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.



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