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Thursday, 9 December 2004
Page: 4

Senator BROWN (9:37 AM) —I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

I seek leave to have the second reading speech incorporated in Hansard.

Leave granted.

The speech read as follows—

Senate Voters' Choice (Preference Allocation) Bill 2004

Above the line voting for the Senate was introduced in 1984 to meet the problem of increasing informal votes. With 50 to 100 Senate candidates in some states, many voters either made no attempt or lost their way and so lost their vote.

While above-the-line voting gave voters an easier alternative, it also had a cost. It took the decision on preferences from the voter and gave it to the party which the voter selected.

Parties lodge their preference selection with the Australian Electoral Office two weeks before election date. This selection numbers all candidates according to the party's dictate. On polling day, above the line voters preferences are allocated according to that dictate.

Voters might expect that the party's choice would be for the most like minded other party put to be put second and the most unlike party to be put last.

The parties engage in negotiations, off the public record, to gain mutual preferences advantage. Policy matters can be swept aside to gain advantage through preference arrangements with otherwise hostile parties.

The perverse situation can arise where the party allocation of preferences is against the expectation of many or even most of its voters.

Election analyst Antony Green put it well when speaking after the 2004 federal election “The deals that produced the Senate outcome have shown that the group ticket voting system used is starting to distort rather than reflect the will of the electorate”.

To overcome this problem, this bill creates preferential voting above-the-line. Voters may number the parties above-the-line according to their preference.

Of course, voters retain the more exacting option of choosing candidates by below-the-line voting.

In NSW similar legislation to this was introduced after the infamous 1999 `table cloth' ballot paper for the Legislative Council election (In that election a party on less than ½ of 1 percent was able to manipulate the process to win a seat in the upper house. This was done with secret deals between a number of small parties with misleading names).

The new NSW above the line preferential voting system has worked well. It was used for the state election in 2003. It did not eliminate, as some had feared, the chance of small parties to being elected. The Greens, Shooters Party and Fred Nile all won upper house seats.

However this bill is not identical to the NSW scheme. In NSW there is optional preferential voting for both the lower and upper house. Voters are not obliged to fill all the squares above the line and can limit their preferences to say 2 or 3 parties. Under this legislation, the Senate voting scheme will remain compulsory preferential. Voters will need to number all above the line boxes. This is consistent with the House of Representatives compulsory preferential system.

This amendment to the Electoral Act enhances democracy. It provides a simple and attractive option for voters to keep control of the destiny of their vote and so the make-up of the Senate.

Senator BROWN —I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.