Senate Voting Reform: Correcting the Crap (part 1)

This upcoming federal election will be the tenth I’ve been involved in. As all these have been with a smaller party – either the Democrats or the Greens – and in all but the first I’ve been involved in one way or another with preferences decisions, I have a fair idea of how the current Senate system works, and why it is terribly broken and dangerously distorting for not just the voter but for every genuine political party – large, medium, and small – who currently have no choice but to engage with it.

The need to repair the existing Senate voting system has been acknowledged for a long time, and proposals on how best to do this were put forward by Labor, Greens and Liberal MPs nearly two years ago – as well as Senator Nick Xenophon, who proposed a slightly different proposal to fix the problem. Despite this, now that Senate voting reform laws have finally appeared, there has been a sudden torrent of mostly ridiculous and often contradictory arguments as to why such a change will be terrible. Many of these have involved assertion of so-called ‘facts’ which are verifiably wrong.

So I thought it would be worthwhile to correct some of these statements that are being made in an attempt to paint Senate voting reform as a terrible thing. I’ll start with Glenn Druery, seeing he is the person most identified as having gamed the current Senate voting system to manufacture distorted outcomes. He recently stated in evidence to a Parliamentary Committee that he has helped set up over forty political parties, many of which were created solely to harvest and exchange preferences between each other, and some of which carried names designed to attract voters of a certain political persuasion so that their preferences could be channeled to other parties of precisely the opposite political persuasion.

Following are some responses to incorrect statements he made in a recent interview on ABC’s Lateline. Given his own experience in these matters, I presume he is aware that a lot of what he is saying is simply wrong, but perhaps he’s just become another person who has been involved in politics so long that they can no longer remember which things they are saying are true and which things are the ones they would like to be true.

–    Statement: The new laws will “wipe out the crossbench” and “wipe out the possibility of any new minor parties and independents coming through the ranks”.
He is certainly not the only person asserting this, but that doesn’t make it any less wrong. Leaving aside the fact that the Greens still officially constitute part of the Senate crossbench, there is every possibility of other parties and independents – both current and new – getting elected to the Senate crossbench. If the new laws had been in place at the last election, there is no doubt at all that the new Palmer Party would have gained at least one seat (in Qld) and quite possibly WA and/or Tasmania as well. Brian Harradine and the Democrats both initially won Senate seats – across four elections – under a system without the Group Voting Ticket, which was introduced in 1984 and is the key difference between the current and proposed systems. The 14.8% vote that Nick Xenophon gained when he was first elected to the Senate in 2007 would also definitely seen him elected as an independent under the new system.

– Statement: (the current system) “is the very system that the Greens and Xenophon used to put themselves there in the first place”.
This is close to 100% wrong. Obviously as it is the system that was in place, by definition the only way to get elected was through that system. But the Group Voting Ticket feature of the Senate voting system – which is what Druery and others are trying to defend – was not the reason the Greens and Xenophon first got into the Senate. As stated above, Nick Xenophon first got elected to the Senate on a vote of nearly 15%, which guarantees a Senate seat under any of the voting systems used since proportional representation was first brought in in the late 1940s. It is true that Xenophon first got into the state Upper House in South Australia on a low primary vote of just 2.9% due to Group Voting Tickets (although they also have a lower quota for election of just 8.3% compared to the Senate’s 14.3%). But the key point in terms of the Senate is that he was able to build genuine electoral support, which as with Brian Harradine – another very successful Senate independent – is why he got elected to the Senate. The same option is open to any other independent who has genuine electoral support.

In regards to the Greens, the first person elected to the Senate as a Green was Jo Vallentine in Western Australia in 1990. At that election, the Greens candidate got 8.4% and the Democrat got 9.4%, with the Greens ending up getting elected on Labor and National Party preferences. It is hard to know for sure who would have won that seat under the proposed new rules, but the Greens certainly would have been in the running. In the 1993 election when another Green got elected in WA, the Greens vote was 5.6% and the Democrat vote was 4.0%, with their combined vote putting the Greens above the third Labor candidate and getting elected on their preferences. This would likely have also been the outcome under the new system. When Bob Brown first got elected to the Senate in 1996 from Tasmania, the Greens polled 8.7% and the Democrats Robert Bell polled 7.1%. This was a particularly fierce and sometimes bitter contest between those two people and their parties, but there is little doubt that under the new system Bob Brown would have won as well. As the two WA Greens Senate wins described above were subsequently both regained by the Democrats (before being lost again for good), this win of Bob Brown’s was particularly pivotal in the Greens ability to establish a beach head in the Senate – and Druery’s assertion that it was the nature of the current system that got them there is simply wrong. The only time where Druery’s comment comes even close to being true was when Kerry Nettle got elected for the Greens in New South Wales on just 4.3% of the vote, when the Democrats got 6.1%. But this was a case where the other one left when it was down to three parties in the final count was One Nation. As it turned out, they had put the Greens second last and the Democrats last – not because of any deal but just because someone had to go last. It pissed me off mightily at the time of course, but it was hardly the Greens fault. It is the nature of the system in place at the time – and in any case given the third Labor candidate (who was Warren Mundine, for trivia buffs) had a surplus of 5%, it is far from impossible that once other minor candidates had been excluded that Kerry Nettle could have got above this and then above the Democrats on a greater flow of Labor preferences and won the seat even from 4.3%.

– Statement: “the big difference, the big long-term difference is that the Labor Party will never again control the Senate in their own right.”
If it was possible to make a statement that is more than 100% wrong, this one would qualify. The Labor Party has NEVER controlled the Senate in their own right at any time since 1951 when the Senate was first composed of people elected entirely under a proportional representation system. As the Labor Party never controlled the Senate under the current system (or the one before that) and won’t control it under the new system, there is precisely zero difference in that regard. This is not the fault of the voting system, this is because the Labor Party’s primary vote has never been high enough consistently enough to enable this to happen. (As the system used to elect the Senate until the end of the 1940s would regularly produce results where one party would win all seats in a particular state – including the 1943 election where Labor won 19 seats out of 19 across the country – hopefully no one is proposing a move back to that system, although given some of bizarre and off the wall arguments used in an attempt to discredit the proposed new Senate voting system, I wouldn’t be surprised if somebody did.).

– Statement: The Greens “used this system to put themselves there.”
As stated above, this is wrong. This system was in place when the Greens appeared as a political party, so by definition it was the only one they could get elected under. But as shown above, almost all the Greens Senate victories would have occurred under the new system as well. The new system will also now make it far more difficult for the Greens to win a Senate seat in the ACT – which was always a very tough ask, but was previously plausible if the Liberal vote dropped low enough, which on a few occasions it almost has.

– Statement: “The Greens used this system effectively to help wipe out the Democrats”.
As someone who for many years was extremely conscious of the threat the Greens used to pose to Democrat seats, I can intimately recall the dynamics of every single Greens versus Democrats Senate contest across every state ever since 1990. Obviously both parties sought to use the system to maximise our chances of winning, but that’s because everyone had no choice but to use the system that was there. But there were very few times that the Greens could be said to have won a Democrat seat on the basis of ‘using’ the system. I described above the New South Wales example from 2001 – which was the result of a ‘who to put last’ decision by someone from a third party, not due to any actions by the Greens. I could just as readily point to occasions where the Democrats managed to get seats the Greens would have won had preference decisions gone the other way, such as in WA in that same year 2001 the Democrats’ Andrew Murray was re-elected instead of the Greens’ Rachel Seiwert based on the decision by One Nation in that state to do the opposite of New South Wales and put the Greens below the Democrats.  All the Democrats lost in the process of being wiped out – which was basically four in 2004 and the other four in 2007, not all of which went to the Greens in any case – was because the Democrats’ primary vote disintegrated, not because of the Greens use of the Senate voting system.

The only other possible case I could point to was the 1990 WA Senate contest, where the Greens won a seat from the Democrats. As I mentioned above, it is certainly plausible that the Greens could have won that under the new voting rules, but under the rules in place then the Greens won that one in large part due to the decision by Labor to put the Greens ahead of the Democrats in that state. But the Democrats won it back again in 1996 despite Labor again preferencing the Greens first, so it could hardly be said to have played any role in the Democrats’ demise. (Lovers of irony and alternative history scenarios might like the fact that this 1996 WA Senate decision by Labor was not entirely unlinked to a decision by the then Cheryl Kernot-led Democrats to put the Liberals ahead of Labor on their how to votes in Kim Beazley’s seat of Brand, which helped contribute to Beazley only hanging on to that seat by 0.2%. Who knows how Labor would have gone after the 1996 wipe out of the Keating government without Beazley to lead them, but within 18 months Cheryl Kernot joined the Beazley led Labor Party, which within twelve months came very close to winning government and making Kernot a Minister).

– Statement: “Lee Rhiannon from the Greens who was one of the big movers and shakers for these reforms was elected on about 2.6 per cent when she was first elected under a system very similar to this.”
This is a misleading and very selective use of facts. This refers to Lee Rhiannon being elected to the New South Wales Upper House, not the Senate. The quota there is only 4.5%, compared to 14.3% in the Senate. Under the current voting system used in the NSW Upper House – which is similar to that now proposed for the Senate, except with no requirement for preferences (which makes it a bit harder for smaller parties) – people can and have been elected on a lower vote than that.

Just to show how balanced I am, I will also point out the main very true thing that Glenn Druery also said in this interview, which is that if a double dissolution is held under the new Senate voting system it is more than possible that a number of people already on the crossbench could get re-elected; which rather blatantly shows that the assertion made by a range of people, including Glenn Druery in this same interview, that the new system will wipe out smaller parties is simply not true.

It is readily possible that current Senators such as Jacquie Lambie, Glenn Lazarus and Bob Day could get re-elected under the new voting system in a double dissolution. In Queensland, people like Clive Palmer – should he run for the Senate this time and spend even more of the money he should be using to pay his workers and creditors – and for that matter Pauline Hanson could also potentially win a seat given the lower 7.7% vote which is needed to win a seat in a double dissolution. If Ricky Muir turns out to be as popular as many people now assert, he also would have a better chance of getting back in. The point though is that if any or all these people were elected, it would be on the basis of votes and preferences directly chosen by the voter, not as a result of the shonky capturing and passing on of blocks of preferences by backroom operatives.

Like & share:


  1. Hi Andrew, I am still reading and thinking about this, but 3 ideas come to mind rather quickly. When is the government going to give all candidates for election equal funding and equal media time so that the voting system is fair?

    Our children are being taught Greens’ ideologies in our schools which would automatically give them an edge at the polls.

    If the government keeps sending the poor and lower middle class to the economic outhouse, I think one day Labor is more likely to be able to control the Senate in its own right. I’m actually quite angry with the Greens for voting up Tony Abbott’s changes to the Age and Disability Support Pensions, especially since he misled the parliament and the voting public by saying it would stop millionaires from accessing a pension. This is an absolute lie.

  2. While many of your statements are correct the biggest failure in the new proposed Senate System voting is the loss of hundreds of thousands of votes which in proportional representation system supported by the greens is unacceptable. So it appears like always that the greens only support changes if it helps them.
    The idea the informal votes (IE vote one above the line) or mistakes made in the voting below the line will only assist major parties. IE what is to stop the major parties promoting a “one Vote” in the Senate as they do in the State. The fact that parties were established for the purpose of harvesting was easily picked up and should have been dealt with by the AEC. Some 15 have already been identified yet still remain on the AEC list. Perhaps that should have been looked at first before destroying what was generally supported by all and one which was supported by the greens until such time as they saw and advantage by changing it.

  3. Tony is correct the Greens (and the Libs the Nats and the ALP) only support electoral reform that is favourable to their own candidates. This also applies to other minor parties. Therefore electoral changes should always be viewed with suspicion.

    What is wrong with this whole debate is the assumption that Preferences are distributed on a basis other than principle. I have probably been involved in preference negotiations for as long as Andrew Bartlett and on no occasion have I supported the preferencing of a candidate whose policies I disagreed with.

    I always took the view that the A Democrats took the worst parts of ALP Social policies and merged them with the worst parts of LNP economic policies therefore they went last on my preference. OTHers took the view that Democrats were just soft liberals. Likewise the Greens have always been last. When I was DLP candidate in Moreton 1972 & Yeronga 1974 the ALP were below the Coalition but when I was DLP candidate in Longman in 2010 Wyatt Roy was below the ALP because he was viewed worse economically and socially from a DLP point of view.

    Preference swapping has always been done broadly on basis of principle and the only case where I know that preferences have resulted in the election of a candidate further from their primary vote was the 1961 result in Moreton where voters who voted 1 Communist, 2 DLP & 3 Liberal determined the outcome. These voters were either casting “donkey votes” or were as intelligent as donkeys. The majority of voters who voted for Communist candidate in this case voted 2 for ALP. IT was those CPA voters who strayed from the CPA HTV that elected Robert Menzies for his 6th time as PM.

    If the current Senate system had applied to 1961 House of Reps result Arthur Caldwell would have been PM.

    No voter was forced to just vote 1 above the line. It was these voters choice to allow the minor parties to decide their preference allocation. Since the above the line voting was introduced I have always voted below the line because I always found some problems with the below the above the line vote.

    I always preferred most of the Nationals to the Liberals and have taken the view that not all of the Green’s were as bad as each other. Some are purely environmentalists whilst others have a history of support for Marxism.

  4. Thank you Andrew Bartlett, I had been concerned about dicking around with the Senate voting system but you have allayed my fears. I know you as a person beyond reproach.
    Andrew Jackson, you obviously have an opinion impervious to facts. As Andrew quite clearly pointed out, the Greens are neither advantaged nor disadvantaged with the change. What changes is the ability of preference deals with what we can call shelf parties won’t deliver your vote to someone you absolutely would not vote for.
    But as soon as you mentioned your support for the DLP – an vehemently anti-gay, anti-women and anti-environmentalism party – it be some clear you aren’t interested in democracy.

  5. For non ideological reasons I have not been a member of DLP for quite a few years. However having viewed their policy documents I fully support the content.

    Stuart Madison is completely wrong to describe the DLP as anti environmental. In fact the DLP was the first party in Australia to have what was then described as a Conservation Policy and advocated Solar Energy and mandated Ethanol from late 1950’s. The DLP advocated major HEP schemes and Premier Vince Gair initiated Tully Falls.

    The DLP is neither anti gay nor anti women it is pro family.

    The DLP was in fact the first party in Australia to advocate an end to the White Australia policy. The DLP stood between the extreme positions of the ALP and the Liberal Party on most economic issues.

    I fail to see how anything I wrote indicates a lack of support for democracy. As far as I know no other party other than the Green’s have a spokesperson on Democracy such as Senator Rhiannon.

    Andrew Jackson

  6. I think there is quite a difference between supporting democracy and living in an “almost anything goes” society. People would do well to consider the likely effects on the society of various policy alternatives, including increased costs to government.

    As we know, Greens exchange preferences directly with Labor, which gives them an almost automatic advantage. Therefore changes to the Senate voting system will not affect them as much. Greens’ ideologies are also pushed heavily in our schools and via the media.

    If Greens believed in democracy in action, they would have opposed the Senate changes and insisted on equal funding for all candidates, along with equal media time.

  7. I sincerely wish Andrew the best of luck in
    (a) fighting the proposed Adani mine
    [ I have been signing petitions against this from day one]

    If he can get in he will do an excellent job; Andrew is very honest and sticks to his principles. I knew Andrew for a long time when I was involved with the ADs and then when we worked together for other Senators. [I was an AD from 1977-1999]

    Voting Reform is very sorely needed and I am one of the minority who has all my life numbered every single box above & below the line according to how I wanted to vote, not how parties wanted one to vote. In the past few elections the numbers kept increasing making it difficult indeed.

    ***Andrew – can you also work on getting rid of How-to-vote- flyers please?
    The ADs tried decades ago to do so but the other parties wouldn’t agree.
    We really only need to have the names and parties of each candidate plastered inside every voting booth and/or sent to those who are postal voting. Do they still do that in Tassie?

Comments are closed.