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Telling the Truth about Senate voting

Malcolm Mackerras
3 November 2021

Readers of my articles in Switzer Daily would not be surprised to know that I interact quite a bit with officers of the Australian Electoral Commission. In recent times the officer with whom I’ve engaged the most has been Evan Ekin-Smyth, Principal Media Advisor and Director, Media and Digital Engagement.

For six years now I have been campaigning for reform of the Senate voting system. Among my many objections to the present system has been the ballot paper and especially these words: “You may vote in one of two ways, Either, Above the line, By numbering at least 6 of these boxes in the order of your choice (with number 1 as your first choice).”

I assert that the purpose of those words (chosen by partisan politicians, not the AEC) is to deceive the voter into believing that your vote will be informal if you don’t do as instructed. Therefore, the instructions should be described as “deceitful”.

Recently Evan sent me a video on Senate voting that the AEC planned to use for educational purposes. He was inviting comment from stakeholders. I commend the AEC for doing this. It should educate the public and it should tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

The video is filmed in the Senate chamber at Old Parliament House. It shows ballot papers, model ballot papers, people voting and the counting of votes. The speaker is a young woman I guess to be an employee of the AEC. This is what she says:

“The Senate ballot paper is the biggest ballot paper that you’ll get in the election. In some states, it is particularly big and over a metre long. You can expect to see an option to vote above the line and an option to vote below the line. If you vote above the line, you need to number at least six boxes. This means that you are voting for parties or groups in the order of your choice.

“You may hear that it’s OK to vote in just one box above the line. Technically, that is correct. We will count your ballot paper even if you only numbered one box, but you have the ability to mark more boxes and we encourage you to do so.

“The Senate is a house of review. It’s a really important chamber in Australian democracy. So, if you vote in only one box above the line it means you only get a say in probably [about] three or, perhaps, four successful candidates but if you vote for more you will get a greater say in all the people that sit in the Senate.”

(At this point the video shows a model ballot paper with the numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11 and 12 in the squares for individual candidates below the ballot dividing line.)

“So, voting below the line means you are voting for individual candidates. In some ways that means you don’t have to vote for a particular party. You can vote for individual candidates across parties. If you vote for more candidates, you get a greater say in all the people that sit in the Senate.

“If you make a mistake – and it’s easy to do in such a complex ballot paper – fold up the ballot paper you made a mistake on, give it back to the issuing officer and ask for a new one.

“We instruct people to vote in accordance with the voting rules – not just because it is the rules but also because it enables you to get the maximum value out of your vote. It means you have a greater say in who sits in this really important Senate chamber, and it means you have a greater impact on Australia’s democracy.”

My first reaction was to say to myself: “This is spin, of course, but I don’t mind if the AEC tells the varnished truth so long as I can tell the unvarnished truth.”

Then I gave it more thought and decided to object. It should be done again.

First, the young woman should not say: “You need to number at least six boxes”. It would be much better if she said: “You should number at least six boxes.” You don’t need to follow a deceitful instruction if you have a first preference for a party but think all the other parties are rubbish.

Second. I object to her saying: “Technically, that is correct.” That is a gratuitous insult to me – as though I am engaging in mere technicalities. She should just say: “That is correct”.

Third, the vote below the line is not adequately explained. The instruction is “Or, Below the line, by numbering at least 12 of these boxes in the order of your choice (with number 1 as your first choice).”

In fact, the AEC is required by law to count as a formal vote one which reads 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 between candidates - provided they are unique numbers and consecutive. That should be mentioned.

I make no demand in relation to my next two points. I just want to help the AEC to do a better video.

First, after “We will count your ballot paper even if you only numbered one box” should be added: “Indeed, we are required by law to do so”.

Second, instead of saying “The Senate is a house of review", a better statement would be: “The Senate is a fully-fledged house of parliament. Nothing can become an act of parliament without its agreement.”

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