(Transcript from World News Australia Radio)
That marks a rise of more than 50 per cent from the previous election in 2010.
But the issue, to many political observers, is not so much the wide range of choices as it is the even broader question of what impact those with little chance may have on the outcome.
Nine years ago, Labor voters in Victoria were stunned to find, when preferences in the federal election were all tallied, they had elected a man named Steve Fielding to the Senate.
Less than one in 50 of the state’s voters had actually voted for the candidate from the fledgling, socially conservative Family First party.
But Labor had listed Family First ahead of the left-leaning Greens in its preferences, and Mr Fielding, a self-avowed climate sceptic, wound up sharing the balance of power.
Nine years later, political experts are suggesting essentially, in the words of the old comic-book character who revealed secrets about Batman, You ain’t seen nothing yet.
A record number of Senate candidates are on the ballot in this weekend’s election, and a tangled web of deals between groups with no track record could bring huge surprises.
Political scientist John Wanna, from the Australian National University in Canberra, says the so-called micro-parties have learned to play the system.
“Essentially, what happened is we introduced over-the-line voting because people were getting confused voting below the line, and people who were not good at maths, or slightly dyslexic, or didn’t understand the English about the instructions, would get it wrong, and so, in ’84, there was quite a high informal vote, which was just all accidental. What’s happened is, once we’ve gone over the line, the micro-parties have realised, as a result of things like the New South Wales Legislative Council elections, that they can piece together these deals, which are basically anti-democratic deals really. They’re trying to shift your vote to somewhere else. And they’ve had a couple of decades now to work out how to game the system. And they’ve learnt how to game the system.”
In over-the-line voting, more commonly known as above-the-line voting, voters can check one box for their preferred party, which then designates the order of preferences itself.
In below-the-line voting, voters retain the power to order their preferences.
But, with this year’s Senate ballot paper running more than a metre long in some states, they must order each of up to 110 candidates.
For candidates to be successful in this year’s half-Senate election, they will need to win a quota, or proportion, of total formal votes of about 14 per cent in the states.
Those who get more than 14 per cent on first count of votes are declared elected, but then begins the complex distribution of preferences to decide the other winners.
Professor Wanna suggests the next federal parliament may act to change the voting system again, requiring a higher threshold of first-preference votes to qualify to win a Senate seat.
But that does not help this time around.
So an associate professor of politics at Adelaide’s Flinders University, Haydon Manning, offers some advice.
First, for those 95 per cent of Australians traditionally expected to vote above the line.
“Any voter looking to vote above the line, it would pay just to do a Google search (of) Senate vote 2013 preferences. You’ll get to one of the web sites that simply show your state, show the party you prefer, and what they’ve registered with the Australian Electoral Commission as to how they want their preferences to go. Have a look at that. If you’re happy, (and) there’s not a problem, vote 1 above the line. But if you’re not happy, well, then take a deep breath, take a cup of coffee — just take a flask of coffee — into the polling booth, and just take your time and fill out all the boxes below. Because, that way, you’ll get what you want.”
On further thought in this most unusual of Senate elections, Dr Manning has some advice for those voting below the line, too.
“The best advice I can say to people going below the line is a bit like, ‘Count backwards.’ So, if there’s 110, work out the ones you really don’t like, start with them — 110, 109, 108, et cetera. Get rid of them. Then in, you know, the first third or so of the count, make sure you’ve got the bigger parties, the more likely ones to be elected. Put them there. And then if you’re going for some minor parties — you know, the little parties, (the) Shooters (and Fishers Party), Sex Party, One Nation, whatever — put them up the top … 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, in that order, that sort of range. But you’ve got to recognise the party’s likely going to be eliminated — although, I’d best be careful, One Nation has got a chance in New South Wales.”
One Nation founder Pauline Hanson is, indeed, a prime example of the micro-party bonding.
Almost every small right-of-centre party is directing its preferences to her for a New South Wales Senate seat ahead of Liberal Senator Arthur Sinodinos, who’s seeking re-election.
Arthur Sinodinos has been seen as the probable Finance Minister in a Coalition government, but he could be kept out of parliament altogether.
The House of Representatives also has a record number of candidates this time – almost 12,000 – but the Coalition appears all but certain to win an easy majority there.
The Senate races, then, have taken on a vital role, because they could determine if an expected Coalition government has to negotiate – and with whom – to pass its legislation.
Greens leader Christine Milne says the focus has already shifted to the Senate in this final week of the campaign.
“Tony Abbott has now become so arrogant that he is assuming that he’s already got The Lodge. What he’s now coming after, this week, is control of the Senate as well, absolute power and control of both houses of parliament. And the Liberal Party’s advertising is going in that direction.”
But at the Australian National University, John Wanna suggests a lot of people will still be scratching their heads in wonder when they hear some of the results on election night.
“I expect a lot more people will vote over-the-line because it’s so complicated below the line and they won’t realise – they personally won’t realise – where their preferences are going, because they just won’t know. And, if, when they get home on election night and they … you know, someone is saying it’s quite likely that, ‘in this state, these voters who voted for this party have ended up electing this person,’ they’ll all scratch their heads and go, ‘Who voted for them?'”