Unrepresentative Swill

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Like most Australians, I have in recent times voted above the line in the senate — after all the ballots don’t even fit in the booths anymore. From time to time I even shopped the vote about a little – voting above the line for a non-major party.

But I won’t be doing that in this election – and I doubt that I will ever again. Why? because the senate preferences deals have become so complicated that I now think preferential voting is profoundly undemocratic. Safer to stick with a major party.

For example, as a result of dodgy preference deals, there is a real chance that Pauline Hanson will get a senate seat in NSW (though I doubt you could find 15% of New South Welshman who thought a fairly dim Queenslander was their best representative), and a real chance that one of Clive Palmer or Bob Katter will get up in Queensland (though, again, i doubt that 15% of Queenslanders would think themselves best represented by either of these ‘characters’).

If any of the above get up, it’s very likely that these inferior minds will hold the balance of power in the Australian senate — wielding a veto over law-making in this country.

Australia deserves better.

The situation in Queensland is particularly perverse (you can see the senate deals done between the Greens, Katter and the Palmer United Party by following the links).

What surprised me when playing with Anthony Green’s very good senate calculator was how sensitive the outcome was to tiny changes. This is the perfect example of what’s wrong with the senate. Keating called them unrepresentative swill — and he was right.


You can see from the above chart that the situation in Qld 2010 was fairly sensible, with each of the LNP, ALP and Greens getting around the same number of quotas (the proportion of the vote needed to elect a senator, illustrated by the dark bars) and the actual number of senators elected (the light bars). This is basically how it’d look if we had first past the post voting in the senate (which is what i think we ought to change to).

I’ve put what I think is a fair estimate of the 2013 Senate vote below: I’ve assumed that the LNP get 39% of the senate vote (down 2.4% from 2010, as the Katter and Palmer conservative protest parties will hurt them more than the ALP); that the ALP get 29% (down 0.4% from 2010); that the Greens get 10% (down 2.76% from 2010, as Milne is a charisma black hole relative to Bob Brown); that Palmer gets 8%; and that Katter gets 4.5% of the senate vote.

There is some other spare change minor parties, and I’ve tried to leave them relatively undisturbed relative to 2010.


As illustrated in the Base Case chart above, after allocation of preferences this split of votes results in three LNP senators, two ALP senators, and a Palmer United Senator. The Greens were more popular, but Palmer was smarter with his preference deals. That’s tough luck for the Greens (and their supporters) given they received more of the vote.

But this situation is very fragile – look what happens if we bump the vote by a tiny amount.

Let’s say that 15 votes in every ten thousand (15bps) moves from the LNP to Katter (and why not, lots of conservative folks in Kennedy who voted for the LNP in 2010 might vote for Katter in the senate in 2013).

If this happens, the conservative agricultural folk in Kennedy (say) elect a green senator, and a Katter Senator — and bump off an LNP senator and a Palmer United Senator.

I doubt the people of Kennedy realise that the preference deals that have been made mean that a vote for Katter is a vote for a Green! My guess is that an LNP and Palmer pair would better represent central north Qld than Katter and a Green.


Next say we boost the Palmer United Party (PUP) vote by only 10 votes in each ten thousand (10bps). That is, we trim them off the LNP vote and put it toward the PUPs.


If this occurs, the LNP loses a senator to the Greens.

Who’d have thought that a vote for Palmer is a vote for the Greens?

Palmer, after all, is a one-time LNP member and a coal and property magnate, so you’d figure he’d have done a deal that’s fairly conservative. However, as we know from Star Wars, the dark side of the force is very powerful:  so Clive has done a preference deal based on hate (such is the rift between the LNP and Clive Palmer).

Given the dodgy senate deals that have been made, and the need for stable government, I implore my fellow Australians to vote for an adult.

Vote above the line for either the ALP or the LNP — both parties are responsible, and will put the nation first.

I happen to think that the ALP deserves a thumping, and that the LNP is ready to govern – so I’ll be voting for them … but even if you have the opposite view, do us all a favour, don’t get creative in the senate.


  1. Thanks for the post. I’m hoping that with the advertising blackout now in place, PUP’s votes disappear as quickly as they appeared. BTW, I’m not sure it’s true that PUP and Katter votes mainly come from natural Coalition voters. William Bowe at Poll Bludger says:

    ..it would appear that the last fortnight has seen Labor lose votes in Queensland to the Palmer United Party, and that this pool of voters contains a much larger proportion of Labor identifiers than the non-Greens minor party vote in 2010.

    I sure hope Sinodinos gets a spot in NSW. If he doesn’t in favour of a nobody (Marise Payne, who is no.3 on the ticket), it would be an indictment of the NSW LIberal Party.

    1. If he misses it will be because Hanson gets up – does anyone think pauline hanson is a better advocate for NSW than Arthur? I hope not!

      1. Looks like some tentative good news on this front at this stage, According to Poll Bludger:

        Notwithstanding a sadly typical flurry of excitement based on a meaningless early projection, Pauline Hanson’s chances have been negated by the phenomenon of an accidental 8.9% vote for the Liberal Democrats. This has probably secured a result of three Coalition, two Labor and one Liberal Democrats, although the Greens would be a chance of nabbing one of the Coalition seats if they or Labor improved in late counting for some reason.

  2. by the way Gentlemen ( where are the ladies?) on Around the traps John Quiggin has a good article on MMT ( comments are really interesting), Nick Rowe has an article on why he is a convert to NGDP targeting ( actually the wonk section is essential reading ) and there are a few articles on Ronald Coase.
    Of course our mate here has two!!

    good weekend reading!

    1. Thanks, looks interesting. My mate, Skeptikoi, had a good post this week too – not sure whether you saw it.

  3. Reblogged this on mummy flying solo and commented:
    Here’s one for the Aussies.

    People, we are voting tomorrow for a new party to lead our country. We all know about that. But do you know abut the senate vote?
    I mostly just think of it as that massive big white bit of paper they give me that doesn’t fit in the polling booth. It usually contains a few out there parties like the Three Day Weekend Party or the Fishing Party. Know which one I mean now? I’ve tried to spread the love around a bit before by choosing one of the more serious minor parties but apparently that sort of behaviour can wind up with someone like Pauline Hanson getting elected – which looks like a real possibility this election. Why? Preference deals my friend. I would explain it to you but why do that when someone else has done it better? Please, check out this post before you vote tomorrow (it’s an easy read so don’t be scared) so you know where your vote goes on the day. Hopefully we can avoid winding up with some of the real crazies having representation in the Senate (I’d seriously settle for no Pauline Hanson to be honest. Fruit loop!).
    Good luck and happy voting!

  4. Ricardo, people should just vote who they agree mostly with. What happens next is just part of the democratic process. Small parties and independents are actually a very important part of the democratic arena. Definitely people should not vote one of the two major parties just because they are big or just because they guarantee governability. You say the ALP deserves a thumping: well someone else may think both major parties deserve a thumping and that’s how they should vote. The coalition will have to learn to bargain with people that do not agree with them, and that’s normal in a democracy.

    1. I strongly disagree – even if you have a math phd, it is hard to figure out what your vote will do in the senate because of the preference deals. Preferential voting only works well in small groups where it is possible to know all the candidates.

      As it stands, the system is too complex to be democratic – i think a first past the post system would be more transparent and more democratic.

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