Voting reform in the Australian Senate

The Turnbull government is preparing legislation to reform the voting system for the Australian Senate. The ostensible aim is to remove the possibility of Senators being elected as a result of preference distributions that the voters were probably not aware of.

The last federal election threw up some senators, whose election was the result of arcane preference deals done between minor parties, who could probably best be described as “gobsmacking”.  Many Australians would  probably feel that some of the current cross bench should not be in parliament.


The  independents on the cross bench and the Greens have the ability to thwart government legislation by voting with the Labor Party. Given that these independents are, by almost any measure, undemocratically elected, this is probably not a good way to run a government.

At present, voters may vote above the line or below the line.


Voting above the line means that your preferences are distributed according to the party that you vote for. Most people are not aware of the way that preferences are distributed so their votes may go to people they would normally not have voted for.

Voting below the line means that you have to number every candidate in order of your preference. Given the size of the ballot papers, most people choose not to do this.


The proposed reforms allow people to cast six votes above the line which means that your preferences are not allocated beyond those six votes. But they are allocated according to the wishes of the party you vote for.

This means that a vote for the Liberal or Labor party means that the voters still has to accept the preference order of that party. If you don’t want to do that, you have to vote below the line.

One of the arguments against the present system is that minor parties and independent candidates have been able to “game” the system and be elected with very small numbers of first preference votes.

However, there is a deathly silence on the question of the proportion of votes that is needed to elect third-ranked candidates in the party blocs.

In Letters to The Age, Gary Heard writes  “The accusation that crossbench members are elected on a pitiful, first preference vote count ignores the fact Liberal Senator Arthur Sinodinos received fewer first-preference votes than did Ricky Muir. ”

Graeme Henchel wrote  “If the aim is to avoid obscure, back-room preference deals, then this should also apply to the preference deals within each party block.” He suggests that instead of six votes above the line voters should have six votes below the line.

It’s an elegantly simple solution and one which protects the right of Australians to vote for whomever they please and avoids preference deals done within the major parties and amongst the minor parties.

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