Commentator alarm over the possible outcome of the contest for half the Australian Senate has almost overwhelmed the news that Tony Abbott’s Liberal-National coalition has won majority government in a landslide.
The preoccupation with the Senate stems partly from reports of the imminent election of candidates other than those endorsed by the ALP, the Coalition and the Greens. Described variously as “nutters”, “whackos” “a circus” and/or a “barnyard”, the lament is how could candidates who polled such miniscule primary votes sully the august Australian Senate.
The answer to this, of course, is because it is allowed to happen under the Single Transferrable Vote (STV) method that is pivotal to our electoral systems. The STV allows voters to cast preferences for all candidates, and that these preferences can count until such time as all vacant positions have been filled.
In lower house elections with single member districts, the threshold a candidate needs to win is 50 percent plus 1 of the vote cast. In proportional systems, however, the threshold for election is much lower – 14.4 percent in the case of Australian half-Senate elections which have used STV proportional representation since 1949. For much of this time Labor and the Coalition dominated Senate outcomes. After the Labor split in the 1950s, the DLP was able to win some seats, and, from 1977, the Australian Democrats were also successful.
The appearance of a different type of minor party in Senate configurations coincided with major reforms to Senate voting in time for 1984, including ‘above the black line’ voting and the use of official party tickets in determining preference allocation (the so-called ‘group ticket vote’ or GTV). It began with the success of the Nuclear Disarmament Party (NDP) which also won a seat in 1987. Since 1984 the following parties have had at least one senator: the Valentine Peace Group, the West Australian Greens, the Australian Greens, Pauline Hanson’s One Nation and Family First (the DLP returned to the Senate in 2010).
In all cases bar some Green successes in Tasmania and Victoria, and the One Nation success in Queensland in 1998, these minor parties won seats even though they won quite small totals of primary votes. The election of Family First’s Steve Fielding drew attention to the crucial role preference agreements under the auspices of the GTV play in helping candidates elected even if they polled less than 2 percent of the primary.
Of course, strategic preference allocations had been used from the moment the GTV came in in time for 1984, and had been responsible for denying NDP candidate Peter Garrett a Senate seat in NSW in 1984, and for freezing out a host of One Nation candidates in 1998. So, too, has the occurrence of the election of senators with paltry primary votes – and not all of these have been minor party candidates. A review of past Senate results show that the second candidate on the Labor ticket, and the second and third Liberal candidates regularly get elected even though they poll around 1,000 primary votes (or 0.01 percent). The reason for this, of course, is that the STV process allows for the massive vote that the first placed candidate on the ticket receives to be allocated to the next preferred candidate.
Surpluses and preferences can only get candidates elected if they get enough votes by way of primary vote, OR primary plus surplus, OR primary plus preference. The 2013 Senate contest is a case in point: the Motor Enthusiast Party candidate may win a seat because the candidate gets the preferences of the 16 percent or thereabouts of Victorians who did not vote for Labor, the Coalition or the Greens. If those voters weren’t happy about the minor parties cross-preferencing each other, they could have voted below the black line, and 16 percent is more than enough to win you a seat where the quota is 14.4 percent. If the Motor Enthusiast Party candidate wins a seat, it is because the party received in excess of the 14.4 percent of the vote cast after the distribution of preferences and surpluses – the very same process that elects the second Labor senator and the second and third Liberal senators.
The first round of the debate about the Senate – driven by those who, for political, ideological or elitist reasons, don’t like the predicted result – has focussed on the electoral system which is blamed for an allegedly rogue outcome. This critique may be misdirected. It is the vote, not the voting system, that is responsible for the predicted outcome. The fact is that a very large number of Australians – 20 percent nationally – chose not to vote Labor, Coalition or Green in this election and that is why the major parties have failed to achieve a total hegemony over an upper house that is, after all, supposed to be proportionally represented.
Dr Nick Economou is a senior lecturer in the School of Political and Social Inquiry, Monash University.