6PR – Mornings

Senator the Hon Mathias Cormann
Minister for Finance
Special Minister of State






Senate voting reform

GARY ADSHEAD: Let’s talk about voting in the Senate. Just picture yourself, you go into the polling booth on election time and you have also got the opportunity to vote for who you would want in the Senate. You get that big long piece of white paper and then it’s up to you whether you go above the line, by just putting a box in one of the party’s boxes, or you go below the line and you go all the way through them. There might be, I don’t know, seventeen, twenty names there and you have to mark them in order of who you would prefer. So there’s going to be a change to that. We’ve seen what happens with the system we have. It can be, not abused, but it can be used in a way that can get people into Parliament that surprise you. Like the Motoring Enthusiasts Party, on a very small margin, very small number of votes in the Senate because of this system that goes on under the line, gaming the system as they call it, to get people in. There has been a lot of talk about it and the Federal Government have decided to go with the plan to allow you to tick above the line one to six on who your preferences are for example. So that takes care of the preferences, your preferences, in that simpler format. That’s the best way I can describe it, Mathias Cormann is the Federal Finance Minister and he joins me on the line. G’day Mathias.

MATHIAS CORMANN: G’day, good to be here. 

GARY ADSHEAD: Just tell people why this will be better for them I suppose Minister. 

MATHIAS CORMANN: It is as you explained. Right now about 97 per cent of people who vote in the Senate vote above the line, but right now people can only vote one, and then they lose control of their preference. The preferences are then directed by political parties in a range of negotiated group voting ticket arrangements according to the party’s wishes. What we are seeking to do with these reforms is to empower the voter to determine who they want to vote for in terms of their first preference, or their second, third, fourth and subsequent preferences, so that the election result is a true reflection of the intention of the voters at an election.  

GARY ADSHEAD: And are the Greens supportive of this at this stage?

MATHIAS CORMANN: What has happened since the last Senate election is that there was an inquiry by the Committee of the Parliament that deals with these issues, the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters. It inquired into the conduct of the last election, in particular the last Senate election. They made a series of recommendations, unanimously I might add, it was a cross-party committee with Labor, the Greens Coalition members on the committee and they unanimously made a number of recommendations on how the system could be improved. Our proposed reforms today are the Government’s response to those recommendations. Over the past few weeks, the Government has been consulting with all of the parties represented in the Parliament and the proposal that we put forward, we hope will receive support in the Parliament from as many parties as possible. 

GARY ADSHEAD: So essentially, you would just go one, two, three, four, five, six in your preference of which party you would like to see represented in the Senate?

MATHIAS CORMANN: The advice on the Senate ballot paper to the voter is that if you want to vote above the line, to fill in at least one to six boxes above the line according to your preference, with one being your highest preference. Obviously people can vote for more than six parties above the line if that is what they wish, but the advice is that they should at least vote for one to six. There is a savings provision though in the legislation, given that people across Australia for the last 30 plus years have been used to voting just one above the line. There will be a vote savings provision in the legislation to ensure we don’t have a massive increase in informal votes, which says that if somebody votes just one above the line or two or three or any number below six, it will still be counted as a formal vote, though that vote will exhaust after the final preference. 

GARY ADSHEAD: So you say that shoots down Senator Sam Dastyari who is saying that there will categorically be more informal votes once this system is brought in?

MATHIAS CORMANN: That is exactly right. Sam Dastyari is wrong. He obviously didn’t fully appreciate how our reforms are proposed to work. Might I just say, one of the biggest advocates for the reforms that we are putting forward is none other than the Federal Labor Member for Brand, Gary Gray. He has championed these reforms for some time. Only two or three weeks ago he published an opinion piece in The West Australian explaining why we needed to pursue these sorts of reforms and that is exactly what the Government is now doing. We were quite intrigued to see some of the commentary from Sam Dastyari, given the very strong position that Labor has adopted in support of these reforms in the context of that Parliamentary Enquiry and since. 

GARY ADSHEAD: So what’s the process now? Realistically, and I’ll throw this up as a hypothetical. If we did get to a double dissolution situation in Parliament, could this voting system be in place at the time of an election in three or four months?

MATHIAS CORMANN: Obviously the timing of the election is entirely a matter for the Prime Minister. What I can say is that this is an important reform to improve the way that the Australian people are able to express their preferences and have their preference reflected in the Senate election result. The Electoral Commission has advised us that in order to be able to implement these changes at an election they need at least three months between passage of the legislation and implementation at an election. The next election is due sometime by the end of the year, certainly the second half of this year. The exact timing will be a matter for the Prime Minister, but certainly what is happening now process-wise, is that we have introduced this legislation into the House of Representatives today. There will be an appropriate inquiry by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, as there usually is with these sorts of Bills, and the intention is to start debating this legislation in the Senate from next Wednesday.

GARY ADSHEAD: So once this all plays out and we do have a Senate election where some of the decks are cleared in terms of, maybe, some of the minor parties, not all of them of course because they do 6-year terms. But can you just explain to us why it would be easier to negotiate under this type of a voting arrangement, when the votes are cast and you have a Senate, do you think it will be a lot more simple?

MATHIAS CORMANN: Well I can’t speculate on what the result will be at the next election. Obviously it is up to the Australian people to determine what the make-up of the Parliament is at the next election. The purpose of these reforms is to ensure that individual voters get to determine what happens to their preferences after their first preference vote, instead of having political parties in backroom deals trade what happens to their preference after they have voted one above the line. Right now, a number of parties actually take advantage of the current opportunity to lodge three different group voting tickets, with three different preference flow arrangements in relation to votes that are directed to them above the line. How any voter in those circumstances could possibly ascertain what happens to their preference after they vote number one above the line is obviously, the question which has been very much on our mind. The Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters explored these issues carefully and made some recommendations. Today we are proposing to take action in response to those recommendations. The overarching objective here is to empower individual voters to determine what happens to their vote, what happens to their preferences, not to have political parties negotiate preference flows, in a way that is not transparent to the voter, behind closed doors.

GARY ADSHEAD: Just finally, if you did go above the line and you still just put one in one box, what would happen to preferences then?

MATHIAS CORMANN: The guidance on the ballot paper will be to vote above the line, voters should number at least six boxes with the number one being their highest preference. If somebody in your scenario were to vote just one above the line, then it would be a valid and formal vote under the vote savings provisions, but just for the party or the group above the line to which they have directed that number one vote. It would exhaust after that, according to the wishes, consistent with the wishes of that voter, it would exhaust at the end of that group.

GARY ADSHEAD: Alright, thank you very much for joining us Minister. Appreciate your time today.

MATHIAS CORMANN: Always good to talk to you.


Senator the Hon Mathias Cormann, Minister for Finance, Perth