How not to support minor parties

I’m currently in Liverpool, observing a very interesting British election campaign (about which I advanced some thoughts in Thursday’s Crikey). But I couldn’t help noticing two items this week from Australia on the vexed topic of Senate electoral reform.

In one, in the Australian edition of Tuesday’s Guardian, Liberal Democratic Party senator David Leyonhjelm argues against change to the Senate voting system, as recommended last year by the bipartisan Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters.

The call for reform was prompted by the results of the 2013 half-Senate election, which threw up two different but related sorts of oddities. One was the election, due to manipulation of preferences, of senators whose parties had extremely low levels of primary votes: Bob Day (Family First) in South Australia with 3.8%,  Ricky Muir (Motoring Enthusiasts) in Victoria with 0.5% and Wayne Dropulich (Sports Party) in Western Australia with 0.2% (the Western Australian vote was later overturned, but for unrelated reasons).

The other was the election of Leyonhjelm himself in New South Wales with a much more respectable-looking 9.5%, but of which the bulk came from voters who were unable to find the Liberal Party on the absurdly long ballot paper and so instead plumped for the LDP, conveniently located in the first column.

It’s no surprise that Leyonhjelm thinks the second of these is nothing to worry about, but he’s also quite unfazed by the first. The crux of his argument is that minor parties – that is, those other than Labor, the Coalition or the Greens – were preferred at the election by “almost a quarter of voters” (quite true: the figure is 23.5%), so it’s not unfair that they should win a bunch of seats. In fact, winning only seven out of the 40 at stake, he can say they are actually under-represented.

But this is an extraordinary argument. It depends on treating minor parties as interchangeable: assuming, in effect, that those who vote for, say, one of the Trotskyist parties would be just as happy being represented by the libertarians of the LDP, or that religious fundamentalist voters would be content with helping to elect someone from, say, the Animal Justice Party.

Now, political strategists like the infamous Glenn Druery have actually had some success in getting minor parties to see things this way – getting them to preference one another regardless of policies or ideology. But there’s no evidence that their voters share that attitude. Indeed, if they did, Leyonhjelm wouldn’t have to argue for the retention of group voting tickets; he could rely on the voters to swap preferences themselves among the minor parties. It’s because he knows they wouldn’t that he’s arguing against reform.

What Leyonhjelm tries hard to conceal from the reader is that Senate voting reform isn’t about getting a particular result, it’s about giving voters a democratic choice. If minor parties win seats because people vote for them, that’s great. But winning seats as a result of preference deals that voters wouldn’t agree with and can’t in practice do anything about is a very different matter.

Abolition of the system of automatic ticket preferencing will enhance democracy in two ways. Directly, by ensuring that votes go where the voters actually choose to send them, but also indirectly, by thinning out the forest of micro-party candidates (because without the lottery of automatic preferencing there would be no point in most of them standing) so that voters will actually be able to find the party they’re looking for.

That’s the relationship between the two sorts of rogue results: as I put it last year, Leyonhjelm’s “case is more similar than it might seem to that of the Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party.”

Which brings us to the second contribution to the debate, from Antony Green in a blog post on Thursday. Green’s specific topic is party registration; he queries the justice of the rule that allows parties to be registered by a single member of parliament, as is now being done by Tasmania’s Jacqui Lambie (formerly Palmer United) and Victoria’s John Madigan (formerly DLP), without them having to demonstrate having 500 members – or indeed any members at all.

It seems to me that there’s some logic in allowing a sitting MP or senator to continue using the name of the party that elected them even if it has withered on the vine in the meantime. It’s much less clear that they should be allowed to run under a new name without having a real party behind it, and even less reasonable for them to be able to nominate other candidates in bulk under the new name in other states.

It doesn’t much matter whether the Liberals, the Greens and so on have to demonstrate that they’re a real party with 500 members, because everyone knows that they are – the exemption for them just saves some paperwork. But for something like Madigan’s “Manufacturing and Farming Party” it matters a great deal.

Most impartial observers, with only the occasional borderline case, can quickly see whether a so-called party is a real political movement or a contrived front group. But it’s very difficult to set objective criteria to make that distinction, and no-one wants to give electoral officials a discretionary power to decide. So we rely on the rather blunt instrument of the 500-member rule, now possibly to be increased to 1,500.

But here again reform of Senate voting would have beneficial effects. If the incentive to register a multitude of preference-harvesting machines disappears, then the troublesome questions about party registration become much less important. Real parties – those that have actual members that have joined because they believe in some political cause (of which Leyonhjelm’s party is a good example) – would remain, but the front groups would fall by the wayside.

And House of Representatives ballot papers might slim down a bit too, since, as Green points out, the current rules allow a registered party to nominate centrally as many lower house candidates as it can find – not with any thought of them winning, but in order to increase exposure for its Senate ticket.

If minor parties want to be represented, they need to get out and attract people to vote for them. Or if we want a lottery, let’s have one, openly and explicitly. But let’s not pretend that a system of unaccountable backroom deals has got anything to do with democracy.

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