Government scheme to fiddle Senate numbers

May 7, 1997

By Allen Myers

The federal Liberal Party is looking into ways of changing the voting system for the Senate, according to reports in the Bulletin and the Sydney Morning Herald. The aim would be to ensure that governments would normally have a majority in the Senate and thus would not need to rely on minor party votes to pass their legislation.

Talk about changing the method of Senate elections began to surface as early as last August. The problem for the government was quite simple: it lacked a majority in the Senate.

At the March 1996 election, about 49% of formal first preference votes for the Coalition translated into an overwhelming majority in the House of Representatives. But although the Senate vote is less democratic in the sense that states with quite different populations all have the same number of senators, its proportional representation system of election in this case produced an overall result much closer to the way people voted.

The Coalition, with 45.56% of the formal vote for the Senate, ended up with 37 of the 76 senators (48.68%). To pass its legislation, the government needed two votes from the Democrats, Greens and/or Tasmanian independent Brian Harradine.

The government's problem, in other words, was that voters hadn't voted for its Senate candidates in sufficient numbers. Moreover, it seemed likely that future elections would have broadly similar results.

So, if the voters were going to insist on voting the wrong way, a different method of counting votes would be needed in order to produce the right results. The voters might not understand what's good for them, but the government has no shortage of political thinkers to devise systems that will give the voters what the government knows they need, rather than what they want.

One such bright spark is Tony Abbott, the Liberal member for Warringah. He wrote an article in the Adelaide Review, reprinted in the Australian, canvassing a host of ways of ensuring that votes for smaller parties would not be reflected in Senate numbers.

However, in the short term, a quicker way of altering the election results fell from the skies. Labor Senator Mal Colston underwent a sudden crisis of political theory and discovered that he was much better suited to be an independent voting with the government. The likelihood of a double dissolution receded, and producing results contrary to the vote became less urgent.

The spirit of senators is pure, until proved guilty in a court of law. But the flesh is mortal, and Senator Colston was recently hospitalised. This has forced the government to confront the possibility that this highly valued independent might be forced to resign for health reasons, in which case he would be replaced by a Labor senator. Fiddling election results is back on the agenda.

According to Laurie Oakes, writing in the May 6 Bulletin, the Liberals' retiring federal director, Andrew Robb, and federal president Tony Staley are keen to bring in changes to the system of Senate voting. An article in the May 1 Sydney Morning Herald reported that Robb had "confirmed he had been given the go-ahead to look at alternate voting systems which would make it harder for Independents and minor parties to win Senate seats".

As Tony Abbott explained it last August in the Australian, the voting system was all right until 1984: "Then, each State elected five senators in a normal half Senate election and a party with 50 per cent of the vote won three (of five) Senate quotas.

"In 1984, however, the size of the Senate was increased ... Now, half Senate elections mean six senators up for grabs each time and an impossible 57 per cent of the vote necessary to gain four (of six) quotas."

Got that? It is good, proper and democratic that a party which gets 50% of the vote should receive 60% of the senators. However, it is a gross injustice to our major parties to make them obtain 57% of the vote in order to get 66.7% of the senators.

One of Abbott's bright ideas was to divide each state into two electorates, each electing three senators in a half Senate election. This would be even better than the pre-1984 Senate system, for 50% plus one vote in an electorate would give the Coalition or ALP two-thirds of its senators.

Andrew Robb has refined this idea even further, Oakes reported: "The solution Robb clearly favours is to split each state into six regions. Each region would be represented by two senators. One senator from each region would come up for election every three years."

That is, 50% plus one vote would give a party all (one) of the electorate's senators up for election. Senate electorates would retain their undemocratic feature of representing widely different population numbers but would completely lose their democratic aspect of proportional representation, becoming like House of Representatives electorates, but with a term of six years instead of three.

A third party or independent would have even less chance of winning a Senate seat that it does today of winning a House of Representatives seat.

That, of course, is the whole point. Elections in recent years have shown an increasing dissatisfaction with the two major parties. People who want to vote for a third party have to be discouraged from doing so, and an easy way to do that is to convince voters that a third-party vote is "wasted" because the candidate can't win.

Such a change, Oakes writes, could be introduced simply by passing legislation through both houses. Would such a bill be blocked in the Senate? "Since it would have the potential to advantage both major parties in government, some sort of deal with the Labor Party might not be out of the question."

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