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Electoral reform, now?

By Philip Lillingston - posted Monday, 14 October 2013

Following the surprising upper house Senate success of the so called micro parties in the recent election, there have been calls from predominately the Liberal and National parties and some academics, to ‘reform’ the Senate electoral system, which for the last 50 years has given Australian political minorities the only opportunity for representation at the federal level.

The reasons used range from voters not knowing who they ultimately voted for, party identification confusion, “grubby preference deals” done allegedly in smoke filled rooms behind closed doors, albeit still published on-line and in voting booths before the election for all to see, to winners accruing less than 5% of the primary vote. The last being an odd criticism because, as Senator Nick Xenophon amongst others, has said, in any election there is no guarantee every otherwise successful candidate could even attain that percentage.

Considering Australia’s contemporary electoral history, it is interesting how these current ‘problems’ have instigated immediate calls for reform, which would, coincidentally, aggrandize the power of the major parties,  while other anomalies in our voting system seem to have passed under the radar. 


 In the 1998 federal election the winner, the Coalition led by John Howard, won the majority of seats when receiving 5,413,431 two-party-preferred votes. Fair enough one might think, but that total happened to be over 200,000 fewer than the 5,630,409 of the loser Kim Beazley. This situation, due to the gerrymander effect, is not unique. These ‘alternative results’ have also occurred in the 1990, 1969, 1961 and 1954 elections, not to mention various state elections.

In that same 1998 election, the average number of formal voters for each House of Representatives district was 75,061. As only a majority of votes is needed to win, gaining on average 37,531 votes in a district would have been all that was necessary for victory. Throughout the country Pauline Hanson’s One NationParty accrued, in primary votes alone, twenty-five times that figure, 936,621 votes, yet still failed to win a single seat. In the Northern Territory election of 1974, the Country Liberal Party gained 13,690 votes as against the party with the next highest number of votes, the Australian Labor Party with 8,508. The CLP won seventeen seats while the ALP won the grand total of, none.

One Nation and Labor voters are not the only ones to be let down by the system. In the 2001 election 5,663,816 voters, whether they were Labor, Liberal, National, CLP or independent, were fortunate enough to get their first choice lower house candidate elected to parliament. Whether or not their party actually won the election, they were at least comforted by the fact that they were being represented in their local area by the man or woman of their primary choice. Unfortunately an even greater number,  5,810,235 weren’t. This, which similarly happened in 1998, meant that the average Australian voter was not represented in our House of Representatives, the most influential parliament in the land, by the person he or she truly wanted.

As was said in a Department of the Senate paper in 1999 on the 1998 election, “It is worth noting that in other, less politically stable countries, similar outcomes have led to popular revolution.”

There are democracies in the world where, because of different electoral systems, these problems can’t happen.  So do we follow the examples of other countries to fix the system? Well no, because to do that would mean the major parties would lose both seats and influence in parliament.

So what are we left with: a ruling party which tells us that gross disparity between different parties’ votes and won seats is not a problem, but when someone doesn’t know who he voted for because he didn’t bother to look it up, is; that in some elections when the average voter does not end up with his primary choice as representative there is nothing to worry about, but some party losing votes because their supporters were too careless to take an extra second to read the ballot paper, is; that when the most fundamental principle of an election, the party with the most votes wins, is violated, this is not an issue worth addressing, but when parties do deals in secret, even though the outcomes are made public, this is something that definitely has to be addressed.

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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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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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