Freedom lost when you vote above the line

28 March 2016


Hardly anybody would’ve heard of the Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party, or of Ricky Muir, until after the last Federal election, in September 2013.  Running for a Senate seat in Victoria in that election, the AMEP and Muir only won a tiny proportion of votes, but preferences from other political parties and groups enabled Muir to leapfrog his way to a Senate seat, ahead of those who’d won considerably more votes than him.

Many regard the presence of Muir in Federal Parliament as an insult to democracy.  They don’t like the idea that he could’ve been elected when hardly anybody voted for him, and that so-called “gaming” got him there.  But while the criticism of Muir’s election has some validity, some critics are being disingenuous about it.

There’s nothing new in candidates winning seats in elections with less votes than their direct rivals.  How many people remember that Independent candidate Andrew Wilkie, running for the seat of Denison in the House of Representatives a few elections ago, actually finished third in the initial counting of votes, and won the seat with preferences from other candidates?  He might’ve been lucky to be elected back then, but he won the most votes in the initial count at the next election that he contested, and he’ll probably hold Denison forever if he wishes.

The difference between Wilkie’s initial election and Muir’s 2013 election is in relation to preferences.  When you vote to elect someone to the House of Reps, you have to mark “1” and “2” and so on against every candidate on your ballot paper for that chamber.  If your first choice candidate is eliminated, because of having the least votes at the end of any count, your vote goes to whichever candidate you mark “2” against on your ballot paper, unless your second choice of candidate has been eliminated already, in which case it goes to your third choice or higher if required.  Here, if your preferred candidates are eliminated from the count, you choose where your vote goes.  But this isn’t the same when you vote in Senators.

Until some decades ago, you had to mark “1” and “2” and so on against every candidate on your ballot paper for the Senate, which has usually been a larger paper than that for the House of Reps.  This process was later changed, and a thick black line was added to each ballot paper for the Senate.  Now when you vote to elect people from your state to the Senate, you have a choice of voting “above the line” or “below the line”.  If you vote below the line, you must put numbers in every box below it.  If you vote above the line, you need only mark “1” against your choice of political party, and then that’s it.

Not surprisingly, most Australians vote above the line when voting for Senators.  But this option has a dark underside, and not many people knew about it until some time after the option of voting above the line was introduced.

Before a Federal election, all political parties are required to state where they will direct preferences in Senate contests, as far as votes above the line go.  But they’re the ones who decide where votes and preferences go, rather than the voters, who probably don’t know where preferences are going, notwithstanding that this stuff is made public.  As a voter, you still have the freedom to choose where your vote goes if you vote below the line on your Senate ballot paper – but this freedom is lost when you just vote above the line.  It might be more convenient for you, but it’s also a touch undemocratic.

To illustrate my point, I refer to the Greens, and to controversial political figures Pauline Hanson and Fred Nile, as well as the major parties.  Hypothetically, you’d expect the Liberal Party to direct preferences to Nile ahead of the Greens, and the Labor Party to direct preferences to the Greens ahead of Hanson.  But not all voters like this.

What if you’re a Liberal voter preferring to give the Greens your preference ahead of Nile, or a Labor voter preferring Hanson to the Greens?  Unfortunately, when you vote above the line, you lose your say here.  Your vote goes where the parties decide, whether you like it or not.

It took the emergence of Hanson in the 1990s to expose this undemocratic side of voting for the Senate.  She formed her own political party, which finished third in several states at a Federal election in 1998, but other players won Senate seats with less votes, because Hanson had such controversial views that many political parties agreed to direct Senate preferences to each other and away from her mob.  This leapfrogging occurred on a few occasions at later elections.

My feeling is that, before the 2013 election, minor players came to understand that they could, and should, direct Senate preferences to each other and away from the major parties.  And that was exactly what they did – with Muir winning as a result.

Reforms to Senate voting since then might’ve resulted from a desire to prevent wins with tiny votes.  But they look driven by resentment.  Senate voting will have changed due to annoyance of big players over this kind of loss.



Great night when an Independent stunned all

20 March 2016


This past week marked an anniversary of sorts.  Around this time ten years ago, in March 2006, something incredible happened in politics.  And I watched it happen, during the first visit that I ever made to an election tally room.

I’d gone to Adelaide to follow a state election in South Australia, the result of which was a comfortable win for the Labor Party over the Liberal Party.  But the election is memorable for another reason, which I’ll explain shortly.

The tally room in Adelaide wasn’t like tally rooms that I’d seen glimpses of on television before.  Tally rooms themselves are now almost extinct – they used to be in exhibition houses or similarly large buildings, which you could sometimes visit to watch election results coming in, but technology has pretty much made them obsolete.

This Adelaide tally room in 2006 was inside a television studio, and there were temporary stages set up for television networks to cover the election, while near them were rows of tables where people from radio stations sat as they covered the results.  On a back wall was a large screen, showing election results in every parliamentary seats, and they’d be updated electronically.  This kind of screen has replaced old-fashioned election result boards, on which election officials would constantly put up numbers as they received the latest results in each seat.  I saw with a few other election followers on a mezzanine level overlooking the tally room, and we watched the results coming in on that big screen.

By and large, the election results didn’t surprise.  Labor had come to power in 2002 with Mike Rann as leader, and he’d been popular as Premier, so he was widely tipped to win this election in 2006.  Sure enough, he won.  But something else of note happened here – it certainly amazed me, as a visitor to this place at the time.

Elections in South Australia are similar to Federal elections.  The State Parliament of SA has two chambers, namely the House of Assembly and the Legislative Council.  Elections for the Lower House, which is the Assembly, are for forty-seven single-member seats, and governments are formed here.  In the Upper House, which is the Council, there are twenty-two seats, with half of them, eleven in all, going up for grabs at election time, and the whole state is treated here as one single electorate.  To win a Lower House seat, you need a majority of the vote in that seat, but just over a twelfth of the statewide vote will win you an Upper House seat.  It’s worth noting that, to work out how many votes are needed to win a seat within a single electorate, especially with two or more seats in it, you have to divide the total vote in the electorate by a number which is one more than the number of seats up for grabs, and then add one vote to the divided total – hence the need for just over a twelfth of the statewide vote to win one of eleven Upper House seats.

Going into the 2006 election, among those politicians facing the voters was one particular bloke who’d won an Upper House with other people’s preferences two elections earlier, in 1997.  When I went to the election tally room in 2006, I only knew that he’d been a critic of poker machines, and that the major parties and some minor players were directing preferences away from him.  So I didn’t expect him to hold his seat, although I didn’t know how other people had tipped him to do.

How wrong I was.  Needing just over a twelfth of the statewide vote to be elected, this man and his team of candidates won roughly a fifth of the vote – enough to win two seats.  Not only did this man hold his seat, but he got a teammate elected on his coattails!  In fact, his team finished only a few percentage points behind the Liberal Opposition.

And so began, arguably at this moment, the phenomena that was this man, named Nick Xenophon.  Although already in Parliament, he mightn’t have been expected to hold his seat when he next faced the voters, having originally been elected on preferences.  But in 2006, he won in his own right, and actually did more than that.

This was therefore a great night for those with cynicism regarding politicians, as here was a moment when an Independent stunned all with an amazing win.

And Xenophon hasn’t looked back since.  Over a year after his 2006 win, he chose to run for Federal Parliament, and won a Senate seat in SA with ease.  His vote wasn’t as high as in the state election, but it was enough for him to win in his own right – he didn’t need preferences to win, which would’ve been rare for an Independent.  And when he next faced the voters in 2013, voters were so unhappy with the major parties that Xenophon increased his vote, and almost got a teammate elected.  He and his mate actually won more votes than Labor.

Now Xenophon looks safe in the Senate.  He’ll last as long as he wants to.  Rarely would you find an Independent so widely trusted when voters can’t abide the major parties.