Electoral reform: why stop at the Senate?

The operation of any electoral system, any voting system, should be to clearly and transparently translate the wish of the voter into a parliamentary result.

.. .so said Malcolm Turnbull yesterday as he introduced legislation into parliament aimed at curtailing the potential of independent or micro-party senators to achieve election by stealth – solely through the distribution of preferences.

Nick Xenophon – one of the few cross-benchers who expects  to hold his place in the Senate if this legislation is passed, also came out in support of the proposed legislation yesterday, saying:

“I want a Senate voting system that is fair, a Senate voting system that reflects the will of the people, a Senate voting system that takes away from the back room deals and the preference whisperers and gives the power back to the people “

OK. As someone who wrote on the weekend that the power of our vote has been diminished by the operation of our political system, it’s hard to argue with this sentiment.  But two quick questions….

What is the actual problem in the make-up of the Senate?

Let’s look beyond Turnbull’s example of Ricky Muir’s miracle election to the Senate with only 0.5% of the primary vote in Victoria – and examine the big picture.

If you look at the primary votes of Australians as whole for the Senate in the 2013 election and allocate them into three main groups –  Labor, the LNP and the Minor Parties (including the Greens, micro-parties and independents) – it turns out there is indeed a discrepancy between the percentage of votes received and the number of seats allocated.

In fact each of those ‘groups’ received roughly a third of the primary votes. One group – the LNP – got slightly more than a third (37%), and another – the Labor party – slightly less (30%). So, for the allocation of seats in the Senate to be a true representation of the will of the Australian people as a whole – based on our primary votes at least, which is where Turnbull is focusing his attention – you would expect each of these ‘groups’ to have won roughly a third of the seats.

However that’s not the case. It turns out that the Minor Parties received one in three votes, but were allocated just over one in four seats (27.5%) in the Senate. The winners were – of course – the LNP and the Labor parties, who between them won 72.5% of the seats in the Senate with only 67% of the vote.

So the current method used to determine the allocation of seats in the Senate is – as Turnbull suggested – not ‘translating the wish of the voter into parliamentary results’. However to rectify the situation, any changes made should arguably result in a greater allocation of seats to Minor Parties – and not a lesser one.

What about the House of Representatives ?

Since our pollies are moving swiftly to fix this so-called ‘transgression’ against democracy in the Senate in the name of protecting the integrity of our votes, you’d have to assume they’d be equally as concerned about any problem in the House of Representatives.

Not so much. As I wrote on the weekend, the House of Representatives is more ‘representish’ than representative, and seems to be suffering from the same sort of problems that the Senate is – only on an even grander scale.

In the last Federal Election in 2013, again looking at the primary vote of Australians across the country for the House of Representatives, only 45% of Australian voters – yes, less than half of us – picked the LNP first to be in government. And yet, the LNP ended up with 59% of the seats thanks – at least in part – to the help of the much-maligned preferential voting system. The same preferential system in fact that got Ricky Muir elected in the Senate.

Conversely, the Minor parties and Independents – who received just over 21% of primary votes – ended up with just 3% of the seats.

So what’s really going on?

Turnbull and Xenophon are right. Our current voting structure does not result in a parliament that is representative of what the Australian people as a whole want. But if the driver behind the Electoral Reform legislation was truly concern for our democratic rights, then they’d be looking at far greater reforms across both the House of Representatives as well as the Senate. Instead, they are arguably putting measures in place to fix a threat to their power bases.

The Senate is supposed to be the House of Review not the House of the Rubber-stamp. The method of election and term of Senators is different to MPs so that the Senate can act as a watch dog, a fail-safe to ensure that the Australian people – all Australian people – have a voice.

A representative democracy is not supposed to be a set-and-forget arrangement. Despite what many politicians and their good pal Rupert Murdoch would have you believe, a truly representative democracy is not a political system where any one political party should be able to do whatever they want without question. There are supposed to be checks and balances in place so that politicians have to talk and consult with all  MPs and Senators – and not just those within their own party. All MPs and all Senators are duly elected representatives of the Australian people, and all deserve a say and a vote – not just those on the government side of the House.

In my opinion, the current Senate has been doing exactly what it is supposed to do – reviewing and questioning, and where appropriate, compromising. I may not agree with every one of their decisions, but at least they are doing their job and not passing legislation from the House of Representatives without challenge or question.

While the proposed Senate Electoral reform legislation will – according to election analyst Antony Green at least – result in a voting system that does more accurately reflect what voters want in the Senate, it’s still falls way short of being the system Turnbull and Xenophon claim it will be – one which “reflects the will of the people” across our democracy. And if it results in the Senate becoming a rubber-stamp for whatever the current government wants, then our democracy will be much weaker and not stronger.

(Note – the numbers reflecting the percentage of seats won by each party in the Senate were adjusted 9 hours after they were originally published to fix an error identified by a reader! Thanks for the pickup. )





  • Your analysis of Senate seats at the 2013 election is misleading. It is true that currently LNP and ALP hold 76% of Senate seats (LNP 33, ALP 25, = 58 of 76, = 76.3%. But at the 2013 election, as is the case in all elections which are not double dissolutions, only 40 of the 76 seats were being contested (6 for each of the 6 states plus ACT 2 plus NT 2).

    So if we want to assess seats won against percentage of votes received, one fortieth of the popular vote, or 2.5%, should equate to one quota or seat. Here’s how the parties fared:

    LNP 37.7% = 15 quotas, got 17 seats.
    ALP 30.1% = 12 quotas, got 12 seats.
    Greens 8.65% = 3.4 quotas, got 4 seats.
    Palmer United 4.91% = <2 quotas, got 3 seats.
    Lib Dems 3.91% = 1.5 quotas, got 1 seat
    Xenophon Group 1.93% = 0.7 quotas, got 1 seat
    Family First 1.1% = 0.4 quotas, got 1 seat
    DLP 0.84% = 0.3 quotas, got 0 seats
    Motor Enthusiasts 0.50% = 0.2 quotas, got 1 seat
    All others 10.32% = 4 quotas, got 0 seats.

    All other than LNP/ALP 32.2% = 13 quotas, got 11 seats.

    In the final analysis, the LNP got 2 seats that should have gone to others. Not all that dramatic, in my opinion. And it didn't give the LNP a Senate majority.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You are right Arthur. I thought I had downloaded just the Senate results for last election, but had used the wrong column. Thanks for the fact-check. I will adjust my article accordingly 🙂


  • There is bound to be a legal challenge to the bill’s constitutionality. On the political front, the Conservatives could block electoral-reform legislation through endless debate in the House, known as a filibuster, forcing the government to impose closure.


    • I don’t get this. Aren’t the so-called Conservatives IN government? Why would they block their own electoral-reform legislation with a filibuster?

      Liked by 1 person

    • I think I see what Zackary might be getting at. Perhaps he means the conservative cross-benchers, such as Leyonhjelm, some of the former PUP and others. All those, in fact, who would be worried about getting kicked out of parliament 3 years earlier than usual if the legislation went ahead. If that’s what he means, the NOT the government senators.


  • Pingback: The other House: A strategic guide to really making your vote count. (For progressive voters’ eyes only.) | Progressive Conversation

  • Pingback: Would we have an LNP government now if we used the NZ provisional voting system? | Progressive Conversation

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s