The disillusioned voter’s guide to making a difference with your vote
You wouldn’t know there was an election coming where I live. There’s no posters on poles, no pollies hanging around on the streets, no letterbox drops, no text messages and no robocalls. If you didn’t follow the news, you wouldn’t even know there was an election on. This is in stark contrast to the New England electorate – home to Deputy PM Bananaby Joyce and independent candidate Tony Windsor – where election fatigue set in weeks, maybe even months ago. New England locals are besieged by posters, billboards, calls, and personal visits by candidates from all parties keen to paint a picture of how wonderful life in New England would be if only they were elected to parliament.
The difference between being a voter in my electorate and in New England of course is that the citizens of New England live in a critical seat for this election – a seat where the outcome of the vote is not considered a foregone conclusion. Voters in about twenty key seats around the country are the electoral belles of our politicians’ election ball. They are courted by the politicians with promises of hospitals, car parks and other infrastructure spending. I however – like the majority of Australians – live in a safe seat. I’m an electoral wallflower – my vote in the House of Representatives matters to no one.
It’s easy to feel disenfranchised by this – to feel like my vote doesn’t matter. That’s because – according to the ABC – it doesn’t. According to the ABC, only 12.9% of Australians’ votes will actually make a difference to the outcome of the upcoming Federal election – and I’m not among them. It turns out, when it comes to your vote in the House of Representatives, all votes might be equal – but some are definitely more equal than others.
It’s no wonder the vast majority of Australians feel like their vote doesn’t count for much at all – that they have little or no influence over national decision-making. Even if you are one of the privileged few swinging voters who live in a key seat, you’re just as likely to be frustrated by politicians you don’t feel you can trust and parties who change their policies once elected.
The one vote that really DOES make a difference
As I wrote earlier this week, a key reason so many Australians feel their vote on Saturday is meaningless is because the focus of our politicians and most media outlets is on the outcome of our vote in only one of our two Houses of Parliament – the House of Representatives. (This is the vote you cast on the little green voting paper.) The reason this House is so popular with our pollies is not because it’s more important than the other House (the Senate) – but because convention dictates that the political party that wins a majority of seats in the House of Reps is the one that ends up holding the reins of government for the next three years. Those reins grant the holder executive control of our government – which includes the power to decide who is Prime Minister and who fills all the various Ministerial positions.
In the Senate – YOUR vote counts
Unlike in the House of Representatives – where only 12.9% of Australians get to influence the outcome of the election – in the Senate, everyone’s vote counts. And despite the fact that the Senate gets almost no fanfare at election time, when it comes to making and passing the laws that govern our country, the Senate was designed by our Nation’s founders to be almost as powerful as the House of Representatives. The Senate can veto or amend any legislation the government wants to put through. The Senate can hold the government to account and undertake Inquiries into whatever it sees fit. The Senate even has the power to introduce its own legislation (except around government expenditure or taxation).
And the really good news about your vote for the Senate is that votes are counted at a State (or Territory) level rather than at a local electorate level and they go towards determining who wins more than one seat. This means that your individual vote can actually influence the election outcome in the Senate, even if you live in a safe seat – as long as you know how the voting works.
Your vote in the Senate matters – it can make a difference to how this country is run over the next three years. In fact, unless you are a swinging voter in a key seat, the MOST IMPORTANT vote you will cast in the upcoming election is your vote in the Senate.
BUT – if you don’t know how voting works in the Senate, you may end up accidentally voting for a party you don’t support
There are some things you need to know in order to make your vote say what you want it to in the Senate. Different rules apply to vote counting in the Senate to those in the House of Reps – which mean that different rules apply to how you should vote in the Senate in order to express your opinion.
For example, in regards to your vote for the House of Representatives, you will often hear something like “put the LNP last”. But in the Senate – this is not a good strategy unless you’re planning to number ALL the boxes. Otherwise, putting the party you don’t support last may actually result in you voting FOR that party.
Here’s why voting in the Senate is so important and what you need to know in order to REALLY make your vote count the way you want it to …
WHY the most important vote you cast will likely be for the Senate
1. The House of Representatives is the home of the disempowered vote
No matter who you are – swinging voter in a marginal seat, voter in a safe seat or somewhere in between – your vote on that little green voting paper for who represents your electorate in the House of Reps isn’t really worth all that much.
Seriously , it isn’t.
As I’ve written previously, your vote in the House of Representatives:
- is more ‘representish’ than representative – as it is not an accurate aggregate representation of the primary votes of all Australians;
- is not always equal to other votes when it comes to determining which party is in government – all votes are equal, but as discussed above, votes in key seats are more equal than others;
- doesn’t guarantee that the government will implement a certain set of policies – as politicians are perfectly within their rights to say one thing before the election and do another straight after it; and
- doesn’t determine who is Prime Minister, or any other ministerial position for that matter – that’s up to the parties themselves.
It’s no wonder one in three Australians believe the House of Reps voting paper should have a ‘none of the above’ option on it.
2. The Senate is more representative of voters’ views than the House of Reps
Votes in the Senate are counted at a State/Territory level (rather than at an micro-electoral level). For that reason it is actually considered to be the more ‘representative’ of the two Houses of Parliament. According to the Parliament of Australia website:
“The Senate is elected by a system of proportional representation which ensures that the composition of the Senate more accurately reflects the votes of the electors than the method used to elect members of the House of Representatives.”
This is also reflected in the way seats are allocated relative to Australian voters’ primary vote. In the 2013 Federal Election, just over one in five Australian voters (21%) gave their first preference vote in the House of Representatives to a minor party or independent candidate – but they won only 3% of the seats. By contrast, the LNP got only 45% of primary votes in 2013 for the House of Reps but was allocated nearly 60% of the seats.
In the Senate however, 33% of voters gave their first preference to a minor party or an independent candidate in the 2013 election and they won 27% of the seats – still not one for one, but arguably a much more accurate representation of Australian voters’ intentions.
3. The Senate is our democracy’s fail-safe
If you listened to Turnbull and Abbott, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the Senate is an obstruction rather than an integral part of Australian democracy. Abbott called the Senate ‘feral‘ and Turnbull said it was a ‘disgrace‘. Certainly, in their minds, they appear to believe that once elected, Prime Ministers should be allowed to rule like Kings, unfettered and unchecked.
But unfettered, unchecked rule by a small group of individuals is not how a democracy is supposed to work. And it’s certainly not how our democracy was designed to work. Voting for Australia’s representatives in the Senate is deliberately different to that in the House of Representatives to ensure that as far as possible, the candidates who are elected to both Houses of Parliament – are a true representation of all Australians.
When the Senate disagrees with the House of Representatives, it’s not a mistake, it’s not chaos, it’s democracy at work. And instead of throwing their toys out of the cot and behaving like toddlers when another member of Parliament dares to question what they want to do, politicians in a democracy are supposed to compromise like adults, to work together to achieve a solution that reflects what Australians want.
THE TRUTH ABOUT MANDATES
In a democracy, every duly elected representative in either House of Parliament has only one mandate – the ongoing representation of the people who elected them – whether those people are in the majority or not. That’s it. When a Prime Minister claims that the ‘people have spoken’ and that MPs or Senators disagreeing with government positions are going against the will of the people – it’s just plain wrong.
In the words of Assistant Professor in Politics at the University of Canberra, Jean-Paul Gagnon:
“Democracy is not a winner-takes-all scenario where those who win the election become the rulers with a sacred mandate to govern as they see fit. Democracy is an ongoing process of deliberation, monitoring, inclusion and resistance.”
4. Your vote in the Senate can go a long way… Or it can go nowhere at all.
In the House of Representatives, your vote counts towards the outcome of one seat of Parliament only – the seat for your electorate. In the Senate however, instead of just voting for one seat, your ONE VOTE can count towards determining the outcome of MULTIPLE SEATS and contribute towards electing Senators from MULTIPLE PARTIES. BUT – if you don’t know what you’re doing, it may not count at all, even if you fill out the form correctly.
This is particularly important because…
Minor parties/independents will hold the balance of power in the Senate – it’s important you have a say in which ones hold sway
Regardless of who wins government in the House of Representatives, they will need to negotiate with minor parties and independents in the Senate. This isn’t a new phenomena. In fact, if you look back at the makeup of Parliament since Federation in 1901, it’s actually relatively rare that one political party holds a majority in both Houses of Parliament – with only 14% of parliaments in the last 50 years experiencing this luxury.
Further, for all you Labor supporters out there, the ALP has never held a majority in both Houses of Parliament, and only once held a majority in the Senate. And this is unlikely to change in the 2016 election as polling shows that the trend towards voting for minor parties and/or independents has increased by up to 30% since 2013.
This means that in order for any government to govern – which requires successfully getting laws through the Senate – they will need to negotiate with the minor parties and independents.
You can tailor your vote in the Senate to give voice to issues YOU care about
One of the great things about your vote in the Senate being able to count towards multiple parties or independents is that you can tailor your vote so that you preference minor parties or independents who will be your voice for policies that are particularly important to you.
Whether it’s climate change, the treatment of asylum seekers, marriage equality, greater transparency and accountability of government or the way our democracy functions – there’s a variety of parties out there that you can add to your ‘preference’ list for the Senate who, if elected, can influence these issues.
There are some things you need to know about voting in the Senate
There are some tricks to voting in the Senate which you do need to know about in order to make your vote count. I published an article on this earlier this week providing more detail, but here’s a brief rundown: