It’s the Senate ballot paper and it’s the only thing standing between you and a democracy sausage.
You look at the paper, confused, jot down a few numbers, do some elaborate origami to fold it up to fit in the box and head outside to get a snag and cast your real vote: barbecue or tomato sauce?
Do we give our Senate votes a second thought? Well, confusing as it is, there’s a good reason we should.
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It’s easy to see why the Senate gets overlooked. In the cut and thrust of the election campaign, the focus is almost entirely on the battle for who will become prime minister.
The daily news is full of Scott Morrison going to the footy or Bill Shorten riding a merry-go-round. We’re inundated with polling on preferred PM and data on marginal seats. Of course the House of Representatives is where government is formed so it makes sense that it gets most of the attention.
In voting terms, the Senate has a whiff of reserve grade about it. But it’s much more important than that. It’s no good electing a government if we elect a rabble in the Senate that makes its governing next to impossible.
Let’s face it, in the last parliament, the Senate was where much of the action and most of the controversy was. Where did Pauline Hanson wear a burqa? The Senate. Where was Fraser Anning catapulted into? The Senate. Where did Cory Bernardi up and leave to start his own party? The Senate.
It all happens in the Senate because we have a confusing-as-all-get-out system that has seen minor and fringe parties increase in influence and power over the years.
If you’re cranky about the wild personalities who keep getting elected and feel like there are too many clowns in the circus, it’s up to you to take your vote seriously and make sure it counts.
But players in the Senate such as One Nation are unapologetic about what they seek. They know that, at least for now, they’ve neither the resources nor the popular appeal to win scores of House of Representatives seats, but they also know the importance of trying to seize the balance of power in the Senate.
As the party’s Queensland leader Steve Dickson was caught on camera saying in a recent documentary: “We get the balance of power, very simply that means that we have the testicles of the government in our hand at every given stage”.
They know that with a sliver of the Senate vote in any state, they’ll have a senator elected who can be a huge thorn in the government’s side.
In Queensland, Malcolm Roberts will be at the top of One Nation’s ticket, and there’s a good chance he’ll be elected.
It won’t be his first stint in the Senate. He was first elected back in 2016, but later disqualified during the citizenship saga. His replacement, Fraser Anning, who’d received only a handful of below-the-line votes when he stood for One Nation, promptly quit the party once in the Senate, joined Katter’s Australia Party, then left them too and became an independent. He used the position he gained through the peculiarity of our Senate voting system to become a taxpayer-funded pulpit for provocative meanderings.
Watch out for these parties. They have a track record of getting Senators elected, only to have those people switch parties or become independents. At the last election, One Nation had four senators elected: Pauline Hanson, Brian Burston, Rod Culleton and Malcolm Roberts. But of the four, Pauline Hanson is the only one who remains a One Nation senator. Burston left the party. Culleton left the party and was later disqualified as a senator. And we know what happened with Malcolm Roberts.
But what about Clive Palmer’s party, known variously over the years as Palmer United or the United Australia Party? When Jacqui Lambie, Glenn Lazarus and Dio Wang were elected in the 2013, only Dio Wang stayed a Palmer senator until the next election. In fairness, it’s not just the minor parties where this has been an issue. Cory Bernardi was a Liberal party senator who, once elected under that banner, quit to start his own party.
So with this recent history in mind, people ought to think carefully about venting their frustration by voting for certain minor parties in the Senate. Like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates, you never really know what you’re going to get.
But there’s another big problem. Even if you’re absolutely certain who you want to vote for (and who you don’t) in the Senate, there’s some evidence to suggest that a change to the rules for voting in 2016 might be causing voters to accidentally vote for parties who they thought they’d put last.
HOW ARE YOU SUPPOSED TO VOTE IN THE SENATE?
Well for years, we were used to either putting a “1” above the line, or numbering every single box below the line. With enormous voting papers, most people just tended to vote above the line and get outside to the sausage sizzle.
But that changed in 2016, and we’re now told to put at least numbers 1-6 above the line, or at least numbers 1-12 below the line.
This change gave voters a lot more say in preference distributions and was an attempt to mitigate the effect of “preference whispering”, which led to candidates with microscopic first preference votes being elected as senators. As a reform, it was certainly a good start.
But many of us haven’t caught up. The new system is a bit confusing, and the ballot papers still likely to be pretty big.
A poll conducted by The Australia Institute found that nearly half of voters thought “you should give a ‘six’ to the party you dislike more than any other party on the ballot paper”. A third thought their vote would be disqualified if they put more than six numbers. But neither is right. The party that gets your number 6, is your sixth preference, with the ones that you haven’t numbered at all at the very bottom of your list.
And although you’re encouraged to number up to 6, you can keep numbering 7, 8, 9, 10 as far as you like.
This is great if you absolutely, positively want to put a person or party last. It just takes a little time. Same below the line. You just have to choose either above or below.
The new way of doing things, gives you much more control. Still not sure how to do it? The AEC’s website actually has a practice ballot paper so you can see how it works.
DO WE REALLY NEED PRACTICE?
Well a lot of us do. At the last election, there were more informal votes for the Senate than at the last four elections. Nearly 1 in every 25 votes just didn’t count, as the forms hadn’t been filled in correctly. Was it confusion or apathy? We might never know, but either way it’s a shame.
DOES THE WHOLE SENATE SYSTEM NEED AN OVERHAUL?
Maybe, but there’s not much chance of that, so we have to work within the system we have. Electoral authorities really need to do a better job to help people understand how their vote works.
We also need to learn from the consequences of electing candidates or parties that we really don’t know a lot about.
Of course, your vote belongs to you; cast it how you like. But if you’re going to vote, it’s important to know how the system works so that at the very least your vote counts, and counts the way you want it to.
Sure the paper is big, but take your time and get it right. The sausage sizzle will still be outside when you’re done.
Chris Urquhart is a contributor to news.com.au. As a television reporter, he covered some of the biggest stories in Australia and around the world | @chrisurquhart