Senate reform: an interim verdict

Nominations closed yesterday for the Australian federal election to be held on 18 May. (See the full list here.) William Bowe has a very good summary of the overall position, but I want to say something in particular about the Senate nominations – their quantity, not their quality.

Prior to the 2016 election, as Australian readers will probably remember, the Senate voting system was reformed to abolish the system of automatic preference distribution via group voting tickets (GVTs). This was a big win for democracy: perhaps the only really democratic electoral reform made in a generation or more.

The GVT system, under which preferences were directed by political parties on the basis of ever-more-complex deals, to places that voters never would have dreamt of sending them, had produced increasingly strange results. In the aftermath of the 2013 election, the Coalition, Labor and the Greens all concurred in a recommendation to abolish it; Labor subsequently changed its mind, but the reform was carried by the other parties.

But it wasn’t just about supporting democracy. GVTs had also produced a severe practical problem. Once people realised that the government was effectively conducting a lottery for Senate positions, a lot more of them decided it was worth entering, and the number of nominations snowballed.

In New South Wales, the largest state, there were 65 candidates across 23 tickets in the 2001 election, the last one before parties really started gaming the system. By 2010 that had increased to 84 candidates and 32 tickets; in 2013 it jumped to 110 and 44.

Other states recorded similar growth: South Australia, for example, went from nine tickets and 26 candidates in 2001 to 33 and 73 in 2013.

And since each ticket has to have its own column on the ballot paper, that meant absurdly long ballots, with increased printing and handling costs, greater congestion in polling places, and – most importantly – enormous voter confusion.

In 2013, David Leyonhjelm famously won 9.5% of the vote and a Senate seat in New South Wales because his Liberal Democrats drew first place on the ballot paper, leading large numbers of people to mistake them for the Liberal Party, which was tucked away in obscurity over in column “Y”.

The GVT system therefore became self-reinforcing; the chance of fluking a Senate seat attracted more candidates, and the bigger the ballot papers, the less voters were able to avoid the GVTs by voting below-the-line, since that required numbering every candidate. And of course those who benefited had maximum incentive to resist reform.

So full credit to the then-Turnbull government for biting the bullet in 2016. But since the 2016 election was a double dissolution, with twice the usual number of senators elected in each state, it was difficult to judge how effective reform had been.

The total number of Senate candidates increased, since major parties needed to run bigger tickets, but the total number of tickets fell slightly: 44 down to 41 in New South Wales, 227 to 210 nationwide. It looked as if, from the microparties’ point of view, the voting reform had roughly cancelled out the attraction of the lower quota for election.

Now with this year’s nominations we can compare like with like. The total number of Senate candidates nationwide is 458, on 163 tickets – down from 529 and 227 in 2013. That’s a reduction of two-sevenths in the number of tickets. Every state and territory is down; New South Wales to 35, Victoria to 31. South Australia has recorded the biggest drop, from 33 to 16.

So on the one hand, that’s a significant turnaround, particularly given that the trend before 2013 was sharply upwards. There’s no doubt that reform has been effective. The defenders of GVTs who assured us that the rise in nominations was just a sign of growing democratic participation have been proved wrong.

On the other hand, 35 columns on one ballot paper is still an awful lot. (Actually 36, since there’s a column at the end for ungrouped candidates.) Understanding just who they are voting for will still be an unreasonable challenge for voters in the larger states. And without GVTs, most of those tickets will have essentially no chance of election.

Of course, choice is good: other things being equal, it’s a good thing that voters should have a wide set of options. But other things are not equal; the additional choice is illusory, because it comes at the cost of more and more voters in practice being unable to cast an informed vote.

Most people, even those who might run for parliament, don’t know much about voting systems; awareness of the new system is probably going to take a while to filter through. So it may be that two or three more elections will be needed before the message really gets out that this multiplicity of tickets is just wasting time and money (including their own – nomination costs $2,000 per candidate).

That’s why this is only an interim verdict. So far, on a practical level, reform has been a qualified success. It has made a difference, but we are still only back to where we were in 2010, which was already thought to be seriously problematic at the time.

If the microparties sink without trace this time, however, we can hope that voters will have an easier time of it in 2022.


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