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Senate voting reform

September 11, 2013

With the possible Senate victory of the Motoring Enthusiasts on 0.5% of the vote, and the Sports Party on 0.2% of the vote, there has been a growing call for reform to the way that we vote. One of the more sensible suggestions doing the rounds is that people should have more control over their preferences, for example by being able to preference parties “above the line” on the Senate ballot paper. Perhaps. That is certainly something that should be considered.

Another idea being promoted is that small parties should be required to achieve 4% or 5% of the vote before they are allowed to sit in parliament. The rationale is that unless a party can show they have serious public support, then they shouldn’t be there representing the public. This argument fails for two reasons.

First, there are 226 people in the federal parliament, meaning that each politician makes up 0.44% of the total. The idea that a party doesn’t deserve 0.44% of representation because they only get 3% of the vote is an absurd example of Orwellian double-talk. If we are to exclude the micro parties, then the 15% of people who prefer those options will be represented by nobody, while all the big parties will be over-represented.

Second, by making the 1% and 2% parties irrelevant it becomes much harder for those small parties to ever grow into bigger parties, creating political stagnation. The system will be limited to the current big parties, only interrupted by an occasional billionaire. The Greens currently get about 8% of the vote, but go back 20 years and they were a 2% party. Their occasional successes helped them to build a profile and grow, and provide more political diversity.

The Senate system is certainly strange, and it’s reasonable to look at reforms that help make preferences more transparent. Or better yet, the new parliament should re-think our absurd attachment to compulsory voting. Forcing people to vote devalues the voice of people who carefully consider their vote, annoys people who don’t care, leads to lower quality public policy debates as parties appeal for the all-valuable ignorant vote, ensures that some segments of the voting public can be taken for granted, results in many informal and donkey and joke and random votes, while being a pointless infringement on free choice. For no benefit.

If we are going to reconsider the way we vote in Australia, voluntary should be on the table… but having an arbitrary cut-off that biases the system against small parties should be an absolute non-starter.



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