Up All Night to Vote 1: a Senate voting reform explainer

Heard a lot of zingers lately about the Greens selling out, Ricky Muir looking nervous and something about Nick Xenophon in his pyjamas at a #SenateSleepover? Caught wind in the Twittersphere that the ALP and Libs are (shocker) once again at loggerheads, but can’t quite figure out why? Don’t stress – here’s everything you need to know about the recently passed Senate voting reforms.


But wait…

Let’s start at the beginning. The Senate is the upper house of Parliament. For easy reference, it’s the red one with the people you probably don’t recognize. It’s also currently the home of minor party representatives, like Ricky Muir from the Australian Motoring Party and Glenn ‘The Brick with Eyes’ Lazarus, but more on that later.


The basic role of the Senate is to act as a check on the House of Representatives, where the Government is formed – that’s the green house, with familiar faces like Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten. The Senate is also known as the ‘House of Review’, meaning that it reviews all legislation passed by the House of Representatives.


The biggest difference between the two houses is that Senators represent states, not electoral divisions. Each state elects 12 Senators, and each territory elects 2. Half of the Senate is reelected every three years. The only exception to this is in the case of a Double Dissolution election, in which case the whole Senate and House of Representatives are vacated and we start again from scratch.


Got it? Great.


The House of Representatives
The House of Representatives
The Senate
The Senate


The system as it was

Senators are elected using a system called proportional representation. This means that to be elected, a Senate candidate has to get a certain amount of the vote, known as a quota. The quota for a normal half-senate election – the type that happens every three years – is 14.3%, and that’s all you need. Boom, you’re a Senator.


Think that’s easy? Come on, this is politics. It was never going to be quite that simple.


Please accept this picture of Independent Senator Nick Xenophon driving a tiny car as your reward for persevering.
Please accept this picture of Independent Senator Nick Xenophon driving a tiny car as your reward for persevering


The Senate ballot papers are a tad more complex than those for the House of Representatives. Voters have two choices – voting ‘above the line’ or ‘below the line’. The choice between the options matters because of a thing called preferences.


Preferences are basically a system where Party A says “hey, we’re not going to win – please give our votes to Party B”. For example, if the Bullet Train for Australia Party are counted out of the process due to low votes (which happens when you’re a single issue party #sorrynotsorry), then the ballots that voted 1 for them will move on to preference number 2 – let’s say the Help End Marijuana Prohibition (HEMP) Party. This helps the HEMP Party to elect a Senator, even with a lower number of first preference votes.


‘Below the line’, this isn’t a big deal. In this style of voting, voters must number each candidate in the order they prefer, and get to direct their own preference flow. Sounds easy enough, but gets slightly more complex if you consider that at the last Federal election NSW had 110 Senate candidates. If you wanted to vote below the line, you had to number every. Single. Box. Unsurprisingly, this option was not very popular, with only 2% of NSW voters choosing to struggle through and vote below the line.


Voting ‘above the line’ is simpler, but under the old system, it’s where preferences really came into play. To vote above the line, you just vote 1 for the party you like, and then you go deal with the real business of Election Day – getting a sausage sanga. Pat yourself on the back; your civic duty is done.


It's even Kevin's election day highlight
It’s even Kevin’s election day highlight


But under the old Senate election rules, your vote had a life of its own from there. Minor parties made arrangements for the flow of their preferences, called group voting tickets. This means that they control where your vote went, and often it went to weird places. With the above example, you might vote 1 for the Smokers Rights Party, but ultimately, if the Smokers Rights Party, the Stop the Greens Party and #Sustainable Australia, (all real minor parties – politics is fun), gave their preferences to the HEMP Party, your vote could help elect the HEMP party, even if you never wanted to support them.


That’s how we ended up with Ricky Muir of the Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party as a Victorian Senator, despite him only receiving 0.51% of the primary vote – he gained preferences from 23 group voting tickets including such unlikely bedfellows as the Shooters and Fishers and the Animal Justice Party, along with Family First Party and Australian Sex Party.


Thanks, guys. You elected this dude.



So what’s changed? And why are people mad?

The reforms basically mean that it’s just gotten a whole lot simpler, and a wall of text like the above won’t be needed to understand basic democratic processes anymore. Yay!


Above the line voting has changed drastically. Group voting tickets (remember, that’s the crazy preference flows) have been dumped in favor of an optional-preferential system. This means that you’ll be encouraged to vote for six preferences above the line, controlling the preference flow the way you want. But don’t worry, you’d still have the option of voting below the line if you really, really love democracy… Like, a lot.


The Senate has been a mess as the Greens and Liberal Party pushed the changes forward. Minor parties and independents largely opposed the changes, which is unsurprising as they may be unable to gain reelection under the new system. The unusual alliance of the Coalition and the Greens copped criticism, while Labor also opposed the changes, believing they will lead to informal votes and a more confused electorate. However, the Coalition, the Greens and independent senator Nick Xenophon, all of whom are likely to benefit from the proposed changes, wanted to get the laws through the Senate ASAP so that they apply to the election we’re due to have this year – especially if Malcolm Turnbull calls an early double dissolution election, as is looking increasingly likely.  The specter of a double dissolution was a big part of the reason why the Senate sat overnight on March 17, in a 20-hour stint that was the longest sitting period since 1993.


Ultimately though, the Senate passed the changes, so consider the Senate officially reformed… but with an election on the way, don’t expect scenes like those below to be disappearing any time soon.



Ah, the Senate – where running the country happens through lots and lots of yelling.

  1. What a terrific piece! I love how it explains a super confusing thing in such an informative and entertaining way. Keep up the swell work, Hannah.

  2. Amazing! This is written super clearly and I love the humour throughout! It’s soo informative, I learnt heaps! Really great work 😀

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