Another instalment in the Senate reform debate is overdue, following a Richard Denniss op ed published by the Canberra Times a week ago. I've been extremely busy with work recently and fortunately Ben Raue at the Tally Room has dealt with most aspects of the Denniss article. (Anyone who hasn't done so already should read Ben's article before reading this one). There is one main point I want to deal with at some length here, and that is the article's analogy about buying dinner. I want to repair this analogy and explain what real-life decisions about something as simple as obtaining a takeaway meal would really be like if ordering dinner via a friend was as silly as our current Senate voting system.
In the process, I hope to demonstrate that the way we (and only we) select Senators is so utterly bizarre that if we tried to do anything else at all by such a method we would find it completely ridiculous. Click the "Senate reform" tab at the bottom for more of my writings on the subject. (I am sometimes accused of using sledgehammers to crack nuts, and this article is probably a prime example of that, but while unsound claims continue to be given media coverage I will continue doing so.)
The Dinner Analogy
Denniss seeks to demonstrate his case for the current system being maybe not so bad with the following:
"Australia's preferential voting system is as much maligned as it is misunderstood, so before explaining the changes the Liberals and parts of the Greens are inching towards, and the other options on the table, it's important to explain a few concepts.
Imagine you wanted your flatmate to buy you some takeaway dinner on the way home from work. You could ask them to get you a hamburger if they could find one, or a kebab if there were no burgers, or some Thai food if there was none of either. You might not realise it, but if you have structured your request in that way, then you have effectively voted preferentially. That is you made it clear what you wanted to happen if your first or second preference wasn't available. The Australian voting system allows you to do the same when it comes to candidates. You put a 1 next to the candidate you like the best and, if few others share your support and that candidate loses, your vote helps elect the candidate you liked second best or third best".
Denniss then goes on to compare this with the US first-past-the-post system, and claims that the proposed changes would move us further in the direction of the US system.
Actually it seems it is most of the Greens (with no verifiable evidence of significant dissent) and parts of Labor as well as the Liberals who support the changes. But if this was a debate about the merits of preferential voting as we have it in the House of Representatives, and why we have preferential voting in the Reps rather than first-past-the-post, then Denniss's analogy would be a very good one. The only objection to it then would be that if you told your flatmate that you just wanted a hamburger but if it wasn't available you'd have anything, your flatmate would refuse to buy you anything, and would insist that you place all the available five or ten dinner options in order so he knew which one to pick if there were no hamburgers. It might seem that the flatmate is being a bit compulsive here (or like me in similar situations, afraid of having to use any initiative), but it's no big deal as there are not that many options.
But as a Senate analogy ...
Let's see how this analogy really works in the Senate, and imagine, The Checkout style (but longer than an episode thereof), what getting your flatmate to get you dinner would be like if it really "worked" like Senate voting. Imagine you're the hamburger fan from the Denniss article, and this is what happens when, over a series of nights, you try to get your flatmate to get you a hamburger.
On Monday, you ask your flatmate to get you a hamburger. If there are no hamburgers, you'd like a kebab, if there are neither of those you'd like Thai food, but if all three are unavailable you're happy with anything so long as it isn't a vegemite scroll. After all, the chance of none of your three choices being available is quite low. Your flatmate doesn't get you anything and tells you that your choice of a hamburger was not valid since you hadn't indicated a full list of preferences.
On Tuesday, you ask your flatmate to get you a hamburger. Your flatmate says they can only try to get you a hamburger if you give a ranked list of all the available possible dinner alternatives. OK, what are they, you ask innocently. Your flatmate rattles off a list of 110 possible dishes from 42 restaurants in town including dishes you had never heard of at restaurants you'd never heard of (and even some which could be purchased from nameless food vans) and including several dishes you dislike. Your flatmate gives you a form to fill out listing your preference between these 110 dishes. Hungry, you omit numbers 62, 77, 83, 86 and 102 from your form, and your flatmate returns some time later with nothing, telling you that these mistakes had rendered your preference for a hamburger invalid.
On Wednesday, you ask your flatmate to get you a hamburger. You are ready after Tuesday's debacle and fill the form out perfectly. Your flatmate returns with a spamburger. You are baffled by this as spamburger was not even on the original list of choices, and you don't like the idea much at all. "Ah yes" your flatmate said. "You remember that American Hamburger option you ranked sixth? The one you'd never heard of but you thought it sounds OK? Well, it turns out it's made from tinned Spam, and the five things you listed above it were all unavailable."
On Thursday, you ask your flatmate if there is an easier way. Well yes there is, he said. It's called "restuarant preferencing". Each restaurant has its own ordered list not only of its own meals, but also of all the meals produced by the other restaurants. You just have to pick a restaurant, and if they have no meals that you like, then they pass your order on to another restaurant. Normally it will be something similar to what you like. You think that this sounds fabulous. Tonight you don't feel much like hamburgers so you order a meat pie from Shorty Bill's Meat Pies. You get a meat pie from Shorty Bill's Meat Pies. Wow, you think, what a great system this is. So easy!
On Friday, you decide to try getting a hamburger via this "restaurant preferencing" method, since it worked so well on Thursday. However, you're in a hurry, and the ordering form is enormous. You see "Hamburgers Australia" in the first column. You think that sounds a bit different from the "Australian Hamburger Bar" (AHB) that you would really like to order from, but you can't see the latter on the form at a quick look, and you're feeling a bit hungry and confused. Maybe they've changed their name or something? You put a 1 in the Hamburgers Australia box. Your flatmate brings home a buffalo-burger and points out that your preferred bar was there all along in the 25th column on the right. You realise that the buffalo actually tastes more like beef than the hamburger you were after, although it does smell a bit off. You ask Hamburgers Australia why and they tell you the buffalo was shot after straying onto a windfarm, and the post-mortem showed it wasn't vaccinated.
On Saturday, you have another go at getting a hamburger, but hamburgers are not available. Your flatmate (who now works seven days a week, while you have had to take time off to research restaurant menus) brings you home a bowl of vegan stirfry. But how is this possible, you ask? Surely a hamburger restaurant would run through dozens of similarly unhealthy meat dishes in its preference ordering before getting into any of that greenie stuff? Surely you can trust your favourite burger bar to recommend something similar, just as you would trust your favourite burger bar to cook you a good burger if it could? No, your flatmate explains. Your burger bar has done a restaurant-preferencing deal to cross-recommend with Christine's Veggie Hut whenever either of them runs out of meals. Of course, some customers will complain about this highly unethical deal in the future, but the profits of doing so are so great that neither place cares.
On Sunday, you realise that you cannot get a hamburger without having to either express preferences for 110 different dishes from 42 different restaurants, or else potentially having to eat something chosen in a dodgy deal by your favourite burger bar. You find out there is a website where you can read the restaurant-preferences of every restaurant in town. You notice that the local kebab house, your second preference, preferences Australian Hamburger Bar second, and generally their listing of restaurants seems to make sense, with all that veggie rubbish safely down the list. You pick the kebab house and you get a kebab. It's not your ideal choice but it's still quite good. Hey, you think, perhaps I might be getting the hang of this!
Monday rolls around again and it being Monday things are bound to go badly. You pick the kebab house again but they are out of kebabs, and there are also no hamburgers. Your flatmate brings you a so-called Aussie Pizza, which contains egg. Channelling the author of this article, you like pizza but detest egg. Hang on, you say, wasn't the pizza restaurant's first choice pizza the Volcano? Ah yes it was, said your flatmate, but so many Volcano pizzas were sold in the first fifteen minutes that by the time your order reached the pizza house, they only had egg pizzas left.
After that disaster, you study the website more carefully before ordering on the second Tuesday. You decide the Thai place's preference list doesn't look too bad, though you are now giving a first preference for your third option, and they've only ranked hamburgers 17th. To your horror, your flatmate returns with a vegemite scroll. But this is impossible, you say, as you were sure that the Thai place had ranked the Vegemite Diner below the lead dishes from every other restaurant. Ah yes, your flatmate said, this is so. But after a large number of transfers between various restaurants including a point where your order was randomly transferred between three different choices, a point had been reached where the only choices left were the Vegemite Diner and another place you also couldn't stand. But the Thai restaurant, while ranking the other place's first option 107th and ahead of both the Vegemite Diner's, had ranked their second option absolutely last on one of their three orderings. And too bad for you, that was the one that was randomly chosen.
Wow, you think, this is getting really complex! Trying to pick a meal you can safely select on the second Wednesday, you find that your absolute safest restaurant-preferencing choice is a sardine sandwich, not that you like them all that much, and it's not exactly a filling dinner either. You therefore choose a sardine sandwich and your flatmate brings back an egg pizza. Well, it was that or a vegemite scroll after all the other places shut, so at least you got the least disliked of the two remaining options. Could have been worse ... until your flatmate points out this problem. The hamburger joint had closed early because it realised it was never going to get your order in time. Had you instead ordered a hamburger, you would have got one!
Things get even stranger on the second Thursday when you decide it is hamburger or bust. So you order a hamburger using restuarant preferencing, and your flatmate brings home a stale sausage roll (bad, but better than egg pizza or vegemite scrolls). Your flatmate explains that if you really wanted a hamburger, you should have ordered with the Vegemite Diner! An order to the Vegemite Diner would have been pure genius - it would have resulted in Hamburgers Australia shutting its doors early, as a result of which HA would have transferred all its orders to Australian Hamburger Bar, and since the Vegemite Diner luckily ran out of vegemite scrolls and therefore couldn't sell you one, your order would have then been passed on and resulted in a burger. All so obvious!
On the second Friday it gets odder still. Three hours after you order a hamburger, your flatmate reports something really strange has happened. A dispute has sprung up between Squid Rings With Cheese and Porcupine Pasta, two of the deservedly least popular eateries in town. Some orders were lost and depending on these orders, it is not clear which of these joints should close first. The dispute is baffling because both of them would have to close later anyway, but each is holding orders from other restaurants. Which one closes earliest turns out to affect the meals received by thousands of customers in ways no-one could possibly have expected. Your preferred burger bar tells you you will get a burger whichever way that decision goes, but food authorities announce that because of the confusion all orders for the night at all restaurants are cancelled, even those that would have been filled no matter what.
Come the second Saturday you again order a hamburger. A strange craze for a kind of yellow ice cream that melts in five minutes has swept the city and your order is again in all kinds of doubt. But success is yours at last as you see your flatmate carrying home the box marked AUSTRALIAN HAMBURGER BAR. You are practically drooling with anticipation as you open the box, yep it looks like a burger alright. You bite into it and find the meat is old and tough and doesn't taste that much like beef at all; in fact it tastes more like a brown paper bag. You call the restaurant and ask them what has happened, they don't make them like they used to. "You silly young Pratt" says the burger bar owner, "All our prime burgers are now made from Bullocks."
On the second Sunday you decide that the takeaway scene is awful and the puns are even worse. You give up, and you make your own dinner at home.
How Senate Reform Really Works
The really strange thing about the Denniss article is that in fact the main point of the JSCEM-proposed Senate reform is to make Senate voting a great deal more like his analogy than it actually presently is. Any supporter of the principles underlying Denniss' defence of our system in comparison to first-past-the-post should also support proposed Senate reform in preference to the system we have now.
The reform supported by the Government, the Greens and parts of Labor actually delivers on the principles involved in the dinner analogy to a very large degree.
A voter will be able to vote for their choice of candidates (=meals) in order, provided they specify enough options for a formal vote (normally six).
A voter will be able to vote for their choice of parties (=restaurants) in order, and will be able to stop whenever they reach the point where they no longer care.
If a voter does not know which options to pick, and trusts their party to recommend options for them, they will be able to simply take their party's how-to-vote card and follow it. If you mostly like your party's card but disagree with one recommendation, you can make your own slight changes, which you can't do without numbering every square below the line under the current system.
The proposed new system is giving voters far more flexibility in voting, and far more control over what their vote does, than the current system. The voter is not actually losing any choice they have under the current system, save that if they want to follow their party's recommendations exactly, they will have to copy several numbers instead of just putting a 1 in a box. But that effort is nothing compared to the effort required for anyone who wants to vote below the line in the current system.
The only extent to which the comparison to first-past-the-post is apt is that fewer preferences will be transferred, because more voters will exhaust their preferences (especially while people are getting used to the new system). This, however, has no impact on the ability of the voter to direct their own preferences effectively without having to vote for a huge list of candidates below the line, an ability the voter currently does not have.
It will mean there are cases (fairly rarely) when Party X fails to catch Party Y on preferences, but would have done so had the voters for excluded Party Z been forced to express a preference between X and Y. However, that is better than what often happens at present, in which the difficulty of voting below the line effectively forces a voter for Party Z to preference Party X although given the choice they would actually choose Party Y. There is no perfect solution (because forcing chosen preferences all the way through results in a massive informal-vote rate) but it is better that a party with a clear level of support beats one with much less clear support because voters for other parties don't choose to preference the latter, than for the one with less clear support to win because voters for other parties are forced to preference it. Even when a preference flow might seem ideologically natural (between like-minded parties), there is no way that every voter would follow it.
There is one other thing I will pick up on here. Denniss argues:
"Given that the whole point of an election is to trust a party to make important decisions on our behalf, it's not surprising that the vast majority of Australian voters trust parties to allocate preferences and opt to vote above the line"
Voters trust politicians? No they don't, actually; political parties are among the least trusted things in our democracy (and Senate voting farces are part of the reason for this). As Ben pointed out, it's just not about trust; high above-the-line voting rates are about lack of a practical alternative given the increasing number of candidates and the time taken to get voting below the line right.
But there's another point here. We have indirect democracy (in which we elect politicians to make the vast majority of political decisions on our behalf) not because we positively trust politicians, but because there is no practical alternative. In the case of Senate voting systems, we know that we cannot trust even the parties we like to distribute our preferences as they should be distributed. We do have a practical alternative to trusting them, and we should therefore support it.