Electoral reform a protection racket for established interests

Voting systems should empower voters not parties, argues Iain Evans.

Jan 11, 2016, updated Jan 11, 2016
Nick Xenophon was first elected to parliament with 2.9 per cent of the primary vote, but now wants to close the door on others seeking to emulate the feat. Photo: Alan Porritt, AAP.

Nick Xenophon was first elected to parliament with 2.9 per cent of the primary vote, but now wants to close the door on others seeking to emulate the feat. Photo: Alan Porritt, AAP.

Sitting on the books of both the federal and South Australian parliaments when they return to business in the next few weeks are various proposals to change the laws regarding how the parliaments’ upper houses are elected. This is a direct reaction to the 2013 Senate election result where a record seven Senate spots were won by the crossbench.

Each proposal for voting system reform deliberately aims to make it harder for “micro parties” (generally new parties) to be elected and therefore makes it easier for the well-established major parties, minor parties and independents to be elected. It’s the established “haves” ganging up on the new “have-nots”. Voters should be highly sceptical about the motives of the proponents for change.

All of the proposed changes are being promoted under the guise that they will make it easier to have the election result in the upper house “reflect the will of the voters”. It is interesting that the voters are not being asked, via referendum, if the voting system needs changing to reflect their will and, if it does, what changes are supported. Oh no, let’s not ask the voters – who might want a system that suits them. Let’s design a system that helps the existing players and tell the voters it’s good for them!

Changes to the voting system that favour established parties over emerging ones set a dangerous precedent

Not surprisingly, all of the proposals  for change are being promoted by already well-established major parties or minor parties and independents who are advantaged by the proposed changes and will benefit the most. You’re probably shocked, I know!

The proponents of change are suggesting that by electing the new micro parties to the Senate in the 2013 election (and not them or their party’s candidate), the voter had made a mistake because they did not understand the voting system or how the preferences flowed.  Apparently, it was only those who voted for the proponents of change – the established major parties and established minor parties and independents – that understood the voting system and how the preferences flowed and therefore had “their will reflected in the result”.  We all know this is political bunkum. 

There is a strong argument that the voters who elected the new minor parties knew exactly what they were doing – not voting for one of the establish parties or independents. It was a classic ”I will vote for anyone but you” vote, based on the toxic atmosphere of the Rudd/Gillard/Rudd/Abbott Parliament. They didn’t care who they were voting for as long as it was not them.

As far as I am aware, there has been no research done on the question of whether the voters’ will was reflected in the 2013 Senate result or not. Just how you measure that, no-one has explained.  It’s just a convenient assumption by the proponents because it suits their argument for change that also strengthens their electoral chances. They argue that because the new micro parties were elected, there must have been voter error based on gaming of the system.

For those wondering ,“gaming of the system” is a new phrase in politics that refers to a well-organised campaign to swap preferences between candidates to give the best chance of one of the candidates (in this case, a new micro party) being elected.  It worked well, with two of the new Senators at the 2013 federal election receiving less than one per cent of the primary vote but receiving enough preferences to be elected. 

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Maybe the established parties have never heard of preference swapping or were just bad at it in 2013.  So now, when new micro parties preference-swap, it’s demonised as “gaming the system” but when established parties and independents preference-swap, it’s called a “preference deal”, and is all part of the legitimate political process. Of course preference swapping has been part of the political system as long as preferential voting has existed and everyone plays the game – some better than others, it seems.

There is a slippery slope to becoming a protection racket for those groups

What is staggering is that Senator Nick Xenophon is one of the key proponents of the changes that will supposedly “more accurately represent the will of voters” (as quoted in Hansard on March 18, 2014) because “some candidates were elected with very small percentages of primary vote: in two cases, representatives were elected with less than one per cent of the primary vote“.

This is staggering, because when Senator Xenophon was first elected to the South Australian upper house in 1997, he received just 2.9 per cent of the primary vote. That’s right – 97.1 per cent of people did not want him as their first choice but, through preference deals, some might now call “gaming”, he was elected.

The difference is?

I don’t know, other than that now he and others are elected their attitude seems to be “let’s make it harder for others to get elected because if they do, they may take our votes”.  I think it is hard to mount a credible argument that it’s wrong to be elected on less than 1 per cent of the primary vote because the voters did not know what they were doing, but it’s somehow okay to be elected on 2.9 per cent of the primary vote (presumably, because those voters did know what they were doing?)

Changes to the voting system that favour established parties and independents over emerging parties and independents set a dangerous precedent. The Parliament is in danger of becoming a club of the currently established at the expense of democracy.  There is a slippery slope to becoming a protection racket for those groups that are established in the Parliament.

The proposed changes are based on the assumption that people were elected to the Senate that the voters never intended. That proposition, of course, is impossible to prove.  What is really at play is that the Senate has a high number of independent and micro party members and people who once held power now don’t hold as much power.  Governments of both colours find it easier to deal with fewer groups.

Australia has a robust democracy and it needs to remain so. The system of voting should not be established or amended to favour a party or established independent.

The proposed changes should be put to a referendum of the voters – only  then the voters can decide if the changes are in their best interests or in the best interests of the proponents.

Iain Evans is a former state Liberal leader and was MP for Davenport from 1993 until 2014.

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