The government has secured the support of the Greens and independent Senator Nick Xenophon to immediately pass a modified plan to change the Senate voting system as expectations grow that an election could be called soon after the budget in May.
Greens spokeswoman Senator Lee Rhiannon confirmed to Guardian Australia that the Greens will back a plan that allows voters to number six groups of candidates “above the line” on the Senate voting paper, an option that is also backed by Xenophon.
Elections aren’t lotteries and a Senate seat isn’t a prize. Australia needs reform
Rhiannon said the Greens would not back the option advocated in a bipartisan Senate report for voters to be able to mark just one box above the line.
“In our discussions we have made it clear our party room position is that any legislation must be one to six above the line rather than just one, to ensure more voters are able to indicate their preference for parties other than the majors,” she said.
And she also set out a condition for the Greens support.
“We have indicated to the government that our bottom line is we will not support any changes to party membership that makes it harder for small and emerging parties to obtain registration,” she said.
The Senate report recommended increasing the party membership requirement to 1,500. The Greens will insist it remains at the current level of 500.
Malcolm Turnbull has said voters should expect an election in August, September or October, but also that an earlier double dissolution election was a “live option”. Outgoing Nationals leader Warren Truss has said he thinks the prime minister is leaning towards a double dissolution election in July.
It is understood the government wants to pass the Senate changes before the parliament rises in March regardless of the nature of the election, in part because it believes voters hold the view that the Senate is “chaotic” – an issue that needs to be addressed. Of the eight Senate crossbenchers, only John Madigan would be up for election in a half Senate poll so the immediate impact of the changes would not necessarily be great.
A July double dissolution election would have to be called almost immediately after the budget, with the latest possible date being 16 July. The first possible date for a normal house and half Senate election is 6 August.
The Senate voting changes aim to reduce “gaming” by micro-parties and to ensure voters know where their preferences are being allocated, removing the possibility of backroom preference deals that mean senators are elected on minuscule first preference votes.
The government intends to introduce the laws in the next sitting week and have them passed before the parliament rises for the long winter break in mid-March, allowing just a few weeks for a Senate inquiry into their impact.
The changes that can be passed with the support of the Greens and Xenophon would see the abolition of group voting tickets, where parties dictate the flow of preferences according to backroom deals, and a requirement that voters number 1 to 6 “above the line” – allowing preferences to flow down the candidates on each party’s ticket before going on to the next preferred party.
The proposal is for voters to be allowed to number either 1 to 12 below the line, or possibly allowing voters to continue to number all the squares below the line.
The government would still prefer to pass the more far-reaching and radical recommendations of a bipartisan joint parliamentary inquiry with the support of Labor, but Labor remains deeply divided on the issue and has not guaranteed support.
The shadow special minister of state, Gary Gray, is arguing vehemently that Labor should support the recommendations in the bipartisan 2014 parliamentary interim report.
Last year Gray spoke about the changes in parliament saying: “It would be a travesty for Australian democracy if these careful and thought-through reforms were not in place in time for the next federal election. These reforms will significantly strengthen our democratic process by reducing the capacity for manipulation and increasing transparency in our electoral system, which, despite these concerns, still remains among the most stable and effective in the world.”
Greens move on Senate voting reform would lock out micro parties
But the leader of the opposition in the Senate, Penny Wong, Victorian senator Stephen Conroy and the New South Wales senator Sam Dastyari are opposed to change on the grounds that it would “entrench” Coalition control of the Senate.
Pushing through the changes will infuriate the crossbench and will be seen as an indication the government does not plan on having to conduct many more negotiations with them while the balance of power is in its current configuration.
Independent senator John Madigan told the ABC the major parties were trying to create a cartel.
“The government, the opposition and others will band together to silence any dissenting voices in this place and have, for want of a better word, a cartel,” he said.
Other Senate crossbenchers have threatened a backlash against the government, and even to vote against all government bills, if the changes go ahead.