Senate electoral reform in the balance

The Australian Parliament is currently debating a Bill to reform the Senate electoral processes. It is very dismal listening: much abuse, much nonsense, and very little intelligent analysis.  And all happening in a last minute dash.  

Not Parliament at its best.

NSWCCL supports immediate reform of the distorted and undemocratic Senate electoral processes. We have urged this since the 2013 elections so dramatically illustrated the undemocratic processes and outcomes of this broken system.  We have made a submission to the Joint Committee on Electoral Matters supporting a Bill which, if amended on one key matter, will deliver that reform.

This Bill is supported by the Government, the Greens and Senator Xenophon.  The ALP and the other cross benchers vehemently oppose it.  Perceived electoral self-interest appears to be the common driver- with the possible exception of the Greens.

This is such a shame. Two years ago there was constructive consensus from all major players and Xenophon on the need for immediate action and for a comprehensive reform package recommended by a unanimous parliamentary committee report. This report was scathing in its criticism of the 2013 Senate election process and urged Parliament to act quickly so that Australian electors should not have to go to another election under  the current system.

Sadly both the Government and the Opposition failed to act then. 

The current Bill provides a second, albeit belated, opportunity to enact these crucial reforms. It must  be amended to fully implement the Committee’s 2014 recommendations to allow partial optional preferential voting below the line.  This is an imperative if we are not to have an inconsistent and flawed new system.   

NSWCCL understands the self-interest electoral pressures on parties especially in the context of a mooted double dissolution in an extremely overheated political environment.  However,  on an issue as fundamental as the right of electors to be able to choose who they vote for, to control the allocation of their preferences and to not vote for candidates they don’t support , we have a right to expect our political parties and parliamentarians  to put democracy first.


Detailed Comment

Underlying principles

NSWCCL assessed the Senate electoral processes against core civil liberties principles essential to a robust democracy. These included:

  • the body that is elected must have legitimacy—that is, popular acceptance of its authority
  • the body that is elected must reflect the collective expressed intention of voters
  •  voters must be freely able to easily cast a formal vote that reflects their preferences
  • voters should not have to register a vote for candidates they oppose or do not wish to support
  • voters must be able to easily understand the potential effect of their vote
  • the barriers to new candidates and parties contesting an election must be sufficiently low so that they are not material barriers to new candidates and parties contesting an election individuals must be free to promote candidates and policies they support, and
  •  the administration of electoral systems and the conduct of elections must be conducted transparently


The current Senate system breaches most of these principles.

Proposed reforms

We support the abolition of group and individual voting tickets and the introduction of optional preferential voting above and below the line. This is similar to the reformed NSW system. It removes the major distorting factors in the current Senate system and will empower voters by returning control of their preferences to them. 

The current Bill does most of this but is seriously flawed in that it does not propose optional preferential voting below the line. It maintains the current requirement to register preferences for all candidates – 110 for NSW voters in 2013. There is abundant evidence that this is not a practical option for the overwhelming majority of voters- and certainly there are very few who would know the policies of all 110 candidates!  It would also leave us with a fundamental inconsistency between the driving voting principle for above and below the line.

The Government has offered no explanation or justification for not accepting the committee recommendation on below the line voting.

CCL’s analysis is driven by democratic principles not electoral outcomes for any party or individual.  We are however concerned as a matter of democratic principle that the system, while properly regulating party registration, must not make it materially difficult for legitimate new parties to form and seek election.  While the proposed reforms will eliminate the current gaming of preferences in the Senate,  we consider them balanced and fair.

The fate of the Bill

We urge the Opposition to engage constructively in this debate and work with others in parliament to amend the bill to include optional preferential voting below the line.  It is in the interest of democracy for these reforms to be in place before any future Senate election.

Dr Lesley Lynch

Vice President NSWCCL



Related posts:

Senate electoral reform survives onslaught - 18/03/16

NSWCCL submission to JCEM Feb 2016 - 29/02/16

See earlier submissions from 2014: 1-2