The Representativeness of the Australian Senate and Failures of Reform

By Richard Reid [1]

Prior to the 2016 federal election held on 2 July, the Australian Coalition government demonstrated a rare degree of collaboration with the Australian Greens and passed changes to reform the electoral process for the Senate. This post seeks to explain the reform and its intentions, and its complete failure in the wake of Australia’s double dissolution election. Further it argues that the debate about Senate reform should go much further than these changes, and the whole structure of the Senate’s composition should be opened up for debate in an effort to increase, rather than decrease, the representativeness of the Australian Senate.

The 2016 reform was intended to reduce the number of ‘micro-parties’ elected to the Senate. These parties had previously benefited from the practice of ‘above-the-line’ voting where electors place a 1 in the box of the party of their choice, and the party could therefore share this preference to whichever party it so desired if it did not receive enough votes, or had a surplus, for a Senate quota. As part of this debate was criticism of the deals made between ‘micro-parties’, often with the advice of ‘the preference whisperer’, which gave parties with miniscule primary votes a chance at a Senate seat. The reform allowed electors to number up to 6 boxes above the line after which their preferences would be exhausted.

This reform was instigated in response to the increased number of crossbench senators elected at the 2013 federal election. The composition of the Senate crossbench was:

  • Australian Greens – 10;
  • Palmer United Party – 3;
  • Democratic Labour Party – 1;
  • Nick Xenophon – 1;
  • Liberal Democratic Party – 1;
  • Family First – 1; and,
  • The Australian Motoring Enthusiasts Party – 1.

This meant that 18 of the 76 senators, or just over 23%, were from neither the Coalition nor the ALP,. This was an increase of 7 from the crossbench that served from 2010 to 2013, and was the highest crossbench result since federation in 1901.

So the government had a problem and they sought to reduce the crossbench through reform prior to the 2016 election. What complicated matters was that the government chose to opt for a rare double dissolution election, the first since 1987. Most elections in Australia are held roughly every three years and the whole of the House of Representatives, and half the Senate is up for re-election. However, a double dissolution calls for a full Senate election – this meant that, rather than half the states’ senators and the four territory senators being up for election, all 76 senate spots were contested in July 2016. Thus, the quota needed to win a Senate seat was halved in all the states.

The 2016 federal election saw the government reduced to a one-seat majority in the House of Representatives, losing 14 seats. The picture in the Senate provided the government no consolation. In spite of the reform attempt to reduce the number of crossbenchers, the crossbench instead grew to a new record of 20 senators. The new make-up of the Senate crossbench is:

  • Australian Green – 9;
  • One Nation – 4;
  • Nick Xenophon Team – 3;
  • Liberal Democratic Party – 1;
  • Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party – 1;
  • Family First – 1; and,
  • Jacqui Lambie Network – 1.

The attempts of the Senate reform can therefore be considered a complete failure in the short-term. The crossbench grew, adding two more senators to its number, rather than halving it, which it arguably would have done if the election had not been a double dissolution. The government now faces an immensely difficult challenge in both Houses, with all legislation going to have to be carefully negotiated through the legislative process.

In the debate around the reform prior to the announcement of the double dissolution election, John Dryzek argued that the changes would hurt Australian democracy. He wrote that:

The proposed reform will ensure the Senate is composed almost exclusively of career politicians, who are unrepresentative in the sense that they do not reflect the social composition of Australia, and also ensure that one of the last vestiges of reflection is purged from our parliamentary system.

In the wake of the double dissolution result we shall now have to postpone our judgment on the effects of the reform in the long-term. However, the whole issue of Senate reform does raise important questions about Australian democracy and its future direction. Of course the process by which senators are elected is of central importance, but this focus on the party composition of the Senate ignores a much more important debate that Australia needs to have.

The two most significant Senate reforms which need to be considered, and debated, are the representation of Indigenous Australians and the continued un-democratic proportion of seats for the states. The latest statistics from the ABS of 2011 show that Indigenous Australians make up 3% of the Australian population with 333 683 persons. 2015 figures from the ABS show that there are 517 400 Tasmanians. However, Indigenous Australians are not entitled to reserved seats, as are the Indigenous Maori in New Zealand, whereas Tasmania has the right to elect 12 senators. The issues posed by the particular federal model adopted for Senate representation are of course not unique to Australia, the situation in the United States is even more exaggerated. [2]

The appetite, and therefore the feasibility, of any serious change to the composition of the Senate is minimal. The equal representation of the six states is laid out in the Constitution meaning that any change would need to be passed by the public through a referendum. In Australia both an absolute majority of electors and a majority in a majority of states is required for a referendum to pass. As a result only 8 out of 44, or just over 18%, of referendums in Australia have been supported by the electorate – indeed a referendum has not been carried since 1977.

In the face of the already difficult procedure which would be required to achieve significant reform to the Senate, strong public support would be needed to see such a reform carried. Whilst it is unclear whether such support could be found, this does not mean that this is an unmovable obstacle. The first step to serious reform of the Senate would be for a government to provide genuine attention to the issue. Whilst this does not seem to be on the Coalition’s agenda, a Senate crossbencher – Jacqui Lambie – has previously voiced her support for reserved seats for Australia’s Indigenous people. It is as yet unclear whether she will pursue her calls for a Senate committee to further consider proposals in the new parliament, although as a Tasmanian Senator her support would be less forthcoming for a reform to the equal representation of the states.

It is time Australia had a proper debate about Senate composition, and in particular the opportunity systemic reform to Australia’s Constitution could provide for addressing the under-representation of Australia’s Indigenous population. In Australia constitutional reform is notoriously difficult, but often those reforms which seem the hardest are the most important. The new reforms to the Senate, whilst a failure in the short-term may prove to have the desired effect of reducing the proportion of minor parties represented in the Senate, but echoing the words of John Dryzek surely we should be moving towards, not away from, a more representative Senate.

[1] The author would like to thank Kerryn Baker, John Dryzek and Marc Geddes for their valuable comments on earlier drafts.

[2] Many thanks to John Dryzek for this comment.

About the author

Dr Richard Reid is a research assistant in the School of Politics and International Relations at the Australian National University. His areas of expertise include Institutional Analysis, Legislative Studies, British and Australian Politics.



2 thoughts on “The Representativeness of the Australian Senate and Failures of Reform

  1. Pingback: Reforming in Australia: increasing the representativeness of the Australian Senate | POP politics Aus

  2. Pingback: Reforming Australia’s Senate means ensuring Indigenous people are represented : Democratic Audit UK

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s