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Politicians' self-interest denying us adequate representation

By Philip Lillingston - posted Thursday, 19 May 2022

With the upcoming federal election many Australians are dreading the usual associated media ads (most of which ultimately paid for by the taxpayer), party flyers congesting their letter boxes, and unwelcome approaches by supporters at shopping malls, and even front doors, eliciting support. What makes things even worse is that the average size of a local electorate is now 170,000 people, thus ensuring that you will probably never even meet your eventual representative, unless per chance you have urgent need to, and in such a case the time afforded will obviously be limited.

But this was not always the case. At the time of federation the Constitution granted us 75 lower house representatives (MHRs), being a local MP for approximately every 50,000 inhabitants, with the facility to increase that number as our population grew. Increases did happen, but only until 1984, and from then increases in population have unfortunately meant larger electorates and a resultant ever-diminishing connection between the voter and their MP.

So why have we not had an increase in MPs commensurate with our population increase? The answer does not reveal most of our politicians at their best.


When increasing the number of MHRs, governments must abide by Section 24 of the Constitution, which mandates that the number of Senators must increase proportionally. So, more MHRs mean there must also be more Senators, and that's where 'the problem' lies. It is all about Senate quotas. The more senators' seats up for election, the lower the quota; the lower the quota, the less preferences play and thus the fewer exhausted votes, (wasted votes); the fewer exhausted votes and necessary preference swaps, the greater chance for minor parties and independents legitimately winning seats, thus denying the major parties their duopoly.

In the 2019 election for the Senate, the micro parties and independents together won 24% of the vote which, due to the high quota of 14.28%, translated into winning only 5% of the available seats. The remaining 95% eventually ending up with the major parties due to exhausted votes and preference deals. That 95% of the seats for only 76% of the vote is a perquisite the major parties are hardly going to surrender without a fight.

In 1967 during an address to the nation, then Prime Minister Harold Holt implied that 85,000 people should be the optimum size of an MHR electorate. This is roughly the same as in Canada and Britain, although twice the number for New Zealand, at 40,000.

Now if that suggestion, which was still well above what our founders envisioned, was followed through today it would mean we would have to double our number of electorates. And following through because of S. 24, we would also have to double the number of Senators representing each state, from 12 to 24. The quota then for a half-senate election would drop from 14.3% be 7.7%, and for the occasional full senate election to 4%, a figure to terrify the major parties.

So have our honourable major party politicians ever initiated anything to solve this problem of decreasing representation? They certainly have.
Bipartisan legislation was passed in 1967 to authorise a referendum for changing the constitution to remove that 'troubling' nexus of Senate / H.O.R. numbers, S. 24, whereby House numbers could then increase while Senate numbers remain frozen.

Reasons given spoke of the House needing a "flexible future" and that the Senate's "effectiveness does not depend upon increased numbers." Not surprisingly, one reason they did not give was that in future double dissolutions an unexpanded Senate would give little opposition to passage of House bills whereby otherwise it could have used its legitimate power to block.


Perhaps they suspected that this attack upon the Senate would not be easy to sell, considering many Australians, especially of the smaller states, liked their house of review, otherwise known as their 'states' house, and didn't want it emasculated.
So what would one then do to give the proposition some momentum for acceptance? How about seeing if you can give it traction by tying it to a very popular issue being put to the people at the same time, namely the referendum on Indigenous recognition relating two sections of the constitution.

According to the website Collaborating for Indigenous Rights, "The government [in 1967] hoped that support for the other constitutional alteration being proposed at this referendum, the breaking of the nexus … would increase by its association with the more popular alteration of clauses relating to Aboriginal people."

Fortunately for Australian democracy, the coattails strategy failed and while the Aboriginal question easily passed, the nexus didn't. So now, in the twenty-first century, we Australians are left with the dual problems of 19% of Senate voters being denied representation, and 100% of House voters finding it ever more difficult to have any meaningful contact with their representative. It makes one wish, come election day May 21st, that somehow both the Coalition and Labor lose in landslides.


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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

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

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