Democracy, the Senate and party politics

Friday 18 Mar 2016

Charles Sturt University (CSU) political scientist Associate Professor Dominic O'Sullivan argues there's a need to overhaul Senate election laws but that doesn't justify rushing legislation through.

Dominic O'SullivanAfter sitting through the night debating the reform the Senate passed the legislation today.

Professor O'Sullivan, from CSU's School of Humanities and Social Sciences, said, "While I can see the argument for a change to elections to the Senate, I don't think there was an imperative to rush the legislation through this sitting week," he said.

"The political problem that the Government is trying to solve is that it cannot pass legislation without the support of the Senate crossbench comprising members elected on as little as half of one per cent of the first preference vote.

"Currently, senators can be elected on the mathematical skills of 'preference whisperers' or party names, like Liberal Democrats, easily confused with the name of a larger established party, rather than elected by the informed preferences of voters.

"The Coalition is obviously keen to pass the Bill quickly to pave the way for a double dissolution election."

Professor O'Sullivan said the hastily convened Senate Inquiry amended the legislation to change the system for below the line voting on the Senate ballot paper.

"The change allowing voters to preference a minimum below the line of 6 candidates in a half Senate election, or 12 in double dissolution, is a significant shift in terms of enhancing democracy," he said.

After striking a deal with the Greens and Independent Nick Xenophon, the Coalition had the numbers to pass the Bill.

"There are a few reasons that Labor didn't support this legislation," Professor O'Sullivan said. "It doesn't want a double dissolution election and perhaps more importantly the proposed changes have the potential to undo all the secret deals done by 'faceless men' for positions on the Labor Senate ticket."

He dismisses the argument that the reforms will disenfranchise those who vote for minor parties.

"Democracy presumes the right to cast a vote of equal value, not the right to vote for a winner.

"It is not the 3.3 million people who voted for minor parties that the proposed system disenfranchises.

"It is, instead, the 'faceless men', the 'preference whisperers', who are disenfranchised. That is good for democracy," said Professor O'Sullivan.


Media contact: Ms Emily Malone and Ms Fiona Halloran, (02) 6933 2207

Media Note:

Contact CSU Media to arrange interviews. Associate Professor Dominic O'Sullivan is based in Canberra.