Simple Solution To Preferences Stink: Abolish Them

THE TRIENNIAL PANTOMIME of “outrage” over “undemocratic” preference tickets from major parties that are a “sellout” are easy to resolve; the complaint — that preference recommendations are undemocratic — is accurate, for there is nothing democratic about distortions of voter intent. Abolishing preferential voting would terminate an oft-abused obscenity, and harm minor parties and Independents less than conventional wisdom suggests.

I know that by this stage in the election cycle — five weeks into an eight-week official campaign which, by virtue of the timetable for engineering it, is more like 10 or 11 in practice — a lot of people are fed up with the pusillanimous circus that Australian election campaigns invariably see play out; the latest act in this intellectually insulting pantomime is the revelation by each major party which other entities they will favour with recommended preference allocations, and as usual, the self-interested outrage and faux indignity from the likes of the Communist Party Greens and others dependent on a rigged electoral system to even exist has been deafening.

Those who complain that all of this is utterly undemocratic are dead right.

And, frankly, preferences should be made optional — or, even better, abolished altogether.

Readers will recall that last month — taking the delicious opportunity to both ridicule the Greens, and to advocate for their enlistment in a useful enterprise for once in their miserable existence — I published an article suggesting that Victorian Liberal Party chief Michael Kroger was right; that Labor is as bad these days as the Greens are; and that on account of this (and given the nature of preferential voting) the Liberal Party should allocate preference recommendations strategically in its own interests just as the parties of the Left have always done, despite whatever lofty rhetoric about principle they direct at others that nonetheless never seems to apply to themselves.

The “broccoli-munching gnomes” might have picked up a seat or two but overall, this would have done nothing at all to advantage the Left as a whole: on the contrary, it would have lobbed a hand grenade into relations between Labor and the Greens. But Kroger was pilloried and shouted down by shortsighted “strategists” within the Liberal Party nationally and, as a result, the ALP will receive the party’s preferences in every seat in the country — making a Labor government, and one secured with an outright majority, that little bit more likely.

That’s “principle” for you: apply it sanctimoniously in the name of preserving it, and you risk dealing yourself out of the game altogether.

Instead, Australians are being treated to a barrage of bullshit this week (and you can access some coverage here, here, here and here) suggesting the Liberal and Labor Parties are trying to lock Nick Xenophon out of the House of Representatives, or that Labor has “sold its soul” by preferencing the Liberal Party ahead of the Greens in some seats; my comment should not be misconstrued in any way as criticism of the journalists publishing those articles, or course, who are simply doing their jobs in reporting this crap.

There is a reason — when Australia’s electoral system was first devised, along with those that originally applied in the states — why voting was conducted on a first-past-the-post (FPTP) basis: the candidate with the most support would be elected; it is the simplest, purest, and least distorted model on which to conduct democratic elections.

It is the model that applies in all of the countries to which Australia is culturally closest — the UK, the US, and Canada — and even in New Zealand, where a Labour government once implemented a horrific hybrid system of single-member electorates and proportionally elected list MPs, the single-member electorates are nonetheless elected on a FPTP system.

And as I have often argued in this column in the past, there is nothing democratic whatsoever in forcing people to express a “preference” — any preference — for candidates and parties upon which they would not voluntarily choose to even spit, let alone vote for; speaking personally, I find it an affront to even place either of the Greens or Labor ahead of the other.

There are those who choose to vote for minor party candidates whose choice is just that: to vote for minor party candidates. These people don’t say, “well, I’ll vote Greens to be nice to pinko lunatics, but what I really want is a Labor MP” because if they thought that way, they would simply vote for the ALP in the first place.

In the Victorian state seat of Prahran, a Liberal candidate polling 46% of the primary vote was beaten in 2014 by the third-placed Green, who scraped together just 24% of the votes himself; contrary to the jubilant triumphalism about a “breakthrough” and the march of so-called progressive voters to the Greens that party saw fit to delude itself with, this result was in fact an anti-democratic outrage that made a complete mockery of the idea that elections should produce MPs who enjoy a clear quotient of public support.

And in Queensland, just recently, the Labor government of Annastacia Palaszczuk — heavily dependent on flows of Greens preferences — legislated to abolish optional preferential voting (OPV) in a smash-and-grab exercise conducted with no consultation and no warning, in an attempt to permanently advantage the ALP at future state elections.

This was the same Labor Party which, in 1991 and acting on recommendations arising out of the Fitzgerald reform process to clean up the rotten state of governance in Queensland, introduced OPV: it was ostensibly part of the implementation of Fitzgerald reforms “lock, stock and barrel,” but was underpinned by the ulterior motivation of making merry with the Liberal and National Parties, which to that point regularly engaged in three-cornered contests for both marginal seats and safe conservative turf they tried to poach from each other.

And in Queensland — as in NSW, where the Wran government similarly introduced OPV, in part at least to throw the same hand grenade into the state Coalition — the number of voters declining to do anything other than “Just Vote ‘1’” has steadily increased to the point where at last year’s state election, 60% of voters allocated nothing more than a first preference; far be it for me to argue the merits of abolishing compulsory preferential voting: the stampede of voters themselves, when given the discretion to allocate preferences or not, provides conclusive proof of the point I am making without me needing to incur the accusation of conservative bias.

Besides, politics changes, and so do the priorities of all parties; preferential voting itself was originally a rort to insulate the then-Nationalist Party — a forerunner to today’s Liberals — from the emergence of the Country Party a century ago, which threatened to split the non-Labor vote and gift elections to the ALP under the FPTP system then in place.

This is no less reprehensible than any other fix or rort enacted on Australia’s electoral laws, irrespective of what those distortions were or by whom they were appropriated.

(And don’t get me started about proportional voting, the least democratic system ever devised for “democratic” elections: readers can reacquaint themselves with my thoughts on what should happen to the Senate — and any other upper house employing this ghastly system — here).

Preferences allow factional thugs like David Feeney and faceless factional operatives like Peter Khalil to feel secure in lower house seats like Batman and Wills, despite no relevance to mainstream majority politics; had the Liberals followed through on the threat to preference the Greens in Batman, Feeney would rightly be contemplating defeat. Yet his putative replacement from the Greens would have been as compromised as Feeney will be now, dependent on enemy votes merely to survive.

The same can be said of Khalil in Wills, where a Labor Party serious about putting the best candidates (and, when they are also female, women) into safe seats would have preselected Jamila Rizvi, who ironically would have likely attracted enough genuine support to make the spat over preferences irrelevant altogether.

Preferences allow actual Communist idiots like Lee Rhiannon and pinko lunatics like Sarah Hanson-Young build careers in the proportionally elected Senate when they deserve none, and to do so with minimal actual direct support; this is not democracy, but a sham. Yet the Greens’ is the latest voice arguing its party has been robbed in what has become a depressingly monotonous ritual.

Those who argue for compulsory preferential voting conjure up scenarios like eight candidates in a seat splitting the vote more or less equally, with one elected on less than 13% of the vote: such scenarios are pretty ridiculous at first glance. Or they should be.

But preferences allowed a candidate in Prahran to get up with less than a quarter of the vote — and in so doing, make a mockery of the alleged superiority of preferential voting these types protest.

They express outrage that a party with just under 39% of the vote (as the Conservative Party in Britain achieved at last year’s election) could win a narrow parliamentary majority under a FPTP electoral system.

But this ignores the fact that under their beloved preferential system, Labor under Julia Gillard fell just three seats short of doing just that with 37.2% of the vote in 2010. Bob Hawke won an eight-seat majority in 1990 with 39.2%. Indeed, under OPV in Queensland last year, Labor fell one seat short with 37.5%. What’s the difference? It can be summed up in one word.

Expediency.

And the fact is that by abolishing preferential voting altogether, or by implementing OPV across the country and banning the publication of preference recommendations, minor parties like the Greens would be at less of a disadvantage than they are now: Adam Bandt, with his 42% of the primary vote in the federal seat of Melbourne, would still have won that seat in 2013; yes, outpolled by Labor by 1.9% three years earlier, he would have failed to win the seat, but only because someone else had more support — which is how it should be.

But minor parties and Independents, generally — campaigning on local issues and generating support within their own communities — would in fact face a lower bar to entering Parliament than exists now; all they would need to do is to top the poll for the primary vote.

And be it minor parties or major parties, getting rid of preferences (or adopting the middle option of OPV) would force candidates to get out and earn their support — something Labor is arguably better at doing than the Coalition, even if its methods leave everything to be desired, as recent state elections in Victoria and Queensland showed.

And finally, where the additional red herring objection of the potential for inducements for votes is raised by some, I would suggest any system devised by people, for people, and where the power of government is at stake, contains the inherent temptation for undesirables to engage in corrupt practices; when and if this occurs, such behaviour should be punished with the full weight of the law. But in any case, such considerations are not mutually exclusive to making the electoral system itself more accountable to the expressed (and desired) intentions of voters.

When this election is done and dusted, those with a genuine interest in the probity of governance and truly representative democracy — be they from the Left, the Right, or the Centre — would do worse than to jointly champion the abolition of compulsory preferences altogether, and the outlawing of published recommendations for preference allocations to end this insidious farce once and for all.

After all, some obscure Green, or fringe idiot with a few hundred votes, elected after perhaps dozens of counts because of an arcane preference deal cannot and does not represent a democratic outcome.

There will be those who bleat about “inclusion” and diversity — and frankly, these justifications for distorting electoral outcomes so vastly should simply be dismissed with the contempt they deserve.

If you win the most votes in whatever jurisdiction you contest, you should be elected: and whilst implementing this philosophy in the Senate might be more difficult than in the House of Representatives — short of a model per the article I linked to earlier — it should be made the most immediate priority for electoral reform by whoever wins office next month, and the charade of preference recommendations dispensed with forever.

In the final analysis, preferences are an abuse of democracy, not an enhancement of it. The sooner they are done away with, the better.

 

Electoral Reform: Don’t Just Tinker With The Senate, Do The Lot

CALLS BY PROMINENT Liberal Party identity Dr David Kemp to overhaul the voting method used in the Senate to “maintain numbers” in that House do not go far enough: the electoral system used federally is overdue for root and branch reform; far from being the most democratic country in the world, Australia’s moribund electoral laws risk making us a laughing stock.

I have two articles I wish to share with readers today; the first is from The Australian, and details internal discussions that have occurred within the Liberal Party in relation to what I contend was a disgraceful Senate election result at last year’s election, and the prospect of moves to instigate voting reforms in the upper house.

The second some readers will have already seen; it is an extensive (albeit skeletal) discussion and blueprint for reform of federal elections in Australia generally, dealing with the Senate, the House of Representatives, taking into account various constitutional requirements, and giving due consideration to particular circumstances that exist in relation to Tasmania, that appeared in this column on 24 October last year.

I should point out that whilst I wrote a discussion paper for internal consumption by the Liberal Party in late 2012, it was confined solely to the state of Victoria, and did not at that stage include the wider measures I advocated in the article from this column that I have re-linked here today.

This is an issue that at some point must be grasped by an incumbent government and resolved, and the need is now extremely urgent.

The “gaming” of Senate preferences — as outlined in both the articles pasted here — may well be legal. But it can, in no way, be construed as “democratic.”

Two of the biggest changes to the way the Senate is elected were made by Labor governments, and predominantly took the form of large increases in the size of the upper House: by the Chifley government ahead of the 1949 election, and later by the Hawke government prior to the 1984 election.

As readers will see from my October price, there is a valid reason for increasing the size of the Senate: constitutionally, it must be roughly double the size of the House of Representatives, which in turn must be enlarged from time to time to ensure an MP is reasonably able to service the number of electors in his or her district. Indeed, I outlined in that piece an argument for increasing the size of the House of Representatives from 150 to 180 seats, which of course would require the Senate to be enlarged as well.

Yet certainly where the 1984 Hawke government changes to the Senate were concerned, an incidental objective with an eye to 1975 was to reduce the prospect of the Liberal Party ever again gaining a Senate majority; 30 years later, it’s safe to say that objective was largely achieved, with the Coalition enjoying a Senate majority for just three years during those three decades.

Those changes, however, provided the political Left with control of the Senate for the other 27 years — even if, it must be noted, the Senate did not entirely conduct itself in a manner of wholesale obstructionism during the first nine years of the Howard government.

(It is, however, using its numbers to be as irresponsible and obstructionist as possible at present; even going so far to pass any bill that increases spending, and blocking any bill that cuts it, and at a time of budget crisis wholly of the making of the ALP and the Communist Party of Australia Greens. But I digress).

I generally think a government that enjoys a majority in the lower House should be entitled to expect that it can not only govern for three years, but also to implement its legislative program.

I can already hear the voices of the Left yelling “rubber stamp!” to which I would simply observe in response that Senate committees are more than capable of reviewing legislation without arbitrarily blocking and/or destroying it.

And in any case, the Howard government provides a salutary instructional on what will happen to a government controlling both Houses of Parliament, in modern Australia, that rams through legislation without obtaining a mandate to do so: WorkChoices engineered the downfall of one of the best governments Australia has seen, as voters reacted in 2007 against policies that hadn’t rated so much as a mention three years earlier.

Aside from the anger it generated in the electorate, the damage inflicted on Australia by that episode cannot be overstated: this country is crying out for labour market flexibility, and jobs are now either being lost in their thousands, or at grave risk of being lost, in its absence. But the WorkChoices debacle has probably killed any prospect of meaningful or useful labour market reform for the foreseeable future, and Australia will pay a heavy price for that.

My point is that given the issues Kemp raises are again finding their way to the front of the news queue, I can only emphasise the need to make any program of electoral reform as comprehensive as possible, and not merely confine such activities to tinkering around the margins with the Senate.

It can’t even be said that Australia’s electoral laws are a relic from Federation: they are simply the latest incarnation of a hotchpotch of political fixes, made by governments of different political complexions, and usually with the aim of extracting political advantage — if not at least significantly motivated by that noble objective.

I ask readers to consider these matters, and to reacquaint themselves with the arguments I raised in October. What do people think?

Simply stated, I think federal electoral reform is an opportunity to sweep away the outdated system that the Constitution doesn’t even specify, and to replace it with something fair, straightforward, and which requires candidates to actually solicit, earn and win support for their election, rather than relying on ticket preferences, vote-harvesting strategies, and other deliberate and cynical distortions of the electoral process.

It’s bad enough that Greens Senators have spent six years holding this country to ransom despite failing to win majority support in any jurisdiction or electorate in their regrettable history, but for once, I’ll say something relatively neutral about them: their odious presence in Parliament, as a result of sponging off protest votes, is less contemptible than having Senators elected on 1,700 votes out of 3.7 million voters, which is the farcical reality last year’s election produced in at least two states.

The alternative to doing nothing is to encourage even more of this kind of thing, and to do so will make Australia — deservedly — the laughing stock of the democratic world.

 

Now It’s Clive Palmer MP: Yet Another Argument For OPV

CLIVE PALMER has finally won the Sunshine Coast seat of Fairfax, beating Liberal candidate Ted O’Brien by 53 votes on a recount; the win is likely to be Palmer’s first and last, if his erratic behaviour to date is any guide, and is yet another argument in favour of the adoption of Optional Preferential Voting.

First things first: The Red And The Blue congratulates “Professor” Palmer on his belated victory in the federal election; the result may yet be overturned if a complaint is made and upheld in the Court of Disputed Returns, of course, but for now — winners are grinners, and Palmer has certainly won.

I don’t begrudge Palmer his moment of triumph, but a moment is all I can spare, because as far as I’m concerned Palmer hit the nail on the head when he mockingly told a reporter that he shouldn’t be in Parliament.

Readers can access that clip — embedded in a report on Palmer’s win from Sydney’s Daily Telegraphhere.

This column has had cause to be critical of Queensland’s merged Liberal-National Party in the past, notably during a public flaring of tensions along the old Liberal-National divide and some controversy over former state minister Bruce Flegg.

Yet I support the LNP, insofar as my continuing interest in Queensland politics is concerned, despite being vehemently opposed to the merger when it occurred: it’s one thing to get frustrated and to criticise, but it’s another thing altogether to stomp out in disgust and wilfully set up shop in opposition, because you can’t get what you want.

The potted version of the Palmer story goes something like this.

Having been around the then-National Party since the days of Joh Bjelke-Petersen — including a period as that party’s media director — Palmer, having accrued a fortune of uncertain scope, became the single biggest donor to the Nationals in Queensland: a practice that continued with the Queensland Coalition and later with the amalgamated LNP.

Soon after the thunderous LNP win in Queensland last year, Palmer walked out on the LNP in the wake of state government decisions that ran counter to his business interests.

Earlier this year, he set up the United Australia Party (hurriedly rebadged as the Palmer United Party when it emerged the name was already in use) with a prediction he would become Prime Minister of Australia and winning “100 seats in Parliament.”

Along the way, Palmer bought things; one of them was the Hyatt Regency Coolum Resort, which (according to the Sunshine Coast press) has caused great angst in the local community with poor standards and low occupancy rates hurting businesses that have traditionally depended on the resort for their lifeblood.

Along the way, a couple of disgruntled LNP MPs in Queensland agreed to sit under the Palmer banner in State Parliament, their ranks since being augmented by (at present) three Senators and Palmer himself in Canberra.

And he now arrives in Canberra with a policy position — one of many — to repeal the carbon tax and to ensure that the federal government refunds to businesses all monies they have paid in carbon tax bills to date.

It has been estimated in other media that Palmer’s companies would stand to reap a windfall of more than $6 million were this to occur.

Palmer has also demanded his PUP be provided with staffers and other resources in federal Parliament to which they are not entitled; he has brazenly threatened to ensure the Abbott government is unable to pass any legislation — “not a single bill” — until or unless this occurs.

Before and since his departure from the party, Palmer has repeatedly lashed out at the LNP; this time last year he was quoted saying of the state government that “never have such a bunch of crooks held office in Queensland” and accusing the state’s Treasurer, Tim Nicholls, of “cooking the books” to overstate Queensland’s net debt by some $54 billion.

Judged by his own aspirations and 100-seat target, Palmer’s political foray has been a failure; his fledgling outfit has won three Senate spots (one of which, in WA, hangs in the balance pending an investigation into 1400-odd lost votes) and one lower house seat — his own — by the skin of his teeth.

Since the election, the bluster and belligerent rhetoric has continued; the AEC was incompetent, the system corrupt, and a conspiracy being played out to deny him victory.

One of the things Palmer threatened to use his Senate numbers to bring government to a halt over was the issue of electoral reform: Tony Abbott had better deliver it, or else.

Now, however, his PUP will block electoral reform on the basis it could involve the introduction of Optional Preferential Voting (OPV), which would disadvantage his party at future elections.

And it remains to be seen, of course, whether Palmer holds good to his threat to challenge his own victory in Fairfax in the Court of Disputed Returns; I’ll bet tens that he doesn’t do it — but then again, when it comes to Clive Palmer, who’s to know?

Don’t get me wrong; I like Palmer, and find him quite amusing; it would actually be an interesting afternoon to have a couple of beers with him, methinks.

But like mates at a pub, having a bit of time for someone personally doesn’t automatically entitle them to support for Parliamentary service.

Palmer now says — in keeping with his crusade against the Queensland LNP — that he intends to damage Premier Campbell Newman with claims of corruption; this apparently came about during an interview with the ABC, in which he was asked whether he had evidence of “illegal payments” being made to LNP ministers.

Quoting from the Tele, he said that

“Wait for a while, I can’t give you all the news tonight, when I get into Parliament we can table, you can read it and you’ll love it – Campbell will love it, too…what I’ve said is I’ve got a certain amount of evidence, I don’t have conclusive evidence, but it’s in the public interest and we’ll put it out there…Goodbye Campbell Newman.”

I grew up in Queensland under a National Party we all knew was crook; this kind of thing is no trifling matter (NSW and WA readers will know — from the ICAC hearings this year and the WA Inc debacle respectively — something of the first-hand nature of this too).

Indeed, the endemic cronyism and systemic corruption that occurred under that National Party government was one of the reasons I was vehemently opposed to the state Liberals merging with the Nationals — even though I’d been living away from Queensland for ten years by the time it happened.

So if Palmer has “evidence” incriminating the state LNP, individual ministers, the Premier, or anyone else associated with Newman’s government, let him immediately hand it over to the Federal Police and/or Queensland’s Crime and Misconduct Commission — whichever is the relevant jurisdiction — and get the investigation started as a matter of urgency.

On the other hand, if he doesn’t (and Palmer has said his “evidence” is inconclusive), then forget about tabling things in Parliament — under privilege, and with the immunity from prosecution it confers — and stop playing juvenile and vindictive games.

Whichever way you cut it, though, Palmer’s election in the seat of Fairfax is a great recommendation for OPV.

It isn’t as if his win is a resounding one; Palmer scored a mere 26.49% of the primary vote. You can see the AEC tables here.

It quickly becomes obvious that two-thirds of that primary vote was drawn from the Greens and the ALP — conservative Clive winning the votes of the Left — and that preferences from those parties actually elected him.

Three-quarters of his electorate cast a primary vote for someone else: as I have said before, this is an MP with less depth of support in his own back yard than a wading pool.

Somewhere amongst the bluster and hyperbole and bellicose rants Palmer has indulged in since it first seemed he might win the seat, he has championed reform of the federal voting system: I agree, and suggest the only reason he has for blocking it is the same one that will stop him challenging his own election in Court.

On an optional preferential vote the LNP would have easily retained the seat, and all the nonsense from Clive Palmer that we’ve seen since 7 September would be occurring somewhere removed from getting the job of governing Australia underway — if at all.

In any case, Palmer only has a 53 vote margin; losing half of those will wipe it out.

I don’t think Palmer has a snowball’s chance of hell of re-election in three years’ time — if he even seeks it — but based on the past six weeks generally and his promise of “evidence” against Newman’s government in particular, I don’t think he’d win a by-election now.

What do people think?

It’s Time To Overhaul Australia’s Voting System. And Here’s How

A SPEECH to the National Press Club by the federal director of the Liberal Party, Brian Loughnane, marks the resumption of debate over the voting system in the wake of tiny parties winning Senate seats last month with a sliver of the vote; reform is due, urgent, and must go further than the Senate.

I will level with readers at the outset, and admit I didn’t watch the Loughnane speech yesterday; I was too busy to take the time out to do so.

But I really didn’t need to: I’ve read the reporting on it and the points he made were perfectly sensible, and — in any case — this is one issue on which I think the more voices advancing the case for change from different positions and perspectives, the better.

What to do about the Senate is a problem that needs to be addressed, and that problem is becoming increasingly urgent; what is meant to be a “States’ House” and a chamber of review is to an escalating extent being abused as a sinecure, or an avenue through which to get into the gravy, or simply to obstruct an elected government for no better purpose or objective than obstruction itself.

It is beyond reasonable to accept that a candidate polling 1,700 primary votes — in a state with more than 3.7 million voters on the roll, and requiring a quota of 480,000 votes — could, by virtue of exhaustively stitching up preference deals, win election to the Senate.

Yet that is precisely what happened in Victoria last month, with Ricky Muir from the Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party set to take his Senate seat on 1 July next year on 0.51% of the vote.

And in an utter further absurdity (although I am happy to be corrected if I’m wrong), Muir fell short of the 4% primary vote threshold to access public election funding, but was actually elected…it seems a contradiction too ridiculous to bother dissecting.

There have been other instances of the same thing happening, although not to the extreme of Senators being elected on half a percentage point. Steve Fielding from Family First, in 2004, was one recent example. John Madigan of the DLP, in 2010, is another.

Readers who have been following this column since its inception will know my personal preference — to abolish compulsory voting, and to re-institute the first past the post (FPTP) system used nationally from Federation until 1922.

I acknowledge such a reform trifecta is too drastic to sell, at least for now. But I point out that in the House of Representatives, the Senate, and in all of the states, FPTP was only ever abolished to suit the political purposes of the government of the day, and had nothing to do with the quaint stories about democracy and empowerment and inclusion that get bandied around nowadays by those who seek to evade its return.

Much has been made in recent times of the prospect of Optional Preferential Voting (OPV) — in relation to the Senate at least — as one way of updating the system by which the upper house is elected.

OPV is also the position I strongly advocate in the absence of an environment conducive to restoring FPTP at Australian and State elections. It’s a happy compromise; those who wish to “Just Vote 1” are free to do so, whilst those wanting to make a full or partial allocation of preferences can do so too.

In the states that use OPV at their elections — NSW and Queensland — the “exhaust” rate (that is, votes that are excluded during the counting process because they do not express a continuing preference allocation) ranges between 30% and 50%; this, logically, is evidence that 30% to 50% of voters do not wish to be forced to allocate preferences to candidates they are disinclined to support.

But it must go further than the Senate: what I will outline today is a proposal based on implementing OPV at federal elections for both houses of Parliament; it’s straightforward in the House of Representatives, of course, but the Senate is a different beast altogether, with its proportional voting method, and the proposal I outline here advocates the abolition of that too.

The House of Representatives

As I said, this is very straightforward: the system is simply changed from a compulsory preferential system to an optional preferential system.

The Senate

Recent discussion about introducing OPV to the Senate has focused on allowing voters to either cast a ballot for a party or group ticket above the line, as per current practice (which is then distributed based on the published voting card of the party or group) or allowing a partial distribution only below the line rather than the current requirement for below the line votes to number every box.

I agree that anything that moves toward an optional preferential system is an improvement. But this proposal seems unwieldy — to say the least — and in any case, retains the proportional system that to my mind is the real root cause of everything wrong with the way the Senate is elected.

I therefore propose:

  • The wholesale abolition of proportional voting in the Senate.
  • The division of each state into six upper house districts (or provinces, or constituencies, or ridings, or whatever name they are given).
  • Each of these districts — at a normal half-Senate election — to elect one Senator using an OPV voting system.
  • At any future double dissolution election, each district would elect two Senators rather than one, in the way Legislative Council members were elected in Victoria prior to 2001, only using optional rather than compulsory preferential voting.
  • The territories — whose Senators face election whenever the House of Representatives does — would return two Senators at each election using the altered voting method.

I propose two further reforms to apply to elections for both Houses of Parliament:

  • The threshold at which candidates become eligible for public election funding be raised slightly, from 4% to 5%; and
  • A threshold be implemented to bar candidates polling less than 5% of the primary vote in any electorate/upper house district from being eligible to be elected on preferences.

I would observe that at some point the House of Representatives is going to need to be enlarged: since its expansion in 1984, average enrolments for a lower house electorate have risen from about 65,000 to roughly 100,000 as Australia’s population has grown.

This is constitutionally relevant to the Senate: S24 provides that the number of members of the House of Representatives be roughly double the number of Senators, and if lower house seats are increased to allow MPs to service their electorates better by reducing the constituent to MP ratio, the number of Senators will need to be increased as well.

On the present system of Senate voting, increasing the number of Senators per state (say, from 12 to 14) would cut even further the quota required to gain election, and would make the likes of Family First in 2004 and the AMEP last month far more commonplace.

On the system I am outlining, all that would be required is to increase the number of divisions in each state from six to seven.

The changes I suggest here are constitutionally sound: indeed, the Constitution specifically provides that Parliament decides how elections are conducted, not the Constitution itself.

For those who have never done so, I strongly encourage readers to get hold of a copy of the Constitution and read it. An online version can be accessed here. Quite aside from its political relevance, it is a wonderful document from a historical perspective, and a damned criminal shame that more use isn’t made of it in our schools. But that’s another issue.

The Arguments For and Against

It might surprise some readers, but I’m going to be more circumspect on this: and blunt.

I have never been interested in the alleged merits of preferential voting, nor the justifications dressed up and trotted out as reasons to retain it.

Even so, it’s a damned side more palatable than proportional voting, whose only real purpose is to weaken an ascendant party under the guise of “inclusion,” “diversity of opinion,” and a slew of similarly quasi-emotive gobbledygook.

OPV was introduced in NSW and Queensland by ALP governments to disadvantage the Coalition, which regularly engaged in three-cornered contests that split their vote.

Its use in those states subsequently resulted in the near-wipeout of the ALP (NSW in 2011, Queensland in 2012) as the conservative parties — having mostly abandoned three-cornered contests, and indeed merged in Queensland — maximised the impact of the splintering of the vote on the Left.

It’s a valid point, but largely self-correcting; just as the Democrats (and more recently and markedly, the Greens) have split votes from Labor’s left flank, in recent years a similar phenomenon has started on the Right, with the emergence of parties such as Family First, Bob Katter’s crowd, and the Palmer United Party.

Critics will argue that the abolition of proportional voting in the Senate and/or the implementation of OPV will disadvantage the likes of the Greens, and make it harder for smaller parties to enter Parliament.

I simply say that such parties and candidates should get out and campaign to win their votes. All around the world, minor parties and independents have won single-member electorates; there is a Green in the UK’s House of Commons who won FPTP, for example, and Britain has always had a crossbench of micro-parties and independents.

The voting system shouldn’t be a ticket to easy street: if the likes of Muir can only rustle up 1,700 votes from 3.7 million Victorian electors, he shouldn’t be off to Canberra.

And if Nick Xenophon can poll so many votes in SA that he almost got a second Senator elected on his ticket — and would have, except for the vagaries of the proportional voting system — there goes the myth that independents can’t win too (and I can hear Brian Harradine’s name calling out from somewhere distant, too).

Tasmania

In closing, the Apple Isle poses a unique problem on account of its proportional Hare-Clark system, whereby the five House of Representatives electorates also form the basis for five five-member state electorates.

Just like everywhere else in the country, the Hare-Clark system in Tasmania has been bastardised by politicians chasing advantage; those five-member state electorates used to be seven-member electorates until the Liberal government of Tony Rundle reduced the size of the state Assembly in 1998 (also — surprise, surprise — for political reasons).

Constitutionally, and as an Original State, Tasmania is entitled to a minimum of five House of Representatives electorates, irrespective of its population.

Taking into account the Senate reforms I’m proposing, the inevitable need to enlarge the size of the House of Representatives (which would likely result in no increase to Tasmania’s lower House entitlement) and the fact Tasmania’s state elections concord with federal boundaries, the simple solution would be to increase the size of the House of Reps now (from 150 to, say, 180 seats) and increase the number of Senators in each state from 12 to 14 (bringing the Senate to a total of 88 Senators).

Should this be done, Tasmania would retain its five lower house seats; the division of the state into seven upper house districts would occur, as per my proposal; and those seven upper house districts could be used as the basis for seven five-member state electorates, restoring the Tasmanian Assembly to the 35 members it stood at before Rundle amended it 15 years ago.

I’ve said enough — that’s plenty for readers to digest.

We can discuss this further at length, and as much as everybody likes — this post is simply to lay the idea out and proceed from there, although I am debating whether or not to send it to various people in the Liberal Party for perusal and consideration.

First things first, however: my readers. What do people think?

NSW Newspoll: 60-40 To O’Farrell; Food For Thought

JUST to add some spice to things — and to the wait for tomorrow night’s Newspoll — we have a NSW poll showing the O’Farrell government holding its 20 point lead after preferences; in a state set to haemorrhage seats to the federal Coalition, this is an ominous portent for the Gillard government.

In the most populous state in the country, with virtually a third of all seats in federal Parliament, a big loss of seats in NSW will signal the death knell of the present Labor government; a big loss of seats, however, is precisely what seems to be on the cards.

At the state level, Barry O’Farrell’s government continues to retain almost all of the support it recorded when elected two years ago, leading Labor 46-27 on primary votes, and by 60-40 when (optional) preferences are taken into account.

On the “preferred Premier” measure, it is fairly clear the ALP would be looking for a new leader (if it had, broadly speaking, any MPs); on this measure O’Farrell leads opposition leader John Robertson 48-19, which in effect means that the “undecided” vote is nearly twice as popular as Robertson is himself.

It’s pretty clear these sorts of numbers are being fuelled to some extent by the daily circus/freak show/horror story that is ICAC; the daily hearings into the activities of allegedly corrupt former Labor ministers is feeding an incessant stream of toxic headlines into the Sydney media, and with them passes Labor’s election hopes in NSW for perhaps at least another ten years.

Even so, O’Farrell’s is yet another conservative state government that has been subjected to vicious smear campaigns by the ALP, its operatives and associates; its poll numbers staggered initially before righting themselves to some extent last year, to the point O’Farrell’s huge majority would stay almost intact at a new election based on these figures.

It’s important to Gillard because just as she and her cronies are desperately searching for (and inventing) anything they believe will provide a circuit breaker in the run to this year’s federal election, NSW is probably going to be one of the areas more resistant to their efforts — despite being run at the state level by the Liberal Party for two years.

For starters, it’s Tony Abbott’s home state, where he holds an extremely safe North Shore electorate and has done for 20 years; I don’t think Labor’s fabricated “dirt” on Abbott holds much credibility at the best of times, but on his own home turf in Sydney, even less so.

Labor in recent years has relied on unpopular state Liberal regimes as a buttress to its federal strategies, and vice versa; where the regimes fail to offer fodder in this regard the ALP is only too happy to set its creative minds to work.

But in this instance, it’s arguable O’Farrell’s government hasn’t even lost any skin at all since its election in March 2011, such is its resilience in latest polling.

And far from offering fertile ground to create something of their own, Labor’s ongoing humiliation at ICAC — as senior former members of its ranks are hauled into the dock and interrogated — merely fills the arsenal of its opponents, and renders any “interesting material” it might come up with a commodity best left well away from the cold light of day.

Politics being what it is — and I’m thinking here of segues, symbols and allusions — the ICAC hearings also cast a nice pall over a myriad of allegations, pending or actively in progress, against several prominent figures in the federal ALP and/or persons very close to them.

All this comes as the Murdoch press last week ran a story on the ALP’s planned sandbagging operations for the coming federal poll; the problem here is that NSW was effectively subjected to the so-called sandbag in 2010, and the accelerating movement away from Labor in the Premier State since then has been rocketing.

There are at least a dozen Labor-held federal seats in NSW that are at serious risk of falling to the Coalition at the federal election later this year; these alone are enough to deliver Tony Abbott government with an 18-seat majority if the rest of Australia simply returns the same results as last time — and clearly, that isn’t going to happen.

I’m on the record as suggesting the Gillard government is terminal — unsalvageable — and whichever way you cut it, the Labor Party across Australia is a pitiful mess.

Even so, if you’re a political leader seemingly on a hiding to nothing, there are bad polls and then there are really bad polls.

“Everyone” is waiting to see what Newspoll reveals of federal voting intentions in 24 hours’ time, and I’m waiting for it too; but it’s surveys like this one that are occasionally missed.

The state Liberals in WA are recording numbers every bit as good as these two weeks out from a state election in which they may well bury Labor for a generation: those poll numbers, in a traditionally conservative state leaning in its preferred direction, are largely insignificant in the wider context.

This NSW Newspoll, however, probably offers a glimpse of what tomorrow night’s federal poll will show.

Either way, it almost certainly indicates NSW — federally — will be an absolute bloodbath for the Labor Party; should that eventuality come to pass, it’ll mean a hell of a lot of extra seats for Gillard to win, in hostile territory elsewhere, to offset it.