Unrepresentative Swill: The Case for Senate Electoral Reform

In November 1992 then Prime Minister Paul Keating described the Senate as “unrepresentative swill”. It is a description that has stuck firmly to our federal upper house. I agree with Keating’s description but not with his reasoning. Essentially he objected to the Senate due to its federal character. There are fifteen people in New South Wales for every Tasmanian yet they have (and have always had) the same number of senators. To him that is a malapportionment. To me that merely reflects the federal nature of the Australian Constitution.

Yet I insist on calling the Senate “unrepresentative swill” and that description gives this blog its name. My reasoning is that the Senate voting system is so bad – and so patently unconstitutional – that the Australian Senate should, indeed, be described as unrepresentative swill. When I am not describing the Senate voting system as “bad” I content myself with calling it “dishonest”,  “outlandish” or, sometimes, merely “ugly”. At other times I describe it as “a disgrace”.

There are those who own the present system – politicians, big party machines, judges and so-called “expert independent analysts”. They will defend the proposition that the Constitution permits above-the-line voting, a proposition I refute. They will also assert that above-the-line voting exists for the benefit of voters. Again I refute that assertion as absurd. Above-the-line voting exists so that big party machines can guarantee their candidates are elected in the “correct” order – the order determined by the party machine. The purpose of above-the-line voting is to stop voters interfering with the order determined by the machine.

Essentially this section of my blog begins with me presenting model ballot papers for my reforms. First to appear is that for the Senate – such reform is urgent. The second to appear is my model ballot paper for the Legislative Council of Western Australia. As for the Senate the present WA system is bad – it gets a fail mark from me. Third to appear is my model ballot paper for the Victorian Legislative Council. The present Victorian system is basically a good one. It gets a credit mark of 65 per cent from me. However, if my reform was adopted my mark for Victoria would rise to a distinction with 77 per cent being my new mark.

Compare and contrast the present Senate ballot paper with my model for reform. The present was concocted by politicians from big parties doing the bidding of the machines that put them into their seats. Mine was designed by an “expert independent analyst” who can quote genuine democratic principles in his support. The present is dishonest.


My informal vote for The Australian Senate 2019 - written on the 2016 Ballot Paper for your benefit. See below for the 2019 Ballot Paper.


Mine is honest. The present is unconstitutional, voter-UNFRIENDLY but party-machine-friendly. Mine is Constitution-friendly and voter-friendly which leads me to ask myself this question: “Have I designed my ballot paper to be party-machine-unfriendly?”

Some would give an affirmative answer to that question. They would say that I have been driven by my intense disliking of party machines. I deny that. I say that I do not object to the big party machines stage-managing the election. That would still occur under my reform. What I object to is the way they have rigged the election by their contrivances. Eliminate all four contrivances from the Senate system (and all three for Legislative Councils in Victoria and Western Australia) and all three systems would be genuinely democratic. I do not seek to stop the parties arranging their candidates in an order. They have enjoyed that right since 1940 and I think they should keep that right.

In the autumn of 2016 the Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia put in place a new Senate voting system which was laughably described (by those who own it) as “a reform”. It was no such thing. The Commonwealth Electoral Amendment Act 2016 was nothing more than a dishonest re-contriving of the contrivances of the previous system – done for the benefit of the machines of big political parties. It is difficult to imagine a more cynical exercise than that.

Actually this section of my blog begins with me showing the front page of the villain of the piece. It was the document published in May 2014 by the federal Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters on Senate voting.

Due to its unanimity that report (titled Interim report on the inquiry into the conduct of the 2013 Federal Election: Senate voting practices) was treated by most of the media as though it were the report of a royal commission. It was nothing of the sort. Essentially what drove that tract of propaganda was politicians from big parties agreeing with each other on ways to promote the interests of their machines. The apparatchiks looked at the contrivances of the previous system and decided that two of the three were convenient to their machines. Therefore, they should be kept. The third contrivance, however, had proved inconvenient so it had to be scrapped. It was known as the Group Voting Ticket. But Labor, wisely following my advice, withdrew from the cynical cartel and that withdrawal, combined with the exclusion of the National Party from the process, meant the parliamentary numbers were no longer there. So the politicians added two new contrivances to get the legislation passed.

The four contrivances of the Senate voting system now are: the thick black line running across the ballot paper, the party boxes above that ballot dividing line, the deceitful instructions to voters choosing an above-the-line vote and the deceitful instructions to voters choosing the below-the-line option.

The views I have today on this subject are exactly the same as they were sixty years ago. However, I did not start a serious campaign until five years ago. Over the past five years I have been campaigning more-or-less full time to drive some sense into the heads of our politicians. They must be taught that genuine democratic reform does not come from the re-contriving of contrivances. It does not matter whether that means reducing them from three to two or increasing them from three to four – as the politicians did in the autumn of 2016. Genuine democratic reform comes from the complete elimination of contrivances.

I invite readers to study my model ballot papers. Such study would reveal their total absence of contrivance. My ballot papers are honest and voter friendly. The voter would know exactly that which vote counts contrasting with that vote which is informal. In respect of the two jurisdictions where reform is urgently needed the statement on the bottom reads: “Remember, your vote will not count unless you number at least 7 boxes”. Victorian reform is less urgent but, due to the election of only five members for each region, the statement on the bottom would read: “Remember, your vote will not count unless you number at least 5 boxes”. What could be more simple than that?

Unlike some other psephologists I do not seek to shape a party system nearest to my heart’s desires. I seek to enforce the genuine democratic principle of direct election. After that my motto becomes: “Let the chips fall where they may”.

The page immediately following this statement is the cover of the report discussed above. I insist that report was the villain of the piece – and I denounced it immediately upon its publication. Implementation did not come easily. The Prime Minister at the time was Tony Abbott. He quickly ascertained that – despite its apparent unanimity – it would run into difficulty getting implemented by legislation. As told to me, he said to himself: “Be careful what you wish for”. (See my chapter Extreme Vetting for the full conversation). Implementation waited for Malcolm Turnbull to replace Abbott in our highest political office. Turnbull, therefore, is the owner of the system to which Abbott gave his vote, as did the entire Liberal Party.

Turnbull quickly ascertained the lack of parliamentary numbers, as Abbott had done. Consequently, under his watch, the third and fourth contrivances were added, purely to get the parliamentary numbers and for no democratic reason. Readers should not believe any spin doctor for this system who argues that there is any democratic principle in deceitful instructions to voters, they being the third and fourth contrivances.

After my reader has studied my model ballot papers he or she may care to see the table of chapters. Following that seven of the sixteen have been selected by me, they being the introduction and conclusion plus Extreme Vetting, Judges Exercise Their Power, Clark and Spence, Increasing the Size of Parliament and The Senate as Unrepresentative Swill.

Since this book does not yet have a publisher I am keeping my powder dry at this stage. I do not propose to add further to this blog on this subject - though I may correct any errors if pointed out to me. I do not intend to make this blog conversational. However, readers may care to write to me at my home address which is 35 Creswell Street, Campbell, ACT, 2612. My e-mail address is malcolm.mackerras@acu.edu.au 

Malcolm Mackerras AO

March 2019


Western Australian ballot PAPER REFORM

Victorian Ballot Paper Reform