The consequences of the electoral system of a country are rarely much of an issue for political scientists and political economists nowadays. This is certainly the case in Australia! But they were in the second half of the 19th century for some well-known British, German and French political philosophers.
The consequences of extending the vote from limited wealthy elites to all citizens, in various stages, and the systems to be used for that purpose had major consequences for the distribution and generation of wealth. This article suggests that there is in fact a close practical connection between system, democracy, economy and wealth distribution. Public policy in respect of electoral system affects all of these aspects.
There is room for major reforms in Australia. The Single Member District electoral system (SMD) should be replaced by Proportional Representation – Party List (PR–PL), based on multi-member districts. The negative adversarial discourse would be replaced by cooperation and coalition formation of parties – and therefore result in genuine majority government instead of government by the majority faction of one major party.
Activist groups campaigning for electoral change
SMD is still used in most English-speaking countries, except in New Zealand and the new South Africa which changed to PR–PL in the 1990s. I concentrate on Australia here, but also make some comments on the US, and the UK where disenchantment with SMD has led to activist groups campaigning for major electoral change.
In Australia, in many seats, the MP does NOT represent the majority – and the minority is often NOT represented by the opposite party either. It is nonsense to claim that a local MP represents all voters in an electoral district while the combative adversity of the major parties is on display daily! Overall, the SMD system results in a two-party adversarial system. Independents mostly emerge by breaking away from a major party.
Even the Greens, receiving between nine per cent and 14 per cent nationally, only have had one MP in the federal Parliament, in two decades. Just recently, during the vital new energy debate prior to the Glasgow meeting, the Liberal-Nationals Party (LNP) of Queensland virtually held the conservative coalition government to ransom.
Shocking unfairness in Australia’s electoral system
The Greens received 10.40 per cent of the votes in 2019 and, again, ended up with just one seat. In stark contrast the LNP of Queensland received 8.67 per cent of the votes and ended up with 23 seats! The National Party in NSW and Victoria added another 10 seats federally for a percentage of 4.51 per cent. The shocking unfairness in Australia’s electoral system is now resulting in serious national consequences internationally! SMD is the major cause of this situation.
Clearly, the desire for the representation of diversity has grown steadily in Australia. Since the 1990s the number of seats decided by preferences has increased markedly. Thirty-one in 1983, sixty-three in 1993, eighty-seven in 2001, in 2016 an astonishing 102 out of 150 seats. In 2019 only 18 seats out of 151 seats were declared on first preferences. A report on first preference percentages tells a similar story: Coalition 41.44 per cent, ALP 33.34 per cent, Greens 10.40 per cent. Neither major party has an overall mandate.
The economics of pork barrelling
The economics of pork barrelling, the direct result of the Single Member District electoral system, of course makes no sense at all. It is quite ridiculous how scarce funds are unethically spent on these party political objectives aiming to swing seats to either major party.
The principal alternative to SMD is PR–PL, used in 85 countries. It is based on multi-member districts. This is a proven system. It is unlike the Hare-Clark PR system used in Tasmania, the Senate, ACT and four State Legislative Councils. That system (Hare) was first recommended in the UK in the mid-19th century and later adapted by Clark for Tasmania (1907). Although also based on multi-member districts it is suitable only for small legislatures where voters know the candidates reasonably well. It is hardly used elsewhere.
Most Australians do not know PR–PL well – isolation from Europe being the major cause of that. With the exception of the MMP system (a variant of Party List, only used in NZ and Germany) VOTERS HAVE ONE VOTE ONLY. There will be more parties participating as they will have a proportional (fair) chance to be elected.
A minimum entry threshold of three to five per cent usually applies – thus avoiding too many small parties. Parties that qualify will gain seats on the basis of how many times they achieve the quota. There are no boundary hassles, no pork-barrelling and branch-stacking, all major problems in Australia; also no gerrymandering, a well-known problem in the US. Replacement of an MP who leaves parliament is simply done by appointing the candidate on the list who just missed out at the previous election.
Toxic, adversarial culture
This system would replace the current toxic, adversarial culture with MAJORITY government instead of government by the dominant faction of one major party! The growing desire for more diverse representation in Australia has been demonstrated as a very large number of new parties have registered in recent years (around 55). The introduction of a PR–PL system would be welcomed by many.
Some people argue that the introduction of PR–PL, to replace SMD, could be regarded as unconstitutional and/or would require a referendum to effect such a change. That is highly unlikely. However, a government may decide to introduce it after a positive referendum, as happened in New Zealand in 1992; this is NOT a requirement.
The Australian Constitution
The drafters of the 1901 Australian Constitution were content for the parliament to make most of the decisions as to how it should be elected. In most clauses where the electoral system is mentioned, the Constitution states that the Parliament is to legislate to organise elections. This can be seen in the sections regarding the senate, 7, 9, 10, 13 and 15 (amended in 1977 following abuse of ‘conventions’ about replacing retiring senators). And for the House of Reps 24, 25, 26, 27, 29, 30, 31, 33 and 34. It is frequently stated there ‘until the Parliament decides otherwise’. Remember also that political parties were not even mentioned at all in the archaic Constitution.
Interestingly, it was the ALP that introduced PR in 1948 for the senate, used first in the 1949 election (Hare-Clark). And it was the ALP that introduced an amended format in 1984: ‘above the line’ and ‘under the line’ preferencing. In both cases there was no Referendum and no High Court case mounted against it. The ALP, in the Electoral Reform section of its Platform, urges fairness in representation. Is it fair for the Greens to have just one MP in the 151 strong lower house on a vote percentage of 10.4 per cent?
If the ALP were to adopt PR–PL the Greens would gain several MPs, and the ALP might lose some. BUT jointly they could form government, possibly including some other minor party representatives and Independents.
Everything’s better with John Cleese?
Surprisingly, the LibDems (which he supported) opted for the ‘Australian vote’ (SMD ‘first past the post’ + preferences) and then lost the referendum on it! The LibDems suffered from the same problem as Tthe Greens in Australia. Their votes were spread widely over many seats. A good overall percentage but not reflected in seats won as a result of the undemocratic electoral system. Two recent PMs in Britain even won elections based on minority support, David Cameron and Boris Johnston.
The US journalist Amanda Taub published a major article about PR for Britain in the New York Times (https://nyti.ms/3KVFQlZ). She demonstrated that PR–PL would have provided the UK Labour Party with a victory in 2019, instead of the Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party. The result was Brexit!
Dr Klaas Woldring is former A/Prof of Southern Cross University (1975 – 1999). He stood for the seat of Richmond for the ALP in 1984 and 1987, then held by the National Party. Woldring resigned from the ALP in October 1989.