18 February 2020
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Almost everyone agrees that a reform of the senate electoral system is needed, but we must be careful to make sure any change continues to be in the best interests of voters.

A proper reform of the electoral system

Malcolm Mackerras
9 June 2015

By Malcolm Mackerras

It is a hobbyhorse of mine, I must admit, but readers may be interested in the progress I am making in my one-man campaign for a proper reform of the Senate electoral system. I begin in September 2013 when we had a federal general election. Those who follow the details of these things would know that there were some surprising individual seat results. However, there are no prizes for guessing the biggest single surprise of all. It was the election of motoring enthusiast Ricky Muir to a Senate seat in Victoria. That particular result set off a chain of events, which I now describe.
The Abbott government was so shocked it asked the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters of the federal Parliament to enquire into the system. The tone of the government’s request was that there must be something dreadfully wrong with a system that could elect a man like Muir, particularly when he took a seat from a Liberal senator, Helen Kroger. Anyway I wrote a submission as did a hundred other people. Early in 2014 I appeared before the committee, argued my case, and answered their questions. They were very friendly, albeit tough in their questions to me and to all the other witnesses.
In May last year their report was published. It was titled “Interim report on the inquiry into the conduct of the 2013 Federal Election: Senate voting practices”. It received a generally favourable response – but not from me. A blistering attack from me was published on the opinion page of “The Australian” for Wednesday, May 28, 2014 under the heading “Winning system lost as Senate gate slams shut”. I accused the politicians involved of being dishonest in their arguments and of being mere servants of their three party machines, those of the Labor and Liberal parties and the Greens. Consequently their unanimous recommendation was worthless, I averred.
Nothing seemed to happen for eleven months but in April this year the final report was published. I went on the attack again and my next article was published in “The Canberra Times” for Monday, May 11, 2015. It was titled “A cynical fix that won’t last”  . Why did I submit that article to a different paper? The short answer is that I tried three times to get “The Australian” to publish my view again but they refused. Meanwhile “The Australian” published contrary views by Henry Ergas, Phillip Hudson (twice) and Niki Savva, none of which articles displayed any serious expertise in this area.
So I tried other platforms and received favourable responses from Switzer and Sky News, which have become my new way of communicating my views. A federal politician gave me the mobile number of Andrew Bolt. When I rang him Andrew gave me his residential address so I wrote him a lengthy letter, which he has so far ignored. Early in the piece I gave up on the ABC and the Greens but continue to believe that both the Labor and Liberal parties will come my way, eventually. I know the Nationals and the crossbench senators (Nick Xenophon excepted) are already on side.
My public conversation with Peter was entirely satisfactory to me – but then all my conversations with Peter are very satisfactory. My public conversation on Graham Richardson was disappointing. It was on the night of Wednesday June 3 and was shortened by the long conversation Janine Perrett had with small business minister, Bruce Billson, immediately before I was due to appear. Janine asked me to state my main criticism of the present Senate system and I gave my usual reply: the present system is unsatisfactory because it does not give the voter a reasonable option to vote for candidates below the line. Then she asked me to state my reform proposal. I told her that any decent long-term reform must include the elimination of all three contrivances put into the system by then Senator Graham Richardson in 1983. To that she said if I wanted to tip a bucket over Graham I should have a public conversation with him. To that I said I did not want to do that: I wanted merely to explain why the three contrivances, justifiable though they have been since the 1984 election, can no longer be justified. The passage of time and changed circumstances have made it necessary to eliminate all three contrivances. (The three contrivances are the ballot line, the party boxes above the ballot line and the group voting tickets. The term “ballot line” is the official wording for that long black line which runs through the ballot paper.)
There is a good reason why I wrote to Graham. He is not the only author of the current system but he is by far the best-known. None of the three-dozen authors of the system have any vested interest any more. Given that the system is now comprehensively discredited I think it is sensible to enquire as to what its authors think today. Consequently I suggest it would be a good idea for Graham and me to have a public conversation on RICHO in which we each explain our views. I have no idea what Graham’s view might be.
Let me now give a fuller answer to your inevitable question: what do I propose? The answer is that I have long believed the current system for the Victorian Legislative Council should be copied for Senate elections. Where that system differs from the Senate is that it gives the elector a decent option to vote below the line. Consequently, whereas Victorian electors in September 2013 were given the Senate below-the-line option of numbering candidates from 1 to 97, in November 2014 they were given the option “place the numbers 1 to at least 5 in these squares to indicate your choice” in respect of their Legislative Council.
However, a problem arose for me. The number of below-the-line votes rose from 90,215 (2.7%) federally to 208,875 (6.1% for the Victorian Legislative Council election in November 2014. That rise was healthy but not enough. Micro parties won seats unexpectedly so the Victorian Legislative Council now has two Shooters and Fishers Party members, one Sex Party and one Democratic Labour Party member. In the Western Victoria region a certain James Desmond Purcell won a seat as “Vote 1 Local Jobs”. He won the fifth seat with a low primary vote by preference harvesting.
So I decided to get to work on the Victorian Parliament. I lack the space to detail everything I have done but I make this prediction: before the November 2018 Victorian state election their Parliament will eliminate all three contrivances of their system (the same as for the Senate) the ballot line, the party boxes above the ballot line and the group voting tickets. However, a problem arises for the Senate, namely the report (cited above), which recommends cherry-picking between the three contrivances in the interests of the machines of the Liberal and Labor parties and the Greens. So I think the Senate system will copy Victoria by a decision of the present (44th) federal Parliament and will copy Victoria again by a decision of the next (45th) Parliament. Then both the federal and Victorian upper houses will be elected by a decent electoral system based upon the commandment of section 7 of the Australian Constitution which says: “The Senate shall be composed of senators for each State, directly chosen by the people of the State, voting as one electorate.” Those words command that the system be candidate-based and that, I hope and expect, is the system we shall enjoy over the longer term.
(Malcolm Mackerras is a visiting fellow at the Australian Catholic University’s Canberra campus. malcolm.mackerras@acu.edu.au)

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