Radical Senate Overhaul idea

There’s been a lot of back-and-forth debate between the 3 main parties and the crossbench over Senate electoral reform. I had an idea that I thought would be worth sharing that takes the reform to a whole new level.

It’s an idea that I like to call a 1-for-1 system. The basic premise, before I go into detail about it, is to expand the Senate to 100 seats and for every 1% of the nation-wide primary vote a party achieves, they are allocated 1 seat in the Senate.


I’m not sure where to begin this to make it fully cohesive so I might ramble a bit in places, but here goes. Voting for the Senate would be changed from voting for senators from your state to a nationwide vote that allocates seats based on the primary vote each party receives (there is a state-by-state component I will discuss later on, however). For each 1% a party accrues in votes, they are allocated 1 seat in the senate. Votes that take a party over a percentage milestone but fall short of the next one are distributes as preferences, either as prescribed by the voter, or by the party of their primary vote if preferences are left blank.

If I were to leave the proposal at that, it would mean that the big states dwarf out the smaller states and territories, but I have further details that amend this. The idea of an equal number of senators from each state, and equal senators from the territories will be preserved as follows: Only parties will appear on the ballot paper above the line. For a party to be listed on the ballot paper they must be able to field minimum 1 senator from each state (6 in total). Parties will be required to field as even a number as is reasonable from each state to maintain representation (no stacking candidates from any one or two states). Parties will prioritise which of their candidates will be put up for each seat they get allocated i.e. 6 candidates are fielded but only 1% of the vote is gained, the party decides which of those 6 gets that seat. Independents cannot appear above the line or be eligible for the nationwide vote.

Each state would have 3 seats (1 for territories) reserved for it that can be contested by anyone from within that state, independent, micro party or major party. Voting for these seats occurs below the line (so voting above AND below the line would be mandatory under this proposal) and would be optional preferential, just like above the line, with modified distribution rules. These 3 (or 1) seat/s would be contested in a similar fashion to how current senate seats are contested, with one crucial difference; no party or individual my win more than 1 of these seats, as voting is still for entities (independents are counted as entities in this case), so the entity with the most votes gets the first seat, the second-most gets the second seat and the third-most gets the third seat. Entities would nominate which candidate is allocated these seats. These seats’ votes are counted in the same way current senate seats’ are allocated (same preference rules).

I don’t know how coherent that was, but I feel this system would be a truly representative and democratic system that would much better reflect the will of the electorate and ensure a much more rigorous senate process (governments would almost never get an outright majority, forcing them to negotiate legislation).


First things first, a quick summary of the Strayan Constitution (mate):

  • Any changes to the makeup of the House of Representatives or Senate usually (almost always) requires changes to the Constitution. There are some exceptions, such as how Senators are elected, etc, but fundamental (read: useful) changes—such as increasing number of Senators—requires a Constitutional amendment.
  • The House of Representatives is the house where the Government is formed, while the Senate is the house that is meant to represent the interests of the states.
  • By design, the House of Representatives has a proportionate number of seats—which represent population balanced electorates—to the actual population of the country, and does not take into account disparity of population density between states (again, by design).
  • The Senate however elects 12 Senators per state on an A/B cycle (half Senate election every 3 years). Senators for territories are elected at the same pace as HoR elections, and only two representatives per territory.
  • Based upon this, the House of Representatives is meant to represent all Australians (haha), and the Senate meant to equally represent the states to ensure the HoR doesn’t work against the interests of Australia as a whole (a safeguard against east coast dominance).

So, the keen reader would notice a few problems there. In 1901, the population of Australia was 3.8 million people. The federal election in 1901 was to elect 75 House of Representatives candidates and 36 seats in the Senate. Even in its earliest implementation, the representative power of the HoR was 1 member of parliament per ~50,000 people. We now have around 23 million people, with 150 seats. That’s one seat per ~150,000 people. You can see how, over time, Australia has become significantly less representative. (I am also aware that a large amount of that 23 million are not eligible to vote; the Government is still required to work on behalf of these people as well). Sweden however has one seat per ~30,000 people.

I think that reforming the Senate is a pointless endeavour for a complicated organ. It wouldn’t need equal power to push legislation if the House of Representatives was more balanced. Many modern liberal democracies use party list proportional representation for their house of government. Many of these houses include 5 or more parties and have robust debates leading to quality outcomes. Majoritarian governance (two party systems) are folly and lead to extremely confrontational politics, instead of politics of consensus and compromise.

A realistic solution to the House of Representatives is to introduce multi-member proportional representation. Keep the current electorates, but elect three representatives per electorate. It brings the representation up to 1901 levels, but actually achieves a balanced result.

I feel that having a Senate at all is an anachronism. It is a safeguard against an aggressor—unbalanced distribution of power that has a massive impact on all of society—that simply should not exist. A well implemented state with properly balanced powers and responsibilities simply doesn’t need a bicameral national parliament. None of the Scandinavian countries have bicameral parliaments anymore, and other countries like the Netherlands have Senates with very limited powers. It is indeed a very federalist concept, and doesn’t nominally exist in modern unitary states.

I might add more to this later, but this covers off the gist of my point. A later post might go through the thought experiment of implementing a “lottocracy” for the Senate, where senators are appointed in a jury duty style for one year. That’s a fun thought experiment. :smile:

  1. I would imagine it’s just a given that useful reform of either house would involve Constitutional changes; that being said I wasn’t aware that Territory Senators had slightly different electoral cycles to State Senators, interesting to note. I also share in your cynicism of the “representatives” portion of the Lower House’s name. Representative, it is no longer.

  2. I would disagree that the Senate is redundant or an anachronism. While I get that consensus politics is, of course, the ideal, the Greens put paid to that in 2008/9 when they blew the CPRS out of the water and paved the way for Tony Abbott. So while it would be nice to reform the way our government works on that basis, the reality is that it is now going to require an almost generational effort to revert the current state back to what it was, and a more permanent and political-style-fad independent system be adopted, one that can cater to the various iterations and changes in the way politics is run over the long haul, as the current setup simply no longer does.

  3. I have absolutely no faith in any single-house system, and I absolutely do not want to see something akin to the types of elections we see in countries like Israel where government is formed from fractious coalitions of parties who only loosely agree on some issues. I would hardly call that stable. One thing I forgot to mention is that with the proposal I outlined, Supply Bills would no longer require Senate approval, because we do not need a return to 1975. That just needs to never happen again.

  4. You say that it’s a safeguard against an aggressor that shouldn’t exist…I agree that such aggressors should not exist, but as you or I cannot categorically rule out such a government ever forming in the lower house, I would rather be cautious and prudent, than jumping the gun and following Queensland, of all places (because we saw what happened there several years ago). Not having a house of review, I think, would genuinely be a mistake. I think the big problem we have is that we don’t have a local head-of-state who can keep governments in check.

I dunno, maybe I am still naive enough to believe in the potential of Australian democracy, but I think a reformed Senate would be a much better option as having true-proportional representation would be far more democratic. But, hey that’s why I decided to share this idea, see what the mood is :slight_smile:

It’s a provable fact. There are models of governance where it is redundant, which makes it an anachronism. All because Australia continues to follow a bastardised Westminster/Washington model of governance does not a legitimate system make.

I studied a unit on Swedish politics when I went overseas last year, and it struck me just how different a system can be based on a few simple principles. People behave significantly differently based upon systemic differences.

One example is that there are very few ministers, and those ministers do not have the power to hire and fire who they please within their departments. This causes a minister to act as a liaison between parliament and the public service, as opposed to a dictator of the portfolio. There has also been minority governance in Sweden since the early 1900s.

They have for the most part used a modified Sainte-Laguë method—which is also used in New Zealand by the way—for electing their parliament. They ended up abolishing their upper house in 1970, world didn’t fall apart then either. Why? Because they have proper bottom up governance, so local and regional issues are largely handled at a local and regional level.

For instance, in Australia, the Labor Party has historically been swinging right. Why? Because the Green vote would always preference Labor first. If the Senate vote allows voting 1 without filling any further preferences as the current bill allows, we might see a change. As Labor cannot rely on the Green vote always flowing to them, they have to actually bolster their left wing. We will then see a resurgence there. Small change, large impact. I am largely against preferential voting systems when the goal is a proportional house and the thresholds for election are sufficiently low (2-4%).

Not exactly known for its democracy and stability. It’s also a very new country (only formed in the late 40s). Compare with something with a longer history for a fairer comparison.

None of this demonstrates that you are thinking about this in any detail. You have just outlined an abuse of reserve powers, a concept of supply bills which is strongly linked to Westminster tradition but alien in many other parliamentary systems, and demonstrated a fear of any change that might lead to instability. Consider analysing why you are thinking this in more depth.

If you fundamentally change the system, yes, you can.

Proportional representation in the Senate—the house of review—is almost entirely useless. Reforming either house will take just as long and be just as difficult, so it’s much more worthwhile fixing the House of Representatives, then working on the Senate.

Though, my position has always been abolish it all and form a unitary state.

For any major reform to work, though, there would have to be wholesale education of the public on the matter, as so many people (even myself it might seem) are either somewhat, mostly, or entirely ignorant of our system and how it works. Without a public that knows how to engage and engage in a meaningful and thoughtful way, even the most ideal of reforms would likely have little impact, I fear. And it is this disconnect that the sliest of pollis rely on to get re-elected every election.

I think if the proposal you describe is to work, I think the public would need to be changed first. Maybe that’s my scepticism towards the masses showing through, though; I don’t tend to give “people” much credit when it comes to understanding public debate these days.

“Get over state-based rivalry, create a unitary state, divide regions and localities based on necessity and logic, not colonial history.” That I definitely agree with. The states as a construct are not particularly useful…or logical. Why should the location of your home residence dictate which set of laws you live by within the same country? Ofc that would open a whole new can of worms with regards to “state” and “federal” crimes and don’t even get started on which education system we’d all use cough HSC cough.

There are so many related issues that would have to be dealt with alongside abolishing the states, though, I think that debate is best left for another time. For now, I think making our national parliament more democratic and accountable should be of primary concern.