Gun nuts, conspiracy theorists and sports obsessives – meet Australia’s newest senators

Arcane electoral system leads to minority special interests parties holding the balance of power
  • @kathymarksoz

The probable election to the Australian Senate of a rag-tag group of obscure “micro-parties” – representing, among others, gun-law libertarians and petrolheads – has prompted calls for reform of the voting system.

The new senators, among them Ricky Muir, an unemployed father-of-five who posted a YouTube video of himself in a backyard fight involving kangaroo droppings, are set to hold the balance of power despite receiving as few as 1,908 votes.

Although the count has not yet been finalised, the Australian Motoring Enthusiasts Party, which received 0.52 per cent of the vote, the Australian Sports Party (0.22 per cent) and the Liberal Democrats are likely to gain seats in Senate. The latter, notwithstanding its innocuous name, stand for the right to carry firearms.

Other parties likely to wield power out of all proportion to their support include Family First, which flaunts its “Christian heritage”, and the Palmer United Party, created by eccentric mining magnate Clive Palmer, who is installing life-size dinosaur models in his Queensland resort.

Family First’s man in the Senate will be Bob Day, a builder who claims that “natural emissions (eg volcanoes) account for… 97 per cent of carbon dioxide emissions”.

Mr Palmer’s successful candidates include Glenn Lazarus, a former rugby league prop known as the “brick with eyes”.

Meanwhile, a successful candidate for the Motoring Enthusiasts Party has tweeted, jokingly, that President George Bush had ordered the 9/11 attacks.

The rise of the newly formed Liberal Democrats, who stood in New South Wales, is easiest to explain. First, thousands of people mistakenly voted for them, since they – rather naughtily – chose a name that sounds very similar to that of the mainstream Liberal Party. (In 1994, Britain’s Richard Huggett, standing as a “Literal Democrat”, won 10,000 votes in the European elections.)

Second, they came first in a ballot to determine the order in which parties were placed on a ballot paper the size of a tablecloth. With 45 parties and 110 candidates to choose from, it is believed many voters simply opted for the first-placed party.

The success of other fringe parties is due to a head-achingly complicated preferential voting system, under which the candidates with the lowest votes are progressively eliminated and their votes redistributed according to deals struck between parties.

As a voter, you can either vote “above the line”, simply ticking one box beside your preferred party, or “below the line”, which involves ranking every candidate. That process can take nearly an hour and requires “the skill of an origami artist, the dexterity of a contortionist and the eyesight of a hawk”, according to the ABC’s election expert, Antony Green. Magnifying glasses were supplied at the polls.

Most people choose the former option, unsurprisingly, meaning their votes are distributed according to the deals, often based on cynical mathematics rather than shared values. In New South Wales, for instance, supporters of the Animal Justice Party nearly helped to elect the far-right firebrand Pauline Hanson, who only narrowly missed out on winning a seat.

The Prime Minister-elect Tony Abbott, who will have to negotiate with these crossbenchers in order to get legislation through the Senate, has indicated that he is in favour of reforming the system – for instance, by requiring parties contesting elections to win a certain percentage of the vote in order to gain a seat.

On the fringe

Ricky Muir Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party

A YouTube video entitled “Family Fight in Australia” shows Mr Muir, 32, and friends running around a garden pelt ingeach other with kangaroo excrement. His party wants better roads and the right to “bush bash” (drive off-road) in national parks.

David  Leyonhjelm Liberal  Democratic Party

A former vet, Mr Leyonhjelm left the Liberal Party in disgust after gun laws were tightened following the 1996 Port Arthur massacre. The 61-year-old has said it is “objective fact” that the massacre last year at Sandy Hook could have been prevented if teachers had been armed. He says: “People like to think that minor parties are a collection of nutters, but by and large they are well-intentioned people.”

Wayne Dropulich Australian Sports Party

The little known Australian Sports Party wants “every Australian to be involved in sport and recreation”. And, er, that’s it. Mr Dropulich, a civil engineer and former Australian gridiron player, has confessed he was “pleasantly surprised” to find himself headed for the Senate. “I think it’s going to be a long process of trying to understand exactly what’s involved,” he told ABC radio.