Now it’s three in the morning, and I’m trying to change your mind… Is the Senate cure worse than the disease? #auspol

The Senate chamber

The Senate chamber (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I doubt there are many people in Australia who hate the Senate as much as I do.  Holy frijoles and hells bells, it is a terrible institution.

Sir Isaac Isaacs spoke out against it at length during the Constitutional debates arguing that they created an unjustifiable inequality in the federal model.  According to Isaacs, we would end up thinking of ourselves first and foremost as Australians rather than as Victorians, New South Welsh, &c., &c.  The Senate was created to protect the existing vested interests.

The numbers from Saturday’s election suggests that we will have a strange Senate before too long.  33 Coalition senators will be opposed by 25 ALP senators and 10 Greens senators.  Just to make things interesting, we will have eight ‘others’.

The DLP’s John Madigan still has the second half of his senatorial term left.  Independent Nick Xenophon has just been reelected by South Australia for another six years.

From NSW, David Leyonhjelm has been elected from the Liberal Democrats.  The LibDems are a libertarian party, advocating the privatisation of the ABC and SBS (as well as other public services), the cancellation of all foreign aid except emergency humanitarian relief, and the termination of all affirmative action plans.  They also want to abolish ‘government funding for bodies that promote group discrimination such as the Federation of Ethnic Communities’ Councils of Australia.’

Queensland has provided us with Glenn Patrick Lazarus from the Palmer United Party.  Tasmania also provided a PUP senator, Jacqui Lambie.  PUP sort of mumbled some policies about the carbon tax and mineral wealth, but didn’t really have much of a platform.

South Australia has seen the return of Family First to the Senate, Bob Day.  Family First is a fundamentalist Christian party.

From Victoria, we will get a senator from the Australian Motoring Enthusiasts Party.  They’re a rightwing car nut party.

Western Australia has given us a senator from the Australian Sports Policy, which has no discernible policies whatsoever.  It runs with the slogan ‘Are you more interested in Sports than Politics?  Then the Australian Sports Party is for you.’

The problem with hating on the Senate is that it is easy.  When something’s easy to hate, it’s easy to propose sloppy solutions to the problem, including proposals that could very well be worse than our current arrangements.  So what caused this insane result and what can be done about it?

Naming the problem is half the battle.  On ABC Breakfast, their chief psephologist, Antony Green, complained that there were too many candidates.  He said that we were the ‘laughing stock of the world’ due to the huge number of candidates that ran in New South Wales.  His intended solution?  Implement policies to reduce the number of candidates.

This theme has been repeated in a number of places.  On Twitter, Nick Osbaldiston complained about the ‘ease’ of getting on to the Senate ticket.

And there’s been the usual customary whinge about compulsory voting, such as this one from Preston Towers:

Too many candidates is not a weakness of our democratic system.  Far from it.  If every single person in NSW decided to stand for the Senate, that would be a fantastic outcome.  Australia has overwhelmingly mediocre politicians.  Having a massive number of people standing for parliament increases the chance that at least a few of them are not rubbish.  You don’t want a system where a small group of activists — from whatever end of the political spectrum — face increasing hurdles to prevent them from standing for parliament.

Further, compulsory voting is not a weakness either.  We should worry when somebody’s response to an election result is: ‘Wouldn’t this be a better result if all the stupid people didn’t vote?’

The main problem with this election was micro-parties trying to be clever and failing at it miserably.  A lot of complaints were made about the preference flows from parties like the Australian Sex Party and Wikileaks.  Spokespeople from both parties claimed that they knew what they were doing and were being strategic.  Two people in this discussion stand out for particular criticism: Fiona Patten from the Australian Sex Party and Greg Barns from Wikileaks.

Their argument was always presented in pragmatic terms.  ‘We want to be elected and we will do utterly anything to make that happen.’

Let’s start with the easiest example of where the microparties stuffed up: Western Australia.

Wikileaks was criticised severely for its preferences in Western Australia where it directed preferences to the National Party ahead of Wikileaks’ most vocal supporter, Senator Scott Ludlum from the Greens.  Cards on table, I can’t stand Ludlam.

Greg Barns said that he didn’t accept the criticism of the Western Australian preference flows because Ludlam would be elected anyway.  Barns even went so far as to say that Wikileaks was acting the way Ludlam would want anyway:

In WA, more than two in three people voted for either the ALP or the Coalition.  The Liberal Party took out two quotas in their own right, and had 76% of a third quota.  The ALP, on the other hand, had one quota outright and 88% of a second.  The next closest candidate, Senator Ludlam, had less than 10% of the total vote.

So how did WA end up with three Liberal Party senators, only one ALP senator, Ludlam and the Australian Sports Party?

Part of the problem of the Hare-Clark system is that a lot of importance is placed on the order in which parties get knocked out and have their votes redistributed.  Although a right wing party might be within a few hundredths of another quota, if a bunch of left wing parties get knocked out of the race and have their votes distributed to somebody high up on the ‘also ran’ list, they’ll be blocked from getting that spot.

It’s even weirder in cases of the microparties where we end up talking about ‘locking up votes’.  This is what happened in Western Australia.  The Australian Sports Party was — in an utterly ludicrous turn of events — quite high up the GVT preference flows for Wikileaks in Western Australia.

The Australian Sports Party had 0.22% of the primary vote.  At count 9, after several other parties had been excluded, they were the second lowest ranked party.  The No Carbon Tax Party (a group that doesn’t believe in anthropogenic climate change) was excluded.  The No Carbon Tax Party had previously been the beneficiaries of preferences from the Australian Voice Party (racist nutbag party).  When votes from the No Carbon Tax Party were redistributed, the votes from Australian Voice Party were unlocked and flowed to the Australian Sports Party in accordance with their GVT.  Those 762 votes moved them considerably higher up the ranking — higher than even the Katter Party and the super racist Rise Up Australia Party.

At count 13, the Rise Up Australia Party was excluded.  Another 2,467 votes went to the Australian Sports Party.  Further unlocking of votes from previously excluded parties would continue.  When the Australian Democrats were excluded in count 15, 873 votes originally from the Stable Population Party flowed to them.  At count 16, the Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party had their 4,856 votes flow up the Sports Party.

Meanwhile, the ALP is a tenth of a vote away from a quota.  The Liberal Party is behind them at 77% of a quota, and the Greens trail them with 70% of a quota.

Also, nobody has had their preferences flow towards the Wikileaks Party yet.  Although Wikileaks had three times as many first preference votes than the Australian Sports Party, the preference flows meant that the Sports Party was ranked higher in the list.

Following a preference flow to the Sports Party from Family First, the Wikileaks Party was excluded in count 19.  All 6,127 first preference votes for the Wikileaks Party went to the Australian Sports Party.  Shortly afterwards, the Australian Sex Party was excluded, causing 14,827 votes to flow to them as well (12,376 of those were Sex Party’s first preference votes).

The only way to explain this behaviour is to assume that Wikileaks and the Australian Sex Party were happy for nearly any microparty to join the Senate ahead of a major party option.  Worse, since the Australian Sports Party was not knocked out of the race, the equivalent of only 19 above-the-line votes for the Wikileaks Party went to support Ludlam’s reelection.

Not that Greg Barns cares:

Indeed, if the Palmer United Party and the Katter Party had preferenced the ALP ahead of the Greens, Ludlam wouldn’t have been reelected.

Before you all start thinking that I’ve become enamoured with the Greens Party, they’re responsible for the return of Family First to the Senate.

Family First took out 3.77% of the first preferences making them the fifth highest ranked party.  In comparison, Nick Xenophon took 25.88% of the first preferences.

FF benefited from the preferences of the Australian Independents, Stable Population Party, Liberal Democrats, Smokers Rights Party, and the usual rag tag of far right nutter parties.

The interesting stuff happens at count 31.  The ALP preferenced the Greens Party extremely high on their GVT (Sarah Hanson-Young was listed fourth), causing Sarah Hanson-Young to be elected to the Senate when Don Farrell was excluded.

But the Greens Party decided to list Xenophon’s running mate, Stirling Griff, behind the Family First Party.  This gave Family First the equivalent of nearly 10,000 votes.

It’s not all the Greens’ fault.  The ALP also preferenced Family First ahead of Xenophon, giving them the equivalent of some 32,000 votes.

So the group which received more than a quarter of the first preference votes will get one-sixth of the representation in the Senate.  Meanwhile, the party which received less than a tenth of the first preference vote (the Greens) will get the same amount of power.

The problem is not the number of candidates.  The problem is the way in which the Hare-Clark model distributes votes.  If you receive twice as many votes as the person next to you, you should end up with twice the representative power.  The Hare-Clark model — and other transferable vote models — don’t result in a representative result (consider the example where a party gets everybody’s second preference, but nobody’s first preference — they’re ultimately more popular than everybody else, but will be removed in the first count).

This is also why proposals for ‘above the line optional preferential voting’ are completely bonkers.  You’re not dealing with the key problem — the single transferable vote is throwing up weird outcomes — but you’re making the voting system easier for major parties.

If we want a representative parliament, we need to abandon the Hare-Clark model for the Senate.

 

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6 thoughts on “Now it’s three in the morning, and I’m trying to change your mind… Is the Senate cure worse than the disease? #auspol

  1. I believe we do need an upper house, and it needs to represent us in a way that complements the electorate-based lower house. (What if all Australia were just one electorate as far as the upper house is concerned, and we proportionally elected say 80 people. Imagine the size of the ballot paper. But sheer numbers might (would it, I’m not sure when I think about it) reduce the chances of statistical freaks like the Sports party in WA, who just kept getting enough injections of preferences to keep ahead of the chop.) Beyond that, it would be good to throw out as many preconceptions as possible and design the senate all over again. Short of that, a new counting system might be a good place to start.

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