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Australia's dysfunctional party system: remedies

By Klaas Woldring - posted Wednesday, 16 March 2011

The major parties' falling membership

Membership of political parties is probably well under 100,000. That is less than 0.45 percent of the population. The concern is widespread. That of the ALP is reportedly down to 38,000 from 50,000 in 2007.In the 2010 federal election, about 3.25 million who could have voted, avoided to vote (Costar & Browne, APO, September 2010). Youth has turned away from politics in droves - with the exception of the Greens. The universities are moving away from politics. Departments of political science have been reduced both in status and student numbers. No university has launched republican studies. Not surprisingly some former senior politicians of opposing parties publicly agreed recently that there is "something rotten in the state of politics" (SMH, 20.02.11) However, the causes are not just those identified by these stalwarts.

The democratic deficit is growing


Internal party democracy is also declining. Increasingly, party executives decide on pre-selection rather than the branches. However, the greatest problem is the electoral system. Although endlessly praised as "democratic" by the establishment, the single-member district system is nothing of the kind. Often candidates are elected on the basis of around 40% of first preference votes. The idea of geographical representation by a single-district MP had some meaning in the distant past. But MPs have been representing primarily their party's platform for the last 100 years. Surely, we have local government to look after specifically local interests.

Preferential voting (1918) and compulsory voting (1924) combined to favour the major parties. So, the major parties don't want to know about a different electoral system. In the 2009 Electoral Reform Inquiry, mounted by the Federal ALP, the terms of the (second) green paper guidelines made very clear that only piecemeal tinkering was welcomed.

Intra-party reform is not the answer

Internal reformist tinkering by the major parties cannot rescue this situation. The main reason is that the essential reforms required concern the entire party system. Internally, factional differences are too strong to be patched up within one party. The straight jackets of the existing party organisations are a barrier to re-alignments. Crossing the floor is very rare.One can say that the diversities in the society have changed dramatically since WWII and that the major parties - and perhaps even more so the parliament - no longer reflect these diversities. The changes recently suggested by Federal Health and Ageing Minister, Mark Butler, are very much of the intra-party kind. Furthermore, when referring to other social democratic parties, Butler should realise that most of these operate with quite different electoral regimes as compared to Australia. Most of them do NOT operate in a Westminster system.

Thus the wise major party men and women of yesteryear, merely talking about such problems as focus groups, "mutual destruction between media and politicians" and more community involvement, are not at all getting to the essence of the underlying causes. Specifically, they never question the existing electoral system. Nor will they question seriously negative aspects of the Westminster system. This system delivers functional amateurs for our governments and reduces legislature largely to theatre for political party executives.

National Remedies: Proportional Representation


What remedies are readily available? Who can achieve them? The key reform is the very one that major parties would oppose: introduce proportional representation, preferably the Open Party List System rather than the Hare-Clark. That means changing the principal electoral laws. This is not really difficult.

That would certainly cost both major parties seats. However, new and minor parties would gain seats and thereby add diversity and badly needed new blood to Australian parliaments. Only the Greens, and the Democrats have proportional representation in their policy platforms although, amazingly, neither of them has campaigned on it. Almost all European nations (around 30) use proportional representation - as do South Africa and New Zealand. Parties gain seats in proportion to the votes cast for them. It couldn't be fairer and more representative. It would stop all the many disadvantages of the undemocratic single-member district system like "marginal" seats, pork barreling and by-elections. It would create an entirely different political culture and end parliamentary adversarialism. That is the change we need. For the moment only the Greens have it within their grasp. The hung parliament provides the opportunity.

Senior major party spokespersons argue that the Senate is elected on the basis of proportional representation (since 1949) and, therefore, provides the diversity in the system. There is no doubt that the Senate has been THE redeeming element in the Australian party system - largely thanks to proportional representation. But at the same time there are also major problems with it. The Hare-Clark system of proportional representation used for the Senate, required extensive preferencing. This resulted in the infamous Table Cloth election. In 1984 the division "above the line" and "under the line" was introduced allowing voters to place just a 1 in a square above the line for a party or an Independent two-candidate group. It has turned out to be a regular referendum on the earlier system as usually some 96% opt to vote "above the line". While this presented certainly a total perversion of Hare-Clark, it gave rise to a lot of behind the scenes horse-trading on pre-submitted preference deals, as well as electoral crookery.

There are other problems with the Senate. One example is that Senators have six-year terms - with only half of them are up for election every three years. This is not an answer to the parliament's electoral problems. The party list system of proportional representation is used by over 80% of countries using proportional representation, and does not require preferencing. The voter casts just one vote for a party and a candidate on the party list at the same time.

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About the Author

Dr Klaas Woldring is a former Associate Professor of Southern Cross University.

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