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What’s wrong with single-member electorates - Part I

By Bogey Musidlak - posted Friday, 15 February 2002

The only way of improving the image of politics and politicians is to give voters a real say in who gets elected, something that the winner-take-all single-member-electorate system cannot achieve.

More and more voters are showing dissatisfaction with the way the political system operates. There has been a fall-off in the membership of a number of larger political parties as people have felt incapable of influencing decisions or become disillusioned for various other reasons. New parties are regularly being formed. The combined first-preference vote for the two contenders for government regularly falls below 80 per cent.

One Nation’s brief rise showed that voters may be prepared to embrace any route making their frustration apparent and having a chance of shaking up current arrangements. Independents, once elected, have tended to draw increased support, almost as though there was suddenly great relief about not being taken for granted.


Since 1995, there have been unexpected victories in Queensland, Victoria, Western Australia and the Northern Territory where voters may have wanted to punish governments without turfing them out, but could not find a way of achieving that.

What are the phenomena bringing about these evident levels of frustration?

Winning is everything

It has become a regular feature of campaigning to allege that the ‘other side’ will say or do anything likely to help get them into power.

Three or four years of initiating legislation and exercising executive power with the assistance of the public service certainly beats hands down the same period in opposition with the most meagre of resources.

What is accepted as the basis for deserving to be in government? Certainly not getting an absolute majority of first preferences because that is extremely rare.

Once upon a time, the Labor Party in particular preached that it was all about the majority of the two-party-preferred vote. In the mid-80s, Mick Young frequently asserted that with electorates of equal size whoever won most votes would win most seats. That has regularly failed to occur.


The Coalition won a majority of the vote after preferences federally in 1990 but fell well short of government in the face of the Richardson second-preference strategy. No apologies for the stroke of fortune, just as there was no real complaint in 1998 when Labor picked up more votes nationwide but was unable to crack a swag of narrowly-held marginal seats.

Bob Carr certainly wasn’t going to apologise for winning a majority of the seats in 1995 even though the Coalition, with huge rural majorities, had received greater overall support in New South Wales. Graham Richardson observed that these days 48.5 per cent is often enough for Labor because of the concentrated conservative vote in rural areas.

And in the Top End in 2001, Labor, so often on the wrong end of the electoral system’s vicissitudes, including not winning a single seat in 1974, went into government for the first time even though it had minority two-party-preferred support.

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This is part one of Bogey Musidlak's commentary. In part two he canvasses the "best ways to give voters a real say in who gets elected".

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About the Author

Bogey Musidlak is President of the Proportional Representation Society of Australia.

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