Will Senate reform crash the micro party?

Why is the government so keen to reform Senate voting with the threat of a double dissolution election hanging in the air?

The government and the Greens are supporting legislation to enact some recommendations of a parliamentary committee into the 2013 election while Labor and most small parties and independents are opposing them.

The rhetoric runs high: the changes will allow for minor parties to be locked out, the Liberals will win control of the Senate; and conversely this is the one chance we will have to remove the ability of unprincipled players to “game” the system and abuse voters' intentions with dodgy preference deals.

Which side you favour depends on how much faith you have in Australian democracy overall.

The reform currently being proposed is to enact “optional preferential” voting for above the line (group) votes in the Senate. Most voters vote above the line, for a party or group that then determines where voters' preferences flow to next by a “Group Voting Ticket”, a list of their group's preferences lodged with the Electoral Commission.

In the new system, voters will be directed to number at least six groups, but may only number one box if they choose. Parties that rely on preferences to get candidates elected may find the preferences are no longer there.

Preference allocation

Recently, parties have allocated preferences in surprising ways. Labor preferences elected far-right Family First Senator Steve Fielding in 2004, instead of the Greens, which got many more first-preference votes than Family First. In 2013, the Wikileaks Party directed preferences to the WA Nationals ahead of the Greens, nearly causing Greens Senator Scott Ludlam to lose his seat.

In the previous election, a large array of “micro-parties” carefully traded preferences to elect a number of Senators from their ranks, with many micro parties seemingly set up only as “dummy” tickets to channel preferences to the major parties.

No group preference lists means no preference deals, honourable or otherwise. You could argue that most voters are probably happy to entrust preference allocation to the party they vote for.

The Australia Institute's Richard Denniss pointed out that “the whole point of an election is to trust a party to make important decisions on our behalf”. Perhaps not Wikileaks voters who discovered their preferences were given to the Nationals though?

It is hard to find a strong argument against giving control over preferences back to voters, especially if below-the-line optional preferential is included in the changes for consistency. Even if many voters do not allocate any preferences at all, that may be their deliberate choice, or it may be a problem with voter education. But it is not necessarily a problem with optional preferential voting itself.

Optional preferential

The NSW Legislative Council introduced a similar system, which does not ask voters to number multiple boxes. Eighty three per cent of voters only number one box. Small parties have not disappeared in the NSW Legislative Council, perhaps because the quota for election there is only 4.55% not 14.3% as for a typical federal half-Senate election.

In this scenario, the 25% of the voters who opted for small parties might have their votes go nowhere at all, rather than electing 7 Senators. It is understandable, whatever their political views, that small parties might seek to retain the preferencing mechanism that allowed them to get a foot in the door of the exclusive club that is the federal parliament.

On the other hand, setting up more and more tiny parties with wacky names to harvest extra votes (and then channel them via preference deals) is a dubious cottage industry that has helped, for example, Motoring Enthusiasts Party candidate (now independent) Ricky Muir get elected on preferences — with only about 0.5% of the first-preference vote.

A lot of the outrage at Muir's election on such a tiny vote is misplaced. Muir has done a fair job of representing an ordinary citizen's view in a parliament that normally seems to do anything but. More importantly, as Muir himself has noted, the last Senator declared elected in any state (often from a major party) is always elected on preferences, often with an individual first-preference vote far smaller than that of the micro parties. In fact, so-called micro parties won nearly 25% of the first-preference vote in the 2013 Senate election, but only secured 17.5% of the seats.

Below-the-line voting is unpopular because typically, voters have to accurately number as many as 100 or more boxes. The recommendation from the parliamentary committee was for the optional-preferential system to extend to below-the-line votes. In this case, voters could not only choose which party to vote for, but which candidates from that party, meaning that which party candidate is favoured for first place by factional machines would matter far less.

If this is included in the legislation before parliament, many voters' preferences still may go nowhere in the count, but it does introduce some consistency between above and below-the-line votes. It also begs the question of why keep above-the-line voting at all.

Optional preferential may have some other advantages. Currently, below-the-line voters and Group Voting Tickets have to number every candidate, potentially distributing their preference to some that they would rather not. Labor criticised the Greens because Green preferences helped elect Family First Senator Bob Day at the previous election. In fact, both Labor and Greens preferenced Day ahead of another, probably less right-wing contender. But in optional-preferential, Greens voters could (and probably would) not allocate Family First a preference at all.

Undoubtedly, it will be harder for small parties to get in on preferences: it will mean those that go out and campaign for votes, not those who do mathematically calculated preference deals (or set up dummy tickets), will be more likely to get elected.

Of course, it also means that the two major parties with their millions in large donations will continue to have a massive advantage over small and new, yet still genuine, parties.

In fact, although Labor is opposing these new laws and apparently trying to appease the micro-party Senators, another recommendation, supported by Labor but not included in the present bill, would have pushed the membership requirement for registering a party from 500 members to 1500 — an onerous, undemocratic requirement for many small and new, yet genuine parties as much as for “dummy” tickets.

There are many conspiracy theories about who will benefit from the new voting system such as that the Coalition will gain complete control of the Senate. If the previous Senate election were run with optional preferential voting, said electoral expert Antony Green, “the Coalition would hold 35 seats not 33, Labor 27 not 25, the Greens nine not 10, and others five not eight”. In this outcome the two major parties would benefit, equally, but the 25% of votes for minor parties would only elect 12.5% of the Senators, down from 17.5%.

Why are the unions so opposed to the reform? A plausible, yet little discussed theory is that the threat of voting reform is being used to bully the micro party and independent Senators into supporting the government's anti-union legislation. Should the micro parties reject the legislation, triggering a double dissolution election, they will struggle to retain their seats under the new voting rules. But it is not clear whether the government will proceed to a double dissolution anyway.


It is fair to question the timing of this bill, and the motives of particular parties who are supporting or opposing it. The Greens, however, have been campaigning for these changes ever since Fielding “stole” their seat on Labor preferences, so they are being consistent. Perhaps the Greens are right that although this reform is very limited, it is the only one on offer, and waiting for the perfect bill will not deliver anything.

But perhaps the main take-home message is how little this will change matters. Labor and the Coalition will likely remain alternating in government, with bipartisan brutalisation of refugees, ongoing theft of land and children from Aboriginal communities, privatisation, token action on climate change, and so on.

This reform bill also leaves untouched reform of the House of Representatives from which government is formed. The single-member electorate system is so undemocratic that the Greens won a single seat with 8.65% of the vote nationally. Labor, on only four times that percentage of the vote, won 55 seats. If seats were proportional to vote, the Greens would have won 13 seats.

And of course it still is a very unequal playing field to enter parliament. Weirdo billionaire Clive Palmer practically bought himself and his (now fractured) party their seats, with millions of dollars spent to make an advertising splash. Most new parties don't have a fraction of those resources, whereas even Palmer's billions did not really challenge the domination of the two major parties.

So does the Senate (or parliament overall) need democratic reform? Sure it does. Will these changes make a difference? Probably not very much.

We are still stuck with a system that is rigged in favour of the incumbents, and those with money and wealthy donors and preferential mainstream media coverage.