- Senate reforms have changed the game for small parties
- Question for small parties and their voters: “How can we adapt to this new system, to remain effective agents of change?”
- The effects of the reforms for small parties were hardly felt in the 2016 election, because of the double-dissolution
- Fewer preferences, no preference planning, more exhausted votes
- If small parties compete with each other next time, none of them win election
- There’s no option but to grow
The Commonwealth Electoral Amendment Bill 2016 - more commonly known as the ‘Senate voting reforms’ - changed the game for small parties in Australia. The reforms changed the way we vote for senators in federal elections - literally, on the ballot paper. As well as changing how ‘preferences flow, and hence how candidates are elected.
Some critics have called it a “dirty little deal”, between the Coalition, the Greens and Nick Xenophon, while supporters have emphasised benefits to transparency and voter empowerment. What’s been notably missing from both of these arguments however, is mention of the specific causes championed by many small (minor, as well as ‘micro’) parties, and their role in delivering both hope and policy-results to their voters. The merits of the legislative decision, whatever they were, are now a question of history. The pressing question now for minor parties and their voters is “How can we adapt to this new system, to remain effective agents of change?”.
The situation before the 2016 reforms came into effect.
1983 reforms by the Hawke Labor Government simplified the voting process at senate elections. As Nick Economou explains, party identifiers were included on ballot papers, and voters could cast a single preference above a thick black line, rather than having to number every single candidate sequentially below-the-line. This change did redress the historically high numbers of ‘informal’ votes (ballots uncounted due to an error in numbering, for example). But it also fundamentally changed the way most people voted - with more than 90% opting for the new, ‘vote 1 above-the-line’ option. What this meant was that a person’s ballot would be assumed to correspond with the allocation of preferences as determined by their party of choice. This allocation of preferences - known as ‘group voting tickets’ - were something parties lodged with the Australian Electoral Commission prior to the election. Group voting tickets were determined through negotiations with other parties. This negotiation process involved strategic, but legitimate ‘wheeling and dealing’ between parties, minor and major alike, to determine whose preferences would flow to whom (and in what quantity). In many cases, this process significantly influenced which parties were elected.
Many outcomes of the voting system pre-2016 were well documented in the media. In 1984, Labor crushed Peter Garrett’s first attempt at a parliamentary career when it preferenced against Garrett’s Nuclear Disarmament Party. In 1998, all the major parties preferenced against Pauline Hanson’s One Nation. And in 2004, Labor in Victoria preferred Family First to the Greens. This helped Family First’s Steve Fielding secure a Senate seat despite gaining less than 2% of the primary vote.
Perhaps the most memorable outcome of the group ticket voting system is the controversy surrounding 2013 Federal election, when Ricky Muir was elected to the Senate with less than 1% of the primary vote.
What did the 2016 reforms change?
The Senate ballot paper: as William Bowe writes, still lists “parties above the line and candidates below it”, but above-the-line voters are now directed to number a minimum of six boxes (as opposed to just labelling one box ‘1’). If you vote below-the-line, you’re instructed to number at least 12 boxes (and given that in recent senate elections there have been as many as 150 candidates to chose form, this may come as a relief to those who vote below-the-line - since you no longer have to number all of them!).
For parties, as Bowe continues: the new reforms will have a consequential effect on the electoral system itself, in that in the absence of group voting tickets, “votes will drop out of the count at the point where a voter ceases indicating a preference” - and therefore less preferences will flow to parties.
What does that mean for minor parties and their voters?
It is widely acknowledged that the senate voting reforms have overwhelmingly negative impacts for smaller parties (Green 2017; Bowe 2015; 2016; ABC 2016,) . Psephologist Antony Green goes so far as to say that if smaller parties compete against each other at the next Federal election, the new voting system “would probably ensure none of them win election”.
There are two key implications of the new system for smaller parties: the lower volume of total preferences; and the elimination of preference planning.
First, since Labor and Coalition have a higher primary vote, reducing the role played by preferences undeniably benefits them. With money for advertising, broad institutional representation, and a long history on their side - the majors have always enjoyed a high primary vote (by-proxy in many cases), while smaller parties haven’t, and therefore depended on preferences to help their cause. The Greens and Nick Xenophon now also command a sizeable portion of the primary vote, and as such also felt threatened under the system where the vote for smaller parties could get behind a few influential cross-benchers. Smaller parties depend much more on preferences than bigger groups. So with a reduced total pool of preferences to be allocated, smaller parties are relatively more disadvantaged. In absolute terms, this means that smaller parties have a much lower chance of accumulating enough preferences to be elected.
Second, the abolition of group voting tickets, and with them, the ability for parties to plan and coordinate preference flows, means that smaller parties will struggle to ensure that preference allocations are effective, and non-wasteful. As Green states, this wasborne out by the results of the 2016 election.Without the ability of smaller, under-resourced parties to coordinate their efforts, they face the task of each having to encourage voters directly to list their preferences in specific orders. With limited means to produce advertising campaigns, or to man polling stations nation-wide with how-to-vote cards on election day, the new system provides no hope for smaller parties. It forces them to stretch themselves thinner than they possibly can - like butter scraped over too much bread. The elimination of preference planning has undermined smaller parties’ chances of being elected in a decisive way.
What’s more, 2016 was a ‘double-dissolution’ election. This means that the entire senate delegation - every single senate seat in all states and territories - was contested in the same election. Under the Senate proportional voting system, this meant that the quota (of the vote) for the election of each senator in each state was 7.69%, which is half of what the quota usually is (14.28%) in a normal election. For smaller parties, this meant their chances of election, or re-election, were boosted significantly, as they only needed half the normal number of votes to reach the minimum quota for election. To demonstrate the significance of this for smaller parties’ chances, Antony Green asserted that Family First senator Bob Daywould not have been elected had it been a normal, half-senate election (as will be the case at the next time around). So, elections are only going to get harder for smaller parties.
Further, this trend isn’t just about Federal politics - changes to electoral systems are expected to precipitate at the state level too. The next South Australian state election (due in March 2018) is likely to be use rules similar to the Senate’s new system to elect the members of its Legislative Council.
How can minor parties and their voters change?
Many suggest that smaller parties will diminish in number. With the imposition of this new electoral architecture, they’ve lost much of the incentive to run. Yet, paradoxically, the appetite for alternatives to the major parties has never been greater!And with good reason - their factionalism is destructive, the lack of originality and courage on policy is wholly underwhelming, and the political deadlock in many areas is deeply frustrating. In the 2016 federal election more than 35.3 % of people voted for a party other than the Coalition or Labor in the Senate. Something’s got to give.
So what will change? As one commentator wrote of the response of smaller parties to reforms back in 2016, “Turnbull can bet they will be agile and innovative”. And he was right. The voices that the new voting system effectively silences, will find a way to be heard. The voters for smaller parties know that the causes they support are too important to fall by the wayside.
Joining forces to pool resources, reach more people, and build a voter base capable of influencing federal outcomes in the new system, seems more and more like the best way to go for small parties. And it’s already happening - Family First & Cory Bernardi’s Australian Conservatives announced they’d unite earlier this year. And while to many reasonable, forward looking people who oppose extremism and ideological politics, this represents a sinister development, it is also a simple byproduct of a system whereby smaller parties are ‘urged to merge’. Antony Green concludes this about small parties in his April 2017 article: “As separate parties, their total vote is dissipated by exhausted preferences” - and therefore they’re better off joining together to form bigger groupings. If they don’t, smaller parties risk being trampled under-hoof in the next electoral race.
And so what of those affected by the particular issues for which some minor parties are champions? Many small parties have been strong advocates - working hard for (and achieving) change in important policy areas. The failure of these organisations to adapt to the new senate voting environment, will undeniably diminish the voices of those pushing for change in the places it’s most needed. And whether it’s animal rights, arts funding, end of life choices, sex workers rights, renewable energy, science research, medicinal cannabis, or improved transport options, these things matter, and they matter to people. So, perhaps the question “How can small parties and their voters adapt to the new senate voting rules?” is subordinate to another, more vital question. “How can they not?”
REASON spokespersons available for interview
Omar Khalifa: ACP Founder and President
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