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Grattan: Feds now eyeing 'micro parties'


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The Federal Government has taken the first step in exploring how to curb the scope for “micro” parties to win Senate places through elaborate preference deals.

Special Minister of State Michael Ronaldson has asked a parliamentary committee to investigate “Senate voting reform”.

Ronaldson announced he had provided the “usual reference” to the joint standing committee on electoral matters which reports after each election. But he spelled out particular areas he expected the committee, chaired by Victorian Liberal backbencher Tony Smith, would specifically examine.

Apart from Senate voting reform, these are requiring proof of identity at voting places; the electoral roll, including the impact of direct enrolments, and public access to the roll; the circumstances surrounding the lost Senate votes in Western Australia; and the feasibility of and options for electronic voting.

Complicated preference arrangements among micro parties resulted in the election of a range of crossbenchers, in some cases with tiny proportions of the votes.

“Preference whisperer” Glenn Druery advised on some of the arrangements.

There is now considerable support across the political spectrum for change that would limit the potential for such elaborate preference deals.

Independent South Australian senator Nick Xenophon, who won nearly two quotas, has already introduced a private member’s bill to reform Senate voting.

It would establish a system allowing voters to number more than one square above the line on the ballot paper, or at least six squares below the line. Voters would also no longer have to number all the squares if they voted below the line.

The Greens have previously said they want to joint committee to look at optional preferential voting for the Senate.

Those urging reform say the present system means that often voters’ intentions are not reflected because of the complexity of the preference flow. Opponents of change say the micro parties won fairly and squarely under the current system and the major parties are just unhappy with the result.

The loss of nearly 1400 ballot papers in the WA Senate vote has led to greater interest in the possibility of electronic voting, although it would be a very big operation to go down that route.

An inquiry into the affair, in a report released last week, criticised the processes for handling the papers.

The inquiry, done by former federal police commissioner Mick Keelty, criticised a culture of complacency in the Australian Electoral Commission’s WA office and pointed out how the impact of a mistake could be disproportionate to its size. “The loss of a box of ballot papers with a market value of perhaps $30 could, in the event of High Court ordering a fresh election, have a $13 million consequence.”

The WA Senate result is now before the High Court and a new election appears the most likely result.

Electoral commissioner Ed Killesteyn has apologised for what happened and committed to implementing Keelty’s recommendations but remains under pressure from the government. Asked on the ABC whether he has considered resigning he deflected the question to his efforts to improve the system.

Ronaldson has been scathing in his comments about the AEC.

If the High Court says there should be another WA Senate election, it would would need to be held by April to ensure the new Senate would be in place by July 1. Clive Palmer has claimed that his PUP could win two Senate places if there is a new poll.

Michelle Grattan is Professorial Fellow at the University of Canberra.

This article was first published at The Conversation.

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