in the second half of 2016).

In an Interim Report released in May 2014, the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral

Matters (JSCEM) proposed what is perhaps the most radical overhaul of the electoral system

used to elect the Australian Senate since 1948, when the much-criticised block system was

abolished and proportional representation by Single Transferable Vote was first introduced.

The government has not yet formally responded to the Committee’s report.

The changes proposed by JSCEM aim to address some perceived problems at the 2013

federal election:

'Many voters were confused. If they voted above the line, the choice of where their vote

would go was effectively unknown, and accordingly in many cases their electoral will


If they voted below the line they needed to complete preferences for each and every

candidate - in many states, a very complex and time consuming exercise.

The ‘gaming’ of the voting system by many micro-parties created a lottery, where, provided

the parties stuck together in preferencing each other (some of whom have polar opposite

policies and philosophies) the likelihood of one succeeding was maximised.'

Proposed changes

The Committee has proposed changing the voting system itself, along with the system of

party registration. In terms of the voting system, the Committee has essentially

recommended that Group Voting Tickets (GVTs) be abolished and that the Senate voting

system be changed to Optional Preferential Voting (OPV).

GVTs allow voters to have their preferences distributed by the party they are voting for. It

was introduced to combat the high level of informal ballots that resulted from voters having

to number every square on the senate ballot paper (the NSW ballot paper for the 2013

Senate election had 110 squares). In the large states, more than 97% of voters elected to use

the party’s GVT by voting above the line in the 2013 federal election.

The preference allocations through GVTs are complex and tend to be opaque to voters. The

combination of the requirement for preferences to be allocated to every candidate, and

strategic preference swaps between groups, mean that the Above The Line (ATL) votes tend

to find their way to unexpected candidates. These candidates may then be elected despite

having very few first preference votes—far fewer first preferences than many of the

candidates who are not elected.

The Committee’s solution is to retain the option for ATL votes, allowing voters to cast

multiple ATL preferences, but have those ATL votes indicate preferences only for the

candidates in that group. This returns control of the preferences to the voter.

The Committee has also proposed that voters choosing to vote below the line not be

required to number every candidate. Voters would only be required to nominate at least as

many preferences as there are vacancies to be filled (six in a normal half-senate election for

a state, two for a territory).

Effects on electoral outcomes

Predicting the electoral outcomes that would emerge from the proposed system is difficult.

It would almost certainly eliminate the situation where a candidate is elected on a very small

vote, but would be unlikely to prevent smaller parties with a reasonable constituency being

successfully elected.

The NSW Legislative Council has a similar system where voters can nominate multiple

preferences above the line—however only around 15 per cent of voters do so. Parties can

attempt to direct preferences through Senate How To Vote cards, but in NSW in 2011 these

were only followed by a small number of voters. When voters do allocate their own

preferences, they can do so in ways which are not consistent with the GVT of the party that

gets their first preference, particularly for minor and micro parties.

In the absence of GVTs, large numbers of votes will exhaust—drop out of the count before

their preferences can be allocated. This would be particularly true of votes for minor and

micro parties where the voter does not allocate a later preference for a major party. It is

likely that one or more seats per state would be filled by a candidate who had the highest

remaining vote, but did not gain a quota (the overall number of votes required to be


While NSW Legislative Council ballot papers still have large numbers of micro and minor

parties despite OPV, the quota for election to the Council is only around 185,000 votes

compared to a quota of around 625,000 votes for the Senate in NSW. It is possible that the

JSCEM’s recommended changes, combined with proposed tougher party registration rules,

could reduce the number of minor and micro parties contesting federal elections.

The reduced burden for casting a vote Below The Line (BTL) may also mean that this option

becomes more popular. Among other effects, this would increase the time required for the

Australian Electoral Commission to count the ballot papers to determine the result. In

practice, however, this would only be likely to present a problem in the case of a senate

election that happened before new senators took their places on the 1st of July, or a joint

sitting following a double dissolution election.

The JSCEM’s proposed reforms, if implemented, would return the Senate voting system to a

much more proportional system, where the makeup of the Senate more closely represented

the votes of the electorate, but would also remove much of the element of surprise that has

characterised senate elections in recent years.