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Proportion blame where it is due

By Philip Lillingston - posted Monday, 23 July 2012

Earlier this month in an article titled ‘The Proportional Pathway to Policy Paralysis’, The Australian's columnist Janet Albrechtsen gave a coherent argument describing how the wrong type of electoral systems can lead to all facets of dysfunctional government - where instability, pork barrelling and minor parties’ disproportionate influence compared to their voting base can shame what should be the pride of democratic governance.

Whereas she was accurate in identifying many of the problems that exist, not only here but also in democracies overseas, her pinning the blame on proportional representation (PR) may have been rather unfair to the only system that gives minorities a political voice.

Under existing so called ‘responsible government’ political frameworks here and overseas, where PR voting is utilised, governments are often unstable because they can only be formed by a coalition of sometimes disparate political parties. But why blame PR? Why not go to the root of the highly questionably constitutional system instead? Where government, meaning the Prime Minister and cabinet, is ‘responsible’ to parliament, is it really too much to ask that it should be responsible to the people instead? Democracies such as France, Indonesia, the Philippines, South Korea, Nicaragua and the United States, in abiding fully to the separation of powers concept, allow their people to directly elect their executive government. Here, a preferential public vote for the chief executive and team, occurring at the same time as the vote for the House of Representatives, would guarantee stability.


It is true that PR would not prevent paralysis in the legislative branch of government (as currently seen in the quest for a solution to the boat people dilemma). Ms Albrechtsen is warning us that this one-off situation, due to the fluke of an election result with no clear winner, would be the norm if PR was entrenched in Australia for the lower house.

For all its paralysis however, the current Australian House of Representatives is probably more democratic than it has been in the last 50 years. This is simply because, due to the closeness of the last election, many parties and independents, representing a broad range of the political spectrum, now have a seat at the table. The fact that the majority of us may abhor the policies of the Greens, should not blind us to the fact that a party representing many tens of thousands of Australians finally does have an input in policy making. In fact they, plus Labor, the Coalition, as well as a handful of independents, all currently have an input in legislation. Despite what is often said, it is not “…a handful of people holding policy making to ransom”. It is in fact, 51% of the parliamentarians, in whatever temporary coalition they may happen to find themselves in, that is holding policy to ransom.

True, our current system is not that democratic because of our less-than-liberal weighting system where, for example, a Senator from New South Wales represents thirteen times as many constituents as his or her Tasmanian counterpart. However the current example of this problem, as seen by Ms Albrechtsen, is that there is paralysis and “…the country [is] left without any border protection policy.” Unfortunately her promotion of the status quo does make one wonder if the cure is really better than the disease. The implication from her criticism being that any policy is better than no policy. What Ms Albrechtsen would prefer is that the legislative houses of parliament should always be dominated by one party. That way, solutions to problems can always be easily and quickly found and good government flourishes.

Really? In fact Australia does currently have a border protection policy, even though it does not seem to be working too well. Is any policy change always better? The fact that no coalition of parties or independents forming a majority has come together with a proposed solution only means that, as judged by the majority of our elected representatives, the existing system, bad as it may be, is still better than anything on offer.

And how can you have a dominant party in parliament when the simple fact is that Australia is, politically, very much a heterogeneous society where no single set of beliefs and values gains a majority? Apparently that is not a problem. Just choose a system, any system, that gives you unequivocal partisan rule. That system being single member voting, where one elected member of the House of Representatives gets to represent up to 80,000 differing political viewpoints from his or her electorate; where in elections winners can be losers, such as in the 1998 federal election when the Coalition won after garnering fewer preferential votes than Labor, and where pork-barrelling is more feasible because there are definable geographical electorates to spend the bribes on infrastructure spending or community grants.

Where Ms Albrechtsen is unequivocal in attacking proportional representation in itself, rather than for what it appears to deliver, is where she blames it for the rise of political influence of extremist political parties. Greece’s neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party as well as “anti-immigration parties from the True Finns in Finland to Geert Wilders' far-right Freedom Party in The Netherlands gain legitimacy from PR that allows them to thrive… The party's success means it will attract $4.3 million in public funds.” (emphasis added)


How dare they gain legitimacy merely because sections of the community wish to be represented by them? Don’t they know that only the larger ‘middle of the road’ parties are the arbiter of correct beliefs and values? And then having the temerity to take millions in matching public funds which was obviously only originally intended for the established parties. It’s scary that Ms Albrechtsen should suggest electoral systems should be designed to only allow mainstream white bread people political representation while marginalising the rest.

Ms Albrechtsen speaks disparagingly of “consensual politics” in that it makes law making very difficult, but how can ‘consensual politics’ be anything other than a synonym for democracy?

It is disconcerting that someone who has been prepared to stand up and oppose ‘offensive speech’ legislation (even before the Andrew Bolt case), and who attacks judicial activism for the sake of the rule of law, should now be taking such an illiberal point of view.

Proportional Representation is exactly what it says. It grants political power proportionally to the popularity of all the viewpoints and beliefs that exist throughout the land, not just the largest, who may well accrue less than 50% of the vote, but still gets the prize of total power for coming first. Legislation gets passed if parliamentarians representing a majority of the voters support it, but in no other situation. And what can be wrong with that?

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About the Author

Philip Lillingston, has previously taught political science and now maintains the website Why Not Proportional Representation?

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All articles by Philip Lillingston

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