Greens call for reform to Victoria’s ‘corrupt’ Upper House voting system

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The voting system in Victoria’s Upper House allows deals to be struck between micro-parties which can distort the results. (ABC News)

Is the election of Victoria’s Upper House fair and transparent? The results suggest perhaps not.

Greens MP Sue Pennicuik’s 12-year parliamentary career ground to a halt in 2018 after she lost her Upper House seat to a man who won just 1.2 per cent of the primary vote.

Despite winning 49,803 more votes than the Sustainable Australia Party’s Clifford Hayes, Ms Pennicuik lost due to preference flows thrashed out between parties through group voting tickets.

Victoria is just one of two states that still uses group voting tickets, where deals struck between micro-parties allow them to game the system.

“The current system is corrupt. It is legal. But it stinks. And unless the government fixes it, it’s a stain on the government’s reputation,” said Greens MP Tim Read.

This week the Greens will move a motion in Parliament calling for the current voting system to be overhauled in favour of “greater democratic representation”.

Western Australia uses a similar system but is exploring reform after the Daylight Savings Party was elected to the Upper House despite winning just 98 primary votes.

Like the Senate, Victoria’s Legislative Council uses proportional representation to elect members.

There is no proposal to change this — the Greens’ push is to stamp out group voting tickets.

Group voting tickets allow voters to choose just one party above the line on the ballot paper, after which the preferences are allocated by the party.

Alternatively, voters can choose to number preferences below the line to indicate preferences, but less than 9 per cent of voters bothered to do that at the 2018 state election.

System makes it hard for voters to allocate preferences

In some cases, smaller parties pay so-called preference whisperers, like Glenn Druery, to come up with deals that increase their chances of being elected.

ABC election analyst Antony Green said across the Upper House’s eight regions there were cases where preference deals distorted how Victorians voted.

In Northern Victoria, the Liberal/National joint ticket polled 31.2 per cent but only won one spot. In the same region, the Liberal Democrats polled 3.8 per cent and Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party 4.9 per cent, yet both parties got one MP elected each.

In the same region the Shooters, Fishers, and Farmers Party doubled its vote to 7.9 per cent but lost its seat because the preference deals had been arranged differently, Mr Green said.

He said the system forced most people to vote above the line, which made it extremely hard for voters to allocate their preferences.

“Instead of elections expressing the will of voters, these preferences mean voters have to accept the bargaining done by a tiny number of preference wheelers and dealers,” he said.

“The result of this is candidates get elected with a tiny number of votes compared to those with 10 or 15 times the number of votes.”

The Transport Matters Party’s Rod Barton holds the title for being elected in Victoria with the smallest primary vote, just 0.6 per cent – 2,508 out of 418,532 votes.

Mr Read said it was beyond time for Victoria to reform the Upper House electoral system and has suggested Victoria follow the Senate rules and allow voters to preference parties above the line.

“Right now you can only put one above the line. And that means your vote is dictated by a group voting ticket, which is a list of preferences decided by backroom dealers,” said Mr Read.

“Your preferences are bought and sold by people you’ve never heard of.”

The Greens’ political fortunes have been hit hardest by the current system, something Mr Read acknowledged but said those voters also deserved representation.

There should be no ‘behind-the-scenes manipulation’

Minister for Government Services Danny Pearson said the government had “no announcement to make at this time”.

Even if the government did support change, it is unlikely any changes would be made until close to the election.

To do otherwise would be to risk putting offside key micro-parties it relies on to pass controversial legislation.

The opposition, which only won 11 seats in the Upper House, supports some form of reform, but the party room is yet to discuss the Greens’ motion.

“We support the actual wishes of voters being reflected accurately in the voting outcomes,”  Liberal Upper House leader David Davis said.

“We think that it’s not democratic for backroom deals to lead to perverse outcomes, which weren’t intended by voters.

“Voting systems should accurately reflect the will of the people — not be subject to manipulation behind the scenes.”

The diversity of views in Parliament a ‘good thing’

The Sustainable Australia Party’s Clifford Hayes said he was “not too keen” on the Greens’ plan because Parliament now had more diverse views.

“To get minority views debated and represented in Parliament is a good thing,” Mr Hayes said.

“The major parties still have the numbers to stop anything.”

The Reason Party’s Fiona Patten said she would not support the Greens’ motion because it lacked nuance, but she supports looking at reform.

She has already proposed a crackdown on cash deals for preference deals, increasing transparency, or introducing a minimum percentage of the primary vote to qualify.

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