Senate reform not the democratic advance it is claimed to be

The Senate reform pushed through by the Turnbull Liberal-National government with the support of the Greens does not make federal Parliament more democratic. While it will end the “gaming” of the Group Voting Ticket for people voting above the line on the Senate ballot paper, it also weakens the preferential system and could give the Coalition an advantage in the next federal election.

Under the new rules, above-the-line voters will be instructed to mark at least six preferences for parties or groups and below-the-line voters will be instructed to mark at least 12 preferences for individual candidates. However, the new rules also allows ballots where just one above-the-line preference is marked to be counted.

This “saving” provision was made because it was feared that – without this – a large proportion of (possibly most) above-the-line voters would just mark one box rendering these votes invalid.

In NSW, there have been three elections since fully optional preferential voting was introduced to get rid of the GVT. Some 98% of voters are still voting above the line and most just put "1" for the party they support. This means that 85% of voter preferences do not move beyond their first party of choice.

In the Senate election, we could see a similar eroding of preference distribution and one effect of this may be an effective splitting of the non-Coalition vote because the majority of ALP and Green preferences are unlikely to flow to each other.

It will also mean that a large proportion of the 25% of electorate that voted for small parties could see their votes exhausted. The effective disenfranchisement of a quarter of the electorate is undemocratic.

The Socialist Alliance has always followed a principled preference policy. We reject opportunistic deals both of the sort practiced by “preference whisperer” Glenn Druery or those engaged in by the major parties and even, on occasions, by the Greens.

We have always allocated preferences in GVTs and on our how-to-votes on the basis of the politics of the various parties, groups and individual candidates – ranking them from left to right.

Opportunistic politics cannot be eliminated through a technical device, as the Coalition-Greens driven Senate reform attempts – not without a considerable democratic cost.

The Socialist Alliance has advocated alternative electoral reforms that would make Parliament more representative, reduce the systematic favouring of the entrenched major parties, the dominant influence of corporate donations and make electioneering fairer and more transparent.

First, the Socialist Alliance campaigns for the extension of proportional representation to the so-called House of Representatives to make it representative in reality and not just in name! It has been calculated by Adrian Whitehead that the composition of the current House of Representatives, if it represented the voters choice in the last election there would be 13 Greens MPs (instead of just one) and 15 other smaller party or independent MPs.

Secondly, the Socialist Alliance campaigns for a new electoral funding system based on the electoral commission distributing the platforms of all parties and candidates to voters (similar to what happens in many local government elections) rather than funding only the biggest parties. Experience shows that the establishment parties use this money to fund dishonest or deceptive advertisements which don't improve voters' understanding of the issues at stake in the election.

Following the 2013 federal election, the Liberal party received public funding to the tune of $23.9 million, the Australian Labor Party $20.8 million, the Greens $5.5 million and the National Party $3.1 million. Altogether the Australian Electoral Commission paid out $58.1 million to parties (on top of the $300 million in mostly corporate donations the biggest parties collected). These millions would have been better spent informing the electorate of the platforms of all parties and candidates in the next federal election.

Such an alternative use of public election funding is also a better way of making preferences more transparent and more under the control of voters, than the “solution” introduced by the Coalition-Greens driven Senate reform.