Senators for States

I’ve had some thoughts on the Australian Senate, how it operates and how it’s elected, following the cascade of debacles that we’ve had recently in Federal elections.

Not only aren’t the Senators seen to be working for the interests of their respective, sovereign States, the method of electing Senators by preferential ballot, with the easy option of voting according to party preference tickets; the distribution of preferences produces elected representatives who’d received fewer than 1000 primary votes; from electorates numbering in the millions.

Take Your Seats

When the Australian Constitution was drafted at the end of the 19th Century, the sovereign States assigned rights to legislate on certain things to the Commonwealth that they were creating. They created a Senate as a strong, constant balancing mechanism to equally protect the interests of the States against the legislative might of the House of Representatives, whose balance is dependent on their respective populations. That’s why each State has the same number of Senators; initially 6, now 12. (The self-governing Territories of Australia; the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory each have, as a recent phenomenon, 2 Senators.)

One of the problems in the implementation of the Senate is, in my view, the reflection of the Senate in the Westminster arrangement of Government vs Opposition; mirroring the seating arrangement of that of the House of Representatives.

If they look like the House of Representatives, they have a tendency to start to think like the House of Representatives; i.e. along party lines as a priority instead of along the lines of States and their interests. It’s all too easy for Senators to forget that they are Senators for their respective States.

One simple fix may be to arrange the seating by State, in rows around a semi-circle with the President of the Senate in front. The front row(s) would ostensibly be Ministers of the Government and their Assistants is there is space. However, the seating arrangement within each State’s group should be negotiated between the elected Senators of that State.

I’ve seen the Senate Chamber and the furniture is far too heavy for me to move, so I’ve borrowed some virtual, comfy chairs and arranged them roughly to help explain. (The style of furniture is not important!) A space of about 25 metres width and 20 metres depth is ample for seating, benches and access.

Senate Chamber 2014Each State is grouped quasi-geographically, West to East and North to South, with the Territories in their own special grouping, with space to grow. The order is therefore WA, SA, QLD, NSW, VIC, TAS, NT and ACT.

The colours indicate notional seating by political party as at July 2014. Ministers etc are prioritised to the front row. There is a bias to try to keep party members seated in the same row(s) as much as possible.

The President of the Senate, who is also elected for a State, sits by his/her lonesome; front and centre at the bench, with Clerks either side. One table is provided for Hansard Reporters and another table for other, non-member staff.

Functionally, another semi-circular table may be placed towards the centre for the “tabling” of papers and various ceremonial functions. A lectern may also be placed at that table, facing the President for Ministers to speak formally.

Elected Without Votes?

Well, not entirely. There are however a few Senators who were elected with just a handful of primary votes and a supertanker-full of flow-on preferences from other parties.

The flow of preferences, with more than two dozen parties on the ballot paper with 60 to 130 candidates is highly unpredictable. Those who negotiate the best preferences deals, have a better chance of getting elected than those who campaign for votes. While it seems that there are a lot of candidates for just 6 Senate vacancies, one need only consider the number of job applicants one would find elsewhere; for positions paying six-figure salaries with generous allowances, a 6-year contract and generous benefits afterwards; with no requirement for experience or demonstration of competence.

I tried to map out what could happen in Western Australia before the Federal election in September and it was pretty obvious that “X” marks the spot for the trickle of preferences that become a waterfall to wash a minor candidate into a Senate seat.

Flow of WA Senate Preferences for first 6 candidatesSomebody at the WA Electoral Commission lost nearly 2000 ballot papers so the disputed result, which included putting “X” into a seat, was annulled and the people had to vote again the following April. The results were just as “useful”.

It seems to me that using preferences to elect multiple candidates (6 Senators are elected from the same ballot paper) and numbering all of the other candidates in order of “preference” is a mild form of elector torture. And is quite unlikely to elect the people for which most of the electorate wants to vote.

The Senate ballot paper could, in my humble opinion, be simplified to list candidates in random order (similar to that for the House of Representatives).

Voters can then place sequential numbers against the candidates that they could tolerate being in the Senate; because let’s face it; most voters prefer the least-obnoxious. When there are six Senate vacancies, only the numbers 1 to 6 count on any single ballot paper. No preferences.

Optionally, a voter may put a number against fewer than the number of vacancies. e.g. only put a 1 against their favourite and the paper would still be valid. Even NONE would be considered a valid vote.

Counting is simplified.

  1. The candidate with the most 1’s is elected first.
  2. The candidate with the next-most 1’s still greater than the one with the most 2’s.
  3. The candidate with the next-most 2’s still greater than the one with the most 3’s.
  4. etc… until the vacancies are filled.

I’d have to crunch several Senate elections’ ballot below-the-line detailed results to check that that makes sense: That it might more closely approximate the electorate’s “intent”.

Which is the objective of the changes.

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3 Responses to Senators for States

  1. Pingback: Determining Intent in Senate Voting | contrary2belief

  2. MaxL says:

    Interesting idea. I think there is much merit in your suggestion. I agree that the current system is broken and needs radical reform.
    I was also thinking along the lines of having the Senate as a review panel however, the members should come from (be appointed by) the States representatives. Thus it would consist of members of the State parliaments. With each State represented proportionally by the current State’s government and opposition ratios.
    At each State election, if the ratio changes then the resultant senators would reflect that State’s voting preferences.
    I’d think that these Senators would remain state politicians, not federal politicians. The States party that they represent would supply the necessary minders and their remuneration would be at the current State level. When they lose their State seat, they lose their Senate standing.
    State members of parliament are supposed to represent their electorate on State issues. Whilst we continue to elect politicians as Federal members of the Senate, we are guaranteed to have Federal party politics reflected in the Senate.
    Just a thought.

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