CANBERRA -- Senate voting reform is splitting Parliament House in two, with Labor and independent politicians engaging in a tit-for-tat spat with the government and minor parties on how members of the upper house are elected.
The Coalition on Monday introduced its long-mooted Commonwealth Electoral Amendment Bill, outlining a swag of changes to how Australians will vote on election day, including optional one-to-six preferential "above the line" voting on senate ballot papers and the abolition of group and individual group tickets.
Some independent senators have lamented the changes would make it near-impossible for non-major parties to be elected to the upper house, with Liberal Democrat senator David Leyonhjelm flagging the possibility minor parties could run in marginal Coalition and Greens seats to dilute votes as retaliation.
Labor senator Sam Dastyari has also blasted the changes.
Frankly the Senate is a better place when more diverse voices are being heard. Gov changing the rules because they don't like the outcome.— Sam Dastyari (@samdastyari) February 21, 2016
"For the government to do a dirty little deal with the Greens and [Senator] Nick Xenophon was a surprise and very disappointing," Leyonhjelm claimed.
The government and the Greens joined to support the legislation, against the vocal protests of the Labor Party and independents. Currently, senate ballot papers require voters to number either one candidate above the line, or all candidates -- in order of preference -- below the line.
Below the line voting has been criticised in the past as voters have needed to individually number over one hundred boxes in some elections, with the ABC reporting in 2013 that 95 percent of voters numbered just one box above the line due to the complexity and time of voting below the line.
While below the line voting is more complex, voters can decide exactly where their preferences end up. Above the line, while much simpler, means that a voter's one single vote may be diverted to a candidate they do not support, due to preference deals that few voters understand or are made aware of.
The bill claims to "reduce the complexity," "reduce confusion" and "improve transparency" of the senate voting system, allowing voters to number up to six boxes above the line. The purported aim of the changes is to ensure a balance between ease and accuracy -- to give people more opportunity to direct their preferences where they want them, but through a much less arduous process than numbering every single candidate on the so-called "tablecloth ballot papers."
The changes, according to the Sydney Morning Herald, could see the Coalition pick up seven seats, and the ousting of many minor senators including Jacqui Lambie, Glenn Lazarus, Ricky Muir and Leyonhjelm who have helped block government legislation.
@osbornep Undemocratic, in the interest of major parties not voters. Will also ensure the Senate is permanently gridlocked.— David Leyonhjelm (@DavidLeyonhjelm) February 22, 2016
Of course, minor parties and independent senators often and infamously rely on the sometimes-murky redistribution of these preferences. Muir, of the Motoring Enthusiasts Party, was elected in 2013 through preferences after registering just 0.5 percent of the primary vote. In introducing the bill today, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull cited Muir as a reason why the changes were needed.
"Australians were astonished to see people elected to the Senate whose primary votes were a fraction in the case of one senator from Victoria, about 0.5 per cent of the vote," Turnbull said.
"We all know that so-called 'preference whisperers' have been very adept, very genius in working out how to game the system."
Speaking to media, independent senator Nick Xenophon -- who was elected with 25 percent of the vote at the last election and is in little danger of being unseated by the changes -- called the current senate preference flows "labyrinthine and bizarre," claiming the changes would "take away from the back room deals" and give "power back to the people."
Senator Leyonhjelm claimed that the abolition of group voting for minor and independent parties would mean that only "Liberal, Labor, the Greens and Nick Xenophon" would be elected at future elections. Speaking to media alongside Palmer United Party senator Dio Wang, Leyonhjelm claimed that an alliance of minor parties -- who usually only enter senate races -- were considering fielding candidates in marginal Coalition seats, as well as the marginal seat of Greens MP Adam Bandt, to further dilute votes and place the election results on a knife edge.