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The politicians we voted for, the politicians we deserve

Although Cuffelinks is an investment forum, many of its followers may be interested in electoral systems, especially after the controversial Senate election results.

Contrary to the great weight of ‘informed’ expert opinion, there is a straightforward argument that the Senate election results did indeed reflect the views of the voting public.

In a normal Senate election, half of each state’s 12 senators are elected, with the whole of the state being regarded as a single electorate. To be elected, a candidate must achieve a quota of votes, which, when there are six seats, is 1/7th of the total formal votes cast + 1. The mathematics works out that effectively there are 6.9999 quotas of votes in each state. After six candidates have been elected, each with 1 quota, there will be insufficient votes remaining to elect any further candidates and the counting concludes.

Particular derision has been directed by psephological elites, major-party apparatchiks and opinion leaders at the Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party which gained a Senate seat in Victoria starting from a primary vote of 0.51% of votes cast, or 0.0353 of a quota, and the Australian Sports Party which gained a seat in Western Australia starting from a primary vote of 0.22% of votes cast, or 0.0155 of a quota.

Voting system allows preferences against parties

What such expert opinion ignores is that not only does the Senate voting system (and indeed any preferential system) allow voters to express their preferences for parties, but also it allows them to express their preferences AGAINST particular parties.

In any electorate there is a spectrum of voting motivation. Some voters want to vote for a particular party and don’t care about other parties. Other voters not only want their preferred party to win, but also want to stop other particular parties from winning. An example of this has been seen in recent years where the major parties have put the One Nation party last on their how-to-vote cards. And still other voters’ primary motivation is to stop another particular party or parties from winning a seat, not caring greatly who wins otherwise.

One element that has worked in favour of the major parties in past Senate elections has been the fact that minor party voters (and the minor parties themselves) tended to be undisciplined in their preferences beyond their primary vote. This left frustrated those voters who wanted nothing to do with the major parties (‘A plague/pox on both your houses!’). In this election we’ve seen the minor parties become much more strategic in their preference arrangements.

How did the quotas add up?

Let’s have a look at how the Senate votes were counted in Victoria, enabling the Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party to win one of the six seats available. The primary votes fell thus (expressed as quotas, rather than as numbers of votes or percentages of the total vote):

Liberal/The Nationals2.8204
Australian Labor Party2.2821
The Greens0.7474
(9 minor parties)0.8411)
Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party0.0353)  1.1500
(21 minor parties)0.2736)


From first preferences the LNP and the ALP were each able to win two seats. At that point the exhaustive process of progressively eliminating at each count that candidate with the lowest number of votes and distributing those votes via preferences to higher-up candidates began.

At that stage the critical point to note was that the number of first preferences cast for minor parties was greater than 1 quota, or 1.1500 to be precise. For these votes to translate into a seat for the minor parties it would be necessary to ensure that as few votes as possible (and definitely no more than 0.1500 quotas) leaked to the major parties. After 28 more counts the quota position was (with four of the six seats already allocated):

Party Quotas  Leakage gain/loss
Liberal/The Nationals0.8554+0.0350
The Greens0.7780+0.0306
Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party0.3965))
Sex Party0.3443)  1.0827)–0.0673
Palmer United Party0.3419))
Australian Labor Party0.2838+0.0017


It can be seen by comparison with the table of primary votes above that the minor parties were able at this stage to contain preference leakage to less than 7% of a quota, leaving them, or, at least, one of their number, still in the running for the last quota and Senate seat.

At this stage the ALP’s third candidate was eliminated and, not surprisingly, 99.5% of those votes flowed to The Greens, giving them a quota. Then 99.8% of The Greens’ votes in excess of those required for that quota flowed to the Sex Party, widening its lead over the Palmer United Party and even putting it marginally ahead of the Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party. The Palmer United Party was therefore eliminated with its votes flowing entirely to the Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party, giving rise to the penultimate position:

Liberal/The Nationals0.8570
Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party0.7385)  1.1429
Sex Party0.4044)


The Sex Party was then eliminated, but rather than a full distribution of its votes, the rules provide that counting would cease once a sufficient distribution has occurred to give whichever party the last quota. Of the Sex Party’s votes actually distributed, 88% flowed to the Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party, giving it a comfortable win over the Liberal/Nationals for the last quota and Senate seat in Victoria. A hypothetical full distribution assuming the same ratio might have seen the Liberal/Nationals end with 0.9 quotas and the Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party with 1.1.

What this result has shown is that, provided there are sufficient voters who want to see no party or coalition with an outright majority, minor parties are indeed in a position to secure that outcome as long as they can keep preference leakage to the major parties tightly staunched.

And if this leads to a hung Senate, so what? Without an outright majority, parliament then needs to work as it should, by talking (the word ‘parliament’ comes from the French ‘parler’ – to talk), ie by negotiation and compromise, rather than by ‘to the victor the spoils’.

Minor party voters denied the major parties

Whereas the experts would have us believe that the system has failed because “how could a party possibly be legitimately elected with less than 1% of votes”, many would say that the system has worked because it has enabled the minor party voters, 16% of the electorate in Victoria, to deny that seat to a major party, even if the minor party that did win it wasn’t their first choice.


(All figures in this article are based on data from the ABC’s election website as at Thursday 12 September 2013).

Geoff Walker is an actuary, whose 40-year career has spanned life insurance, superannuation, banking, funds management and consulting. In the late 1970s he was returning officer for the Victorian Branch of the AMP Society Staff Association, which he claims gives him authority to speak on matters electoral!


Eric Taylor
October 08, 2013

A top article, Graham. Michael is correct in saying that the system is not really broken. Choices can be made by voting below the line, as I have done in every election as I refuse to delegate my right to choose.

I suggest however, that in saying the major parties want electoral reform to control the vote is not 100% correct. The current system was brought in by the major parties to control the vote. This time, the minors had more time and used the system to their advantage. I suspect the majors will simply try to reduce the minors chance to be organised in future.

I personally do advocate change, with preferential voting above the line. It will give some control back to the electorate, which is what is needed.

If it does not come in a useful fashion, I urge everyone to join me below the line.

Rob Coyte
October 02, 2013

Excellent article. The senate way of voting does seem weird to me in the sense that the minor party could get in and if they held balance of power would have immense political power. This doesn't appear to be "fair" when only a smidgins may have voted for them in the first place. In saying Nick Xen in SA is good example of getting in like this doing a good job and winning more seats in next election.

Geoff Walker
September 14, 2013

Thanks all for your interest and comments.

To Andrew and Warren - what needs to be understood is that anyone who says the result proves that the system is broken bears the onus of proof for that claim. What they need to do is to demonstrate that the election of a candidate from a minor party other than the particular parties voted for by minor-party voters was a consequence unintended by those voters.

In other words, they need to show that the minor-party voters were misled into giving their preferences to other minor parties rather than to one of the major parties. Good luck with that!

That's not to say that the system can't be tweaked to make things easier for those who want to allocate preferences idiosyncratically.

September 14, 2013

The system is not broken, as Andrew notes that all you need to do is fill out the preferences below the line. It may take 5 minutes, but that's the price of democracy.

Those advocating solutions "Above the line" are making the system more complex than it already is. Imagine the out cry and informal voting "Above the line", if that was preferential as well as being preferential "Below the line". The media and the major parties will say that the result did not reflect the will of the people, does that sound familar? Remember "Above the Line" voting was introduced to make it simplier.

Micro-parties will come and go as will independents, some will be good senators and will be re-elected while the rest end up serving one term.

Nick Xenophon was originally elected to the SA parliament with "tiny" numbers and from preferences. In this last Federal election he received about 25% of the vote which was greater than the Labor party. Cearly, the SA voters are happy with him. Becareful of the major parties advocating electrol reform, its code for them saying we really want control.

Something we all agree on - we are lucky to live in a truly democratic country - a rare breed in this world.

September 13, 2013

Thanks Geoff for a very clear summary of how the senate vote came about. You should apply for a role at the Electoral Commission and help them to give clearer information on their web site!

I agree with Andrew, however. It certainly suits the minor parties to argue that their collective vote represented 'the will of the people' to have a minor party in the senate. But that is a presumption, based upon a belief that all voters knew about these preference deals and were thus happy for any of the other minority groups to get in if their choice failed to get up.

We simply don't know if that's the case or not.

For example, are those who voted for the Bullet Train for Australia Party happy that the Motoring Enthusiasts got in? Perhaps not! More cars on more roads would seem to be opposite to the desires of those who want a bullet train.

And I'm sure that a lot of the people who voted for the other small groups would have been horrified if the Sex Party had ended up being successful.

It's an argument from lack of evidence to the contrary to suggest that all who voted for someone other than the Coalition or the ALP were happy for anyone to get a senate seat. Arguments from lack of evidence are among the most unreliable of all.

Therefore, I believe we do need to have another look at the voting procedure for the Senate. We need a system that we can have confidence truly reflects the will of the people.

September 13, 2013

The maths and technicality are correct, but there is a fallacy in your logic here - you assume that a vote for any particular minor party reflects a desire by the voter to have any minor candidate rather than one of the majors - you are effectively assuming that the minor parties are one single option.

The issue with the way the federal senate voting paper works is that it provides no ability to vote first for a particular minor party, then direct your preference where you want it - anyone who wanted to vote (say) PUP first and Labor second did not have that option without filling in the whole bottom half. Fixing the system to allow preferences to be allocated above the line will remove the problem without taking away the ability of voters to quite easily preference the major parties last if they wish to.


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