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Motion: Electoral reform

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Samantha Ratnam
Leader of the Victorian Greens
5 May 2021

 I move:

That this house:

(1) notes that in a representative democracy like Victoria the will of the people should be reflected by the elected members of Parliament;

(2) acknowledges that the use of group voting tickets in the election of members of the Legislative Council is unfair and unrepresentative as it allows for parties that are not representative of the voters to be elected, for example:

(a) the recent election of the Daylight Savings Party in Western Australia with 98 first-preference votes or 0.2 per cent of the vote;

(b) the election of the Transport Matters Party to the Eastern Metropolitan Region on 0.6 per cent of first-preference votes at the 2018 Victorian election;

(c) the election of the Liberal Democrats Party to the South Eastern Metropolitan Region on 0.8 per cent of first-preference votes at the 2018 Victorian election;

(3) condemns the practice of ‘preference whispering’, whether for payment or not, whereby micro-party preferences are manipulated to deliberately produce unrepresentative outcomes; and

calls on the government to introduce reforms to the voting system for the Legislative Council to remove group voting tickets and ensure greater democratic representation in the Victorian Parliament in time for the 2022 Victorian state election.

This is a debate about our democracy. It is about the blight on our democracy that is the group voting ticket system. What is wrong with group voting tickets? In essence they distort the will of the voters so that any voter who votes above the line, which is over 90 per cent of Victorian voters, could see their vote end up electing someone they never intended to vote for. They also allow for micro-parties, parties with virtually no support in the electorate and often just created for the purpose of gaming the system, to be elected over parties with significantly more support. As Antony Green, Australia’s pre-eminent psephologist, said about the 2018 Victorian election:

Any vote cast above the line by unsuspecting Victorians will be transported on a magical mystery tour across the ballot paper to help elect parties and candidates that most Victorians will never previously have heard of, and almost certainly would never have voted for.

In the last remaining states to use this undemocratic practice the system has now been further corrupted by people selling a service where for a high fee you or your political party can buy into a system to harness preferences in an attempt to game the system. Our voting system has become a lottery, and similar to the gambling industry it is now infested with vested interests who make a profit, with the losers being Victorian voters.

Australia has a proud record of democratic achievement. Private ballots, preferential voting and the use of some form of proportional representation in most parliaments around the nation mean we take democracy seriously. But the use of group voting tickets undermines this commitment to representative democracy, and all other jurisdictions in Australia know this and have ditched group voting tickets or are in the process of doing so. It is about time that this chamber had a debate about this rort.

I do not expect much support for this motion today—too many vested interests—but I do expect that as this debate unfolds some in this chamber will accuse me of self-interest and hypocrisy in even bringing this motion to the Parliament. I know that some my crossbench colleagues are going to soon rise and say that the Greens are only proposing this because we want more seats in Parliament, but let me set the record straight: this is about the democratic interests of every Victorian, who should be the ones who determine where their votes go, not backroom political operatives. This motion is not a stunt, Ms Patten, but an opportunity to debate what our democracy actually looks like and who is deciding who gets the privilege of sitting here on these red benches—the voters of Victoria or someone else.

I have already heard the howls of hypocrisy shouted my way, and it is true the Greens have benefited from group voting tickets, and we engage in the wheeling and dealing of preference deals. And I am sure we will soon hear all about numerous Greens deals over the years, but at least we have the courage to bring this debate on, because it is the right thing to do for Victorians. Others want the privilege of sitting here without the discomfort of having this debate out in the public, but it is a debate we have to have. If that means I get called a hypocrite, so be it.

There are only two states in Australia who still use the group voting ticket system: Western Australia, whose electoral system has been in the news since the absurd result it produced in their state elections in March, and Victoria. All other jurisdictions who once used group voting tickets have abandoned the system: New South Wales in 2003, South Australia in 2018 and the federal Senate in 2016. They abandoned this system because they know that what the system does is take power out of the hands of the people and gives it to political parties and preference whisperers.

Let me give you a few examples. In this year’s state election in Western Australia the Daylight Saving Party won a seat with just 98 first preference votes, or 0.2 per cent of the vote. This has resulted in the irony where a party who wants to see Western Australia adopt daylight saving time is now representing the mining and pastoral region, a region which has consistently voted against the introduction of daylight saving. How can this possibly be considered a true reflection of the will of the voters?

In 2018 in our state election we saw the Transport Matters Party secure a seat for the Eastern Metropolitan Region with 0.6 per cent of first preference votes, and we saw the Liberal Democrats gain a representative for the South Eastern Metropolitan Region on 0.8 per cent of first preference votes. And at the federal level in 2013 the Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party was elected on just 0.5 per cent of the primary vote.

And I am not going through the Druery highlight reel for fun. These are ridiculous results in a representative democracy. When candidates with a tiny percentage of the vote are elected over candidates with as much as 10 times as many votes this is a distortion of the will of the voters. When our parliaments become places that do not reflect the will of the people but instead are the result of backroom deals done by political party operatives, the legitimacy of our electoral system is undermined.

The fact that some candidates pay a broker to do these deals is just a further corruption of the system. Rumour has it that candidates are asked to put down a deposit of $5000 and upon election are asked to pay a success fee of up to $70 000. It has been deeply disconcerting to see the man behind these deals, Mr Druery, in the halls of Parliament this week doing the rounds of his crossbenchers. After seeing him lobby his crossbenchers I am certain we will be hearing some very similar defences of the indefensible later in this debate. Mr Druery likes to argue his machinations are good for democracy because they allow so-called ordinary people to be elected. However, honestly, and with no disrespect to my colleagues, the so-called diversity offered by even more conservative middle-aged white men is not what this Parliament or any democracy needs. The notion that Mr Druery and the people he picks to be elected are somehow more representative of the people would be laughable if it was not so serious. Looking at his record, it is not remotely a reflection of modern-day Australia.

However, there is a serious point to be addressed here about how the party system operates. There is a fair critique to be made of how our parliaments are being dominated by big political parties while shutting out diversity of political views. However, group voting tickets and the manipulation of voters is not the answer to that problem. You do not look to fix one problem of representation by undermining the concept even further. Instead what you get is not representation at all but something more akin to sortition by accident. By all means, let us have a debate about the best approach to democracy, representation or sortition, but do not let us pretend group voting tickets have any place in a representative democracy.

And I want to be clear: this debate has nothing to do with the individual people sitting on the crossbench. I have witnessed their hard work and their dedication to the Parliament and to the issues they care about. What is more, this is not about me or any one party or any individual in this chamber; this is about the Victorian voters.

So what could reform look like? Apart from getting rid of group voting tickets, this motion is deliberately open on this question, simply calling for reform that ensures greater democratic representation in the Legislative Council. The simplest route would be to implement the Senate voting reforms. However, there are other options we could have been having a substantive debate about—different options to increase democratic representation in the Legislative Council, such as greater proportional representation—if the Electoral Matters Committee had held its long-delayed inquiry into upper house voting reform.

Despite almost every submission to the inquiry into the 2018 election calling for an end to group voting tickets, the committee continues to delay taking a proper look at upper house voting. I think this shows that the government is hopelessly divided. There are those in the government that know it is only a matter of time before the current system becomes untenable and reform becomes inevitable, but others just love the game of manipulation so much they cannot bear to let it go and trust the voters of Victoria. We are 18 months out from an election. If the government does not act now, Victorians risk an even more unrepresentative Parliament in 2022. Antony Green argued in his submission to the Electoral Matters Committee’s inquiry into the 2018 election that, and I quote:

Under the current rules, there is nothing to stop more and more parties nominating for Victorian Legislative Council elections. Group voting tickets hand almost total control over preferences to political parties, allowing them to manipulate preferences in a way they would never achieve if voters had to be persuaded to complete their own preferences. Based on the last two elections, the 2022 Victorian election will see another increase in parties nominating, and ever more complex preference deals.

I will be interested to hear from the government in this debate whether they anticipate making any changes to make sure the 2022 election is a fair election. For that to happen, legislation will need to be introduced early next year, which means the Electoral Matters Committee will need to hold its inquiry this year.

With the rise of the far right, there is even a real risk inaction will result in dangerous fringe groups getting a foothold in our Parliament. When you accept as legitimate that a person can be elected with a handful of votes, someone who is not remotely representative of the Victorian electorate, then you are accepting and legitimising the possibility of a far right wing nationalist who has little electoral support sitting on these benches. This is what happens when you undermine the representative nature of our democracy.

There is not an election or governance expert out there that supports group voting tickets. Psephologists such as Antony Green and Kevin Bonham are vocal about the many flaws in the group voting ticket system. Green refers to the ‘rorts, subterfuges and manipulations through opaque and labyrinthine preference deals’ that haunt our elections. Bonham has described the system of group voting tickets as:

… confusing to voters, unfair to voters, and a hazard to the integrity of its own results. It is also unreflective of real voter choice, as opposed to some simplistic model of choice in which any voter who likes one micro-party must be assumed to love them all.

Both of them argue strongly that voters should decide elections, not preference whisperers, and that control between party preferences should be handed back to voters.

In essence, what is our motion about? Who should control the voter’s preference: the voter or political parties? Western Australia has woken up after its election and knows what happened in March was undemocratic. In fact they are proceeding with a review of their electoral system, which will likely lead to the state abandoning group voting tickets. Remember that this is the Western Australian Labor Party that won a landslide, with control of both houses. They did not need to reform the system to somehow advantage themselves; they are pushing for reform because it is the right thing to do for democracy. Which leaves just us, Victoria, clinging on to this corrupt and unfair system. Victoria was late coming to proportional representation in the upper house, and it looks like we will be the last place with undemocratic group voting tickets.

At the end of the day every Victorian should be able to easily decide where their voting preferences go on election day rather than having their preferences bought and sold by people they have never heard of. Until we reform our voting system our elections will continue to be open to corruption and our upper house will not represent the people it serves.

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Samantha Ratnam
Leader of the Victorian Greens
5 May 2021
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