Recently I was re-reading a 1977 paperback I admired greatly at the time - and still do, Change the Rules. It is written by several political scientists, constitutional law academics, a historian and well known author. Sol Encel, Donald Horne and Elaine Thompson edited it. I worked in the School of Political Science, at the University of New South Wales at the time as a tutor and gained a lot of insights from these colleagues there.
This text was much more than a post-script to the 1975 constitutional crisis following the sacking of Prime Minister Gough Whitlam.
Donald Horne, formerly editor of The Bulletin, wrote the lead chapter "Change the Rules". In this article I'll reflect briefly on his and Elaine Thompson's contributions about Australia’s electoral system. One overwhelming conclusion the re-read gave me was that, in spite of the comprehensive rejection of the status quo described in this book and numerous sensible suggestions for change in the area of public governance, virtually nothing has in fact changed in 33 years since then.
Horne starts by comparing the constitutional situation here with that in Sweden:
The Swedes do have a new constitution (1974) whereas most Australians seem to imagine that it is beyond their power even to change their present constitution significantly, let alone get a new one ... they act as if their constitution is a sacred, unchangeable document, while the Swedes, although they have a much older tradition, are ready to change a constitution regularly.
The chapter provides much evidence of the archaic, colonial and stagnant nature of Australia's constitution and he provides "five telling examples of how operations of our constitution could be extremely disruptive of our normal traditions of peaceful politics".
There are a number of reasons why constitutional change in Australia has proved to be so difficult. The provisions of Section 128 feature large in this, e.g. the requirement to achieve a majority in a majority of states for a referendum to pass. But one needs to also reflect on the fact that the power of initiative rests solely with the politicians. Furthermore, Australia has an electoral system that concentrates power in the hands of the two major parties. Basically, they need to be in agreement on constitutional amendment proposals for them to gain sufficient popular support to pass the Section 128 requirements.
Thus, the electoral system, which has created this adversarial two-party tyranny that the voters have now grown tired of, is in fact a major cause of constitutional stagnation. Hence is it was interesting to also consider the contribution by Elaine Thompson "Elections and Democracy".
At the outset she asks: Do we have free and fair elections? This is a very important question because it is the act of voting at free and fair elections that gives legitimacy to the democracy system. She lists a number of devices, which are normally regarded as indicators of democratic practices. "In the Australian system none of these devices actually work", she concludes. While acknowledging that "in modern mass society, sheer size of communities and the complexity and bewildering number of decisions that must be taken make it impossible for us, the people, to participate directly in most of the decisions of politics", elections can provide the road to indirect democracy.
Thompson then proceeds to discuss a number of electoral systems and evaluates which one may be the most suitable for Australia to achieve and free and fair elections. She rejects the first-past-the post system as one that has frequently resulted in minority governments. Then she considers the Australian preferential system, also based on single-member districts, introduced by the Commonwealth Electoral Act of 1918.
While this may have been a small improvement on "first-past-the post" it is a system that undermines the principle of "one vote one value". "Results elections depend on the votes of a few swinging voters in a few marginal seats", she wrote. At best one can argue that it serves stability at the expense of democracy. The compulsory nature of “preferencing” also defies the notion of free elections, but it is hardly improved by optional preferential voting as some have claimed. This brings her to proportional representation as it is known in Australia, based on the Hare-Clark system, of British origin and refined by the Tasmanian Judge Clark.
Considering the introduction of Proportional Representation (PR) into the Senate (in 1949), Thompson finds that it has many advantages in terms of minority representation, ensuring rule by the majority's representatives and giving effective voice to the voter. Like all PR systems it is based on multiple member electorates. She examines the often-claimed disadvantages, divisiveness and instability. It is also claimed to be cumbersome and complicated. Considering the record of the Senate she finds that these claims are actually quite unconvincing. However, I differ from Thompson about her acceptance of the two-party system as "being deeply embedded in the culture". She failed to see that the combination of Australian's preferential system and compulsory voting has artificially and unfairly maintained the two-party tyranny at the expense of new parties, minor parties and Independent candidates (she may think differently about that 33 years later!).
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