The real problem with STV: the Australian Senate projected results
The Australian Senate voting system worked exactly as it’s meant to. It’s not broken, it’s just bad to begin with.
In a sense, I’m glad at least some Australians are hearing the wake-up call. I’m glad that some are calling for reform of the system that might see senators elected to one of six vacancies with as little as 0.51% or 0.22% of the vote. What I hope now is that they realise that it’s not tweaks that the system needs, but replacement.
What happened? The conventional wisdom is that minor parties got together and exchanged preference deals, in a manner largely opaque to the Australian public. This is true, but it isn’t contrary to the system. The whole point of STV is that “wasted votes” instead trickle down to the next most preferred candidate. The idea is to prevent supporters of minor candidates from abandoning them outright, by ensuring that their vote will still count towards someone they semi-like.
So when 6.45% of Victorians voted for parties that said they’d rather someone from the Australian Motoring Enthusiasts Party (AMEP) than another candidate from Labor, Liberals, Nationals, Greens, Palmer United or the Sex Party, they got exactly what they asked for. And when 3.54% voted for parties that preferred the Sex Party over all those, but failing that, then the AMEP, they got that too. They voted against the major parties; they voted that they’d prefer the minor ones. And when they eventually added up to 14.3%, they got their quota.
Now, you might point out, correctly, that those voters probably didn’t know that’s what they’re voting for. But that’s the point of above-the-line voting: you trust that the party you vote for submitted a group ticket that is what you would have wanted. This is reasonable. After all, you’re probably voting for that party because you believe it aligns most closely with you. While I’m sure that minor parties did strategically exchange preference deals, the outcome can be explained more much simply: minor parties collectively want to seek to limit the capacity of major parties to ride over their interests.
If Victoria and Western Australia didn’t want any micro-parties to gain seats, they would have put all those parties much further down their preference list. It’s worth noting that Labor, the Coalition and the Greens are arguably just as guilty. Labor and the Greens each preferenced most micro-parties above the Coalition, and vice versa. So their excess votes, too, helped the micro-parties distort the final outcome.
Obviously, it’s impossible to expect Australian voters to vote how they “should have voted” to prevent this outcome. That would essentially require almost all of them to vote below the line; when there are up to 110 candidates (as in New South Wales), that’s burdensome to say the least.
One way to side-step the problem is to abolish above-the-line voting, but not require voters to rank all (or at least 90% of) candidates. But then you would lose a key benefit of above-the-line voting, the ability to vote “for a party”.
And anyway, the real problem is more fundamental. Australia introduced its current voting system, the single transferable vote (STV), in 1948 when it decided it wanted its upper house to have proportional representation. The root problem, then, is straightforward: STV is not proportional representation. It is not proportional because it is not designed to be proportional. It is designed to minimise vote wastage, which is not quite the same thing, and which this year’s Senate elections achieved perfectly fine.
If you beg to differ, I challenge you to look at the projected results for Victoria and Western Australia and tell me why that is a proportional outcome. (Or read my earlier post on the topic.)
Ideas for reform
If Australia wants a transparent voting system for its Senate that produces a proportional outcome, the answer is simple: adopt a proportional system. Since their lower house is electorate-based, there is no need for a mixed system, as is the case in New Zealand. Instead, they could run a party-list proportional system with state-by-state contests. Even better, to improve overall fidelity to proportionality, they could look to Sweden: each multi-member constituency has its own proportional contest, with extra national “adjustment seats” designed to ensure that the national outcome matches the national vote as closely as possible.
I don’t have any hope that this option will get close to the table. Despite all the appeal of proportional representation, most nations find a true implementation too hard a bullet to bite. But at the very least, Australians should realise that the projected results of this year’s Senate elections are not just symptoms of flaws in an otherwise sound system. They are a show of a bad system working well.