October 15

Electoral fraud?

In a recent function co-hosted by the HS Chapman Society and ACM, the Hon. Bronwyn Bishop, shadow Special Minister of State, addressed the issue of electoral fraud.  Mrs Bishop reported on her recent discussions with the Australian Electoral Commission.

An interview on this, and on an Australian republic is embedded below .


Mrs Bishop’s arrival at Parliament House Sydney for the function was delayed, so Dr Amy McGrath asked me to be Mrs Bishop’s understudy and to speak.

I pointed out that while the Constitution prescribes that while both houses are to be “directly chosen” by “the people”, neither is defined.

(There are certain essentially transitional provisions, and the original states are protected)

These matters are for the Parliament, although in two recent decisions, the High Court has limited the power to disenfranchise convicts and most recently in the GetUp! case, the closing of the rolls. The method of voting – now preferential in the House, and preferential proportional in the Senate – is a matter for Parliament.

During this discussion, Mrs Bishop arrived, looking absolutley gorgeous. the Understudy relinquished the stage to the star, declaring that this was not to be a replay of "All About Eve".


….preferential voting…


I spoke to the issue of preferential voting. ACM of course has no position on this, apart from encouraging debate, and an understandable concern about the potential of fraud invoting.

My recent paper published in News Limited on line publication, The Punch on 6 October is republished in an edited form below. There was a lively discussion afterwards. Among the points made was that the Senate quota should be based on the number of senators to be elected rather than that number plus one. It was said this had the effect of disenfranchising a number of voters.

Another point made as that the way a party’s preferences are to be allocated in voting above the line was once displayed in polling stations.

..It’s time to ditch preferential voting – but only in the House…

[To continue, click on


 If our election on 21 August had been held under British, Canadian, Indian or American rules, we wouldn't have had to wait. We would have known the results that evening. 

It would have been a landslide to the Coalition.  Their majority would have been about the same size as that of the Rudd government. The three independents would have had no role in the formation of the government, and neither the Green MP nor Mr. Willkie would have been there.

There is no perfect electoral system, and none is sacrosanct. Politicians being human, they prefer the system which they think will favour them. But circumstances change. What favours a party at one time can disadvantage them at another. 

Preferential voting was only introduced because it helped the conservative side – in 1918.  While it favours Labor now, it certainly did not help the Labor Party when the DLP split from it.

….considerations in choosing a system…

There are three important considerations in choosing the most appropriate system. The first two are well known- stable government, and the representation or influence of political minorities.

The third is usually ignored. That is ensuring there are effective checks and balances in our bicameral system. Although often criticised, our bicameral system works well.


There is nothing undemocratic or wrong about the fact that Tasmania has the same number of Senators as New South Wales. Without this principle, taken from the US constitution, there would have been no federation.

Notwithstanding the increasing concentration of power in Canberra, there is no likelihood whatsoever that the states will be abolished. This is often advanced as a simple answer to the confusion of having seven even nine governments- and the quality of some of them.

The real solution was prescribed long ago by the American Founding Fathers: "In a federation, the individual states should possess an independent and uncontrollable authority to raise their own revenues for the supply of their own wants" In other words, don’t so what we have done. We are turning our states into the equivalent of healthy adults who are welfare dependent. Is it any surprise, then, that at least the NSW government is dysfunctional?


The Senate was intended to be not only as a states’ house but a powerful house of review. To play this role, it must not be just a mirror of the House. It must be chosen in a different way.

To the American Founding Fathers the value of the House of Lords was that its members would look to the long and not the short term – the rest of their lives and those of their eldest male heir and his progeny.So they tried to inject an aristocratic element into the Congress, a Senate chosen indirectly (later changed to direct election) and with six year terms, in contrast to House terms of two years.

Similarly, Australian state senators serve six-year terms, with half of them being elected at each federal election. Accordingly the Senate does not just reflect the national feeling at one point in time – unlike the House. Always directly elected by the people, from 1948, our Senate has been elected both proportionately and preferentially.

The voting system before this tended to create landslides for one of the major parties. It was of course changed to benefit one side, but the emergence of the Labor split meant the advantage swung to the other side. The good thing is that the smaller parties can be represented there, which is fair.

But if we want stability in government it is better they be in the Senate, and not the House – and not unduly influence House elections.

…above the line…

While we are looking at the Senate one thing which should go immediately is the impropriety, indeed the abuse, in the present system of voting above the line.  It is extremely difficult for voters to find out just where their preferences will go. This is an outrage on democracy and should not be tolerated.

The solution is to allow optional preference voting above the line. The voter, and not the parties, would then determine what happens to his or her preferences. Now there is one great difference between the two houses. The Constitution wisely ensures the government is formed in the House. So we need stability there.  If we had proportional voting in the House, as the Greens wish, we would never have a majority government.



Given that no voting system is perfect, the fairest and most sensible thing is to use one system in the House and the other in the Senate. From 1918 to 1948 we did precisely this – we had preferential voting in the House, and winner-take-all in the Senate.*   Preferential voting was introduced in the House to advantage one side. 

It now advantages the other side, but that will change. But it potentially gives undue strength to minor parties who can offer their preferences to the major parties. At present there is really only one, but that will change too. Just recall the DLP, the Democrats and One Nation.

It is argued that reliance on the Greens’ preferences is the principal reason why today Labor is now a “no dams” party. It is said this is the reason  why back burning to prevent bush fires has been so limited. It is also claimed that this is the reason for vast parts of the country and seas being subject to controls which many believe to be excessive. Again it is said this is why the Wild Rivers Act was introduced into Queensland to limit the development of Aboriginal land. 

Other countries have long used the first past the post system. In other areas of life – sport, schools, universities and business – first past the post rules. 

So why should we give voters for small parties  second, third, fourth or more votes both in the House and in the Senate?  Those who vote for the major parties in effect only get one vote.

The minor parties ought to be satisfied with the Senate. 

The better solution is to spread the ephemeral advantages and disadvantages of different electoral systems by having one in the House –first past the post – and a different one in the Senate, proportional and preferential.

…optional preferential voting…

Until the more efficient first past the post is reintroduced into the House, why are voters forced to give preferences when they may not wish to?

Preferences should be optional. An even better way to measure preferences would be to have a runoff election the following Saturday in those seats where no one gets more than 50% of the vote. 

The two leading candidates would then face the people and the voters would have the chance to reflect on which candidate they actually preferred. 

And to be fair to the voter, why not make voting in the runoff voluntary, so that only those really interested vote?The existing system is the result of changes put in place often in a vain attempt to advantage one side or the other.

The system has not been set in concrete. It is not sacrosanct.  And it is not perfect. No system ever is. So why not spread the advantages and disadvantages of the different systems? It’s time to change.  

* This column was amended on 1 November 2010. This is explained in Electoral system: A Clarification, 1 November, 2010   


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