The conundrum in Tasmania revolves around the apparent unworkability of the Australian dominant electoral system when confronted with the clear democratic preferences expressed by voters through proportional representation.
Greens leader Bob Brown has indicated that the Swiss example might provide a model. That is true except that the cultural attitude of the major parties in Australia is shaped completely by the dominant single-member district system that has created the two-party dominance this country is saddled with. The answer is not to do away with proportional representation but to introduce it nation-wide as the overwhelming majority of industrialised nations have done, most of them long ago and many of new states in the last 20 years.
What is the Swiss situation? Switzerland is a federation. Its government is called the Federal Council (Art. 174), comprising seven ministers only, usually representing a coalition of four parties. The members of the Federal Council shall be elected by the Federal Assembly following each general election to the National Council (lower house, Art 175). The Swiss President chairs the Federal Council and is elected by the Federal Assembly from the members of the Federal Council for a term of office of one year. Re-election for the following year is not permitted. The President may not be elected Vice-President for the following year. (Art 176).
The Federal Council is expected to reach decisions as a collegial body. The business of the Federal Council is allocated to Councilors according to departments. Each heads several departments but work is delegated to administrative sub-units (Art 177).
Clearly, this reflects a completely different culture, one in which the adversarial, combative methods of politics are subordinated to democratic values and national goals. This follows logically from the electoral system in Switzerland: proportional representation. The advantages of proportional representation over the single-member district system are many. In Australia they would overcome most of the problems of the current system, for example:
Serious lack of diversity in representation in the Australian Parliament. This is the consequence of new parties not being able to gain House of Representatives representation (e.g. the Australian Democrats and Greens). Diversity has increased greatly in Australian society since 1945. This is hardly reflected in the Parliament. The diversity that exists within the major parties is to some extent expressed in factions and there the diversity refers to different ideological positions, not, for example, ethnic origin. The operations of factions in both major parties have generally been regarded as negative, obscure and undesirable. It is not at all a substitute for real diversity. Frequently factionalism has given rise to the perversion of democracy, branch stacking and various forms of skullduggery.
The single-member district system has resulted in frequent boundary changes, a costly and often controversial process; pork-barreling, resulting in election campaigns concentrating on a limited number of marginal seats; little economic development and government assistance, or none at all, in "safe" seats. Costly by-elections are a by-product of this system. With Proportional Representation casual vacancies in the Parliament are filled by a candidate of the same party who was next on the party list but just failed to make the quota required at the foregoing election.
An undesirable system dominance by the two major parties. This strengthens the adversarial culture in Parliament already inherent in the Westminster model. This brings with it the fusion between the political executive and the legislature as well as the functional amateurism of Ministers. In spite of the adversarial culture the major parties have become look-alikes in spite of sustained efforts to differentiate themselves from each other. Debates in Parliament are unreal and reflect political point scoring, often on minor issues.
Lack of democracy in representation. In single-member districts candidates are often elected on the basis of around 40 per cent of first preference votes. The result of this is that their first preference candidate does not represent a majority of electors while a large minority actually ends up with an MP of the other major party.
Compulsory voting combined with the existing voting system further reinforces the undesirable two-party dominance. It also forces the major parties to concentrate their platforms on capturing the "middle ground" (around 20 per cent + of voters) - as a result of which they become look-alikes reducing diversity further. The over 90 per cent voter turn-out in elections includes a very high percentage who are poorly informed, or are not interested, or are just habitual voters and/or of the view that it is not worth voting for any group other than the major parties because minor party candidates of Independents "won't get in anyway".
The single-member district system has definitely not been in the interests of furthering women representation. Although improving, at long last, this is still at a low level in Australia. Australia's system is also biased against NESB (non English speaking background) candidates and Indigenous people. There are now a high percentage of citizens in Australia of NESB origin, around 35 per cent. They are under-represented in all Australian Parliaments.
Finally, there is another very detrimental drawback, often not realised or mentioned. The two-party dominance has thwarted many efforts to amend the Constitution, now an archaic and inflexible document. Proposals for constitutional and other referendums, initiated exclusively by politicians in Australia, need the support of both major parties and their campaigns, to be accepted by the voters so as to have a chance to be passed in terms of Section 128. Unless this bi-partisan support is secured the proposals are doomed from the start.
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