The Senate comes through again

A quick post to redeem my promise from last week of looking at the final Senate result from May’s federal election in Australia.

We saw last week that the House of Representatives result fell well short of fair representation of the different parties’ strengths. The naïve observer might expect the Senate to be even worse, since it does not even pretend to be based on one vote, one value: each state elects six senators, although the largest (New South Wales) has about 14 times the population of the smallest (Tasmania).

Interestingly, that’s not the case. The Senate does a much better job of representing Australia’s diverse political preferences, because it is based on proportional representation within each state rather than single-member districts.

Here is the table (official figures here). Because minor parties do much better in the Senate I haven’t tried to list them all; instead I’ve grouped them by ideological current. Among possibly doubtful cases I count the Jacquie Lambie Network and David Pocock as centre, Legalise Cannabis and Animal Justice as centre-left, Shooters as centre-right and the Liberal Democrats (regrettably) as far right.

Parties% votesSeats won% seatsSte-Laguë
Far right11.6%25.0%5
All others2.3%00.0%

(As before, the last column records the seats that would have been won under a Sainte-Laguë proportional system; D’Hondt gave an identical result except that the centre lost its seat to the centre-right. Note that, as I’ve remarked before, we have no real far-left party – those of that disposition mostly join other parties, particularly the Greens, where they have a tendency to wreak havoc.)

As you can see, this time the result is quite close to what a proportional system would have produced, although the far right is still under-represented (mainly because its vote is split among so many different parties, which swap preferences only imperfectly). The difference between the Greens’ treatment in the two houses is especially striking.

What difference would it make if states were represented according to population? New South Wales would get 12 seats and Tasmania only one (in a half-Senate election, that is – double for the full Senate), but it wouldn’t change the party totals much at all. I made a rough calculation and got a result very similar to the actual one: the centre and centre-right each lost a seat, with the Greens and far right each picking up one.*

Although equal representation of the states is an affront to democracy, it makes little practical difference: there just isn’t that much difference in voting behavior between our states. (Contrast with the United States, where the problem is much more serious.) And it’s helped by the fact that what’s usually our most untypical state, Queensland, is also the closest to average population, so it creates very little distortion.

So despite the intentions of those who drafted our constitution, the outcome is that it is our upper house that is the more democratic, not the supposed “people’s house”. If only we could somehow reorient our political practice to reflect that fact.


* Someone with more time on their hands could do this using the actual preference distribution files; I just made some educated guesses about preference flows.


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