- MALCOLM MACKERRAS
As you head to your local polling station this Saturday or cast your vote in early voting, it’s worth pondering: how does Australia’s voting system really work, anyway?
The foundations of our electoral system have been shaped by the democratic values enshrined in the Australian Constitution and the pragmatic decisions made by federal politicians since 1901.
Voters cast their ballots ahead of national elections at an Australian Electoral Commission early voting center in the central business district of Sydney, Australia on May 17. PHOTO: Reuters/Loren Elliott.
I have studied elections and electoral systems for about 65 years. Here’s what you need to know to understand how your vote in this election fits into the bigger picture.
How long are politicians’ terms?
For members of the House of Representatives – three years.
“The foundations of our electoral system have been shaped by the democratic values enshrined in the Australian Constitution and the pragmatic decisions made by federal politicians since 1901.”
Section 28 of the constitution says, “Each House of Representatives shall continue for three years from the first meeting of the House, and not more, but may be dissolved sooner by the Governor-General.”
Since the Prime Minister advises the Governor General, this means that he or she makes the exact choice of the date. A lot of people are against it, but not me. This power has not been abused.
The now dissolved term (the 46th Legislature) was elected in May 2019, so it lasted a full term.
Why do we have more seats in the House than in the Senate?
The constitution states that there should be approximately twice the number of seats in the House compared to the Senate.
Article 24 says: “The House of Representatives shall be composed of members directly chosen by the people of the Commonwealth, and the number of such members shall, so far as possible, be twice the number of senators.”
In the September 1946 elections, 74 members of the House of Representatives were elected to the 18th Parliament (1946-1949). There were then 36 senators, six from each of the six states.
Since 1984, there have been 76 senators, 12 from each state and two from each territory.
There are currently 151 seats in the House, which therefore meets the requirement “as much as possible to double the number” of senators.
How are electoral districts drawn?
Electoral districts are drawn so that there are a similar number of voters in each seat.
Article 24 of the constitution reads: “The number of members chosen from the several States shall be proportionate to the respective number of their inhabitants…”
The number of 151 electors was determined midway through the 45th Legislature (2016-19). In August 2017, Electoral Commissioner Tom Rogers released the latest population statistics and determined that there should be 47 members from New South Wales, 38 Victoria, 30 Queensland, 16 Western Australia, 10 South Australia , five Tasmania, three ACTs and two for the Northern Territory.
Where appropriate, electoral boundaries are redrawn according to the principle of “one vote, one value” or, as I prefer to say, equal representation for an equal number of people.
In July 2020, Rogers acknowledged that population growth was above average in Victoria and below average in Western Australia.
This is why the next elections will see 39 members elected in Victoria (up one) and 15 in WA (down one). New borders will apply in these two states and the redistributions have been carried out fairly and with maximum transparency, as always.
Elsewhere, limits will be the same as in May 2019.
How are senators elected?
Since 1949, the system has been that of proportional representation.
This means that in each state, six Senate seats are roughly allocated based on a party’s vote share. Thus, a party winning about 12% of the vote would win one seat, about 26% two seats, about 40% three seats, and so on.
This is why the Greens do so well in Senate elections compared to the House of Representatives. With about 10% of the votes for the two chambers, they currently have nine senators but only one member of the House of Representatives.
This differs from preferential voting for the House of Representatives, introduced in 1918, where voters number candidates in the order of their preferences – first choice, second choice and so on.
How long are senators’ terms?
State senators serve six-year terms and territorial senators serve three-year terms.
However, a rotation system means that half of senators’ terms end every three years. Thus, in most elections, half of the seats in the Senate are contested.
But there is an exception to this rule. Occasionally, there is a “double dissolution”, where the entire Senate is elected. This happened most recently in 2016. This parliament was dissolved prematurely because there was a dispute between the two houses, so the whole parliament faced the people.
In a double dissolution, half of the state senators get three-year terms instead of six. This is based on the number of votes.
Pauline Hanson from One Nation and Larissa Waters from the Greens are good examples of how this works.
Both were voted among 12 Queenslanders in the 2016 election. However, Hanson was one of the six most popular vote winners and Waters one of the six least popular vote winners. Thus, Hanson got a six-year term and Waters a three-year term.
Waters won a greater proportion of votes in the 2019 election, so he was elected to a six-year term, expiring June 30, 2025.
Hanson is eligible for re-election this year, and I predict she will be elected for a six-year term, and therefore her term will expire on June 30, 2028.
Problems with our voting system
Approximately 16.5 million votes will be cast for each chamber of parliament.
Based on the last two federal elections, I estimate the informal vote will be around 800,000 for the House of Representatives (4.9%) and 650,000 for the Senate (3.9%).
By global standards, this represents a high number of informal votes, which many believe is a stain on our democracy.
Two reasons for this are that we have compulsory voting and that ballots are unnecessarily complex and unfriendly to voters, especially the Senate.
The United Kingdom, Ireland, Canada and New Zealand have voluntary voting and simple single-round ballots, and the informal voting rate is negligible. Some say we should copy them.
There is also a lack of rules regarding campaign finance – the most notable case being the obscene expenses by Clive Palmer’s United Australia Party.
I maintain that there is no need to reform the Constitution and the democratic values it defends. But there should be legislative changes to improve the system. I expect democratic reforms in the next term, 2022-25, the 47th legislature.
These changes would not require a referendum, just negotiations to ensure passage through both chambers. On the other hand, changes to the constitution require a referendum. This is why reforms by referendum are rare.
Malcolm Mackerras is Distinguished Fellow at the PM Glynn Institute, Australian Catholic University. This article is republished from The conversation under Creative Commons license. Read it original article.