In Summary

When the new Senate assembles for the first time this week it will be unique in Australia’s political history. No fewer than 11 political parties will be represented alongside one independent senator.

Thirty-three senators – six short of a majority – will be members of the Coalition parties (Liberal, National, Liberal National and Country Liberals). Labor will have 25, the Greens 10 and the Palmer United Party three, and the Liberal Democratic Party, the Democratic Labour Party, Family First and the Australian Motoring Enthusiasts will have one each. Independent Nick Xenophon brings the total to 76.

The election that chose half of these senators was extraordinary in many ways. First, there were two polling days: September 7, 2013, when all of us voted, and then April 5, 2014, in Western Australia, after the High Court voided the state’s first count after the loss of 1370 ballot papers.

But the novelty did not end there. A record 529 candidates contested 40 Senate places; in five states, places were won by parties never before represented in Parliament; South Australia’s six places were shared among four parties and an independent; and the ballot papers in Victoria and NSW were so large that magnifying frames were issued to read them.

What generated the most controversy was the fact that some of these "micro-party" candidates rode to victory on very small parcels of votes. The Australian Sports Party originally won in Western Australia with 0.2 per cent of the vote, but lost in the "second round". Here in Victoria, Ricky Muir of the Motoring Enthusiasts enters the Senate on 0.5 per cent. Given that the quota for election is 14.3 per cent, results such as these raised more than a few eyebrows.

How and why did they occur? They are not the consequence of any form of rorting but are a feature of the type of proportional electoral method adopted for the Senate in 1948. It is known as a multi-member, quota-preferential, single-transferable vote, proportional system. When abbreviated to STV PR, it alarms the uninitiated, who think it is a nasty social disease.

Without becoming too technical, its major features are that, unlike the House of Representatives, it does not demand majorities (50 per cent + 1 vote) to get elected; rather in a half Senate election a "quota" of 14.3 per cent will suffice. While, like the House, it is preferential the surplus to quota votes of large parties can be "transferred" to other candidates. The notions of primary and two party-preferred votes are irrelevant in the Senate.

To illustrate, let’s have a brief look at how PUP’s Jacqui Lambie is now a Tasmanian senator. The 2013 quota was calculated at 48,137 votes and Lambie initially polled 21,794 votes or 0.45 of a quota. By the 154th preference transfer she was still 16,994 votes shy of that quota. But at the 155th count she struck it lucky in the form of surplus votes from the ALP and ended with a total of 55,572 votes - well in excess of the quota.

Her ultimate victory owed as much to the 33,778 votes she harvested from other candidates as the 21,794 she won in her own right.

STV PR effectively requires that parties enter complex preference deals with each other to maximise their chances of success. They have been doing this since STV PR was first employed in 1949, but the practice was much facilitated and complicated by the 1983 decision to divide the Senate ballot paper into above and below the line. The motive was to reduce the sometimes 10 per cent informal Senate vote by allowing electors to simply put the number one against the group of their choice above the line.

Everywhere but Tasmania and the ACT, voters have enthusiastically embraced the idea and 95 per cent of them now vote above the line rather than listing preferences below. The parties register Group Voting Tickets (GVTs) with the Australian Electoral Commission setting out where they want their preferences to go, but unless they are prepared to spend a very long time pouring over the AEC’s website, the average voter has no idea where their vote for, say, the Coalition may end up. Did Sex Party voters in Victoria know that it preferenced Hanson above the Greens in 2013 and why it did so?

The new Senate is likely to cause policy pain for the Coalition and there has already been some double dissolution kite flying. The government now has a trigger to dissolve both houses, but it would be unwise to pull it too soon. Unless changes are made to the electoral system, the Senate quota would drop to 7.7 per cent, making it even easier for micros to get elected. Also, if the opinion polls are to be believed, had there been an election yesterday, the Coalition would have lost it.

In May 2014, the Parliament’s Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters (JSCEM) issued a report that addressed the question of the Senate’s electoral system. It recommended making it more difficult to register political parties and the abolition of Group Voting Tickets. Most importantly, it urged the replacement of compulsory preferential voting with optional preferential above the line and what it called "partial" optional preferential voting below the line. So, to cast a valid vote, an elector may place the number one against the group of their choice above the line or list a minimum of six preferences (12 at a double dissolution) below the line. Being optional, the elector may then list as many additional preferences as there are names on the ballot paper.

While not beyond criticism, OPV does give the voter, rather than political parties, much greater say as to what happens to their preferences.

Unusually for JSCEM, this was a unanimous report, so we would expect any legislation based on it to easily pass both houses. But there is a snag. The micro-parties have threatened to punish the government by voting against it if it tries to introduce OPV, but if it doesn’t, it risks a repetition of 2013 at the next election. The bill, as they say, is "on hold".

Written by Brian Costar, Swinburne University of Technology. This article originally appeared in The Age. You can read the original article here