A better system of voting for the Senate

After a fractious debate, the LNP and Greens have combined to push through changes to the system of voting in the Senate. The primary change is to introduce something like optional preferential voting above the line, replacing the system where party apparatchiks got to allocate preferences. While not perfect, this is an improvement on the old system.

It points the way to a much simpler system. I suggest scrapping the below/above distinction, and moving to a standard optional preferential system, except that we would vote for named party lists. Independents could pick a party name describing their objectives, or just run under their own names.

The main objection to this system is that it rules out the option of voting for (say) Labor candidates in an order different to that of the party ticket, which is currently possible below the line. But, as far as I know, in nearly 100 years with the current system, no candidate has ever been elected ahead of someone higher up their own party list.

Against that, it would be simple, familiar and easy to count, with a greatly reduced risk of accidental informal votes.

30 thoughts on “A better system of voting for the Senate

  1. I think all would agree that there is no Senate voting system that is without SOME flaw(s).

    However, the current system has the virtue of having a greater number of independents than would otherwise exist under the proposed “new” system.

    Many here have objected to the randomness with which many of the independents have been elected. But the point is, surely, that the proportion of Senators representing the main parties has been minimised – and this probably reflects the fact that voters have not explicitly voted for the main parties. By voting for ANY independent, these voters have, in effect, voted to be represented in the Senate by” someone other than the main parties.”

    True, that “someone” turns out to be randomly selected by an imperfect voting system. But that does not really matter. The effectiveness or otherwise of the elected Senator will only be known after the fact (Colin Street’s point when comparing Muir to Bernardi). The important thing is that an independent has replaced a member of a major party, and consequently this alone is sufficient to reflect the will of a certain section of voters who would prefer to see an independent in the Senate.

    Therefore, if x% of Senators are elected as independents, and this balances out with (100-x)% of the total voters who explicitly vote for candidates from the main parties, then this outcome would correctly (at least in theory) reflect the wishes of the people.

    I suspect that the “new” system will result in a lesser number of independent Senators, and that this will, by definition, not reflect the wishes of the people.

    On that basis I consider the new legislation a very retrogade step which will consolidate power into fewer hands.

  2. @Ikonoclast , the Senate scheme was deliberately designed to protect the interests of the smaller states. It’s a feature, not a bug.

  3. Well said Collins Street and dedalus.
    How can we in good conscience endorse the new system which effectively disenfranchises approximately 17% of the voters?

  4. @David Irving (no relation)

    I subscribe to constitutionalism. This makes me a rather eclectic political beast because I am also a Marxian autonomist. Whilst I support constitutionalism, this does not blind me to the fact that constitutions, by their essentially conservative nature, develop archaic features relatively quickly in a fast-changing world. Good constitutions have positive features and positive effects but these do not entirely remove the paradoxical effect that a constitution is also the semi-dictatorship of the dead over the living. Constitutional provisions are not all wise and even those that that once were wise may no longer be wise in new circumstances.

    The intention to protect the interests of the smaller states was rooted in the practical exigencies of the process of Federation up to 1901. The smaller states required these protections to sign up. State lines in a federation are of a historical nature. Geography historically played a role too. But today why are Tasmanian interests (12 senators for 516,000 people) more important than say NT rights (2 senators for 244,000 people) or ACT rights (2 senators for 390,000)?

    Why is “North Queensland” not to be a state for example (although I personally do not support that) with its approximately 500,000 people counting the North Queensland and Far North Queensland statistical divisions? It has almost as many people as Tasmania does now, it has a much greater area, greater resources and greater growth. Why should not North Queensland be a state and have 12 senators and the same protection of interests as Tasmania? Why be bound by historical exigencies when new realities are being created on the ground by change and progress? One could play this game with many regions of Australia and thence ask why they should have less senatorial protection of interests than Tasmania?

    Tasmania has special interest protections, if indeed the senate works that way anymore anyway, purely by geographical and historical accidents. There really is no other reason. It is time to look at a better way of electing an upper house (which I would like to keep by the way). I would favour citizen sortition for the upper house based on proportional representation. However, the likelihood of any major changes for the Senate is low. Getting a referendum up on the issue would be very hard. Two thirds of the popular vote and two thirds of the states are needed to pass a referendum issue IIRC. Tasmanian voters will scarcely vote against their own interests on this matter.

    On reflection, perhaps I should support a new state of Nth Qld and 12 senators for it. This would at least put them on a par with Tassie. Perhaps this would be only fair.

    I think the days of logically justifying Tassie’s 12 senators are long past. One can only say it is a political reality of archaic origin, of no enduring justification but unlikely to change in reality given its strong constitutional protections.

  5. @Collin Street Getting rid of the states would shift the powers of the Crown to one federal body and should there be govt in both houses you would have power absolute – a frightening thought.

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