A federal election for Australia has been called for the 2 July. While the government’s current term didn’t officially conclude until November, it has decided try and head off a declining popularity by calling the election early. The Prime Minister, installed in a party coup in September, also requires his own mandate from the electorate, as well as a result to consolidate his power within the party.
As part of his strategy to obtain this status, he has implemented a unique facet of the Australian Parliament, called a Double Dissolution. A situation that last occurred in 1987.
The current government is made up of a permanent electoral coalition of the federal Liberal and National parties, as well as the Liberal-National party from Queensland and Country-Liberal from the Northern Territory. While these parties have controlled the House of Representatives since September 2013, the Senate has had no clear majority.
Due to different voting systems for each house, it is far easier to get elected to the Australian Senate than it is the House of Representatives. Therefore, its composition usually has a far greater diversity of parties. Australians also have a tendency to vote for different parties in each house of Parliament. With the Senate being a “house of review” voters are suspicious of it simply being used as a rubber stamp should one party control both houses.
Therefore, alongside the Coalition, the opposition Labor Party and the third force Greens, the Senate during this term has contained a range of independents, small and single issue parties (know as the “crossbenchers”).
Due to this, if Labor and the Greens voted together to oppose any government legislation, the Coalition required the votes of 6 of the 8 crossbenchers for a bill to pass. Because the government has been both unable and unwilling to obtain this consistently, it has therefore has decided to implement a Double Dissolution, an option available to them if a bill is rejected twice by the Senate. To facilitate this, the government intentionally reintroduced a bill concerning a building industry watchdog that was guaranteed to be rejected.
Senators are elected for 6 year terms, as opposed to members of the House of Representatives who are elected for 3 year terms. Therefore, at a standard election only half the Senate, 36 Senators, will up for reelection. However, with a Double Dissolution, the entire Senate has been dissolved, and all 72 Senate seats will be available. The government hopes that the current crossbenchers won’t be returned.
The second component of the Government’s strategy to clear the crossbench has been to change the voting system for the Senate. This was done in collusion with The Greens, who saw it to their advantage to reduce the likelihood of smaller parties being elected.
In previous elections there was two ways of voting in the Senate, you could simply vote for a party list and in Australia’s preferential system, have your vote preferencing distributed the way the party you vote for sees fit. This was the way most people would vote as it simply involved numbering 1 box.
The other option was to rank each candidate individually. For example, as there were 110 candidates on the New South Wales Senate ballot at the 2013 election, a voter would need to give each candidate a number between 1 and 110. An arduous task, although many people who would disagree with their party’s preferencing would use this option (it also gave you the option to reverse a party ticket to ensure your vote damaged your least favourite party the most).
The new Senate voting system changes the simpler option from voting for a single party list, to ranking party lists (from at least 1 to 6), in a similar way to how you would rank candidates in the House of Representatives (a lower house ballot will typically only contain 5 or 6 candidates).
The thinking between The Coalition and The Greens is that “name recognition” will see their parties being included in a voter’s six preferences, regardless of whether they sympathise with that party or not.
Yet a canny voter would deduce that if they dislike the major parties (the Coalition, Labor and the Greens), they would be able to allow their vote to exhaust before it reached any of them by simply not including these parties in their 6 preferences (a situation not available under the old system where your vote would eventually reach someone).
Yet to complicate matters, the Senate’s voting system is not simply preferential system like the House of Representatives. It is a unique proportional-preferential system.
With this system, a quota of the vote in each state is needed to win a seat. When a party can no longer achieve a quota on their own, the preferential system kicks in, with preferences being distributed until a quota is reached.
The new voting system is hoping to counter the “preference whispering” of the smaller parties, who would preference each other in concert to try and gain a quota for one of them, even if isn’t known which party this would be (the Motoring Enthusiast Party being the beneficiary in the previous election).
Yet the government seems to have overlooked one important facet in its attempt to clear the crossbench. With a Double Dissolution the quota to secure one of the 72 seats (12 from the 6 states and 2 from the 2 territories) is been reduced from 14.3% to 7.7%.
There remains a strong sentiment of distrust for the major parties. Around 25% of the electorate did not vote for them in the Senate in the previous election. The new voting system will attempt to nullify this discontent vote. Yet with the lower percentage needed to gain a seat, and educated voters understanding how to vote strategically within the new system, there is still a strong probability that the public will return an equally diverse Senate as the one just dissolved.
Current polls indicate that the election will result in a reduced majority for the government in the House of Representatives. If this is combined another diverse and hostile Senate, then it won’t be the mandate from the public the Prime Minister will be concerned about. It will be his mandate as Liberal Party leader that will require a strategic rethink.