It’s time to stop political parties hijacking our preferences

What do the Family First Party and the Australian Sex Party have in common? People’s bedrooms feature prominently in the platforms of both, but their policy positions pull in opposite directions. Most voters inclined towards one would find the views of the other abhorrent.

But they are made odd bedfellows by our current Senate voting system.

Compared to the first-past-the-post systems in the UK and US, preferential voting makes Australia enviably democratic. Britons face a choice between voting strategically or voting with their conscience. Donald Trump has swept the Republican primaries despite never going above 50 percent support and other candidates pledging themselves to the “never Trump” campaign.

Preferential voting helps to make political conversation more diverse by allowing candidates from across the political spectrum to nominate without splintering the vote and preventing somebody from their side being elected. People can vote for whoever they want, safe in the knowledge that their vote won’t inadvertently aid a party they oppose.

It also helps to keep political representation close to the mainstream. In House of Representatives elections, candidates have to collect 50 percent of the electorate’s preferences. Extremist insurgencies are usually halted by the rest of us who have no interest in the Kool Aid. Members elected to the house in which government is formed are those who most people can swallow.

Things are slightly different in the Senate where the threshold for election is lower. Instead of needing a majority, it is elected under a system called proportional representation. Candidates need to gather the support of a smaller but still significant number of voters, called a quota.

And it is here that our system is open to abuse through the practice of preference harvesting.

Without the kind of structural obstacles to running similar candidates which exist in other countries, the number of parties and people being listed on ballot papers at election time has exploded. The proliferation of candidates has been recognised as a problem for a long time.

It is a tall order to expect voters to number all those boxes without being confused by their options, let alone making mistakes. By the early 1980s, rates of accidental invalid voting had become high enough to warrant a solution. That solution was to introduce a new voting option: Group Voting Tickets.

Group Voting Tickets allow voters to write 1 in a single box indicating which party they prefer, a so-called Above-The-Line vote. By doing so, voters assign that party the right to allocate their preferences in accordance with a list lodged by the party with the counting authorities.

Even in Tasmania, where the relatively small field of candidates makes numbering all the boxes a more realistic option, the vast majority vote Above-The-Line.

Group Voting Tickets are available from the Australian Electoral Commission website, so that voters can inspect preference flows. Sometimes, preference deals make the news, particularly when the major parties are seen to make unseemly trades. And preference watching is a political junkie’s pre-season draft pick.

But for most voters, whose first and last encounter with the ballot paper is when they walk past the sausage sizzle at their local school on election day, we take it on faith that our party of choice will assign our preferences in a way which reflects their – and our – values.

There were 97 candidates on the Victorian Senate ballot in 2013, spread across 34 different groupings, mostly parties. Putting Labor, the Liberals and the Greens to one side, only two of those parties received more than one percent of the first preference vote. None received more than four percent.

The Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party received 0.51 percent of the first preference vote, well short of the quota. The quota for election was just shy of 13 percent. And yet, Victoria elected one of their candidates, Ricky Muir, to the Senate.

Muir benefitted from arrangements made between the smaller parties, known as microparties, to combine their vote. They agreed to keep their preferences away from the larger parties: instead, their preferences bounced around each other until all those half-percents had become enough to elect one of their own.

Preference harvesting is a scattergun approach in many ways.

Not only are there a multitude of parties, each receiving a token vote, but microparties have few guarantees that their party will benefit from the arrangement. At any given election, parties could be eliminated in any number of ways. They are as likely to be the sacrifice of the harvest as its beneficiary.

More importantly, it means that parties’ votes can be used to elect their arch-rivals. One prominent architect of preference deals even boasts that the tactic is about, “the numbers, not philosophy.”

Political parties can make their own calculations of risk. Rolling the dice knowing that they could end up with a one or a six might be acceptable if it represents a party’s best shot at getting elected. Some parties may even have a voter base who will support anyone but the usual suspects.

But it’s unlikely. Most of these voters have gone out of their way to act on their ideals and cast a vote for a party they believe embodies their beliefs. Preference harvesting and opaque preference deals don’t just betray their trust – they actively mislead them.

Microparties aren’t the only ones guilty of these type of shady preference deals, and 2013 was only the most stark example of the perverse electoral surprises offered by opaque preferencing. But it has provided an impetus for the Australian political community to reform this broken system.

The proposal for Senate reform put up by the Coalition and the Greens goes a long way to fixing these problems. Group Voting Tickets will be abolished, and voters will be given the chance to put the parties they want to vote for in the order they choose. They only need to number a very manageable six boxes in order to cast a valid vote.

And while there has been criticism that it may entrench the power of the established parties and make it harder for minor parties to be elected, deserving parties should still have a fair chance on a fair playing field. Deserving parties can be elected without misappropriating votes.

There’s no doubt that the alternative is to continue to allow parties to manipulate voters’ sincere attempts at participating in Australian democracy. And that is an outcome nobody should prefer.

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