Government inertia on voting reform hands parties total control

Whatever you think of the Andrews government, one of its greatest failures has been its inertia on voting reform in the upper house.

After eight years in office, there hasn’t been any attempt to ensure that when we cast our ballots next month, the result will better represent the will of the people, not preference whisperers and party insiders.

Whichever party wins the November election will be forced to deal with an expanded crossbench in the Legislative Council.Credit:Justin McManus

There is something perversely satisfying about the growing anxiety among Labor MPs about the fate of the upper house after November 26. Going into the election the Andrews government, which has just 16 spots in the 40-seat Legislative Council, needs the support of at least five of the 14 crossbench MPs.

But conditions are expected to worsen for Labor after the election with pollsters predicting the government could lose four seats in the Legislative Council, reducing it to just 12 members and potentially forcing it to wheel and deal with more crossbenchers with the power to derail the government’s legislative agenda.

But this nightmare scenario for Labor, where it will be difficult to deliver on any of its promises, is a nightmare of its own making.

When Victorians begin casting their ballots in just over five weeks’ time, when early polling opens, voters who choose to vote above the line will effectively hand control over preferences. Alternatively, voters can pick five or more preferences below the line, although fewer than 10 per cent of Victorians are expected to take this option.

Premier Daniel Andrews.Credit:Nicki Connolly

That means that parties, not voters, will dictate where preferences flow, allowing the system to be gamed by micro parties who work together to leapfrog parties that had actually gained more first-preference votes.

The best example of this distortion – and one of ABC election analyst Antony Green’s favourite examples of the manipulation of group voting tickets – is the election of Wilson Tucker from the Daylight Saving Party who was elected to the Western Australian parliament with just 98 votes. Fewer votes than most school prefects would receive.

Subsequently, the Western Australia parliament voted to abandon group voting leaving Victoria as the only jurisdiction where micro parties can easily mani­pulate the system. The system has incentivised smaller, single-issue parties to contest next month’s election with the number of registered parties on track to surpass the previous record of 21, set in 2014.

This isn’t an argument against new parties and crossbench MPs who will still have the ability to be elected to the upper house following any voting reform, as was the case in the May federal election where group voting was abolished in 2016.

In fact, in recent elections it’s not the major parties but the Greens that have been more negatively impacted by this undemocratic voting system. In 2018 the party received 9.5 per cent of the vote but has just one member in the upper house.

In 2018 Rod Barton from the Transport Matters Party won a seat in the upper house despite the Greens receiving more than 13 times as many votes. Clifford Hayes from Sustainable Australia Party was elected for the Southern Metropolitan Region, defeating another Greens candidate who received 10 times as many votes.

This isn’t questioning the abilities or work ethic of Hayes or Barton, but whether they have enough support from Victorians to make decisions on behalf of the state.

Last year the Greens attempted to do something about group voting tickets by introducing a motion to Victoria’s upper house to scrap the system which was voted down by Labor, the Liberals and crossbench.

Labor’s inaction on group voting has largely been driven by convenience. For the majority of their time in office, the government has managed to cobble together support from like-minded crossbenchers to pass legislation.

Any attempt to reform the voting system would have damaged Labor’s relationship with some of the crossbench MPs it needed to pass controversial legislation. And the word from government is that it has no intention to abolish group voting tickets if re-elected.

But its inaction could backfire next month. As of Thursday, 20 parties have successfully registered to contest the election with nine applications still awaiting approval. Competing preference whispering has begun with renowned “preference whisperer” Glenn Druery kicking off negations on behalf of the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party, Transport Matters and Liberal Democrats.

There has been an increase in the number of so-called “freedom” parties who are working together to elect members to the state’s upper house with rival “preference blocker” Aidan McLindon strategising preference deals for a handful of more conservative parties, who are unlikely to support Labor.

Ironically, should Labor find itself in a position where it is more heavily reliant on the crossbench after the election, it will be even less likely to fix the system.

Meanwhile, Victorians that want a greater say in who makes it to the upper house should consider voting one to five below the line to have more control over the future of the state.

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