In principle, a reform allowing voters above-the-line preference choices for the Senate makes complete sense. However, the current public debate is missing a much bigger problem.
97% of voting-scientists have reached a consensus
At present, voters are effectively given one option when voting in the Senate – putting a single number above the line, with preferences then being dictated by whatever back room deals have been done by their party of choice. This is undemocratic to say the least.
Yes, voters can ‘take charge’ by numbering every box below the line. However, the fact is that at around 95% of voters choose to go above the line, with around 2-3% casting illegitimate votes. Given that there were 110 senate candidates in New South Wales at the last election, I’m not surprised.
When over 97% of voters are telling you that they’d rather leave it to the preference whisperer, you know that the voting system needs fixing.
However, this doesn’t deal with the whole problem when it comes to the Senate.
It’s all in the timing
The real issue with the Senate is that it is not just unrepresentative in substance, but also in time.
The zoo we were left with after the 2013 election demonstrates this perfectly:
- A House of Representatives – which reflects the current will of the people from the 2013 election.
- Half of the Senate – which reflects the will of the people from the 2010 election when Gillard was voted back in*.
- The other half of the Senate – which was voted for at the 2013 election, but did not commence reflecting the will of the people until 9 months later on 1 July 2014! (more on this below).
We shouldn’t be surprised that things have become so shambolic in politics given these conditions. The question is, are we going to fix it properly ?
(*) yes, yes, I know.
It was never meant to be like this
When our Constitutional forefathers created the Senate, it was intended to be a house of review vested in the States and Territories. As we know, it has proven to be anything but – with the Senate operating exclusively along party lines. This design flaw was then carried forward when the terms of each house were established:
- House of Representatives – a loose 3-year term, which can be shortened at the discretion of the Prime Minister by calling an early election or double dissolution.
- Senate – a fixed 6-year term, with half the seats being up for re-election every 3 years.
Unlike, the House of Representatives, Senate terms can only be shortened via a double dissolution (very rare). So if, the Prime Minister calls an early election, the House of Representatives will change early, but the Senate will stay the same until the full term is up.
When you add it all up, what we get is half a Senate which is regularly late to a party which the other half has long since gotten drunk and passed out at.
Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you your Upper House of Parliament!
We should concede that the Senate will always operate along party lines. To work with this, all Senate seats should be loosely up for re-election every 3 years and synchronised with the House of Representatives (i.e. no fixed terms).
This will not create the same result as abolishing the Senate. The proportional voting system will still allow for minor and micro parties to be voted into the Senate and create a different mix to the House of Representatives – if that’s what the people want.
While there is a case to be made for simply abolishing the Senate, this is probably too big a mountain to climb and I don’t see people voting for it in a referendum. Also, allowing people to retain the choice of splitting their vote between the two houses is a great way to keep the bastards honest.