It was a tense and fraught day in the Senate on Tuesday as crossbenchers desperately attempted to delay debate on proposed voting reforms.
The Coalition, with the support of the Greens and independent senator Nick Xenophon, is seeking to bring in changes that will make it harder for senators to get elected without significant support in the electorate, a set of reforms that would make it harder for minor party crossbenchers to retain their seats.
Adding further urgency to the situation is that it is the final sitting week before the budget is presented in May, and time is running out for the Coalition to trigger a double dissolution election.
In a bid to delay a vote on the reforms, crossbenchers attempted to introduce bills that either the Coalition or the Greens support, forcing both parties to vote against issues they wish to debate in order to progress the voting reform bill.
The day saw Coalition senators shoot down Ricky Muir’s attempt to suspend standing orders so that debate could be held on a bill to re-introduce the construction industry watchdog, and also saw the Greens vote against Liberal Democrats senator David Leyonhjelm’s attempt to suspend standing orders to allow debate on the Greens’ own same-sex marriage bill.
The voting reforms are also opposed by Labor, who have slammed the proposal as an attempt to reshape the senate to one that would be more malleable to the Coalition’s agenda.
Nick Economou, senior lecturer at Monash University’s School of Political and Social Inquiry, told The New Daily the Coalition was overreacting to the results of the last election.
“The Coalition has been panicked into taking on reforms that will deny itself the option of ever controlling the senate again,” he said.
Dr Economou said the 2013 election saw a jump in minor right-wing party support mostly related to the rise of the Palmer United Party, which he says is imploding just as the One Nation party did in the early 2000s.
He said that a system that allowed people to only vote for one party if they wished would see the stop of preference flows to the Coalition, endangering the party’s chances of a fourth senator in several states.
So what exactly are the voting reforms being proposed?
University of New South Wales law professor George Williams told The New Daily that confusion around voting systems is nothing new.
The Foundation Director of the Gilbert + Tobin Centre of Public Law was one of the key experts to make a submission to the Parliamentary Committee on Election Matters in relation to the proposed voting reforms.
“A lot [of the public] are confused about our current system,” he said, singling out the difference between voting for the Senate above and below the line as a commonly misunderstood area.
The current system
Since 1984, the Australian Senate voting system has offered Australians two different ways to vote: above the line or below the line.
The top section of the Senate ballot papers allows voters to choose just one party, while the lower section requires voters to number all the candidates in order of preference, no matter how many there are.
If voters choose to vote above the line, the party that secures that vote then gets to choose where the preferences are distributed.
This has led to minor parties getting elected to the senate by constructing elaborate preference deals, including those concocted by the “preference whisperer” Glenn Druery, who counts among his successes the election to the senate of Mr Muir despite him winning just 0.5 per cent of the vote.
The proposed voting reforms
As Professor Williams explained, the voting reforms would allow voters to have avgreater say about their own vote without having to go below the line and put a number next to every single candidate.
“It allows voters to directly control where their preferences go,” he said.
Voting above the line would change to an optional-preferential system in which voters would be instructed to number at least six preferences.
Votes for just one party would still be considered valid, in order to avoid an explosion in informal votes.
Below-the-line voters would be encouraged to mark 12 or more preferences, however six preferences would still be considered valid. This last detail was included to ward off a potential High Court challenge, and Professor Williams said it was no longer a live concern.