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Issue #1724      March 23, 2016

CPA Statement

Electoral reform

The electoral system in Australia falls far short of being democratic. It works to maintain the “two-party” system, virtually ensuring government to either Labor or the Liberals in coalition with the National Party. Both the Senate and House of Representatives require reform to make them better reflect the wishes of the electorate and the interests of workers.

Two-party system entrenched

The funding of major parties by corporate interests is in essence corrupt with parties beholden to their patrons. Along with the tax-payer dollars based on the vote received by registered parties, these parties have millions of dollars at their disposal to run expensive media campaigns and pay top consultants to design their campaigns.

Smaller parties such as the Greens and the Communist Party are denied the same media time or space as the majors or even some of the micro extreme right parties such as the Palmer United Party receives.

There are barriers to registration with the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) for parties that do not have representatives in Parliament. To register they are required to submit at least 500 names and addresses of members who are on the electoral roll.

Standing in elections is an additional hefty cost.

The two major parties have made attempts to make it even harder for smaller parties to register such as raising even further the required numbers for registration.

Parties can stand in elections without registration, but the name of the party does not appear on the ballot paper and their candidates are grouped with other “independents”.

The actual process of voting also falls far short of democratic. The Communist Party of Australia has long sought progressive, democratic reforms to the electoral system.


After considerable pre-election politicking, stand-over tactics and dirty campaigning, in a 39-hour sitting, the Senate passed the government’s legislation reforming the Senate voting system.

The Coalition was determined to get rid of the smaller parties and believes its legislation will achieve that goal. This is highly questionable.

Support for change came following the “gaming” of the Senate vote in the 2013 elections where two people were elected Senators with less than one percent of the primary vote. The Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters looked into the current voting system and recommended a number of reforms which in essence had the support of Labor, the Coalition and the Greens.

Under the old system each group of candidates supplied the Australian Electoral Commission with its preferences. Above the line, voters put a “1” beside the group or party of their choice and the preferences flowed on as determined by that group.

The group could have up to three different preference lists, with preferences distributed between them. Most voters had no idea that there could be up to three preference lists. If they voted above the line, they had no control over how their preferences were allocated.

Below the line it was necessary to number all squares in order of preference, a tedious, time-consuming task fraught with dangers of making mistakes if there were a large number of candidates.

Above the line

Under the Bill passed last week, instead of lodging group (party) voting ticket or tickets indicating preferences, groups standing in Senate elections will only be able to nominate the order of their candidates and therefore the preference flow within their own group. Groups will not be able to allocate preferences to candidates outside their group.

This gives the voter a say in the order of their preference for groups. They will be able to number the groups in order of preference. The original legislation did not provide for preferences but to gain Greens support, the government agreed to retaining a preferential system.

The outcome is a partial, optional preferential system – advice will be printed on the ballot paper that voters number at least six squares in order of preference (except where less than six groups).

However it is not compulsory to vote for more than one group for the vote to be valid. This is a weakness in the new system, as it could be used to undermine the preferential nature of the system.

The Communist Party supports the concept of optional, preferential system but with the requirement that a minimum number of preferences be indicated.

The new system enables voters, not a party, to determine where their preferences flow. It does not preclude deals being done between parties that wish to swap preferences. As in the Lower House preferences could be listed on the How to Vote cards given out at the polling booth entrance.

Below the line

For below the line, the ballot paper will recommend voting for double the number of Senators to be elected. For example, in an ordinary election, a state elects six Senators, the advice would be to vote for 12.

There are “savings provisions” whereby if a person stops short of that number, the vote will still be valid if the intention is clear. In other words, preferential is not ruled out, it is optional as with above the line voting. If a mistake is made, eg 1,2,3,5,5 then 1,2,3 will be counted and the count stops at the mistake.

The Bill makes it far more difficult to set up multiple single issue parties for the purpose of harvesting preferences. It also prohibits an individual from being a registered or deputy registered officer of more than one party as occurred in the last elections.

The changes proposed for above the line are far more democratic. The outcome would be optional preferential and proportional for the Senate.

There is still the danger that groups could run successful campaigns to convince voters to only vote for one group above the line without selecting any preferences. The allocations of preferences are an important democratic element of the voting system and should not be optional.

Parties may register their logos which will be permitted in black and white on the ballot paper for both Houses of Parliament. The aim is to reduce confusion where parties have similar names.

House of Representatives

Voting in the Lower House is based on a preferential system. Voters must indicate their order of preference. For example, if there are eight candidates, then the voter must put the numbers one to eight against the names of the candidates.

There is a system for the allocation of preferences where no candidate receives an absolute majority of primary votes. The bottom candidate’s preferences are allocated, and so on.

Each electorate has a single member. The system is not proportional. In the 2013 federal elections the Greens polled 8.65 percent (1.12 million votes) of the primary vote for the House of Representatives. In some seats it had more than 25 percent of the vote. It won one seat out of 150. Under a proportional system it could have been expected to have won around 12 seats.

The Communist Party of Australia is calling for a system with larger electorates with four or five members to be elected in each. This would provide for a proportional, preferential system of voting for the House of Representatives.

As the Guardian went to press the government had called a Double Dissolution, based on the ABCC legislation but had not announced an election date. Recent polling suggests that the Coalition would have a large enough majority in the Lower House to ensure the ABCC legislation was passed at a joint sitting.

Next article – Fight for penalty rates

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