Government | Regulation

Urgent reform needed on Legislative Council voting system

The Australian upper house voting system is undemocratic and does not reflect the preferences of the people, a CEDA forum in Adelaide has heard.

The forum, with representatives from minor and major parties, heard that the legislative voting system urgently needs to be reformed. However, when and how it should be reformed was contentious.

Parliamentary Leader of the SA Greens, the Hon. Mark Parnell said his bill, which was introduced into the SA parliament the day after the forum, proposes to amend the Electoral Act to enable preferential above the line voting for the Legislative Council - similar to the upper house voting system in NSW.

The recent Federal election, which saw minor party candidates elected to the Senate with significantly lower primary votes than other candidates, has prompted discussion to reform the upper house voting system both federally and across Australian states.

Mr Parnell said the current system where second and subsequent preferences are allocated "by parties in back room deals," was undemocratic.

"Give back to the voters the power to decide where all their preferences go without the onerous obligation of having to number every single square," he said.

SA Deputy Premier the Hon. John Rau said most people would agree there is a problem with the upper house voting system and it is inevitable and necessary that it is reformed to ensure a flourishing democracy in SA.

Mr Rau said the Labor Party does not have an explicit position but are interested in having a conversation about these reforms.

He highlighted the urgency of having this conversation and said he personally sees the adoption of the NSW system as the "shortest way home" on upper house reform for SA.

"We should pick it up pretty well off-the-shelf and insert in into our Electoral Act," he said.

"Why reinvent the wheel when NSW has been dealing with this problem for a lot longer than we have, and they have addressed it in a way which I think most people in NSW would say has been moderately successful."

SA Shadow Attorney General, Hon. Stephen Wade, cautioned against "jumping at shadows" when considering reform of the upper house.

"We think it's important that as you come to reform (the Legislative Council voting system) you are clear about the mischief you are trying to address," he said.

The Liberal Party is also interested in this conversation but would construct and engage in a dialogue after the SA election, he said.

Independent Federal Senator for SA, Nick Xenophon said he was disappointed the major parties were talking about simply having a conversation when the system is broken and must be fixed urgently.

The recent Federal Senate election results were "bizarre and undemocratic," and it is objectionable that preferences deals are done behind closed doors and not disclosed, he said.

Unless the voting system of the Senate is reformed as a matter of urgency it will become the "unrepresentative laughing stock of Australian politics".

"I will be moving a bill in the Senate to effectively adopt the NSW system - optional preferential voting above and below the line," he said.

Mr Xenophon said the one difference between his and Mr Parnell's bill is that voters should not have to number more than the number of candidates for the Legislative Council - if there are 11 positions, you should not have to number beyond this.

ABC election analyst, Antony Green said that SA is not in a position to reform the Legislative Council voting system before the next State election in March 2014.

In addition to requiring political will from parties to reform, technological challenges would also need to be resolved if a new voting system was to be implemented, he said.

Instead the focus should be on the nomination process for getting onto the ballot paper in the first instance, which is the area "most ripe for reform," he said.

While you need 500 members to register a party in Victoria, Queensland and Western Australia, you only need 200 in South Australia, he said.

In SA you need one candidate, two nominators and a $450 deposit to get your own group on the ballot paper and control over a party ticket, he said.

This is compared to 100 nominators federally, 10 in Tasmania and 50 in Victoria, he said.

"What we need is quality of candidates, not quantity of candidates," he said.

Mr Green said this aspect of the SA system is "wide open for abuse" and should be addressed before the next election to ensure quality Legislative Council candidates at the 2014 State election.