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This Senate reform must be scrapped during the 45th Parliament. In its place should be the reform I have advocated for sixty years.

Senate reform must be scrapped

Malcolm Mackerras
5 July 2016

By Malcolm Mackerras

Last Saturday, and continuing for another six weeks, the Australian Electoral Commission is conducting our nation’s 8th Senate general election. I made some predictions about it in my last article on this website. The article was titled Xenophon tipped as biggest Election Day winner. What is unique about the event is that this Senate general election was preceded by a so-called “Senate reform” which was by far the worst electoral reform, federal or state, in Australia’s history. There has been much criticism of the behaviour of AEC clerks on election day. I am not one of the critics. The politicians passed legislation telling the AEC bureaucrats what they must say and then the bureaucrats told the clerks. The system is a disgrace to the federal Parliament and High Court who gave it the tick. The bureaucrats and AEC clerks should not be blamed for doing what the politicians told them to do.

Back in March, Nick Xenophon, Malcolm Turnbull and Richard Di Natale were partners in this crime against Australian democracy. They thought they were being ever-so-very clever rigging the Senate in their own favour and I consider below which man of the three outsmarted everyone else. There was, of course, a woman they did not think about when they committed the crime. Consequently, Pauline Hanson will laugh all the way until she takes her Senate seat in August, along with probably two other Senate supporters. I now consider the fate of the three partners in crime.

As I predicted, Xenophon emerged as the biggest winner in the entire election. He was given exactly what he wanted, two more senators, a definite new member of the House of Representatives (in Mayo) and a very realistic chance of another, in Grey. In psephological circles, there is some disagreement about the name to give this new system. We all agree that it is the sixth Senate electoral system – even the High Court agrees on that. By a clear majority, we psephologists agree on calling it the “Semi Party List” system, replacing the “Second Single Transferable Vote” system. I sometimes call it “Nick Xenophon’s” system since it is 98% his and he was the politician who told the greatest number of lies in its support. In that regard, Di Natale comes a close second, while Turnbull has been reasonably truthful.

So what did Di Natale get out of it? Frankly, he’s been lucky. He entered his party’s leadership with one member of the House of Representatives and ten senators, six of whom were elected when Bob Brown was leader and four of whom were elected when Christine Milne was leader. Adam Bandt has been elected again in Melbourne and the top Greens senator has been elected in all six states. Where Di Natale has been lucky is that his party has 1.47 quotas in Victoria, 1.42 in Tasmania and 1.40 in Western Australia. Probably the party will get two senators in all three states, so Di Natale may emerge with a loss of only one senator, their second in South Australia. In my opinion, The Greens have not been punished nearly enough by the Australian people.

The Coalition has probably lost three Senate seats, which is the loss I predicted. They had 33 senators in the last term, the 44th Parliament. They look likely to have 30 in the new Senate, as I predicted. However something worse has happened to the Coalition and I am the first to admit that I did not predict that particular disaster for them. In the old Senate, there were four cross-bench senators elected in 2013 who displayed good will towards the Coalition government. They were David Leyonhjelm (NSW), Ricky Muir (Victoria), Bob Day (SA) and Dio Wang (WA). It looks as though Turnbull has succeeded in cleaning out all four and replacing them with three Hansonites and Derryn Hinch. Consequently, I think Turnbull has received appropriate punishment at the hands of the Australian people.

In light of this disaster, I ask the leaders of our five big political parties, Turnbull, Barnaby Joyce, Bill Shorten, Di Natale and Xenophon, to acknowledge that this Senate reform has been an abomination and must be scrapped during the 45th Parliament. In its place should be inserted the reform I have advocated for sixty years, since I wrote my first article on Senate elections in The Sydney Morning Herald in 1956.

The “Semi Party List” system is characterised by four contrivances. The first is the thick black line which runs through the ballot paper. It is known by psephologists as the “Senate Ballot Dividing Line”. The second: the party boxes which lie above the line. The third is the deceitful instruction to voters who wish to vote above the line. The fourth contrivance is the deceitful instruction to voters who wish to vote below the line. All four contrivances should be scrapped. The instruction to voters should follow the instruction under the Tasmanian Hare-Clark system.

I have before me a ballot paper for the Division of Braddon at Tasmania’s most recent state election where five members were elected for each of the five federal divisions to produce a House of Assembly of 25 members. At the top the direction to the voter is: “Number the boxes from 1 to 30 in order of your choice”. However, at the very bottom it says: “Your vote will not count unless you number at least 5 boxes.” Consequently, the voter knows exactly where he/she stands. There are 30 candidates and he/she is invited to number those candidates up to 30 if that is the voter’s wish. However, the voter knows that any failure to go 1,2,3,4 and 5 will render the vote informal.

Under a decent Senate system of the kind I have advocated for sixty years, there would be an instruction at the top of the ballot paper which reads: “Number the boxes from 1 to (insert the number of candidates) in the order of your choice.” At the very bottom of the ballot paper it would read, in bold letters: “Remember: your vote will not count unless you number at least 6 boxes.” If that is done during the 45th Parliament, then the May 2019 House of Representatives plus half-Senate election would see the operation of our seventh Senate electoral system. Psephologists would have no trouble giving it a name. It would be called the “Third Single Transferable Vote” system. It would be permanent.

(Malcolm Mackerras is a visiting fellow at the Australian Catholic University’s Canberra campus. malcolm.mackerras@acu.edu.au)

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