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Will we see a reformed Senate voting system?

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Back on Tuesday 21 April 2015 there was published on this website under my name an article titled ”What do the Americans and the Liberal Party have in common?” The article began by quoting the famous quip from Sir Winston Churchill that “The Americans can always be relied upon to do the right thing – but only after they have exhausted every alternative.” It then went on to say I was hopeful that one day Australia’s Liberal Party would eventually do the right thing in relation to reform of the Australian Senate voting system.

So far I have waited in vain in that respect. However, recently there arose a piece of news on another front, which tells me that there is a definite chance I shall live to see that hope realised. A feature of our electoral system, for which I pressed strongly in 2003, is now to bear fruit. So I have waited fourteen years for this. Being now 77 years old, if I live to the age of 91 (of which there is a possibility), I may see the Australian people given a decent Senate voting system along the lines I have advocated in several articles on this website.

One of my peculiarities is that I live in Canberra. For that reason, I wish to see the Australian Capital Territory treated fairly when it comes to representation in the Australian federal parliament. Since the ACT is not a state, I have never expected our Senate representation to be decent. The Senate, after all, is the house of the states. Not surprisingly, neither the ACT nor the Northern Territory is properly represented there. However, I have always thought the people of both the ACT and the NT should get the same “fair go” in the House of Representatives as is the case for the six states.

Back in 1949, the ACT was given one seat in the lower house. In 1974, that was increased to two, the number at which it has remained ever since. In 1974 the Division of Canberra had 50,039 electors and the Division of Fraser had 52,689. Those were roughly the same numbers as elsewhere. By 2016, however, the numbers had increased so that Canberra had 138,233 electors and Fenner had 131,391. The name Fraser was changed to Fenner to allow a new seat of Fraser to be created in Victoria, called after Malcolm Fraser. Deceased prime ministers always have a seat called after them – in the state of their representation.

Back in 2001, there were two members in the ACT (Canberra and Fraser – both Labor) and two members in the NT, the marginal Liberal seat of Solomon (Darwin area) and Lingiari, safely Labor and majority indigenous since it covers 98% of the area of the NT. Then something happened of interest to me. Population statistics were issued and entitlements calculated. The ACT became entitled to 2.4209 seats and the NT to 1.4978 seats. So the Northern Territory would revert to having one member only.

The then Country Liberal Party member for Solomon, David Tollner, tabled a bill in the House of Representatives which simply asserted that no Territory have less than two members. That was wanted by the Liberal Party but annoyed people like me who believe in this principle: “Let the chips fall where they may”. That is the proper approach to these matters.

The upshot was that the federal parliament’s Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters sought submissions which were considered properly. A mathematical genius was able to come up with a new formula for doing these things, the details of which I lack the space to explain here. The point is that in 2003, the EFFECT of this brilliant formula would be that each of the two territories would continue to have two members, and Tollner would win again in 2004. So the Liberal Party would keep a seat in 2004, which it would otherwise have lost if the NT, went back to a single seat. However, Labor was also happy because the new formula would make it more likely that the ACT would regain its third seat in the future. Thus was enacted the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment Act 2004 with a formula, which is still in place.

I can see why the Liberal Party thinks Canberra SHOULD be under-represented. When the ACT had three members (at the 1996 election, and only at that election) Labor won all three seats. That is very likely to happen again in 2019. However, when that formula was adopted in 2004 it was known that some day it would help the ACT to have its third member returned to it. That day has now come.

While the Liberal Party will not be happy to know that, in 2004, it agreed to a new formula which would EVENTUALLY give Labor another seat it must surely acknowledge that the ACT should have three seats. It should also acknowledge that the time will come when the ACT returns two Labor members and one for the Liberal Party. In 1996, Labor easily won two seats, but the third was quite close. In the third seat, the Labor winner polled 32,542 votes (51.5%), while the Liberal loser polled 30,628 votes (48.5%).

All the above comes in the national context caused by census statistics becoming available. In the present House of Representatives, New South Wales has 47 seats, Victoria 37, Queensland 30, Western Australia 16, South Australia 11, Tasmania 5 and the Territories two each. That makes a total of 150. However, new maps will now have to be drawn up to divide Victoria into 38, South Australia into 10 and the ACT into 3. That will make a total of 151.

Now notice this detail. South Australia is now the country’s failed state. It cannot keep up with the rest. Back at the 1949, 1951 and 1954 elections, SA then had 10 seats. So back in those days, SA had 10 out of 123 seats, or 8.1%. In 2019 it will have 10 out of 151, or 6.6%. Of course, its population has grown but its SHARE of Australia’s population has shrunk significantly, as illustrated by these statistics.

(Malcolm Mackerras is Honorary Fellow of Australian Catholic University. malcolm.mackerras@acu.edu.au)

Published: Friday, July 07, 2017


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