The American’s Guide to the Australian Internet Filter

Australia has been in the tech news for all the wrong reasons in the last year: for trying to impose the kind of internet filter used more commonly by dictatorships and communist countries (eg China). Yet this coverage seems to miss the reasons for this so, speaking as an Australian, I will explain.

The Boring Stuff First (yes, it’s relevant!)

Australia’s political system is a mixture of the British Westminster system and the American system. Similar to the United States, Australia has a dual-sovereignty federal system. There are six states and two territories.

The House of Representatives is analogous to Congress. There are 150 seats (or electorates) much like congressional districts. Whichever part has the most seats in the House of Representatives forms government. The leader of that party becomes the Prime Minister, the head of government. In certain cases where no party can form a majority (which can happen with minority parts and independent members) a minority government can form but this isn’t terribly common and tends to be unstable.

The Senate is representation for the states. Each state gets 12 senators and each territory 2, for a total of 76.

The nominal head of state is the Governor General. Officially he or she is the representative of the British monarch. Constitutionally, the Governor-General has several powers but the role is largely ceremonial yet the Governor General can (and has) sacked the government and dissolved Parliament (see the 1975 dismissal of Gough Whitlam). The Prime Minister nominates the Governor General. The British monarch basically rubberstamps that choice.

All 150 seats in the House are contested every election, which occurs approximately every three years. I say “approximately” because whereas the United States has constitutionally mandated election dates, the Prime Minister can ask the Governor General to dissolve Parliament and call an election at any time. It is simply required to happen at least every three years. Snap elections when the government is enjoying a surge in popularity to increase the majority in the House are not uncommon.

The United States and most other countries use a voting system commonly referred to as First Past the Post. If a candidate secures a simple majority, they win. Where this doesn’t happen, often there is a runoff election between the top two candidates.

Australia uses a preferential voting system. You can say on your ballot that your preferences are:

  1. John Smith (Greens)
  2. Mary Miler (ALP)
  3. Gary Mason (Liberal)

What this means is that if your first preference fails to get a simple majority there is an elimination system in place. The candidate with the least first preferences is eliminated. All votes for that candidate go to second preference of each voter and so on until someone has a majority. It’s a remarkably elegant system that means a vote for a minor party is not a wasted vote as it is in the US.

The Senate is a little different. Half the Senate seats are contested each election. In most cases this means six seats in each state. The same preferential system is used but instead of securing a majority a candidate merely needs roughly 14% of the distributed preferences to secure a seat. This means minor parties are represented much more in the Senate.

As in the US, a bill has to be passed by both houses of parliament to become law. There is no powerful executive branch however. Nor is there is a Senate filibuster mechanism.

It’s the Politics, Stupid

Federal Government is currently held by the Australian Labor Party (ALP), which philosophically is most like the Democrats in the United States.

The Republican equivalent is made up of two parties: the Liberal Party and the National Party, which together form what is most often referred to as the Coalition. The National Party hold rural seats (that the Liberal Party does not contest) and is focused on issues that affect “the bush”.

The biggest minor party is the Greens, who are focused on environmental issues.

The Government by definition holds a majority of the House of Representatives so typically it isn’t an issue to pass bills through the HoR yet it can and does happen that members from one party or another cross the floor to vote with the other side allowing the opposition party to pass bills or the government to fail to pass bills.

The Senate has to pass the same bill and here’s where it gets interesting. It is highly unusual for one party to hold a Senate majority because only ~14% of the preferential vote is required to get a Senate seat. Yet this did happen for the previous Coalition government. The current makeup is:

Party Seats
ALP 32
Coalition 37
Greens 5
Independent (no party) 1
Family First 1

In recent years the Senate has held a disproportionate amount of power because the independents and minor parties have held the balance of power.

Assuming the Greens vote with the ALP, which is most often but not always the case, the votes are split 37-37 with 38 required to pass a bill. That means the government needs to attract Nick Xenophon (independent) and Steve Fielding (Family First) to pass bills in a strict party line vote, which happens a lot.

Family First is a relatively new political force in Australia. Their politics are as the name suggests. The Coalition tends to be sensitive to some of the same issues.

This results in a virtual quid pro quo where those holding the balance of power will vote with the Government in exchange for the Government passing legislation friendly to their pet issues. Child safety on the internet and pornography are high on that list.

The previous Coalition of John Howard had a similar phase when Brian Harradine and Mal Colston held the balance of power.

So first and foremost it’s a numbers game.

The Politicians’ Syllogism

ZDNet covered this in Internet filter according to Yes Minister. Politicians—including our so-called Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, Stephen Conroy—don’t understand the internet. The logic goes something like this:

  1. The internet contains bad things;
  2. A filter can stop bad things;
  3. Therefore we must filter the internet.

I am not kidding. This is the logic.


Coverage on the Web typically comprehends the second point: that politicians generally don’t understand the internet. That explains why a handful want this but it ignores the larger issue that numbers in the Senate is what’s driving this forwards.


Anonymous said...

interesting precis. I wish it didnt have to happen, but with old, out of touch politicians making rules, and the young disregarding them (see piracy+p2p file sharing), i think our future is secured - we are doomed.

Anonymous said...

Small mistake where you say "The candidate with the lead first preferences is eliminated", it should say the *least* first preferences

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