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The disillusioned voter’s guide to making a difference with your vote

You wouldn’t know there was an election coming where I live. There’s no posters on poles, no pollies hanging around on the streets, no letterbox drops, no text messages and no robocalls. If you didn’t follow the news, you wouldn’t even know there was an election on. This is in stark contrast to the New England electorate – home to Deputy PM Bananaby Joyce and independent candidate Tony Windsor – where election fatigue set in weeks, maybe even months ago. New England locals are besieged by posters, billboards, calls, and personal visits by candidates from all parties keen to paint a picture of how wonderful life in New England would be if only they were elected to parliament.

The difference between being a voter in my electorate and in New England of course is that the citizens of New England live in a critical seat for this election – a seat where the outcome of the vote is not considered a foregone conclusion. Voters in about twenty key seats around the country are the electoral belles of our politicians’ election ball. They are courted by the politicians with promises of hospitals, car parks and other infrastructure spending. I however – like the majority of Australians – live in a safe seat. I’m an electoral wallflower – my vote in the House of Representatives matters to no one.

It’s easy to feel disenfranchised by this – to feel like my vote doesn’t matter. That’s because – according to the ABC – it doesn’t. According to the ABC, only 12.9% of Australians’ votes will actually make a difference to the outcome of the upcoming Federal election – and I’m not among them. It turns out, when it comes to your vote in the House of Representatives, all votes might be equal – but some are definitely more equal than others.

It’s no wonder the vast majority of Australians feel like their vote doesn’t count for much at all – that they have little or no influence over national decision-making. Even if you are one of the privileged few swinging voters who live in a key seat, you’re just as likely to be frustrated by politicians you don’t feel you can trust and parties who change their policies once elected.

The one vote that really DOES make a difference

As I wrote earlier this week, a key reason so many Australians feel their vote on Saturday is meaningless is because the focus of our politicians and most media outlets is on the outcome of our vote in only one of our two Houses of Parliament – the House of Representatives. (This is the vote you cast on the little green voting paper.) The reason this House is so popular with our pollies is not because it’s more important than the other House (the Senate) – but because convention dictates that the political party that wins a majority of seats in the House of Reps is the one that ends up holding the reins of government for the next three years. Those reins grant the holder executive control of our government – which includes the power to decide who is Prime Minister and who fills all the various Ministerial positions. AusHousesofParl

In the Senate – YOUR vote counts

Unlike in the House of Representatives – where only 12.9% of Australians get to influence the outcome of the election – in the Senate, everyone’s vote counts. And despite the fact that the Senate gets almost no fanfare at election time, when it comes to making and passing the laws that govern our country, the Senate was designed by our Nation’s founders to be almost as powerful as the House of Representatives. The Senate can veto or amend any legislation the government wants to put through. The Senate can hold the government to account and undertake Inquiries into whatever it sees fit. The Senate even has the power to introduce its own legislation (except around government expenditure or taxation).

And the really good news about your vote for the Senate is that votes are counted at a State (or Territory) level rather than at a local electorate level and they go towards determining who wins more than one seat. This means that your individual vote can actually influence the election outcome in the Senate, even if you live in a safe seat – as long as you know how the voting works.

Your vote in the Senate matters – it can make a difference to how this country is run over the next three years. In fact, unless you are a swinging voter in a key seat, the MOST IMPORTANT vote you will cast in the upcoming election is your vote in the Senate.

BUT – if you don’t know how voting works in the Senate, you may end up accidentally voting for a party you don’t support

There are some things you need to know in order to make your vote say what you want it to in the Senate. Different rules apply to vote counting in the Senate to those in the House of Reps – which mean that different rules apply to how you should vote in the Senate in order to express your opinion.

For example, in regards to your vote for the House of Representatives, you will often hear something like “put the LNP last”. But in the Senate – this is not a good strategy unless you’re planning to number ALL the boxes. Otherwise, putting the party you don’t support last may actually result in you voting FOR that party.

Here’s why voting in the Senate is so important and what you need to know in order to REALLY make your vote count the way you want it to …

WHY the most important vote you cast will likely be for the Senate

1. The House of Representatives is the home of the disempowered vote

No matter who you are – swinging voter in a marginal seat, voter in a safe seat or somewhere in between – your vote on that little green voting paper for who represents your electorate in the House of Reps isn’t really worth all that much.

Seriously , it isn’t.

As I’ve written previously, your vote in the House of Representatives:

  • is more ‘representish’ than representative as it is not an accurate aggregate representation of the primary votes of all Australians;
  • is not always equal to other votes when it comes to determining which party is in government – all votes are equal, but as discussed above, votes in key seats are more equal than others;
  • doesn’t guarantee that the government will implement a certain set of policies – as politicians are perfectly within their rights to say one thing before the election and do another straight after it; and
  • doesn’t determine who is Prime Minister, or any other ministerial position for that matter – that’s up to the parties themselves.

It’s no wonder one in three Australians believe the House of Reps voting paper should have a ‘none of the above’ option on it.

2. The Senate is more representative of voters’ views than the House of Reps

Votes in the Senate are counted at a State/Territory level (rather than at an micro-electoral level). For that reason it is actually considered to be the more ‘representative’ of the two Houses of Parliament. According to the Parliament of Australia website:

The Senate is elected by a system of proportional representation which ensures that the composition of the Senate more accurately reflects the votes of the electors than the method used to elect members of the House of Representatives.

This is also reflected in the way seats are allocated relative to Australian voters’ primary vote. In the 2013 Federal Election, just over one in five Australian voters (21%) gave their first preference vote in the House of Representatives to a minor party or independent candidate – but they won only 3% of the seats. By contrast, the LNP got only 45% of primary votes in 2013 for the House of Reps but was allocated nearly 60% of the seats.

In the Senate however, 33% of voters gave their first preference to a minor party or an independent candidate in the 2013 election and they won 27% of the seats – still not one for one, but arguably a much more accurate representation of Australian voters’ intentions.

3. The Senate is our democracy’s fail-safe

If you listened to Turnbull and Abbott, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the Senate is an obstruction rather than an integral part of Australian democracy. Abbott called the Senate ‘feral‘ and Turnbull said it was a ‘disgrace‘. Certainly, in their minds, they appear to believe that once elected, Prime Ministers should be allowed to rule like Kings, unfettered and unchecked.

But unfettered, unchecked rule by a small group of individuals is not how a democracy is supposed to work. And it’s certainly not how our democracy was designed to work. Voting for Australia’s representatives in the Senate is deliberately different to that in the House of Representatives to ensure that as far as possible, the candidates who are elected to both Houses of Parliament – are a true representation of all Australians.

When the Senate disagrees with the House of Representatives, it’s not a mistake, it’s not chaos, it’s democracy at work. And instead of throwing their toys out of the cot and behaving like toddlers when another member of Parliament dares to question what they want to do, politicians in a democracy are supposed to compromise like adults, to work together to achieve a solution that reflects what Australians want.


In a democracy, every duly elected representative in either House of Parliament has only one mandate – the ongoing representation of the people who elected them – whether those people are in the majority or not. That’s it. When a Prime Minister claims that the ‘people have spoken’ and that MPs or Senators disagreeing with government positions are going against the will of the people – it’s just plain wrong.

In the words of Assistant Professor in Politics at the University of Canberra, Jean-Paul Gagnon:

“Democracy is not a winner-takes-all scenario where those who win the election become the rulers with a sacred mandate to govern as they see fit. Democracy is an ongoing process of deliberation, monitoring, inclusion and resistance.”

4. Your vote in the Senate can go a long way… Or it can go nowhere at all.

In the House of Representatives, your vote counts towards the outcome of one seat of Parliament only – the seat for your electorate. In the Senate however, instead of just voting for one seat, your ONE VOTE can count towards determining the outcome of MULTIPLE SEATS and contribute towards electing Senators from MULTIPLE PARTIES. BUT – if you don’t know what you’re doing, it may not count at all, even if you fill out the form correctly.

This is particularly important because…

Minor parties/independents will hold the balance of power in the Senate – it’s important you have a say in which ones hold sway

Regardless of who wins government in the House of Representatives, they will need to negotiate with minor parties and independents in the Senate. This isn’t a new phenomena. In fact, if you look back at the makeup of Parliament since Federation in 1901, it’s actually relatively rare that one political party holds a majority in both Houses of Parliament – with only 14% of parliaments in the last 50 years experiencing this luxury.

Further, for all you Labor supporters out there, the ALP has never held a majority in both Houses of Parliament, and only once held a majority in the Senate. And this is unlikely to change in the 2016 election as polling shows that the trend towards voting for minor parties and/or independents has increased by up to 30% since 2013.

This means that in order for any government to govern – which requires successfully getting laws through the Senate – they will need to negotiate with the minor parties and independents.

You can tailor your vote in the Senate to give voice to issues YOU care about

One of the great things about your vote in the Senate being able to count towards multiple parties or independents is that you can tailor your vote so that you preference minor parties or independents who will be your voice for policies that are particularly important to you.

Whether it’s climate change, the treatment of asylum seekers, marriage equality, greater transparency and accountability of government or the way our democracy functions – there’s a variety of parties out there that you can add to your ‘preference’ list for the Senate who, if elected, can influence these issues.

That said…

There are some things you need to know about voting in the Senate

There are some tricks to voting in the Senate which you do need to know about in order to make your vote count. I published an article on this earlier this week providing more detail, but here’s a brief rundown:


This article was first published on ProgressiveConversation.


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  1. Mark Needham

    Of course all votes matter.
    6 for white 5 for black.
    You cannot say that just the 1 vote difference is the important one. Well it is, but as to who made it, has no importance at all.
    People who feel like not voting or disenfranchised,,,,,,,,,Ah well.
    I’m not sure that I get anything right, but I’ve got to have a shot at it.
    Mark Needham

  2. bobrafto

    from the Guardian

    TimofArdmona 23m ago

    There is another way to look at the LNP’s small target election strategy, more realistic I think than the ‘generally speaking, it’s good thing’ analysis.

    The LNP have a whole host of policies, they’re not very well hidden in the last two budgets. But the measures are so unpopular that they simply cannot talk about them. Hence we get ‘jobs and growth’, ‘The Plan’ and lately ‘a stable government’.

    Likewise, Turnbull has hidden his unpopular front bench behind his nice smile. In fact, so many of them are so unpopular that you see hardly any of them – Dutton, Brandis, Abetz, the rest of them, where are they? We know they’ll be at the forefront of LNP policy if they are re-elected.

    So the LNP campaign has been about dissembling in front of us, the Australian people. Turnbull has even hidden his own coalition name – the LNP – on much of his campaign material. And much of this dishonesty has been with the complicity – intentional or otherwise – of the Australian media. I’m sorry, but it’s true. Of course the Murdoch press will always be fiercely parochial, and increasingly shrill and unbalanced as Murdoch himself gets older and goes a bit whacko, but you expect that.

    What is unexpected is the complicity of institutions like the ABC in maintaining the LNP narrative. Where are our decent, hard-working, intelligent journalists these days? I guess they’ve all retired or been pensioned off or got chopped in the latest round of cuts.

    The fact is that our media no longer does its job, which is in large part holding public figures to account, and it is now up to the punter in the street to figure it out for himself. It’s up to us to sift through the 24 hour news cycle and see a ‘jobs and growth’ for what it is.

  3. totaram

    “What is unexpected is the complicity of institutions like the ABC in maintaining the LNP narrative.”

    Not unexpected at all. John Howard stacked the board with right-wing ideological warriors, the CEO came from News Ltd. and/or the Liberal party, and the new CEO is from the Murdoch stable and the govt. has introduced “cuts”, which is a nice opportunity to “cull” any “undesirable” types. Why would anyone want to be culled?

    The sad part is that Labor never removes these introduced vermin, when it has a chance, so things just go from bad to worse.

  4. jimhaz

    Martin Parkinson is not helping anything in regards company tax decreases.

    Nov 2014

    “Treasury Secretary Dr Martin Parkinson has slammed sections of the business community for repeatedly calling for the federal government to cut the corporate tax rate and increase the GST, saying “a lot of what this debate is about is people saying of government, ‘take money from the citizenry at large and give it to me’.”

    Dr Parkinson, who spoke at a Committee for Economic Development of Australia in Melbourne on Thursday, says Australians need to start talking more about the trade-offs we have to make to achieve important economic objectives.

    This means different groups in society need to agree on the best ways to create a “more prosperous and stable country” and this will necessitate a debate about tax reform.

    But he said some of the loudest voices in the current tax reform debate were coming from ‘vested interests’ who keep calling for a cut to the corporate tax rate and an increase in the GST.

    Nov 2015 – now employed by Turnbull

    “Business Council President, Catherine Livingstone said in early November: “While absolutely recognising the critical importance of personal income tax reform, the experience of other countries has shown that nothing will stimulate innovation and growth more than a reduction in the tax rate for all businesses, as part of a broader tax reform agenda … ”

    Amen. Business must continue to counter views that cutting company tax is “rent seeking”. Previously, this job had fallen to former Treasury Secretary Martin Parkinson, who at the national reform summit stated: “(As for) company tax cuts, about half the benefit ends up in the hands of workers because it helps stimulate growth and create new jobs, it creates opportunity for people to get jobs.”

  5. jim

    The Liberal Government treats our senior Australians as a burden. They are cutting seniors concessions & pensions, attacking the superannuation system, increasing the cost of healthcare and medicines,cut $650 million from health. and ripping money out of aged care.

    They’ve had 3 years to fix the so called budget emergency but no; they increased debt, increased our deficit and cut the essentials out of essential services. They have lowered the respect people had for us in other countries. They have set us back financially, humanely, environmentally and morally. They have divided us and pitted us against each other.(they always always do.). We are all as paranoid as can be and trust no one. They use Murdoch’s media to whip up scare campaigns and spread malicious gossip. They use two bit grumpy old talk back hosts to justify their diabolical screw ups. They spend more on our defence systems, systems not the personal. Vote the LNP fn out.

  6. Jack Russell

    Whew! I understand it all clearly . . . AND voted correctly . . . all good here. ?

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