Senate Voting Reform: Part 4 – How do you vote someone out if they don’t need votes to get in?

There are many problems with how the current Senate voting system has evolved, but perhaps the worst is that it subverts the most basic aspect of a democracy – the ability to vote somebody out if people think they’re doing a bad job. If you can get elected with barely any public support, you have no need to maintain or develop any public support. And if the public is opposed to what you are doing, they can’t mobilise people to stop voting for you, because people weren’t voting for you in the first place, and you don’t need their votes to get back in.

When I had the less than uplifting experience of being voted out of the Senate at the 2007 federal election, I received just 1.88% of all votes cast across Queensland. This might have been better than the Democrats managed in any other state, but it was still abysmal. I am pretty sure if I had gone around the state saying I still deserved to have a seat in the Senate I would have been told where to get off very quickly – and probably not overly politely. Despite making some major mistakes along the way, I believe the Democrats did a great deal that was positive for Australia and for politics, and it was a sad way for it all to end. But end it did, and it was very clear that this was the voters’ intention.

But at the moment we are experiencing a situation where parties with even lower levels of public support are suggesting they have a right to a seat in the Senate, no matter how invisible their policies and their membership – and how minimal their vote – may be. Whatever else people may have said about the Democrats, there is no doubt they were a real political party with a readily identifiable set of policies and a genuine membership base – something which cannot genuinely be said about a large number of the fifty parties currently registered at federal level.

One of the key reasons I joined the Democrats back in 1989 rather than a major party was because I believed politics would benefit from more diversity.  Nearly twenty years later, my desire to see viable political alternatives to the two traditional parties was still strong enough for me to get involved with building up support for the Greens. The first federal election I campaigned in was in 1990, and in every one since then I have been involved, often very heavily, in the arcane world of Senate preferences and the ‘backroom deals’ that have become an unavoidable part of that. There have been eight further elections held since that one in 1990, and each time the preference dealing and potential for perverting the outcome has got worse. As far back as 1996, Cheryl Kernot described the lead up to registering party Senate preference tickets in that year’s election as “probably her worst time in politics”. Everyone has to work with whatever the voting system is, but there is no doubt that the current Senate system is badly broken.

Diversity in politics is very valuable and much needed. But that diversity has to be based on genuine public support for identifiable ideas, not artificially generated via misleading manipulation representing no identifiable views or using random rolls of the dice (although if you do really like the idea of democracy/governing via lottery, there is a process called sortition that you may want to familiarise yourself with.) Such approaches totally defeat the purpose of building public support for particular ideas and disempower voters far more than the current system does. If someone especially wants to be disempowered, they can always vote informal, but they shouldn’t expect to force that disempowerment on everyone else.

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  1. But many very similar arguments can be made regarding the party tickets of the major parties. The fights over the number one position on the ticket and so down to the last few generally unwinnable positions means faction manoeuvring and seniority are deciding if you get elected not the desire of ehe electors and supporters who may have preferred a candidate from further down the ticket but vote the party ticket from loyalty.
    How else could you explain some of the rusted on waste of spaces who make a life time job of the position and perks by working the party system not the electorate.
    We need to get rid of party tickets and have full optional preferences

  2. Thanks Andrew for dealing so comprehensively with this issue. The new system can, and will, result in some exhausted ballot papers (where the voter does not number sufficient preferences to ensure their vote has an effect in electing senators for their state/territory). I suspect there is a significant minority of voters who will, because they are so disillusioned with the major parties, only number minor parties in their 1 to 6 numbering (above the line), and if this is the case, there is a reasonable prospect that their ballot paper may be exhausted. To avoid this I recommend minor party supporters number their paper (if they are voting above or below the line) until they include at least one of the major parties, making sure of course that all other parties they prefer before the major party have a lower number (higher preference) than the major party. This will ensure their vote has maximal effect in electing the senators they want. Of course the major parties will not publicise this fact as they are likely to be more than happy to see minor party voters ballot papers exhausted: I strongly suspect the AEC will not advise on it either as they would be seen to be too political and exceeding the bounds of the legislation to do so.

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