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Time to reform our voting system

By Peter Jones - posted Tuesday, 26 October 2010

While we accept the idea of democratic elections in Australia at local, state and federal levels, there is little understanding of how the system of voting actually determines the final result.

While we largely agree on a preferential system of voting (compared for example to the skewed British First Past the Post system) the two major parties have shown little interest in any voting system that would deliver a result more accurately reflecting the popular vote in the Lower Houses. This is because they are obsessed with the idea that one party must have a clear majority as their mandate to rule, despite the fact that in the majority of Western democracies, coalitions are the norm.

Hence their dread of a "hung parliament" and the thought that they may need to include minority parties or independents in the government in order to secure a majority. While this situation may be now be tolerated in the Senate - the result of extending the number of seats in each state from 10 to 12 - it does not seem acceptable in the Lower House, although at the state level, Tasmania is an exception. 


This is because it is common in Tasmania as a result of their adoption of the most democratic voting system of all: Hare-Clark.

Ironically this is offset by the grossly unfair voting system used in the Tasmanian Legislative Council (the Upper House) which makes it the most powerful chamber of its kind in the Westminster system (each member is elected for six years and each May, 2-3 seats come up for re-election, rotating in order around the state, with nineteen electorates - most Tasmanians do not know which seat they are in, let alone who their local MLC is). 

The argument used to justify the current preferential single member system is that voters like to have a local Member representing them, even if they didn't vote for him/her, so the voting system only allows for the election of one candidate.. Preferential voting makes the result more democratic than Britain's first past the post system where candidates are often elected with less than a majority of the vote, but there are several ways of determining a result that better reflects how people voted.

In the last Federal Election, a result based on Proportional Representation would have seen the House of Representatives with 66 Liberal/Nationals, 58 ALP, 4 Independents, 1 Christian Democrat, 3 Family First and 18 Greens (instead of 73 Coalition, 72 ALP, 4 Independents and 1 Green).

The question is therefore which voting system could we adopt which would allow for the result to most accurately reflect how the electorate actually voted.

The Hare Clark system is the most democratic system when five or seven individuals could be elected for one seat as in Tasmania's Lower House but at a Federal level, something along the lines of the system used in Germany or New Zealand would be another option as it combines the single member in their seat with the other half of the parliament chosen from party lists and reflecting their proportion of the total vote.


This allows for the election of minority parties and independents on a wider scale than the August 2010 result and would rarely see a situation where one party would gain a 50% clear majority.

Most countries with a system that allows for the election of candidates from minor parties also operate a cut-off so that they only qualify for representation in Parliament if they gain a minimum of say, 5% of the primary vote. This would affect Australia where the swapping of preferences in the Senate allows minor candidates even with around 1% of the primary vote to sometimes win a spot. This is another area of the Australian system that needs reform, whatever happens with the voting system.

Associated with reforms of the voting system are measures that include an end to voting above the line on the ballot paper in the Senate, when voters can simply vote for six candidates or more rather than having to choose between voting 1 for the party which allows their preferences to be directed by the party, or voting through to the end of the list when you don't know most of the candidates and nor do you like any of them, and your only perverse motive is to put one particularly obnoxious candidate last.

Whether any of these changes are possible will depend on the two major parties but in New Zealand, a long campaign for change did result in their present system which has now settled down after a lot of early criticism. Britain too is slowly moving towards changes but if Australia is to develop a fair system, it means getting over the fear of "a hung parliament" - which given the situation in Canberra and in Tasmania, may now prove possible.

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About the Author

Peter Jones teaches Comparative Religion, SOSE and Asian Studies at The Friends' School in Hobart and the University of Tasmania but admits he only studied three European languages when at high school and one of them was a “dead” language.

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