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Two-party tyranny

By Klaas Woldring - posted Tuesday, 29 August 2006

The electoral system in Australia, based on the single-member district, is biased in favour of only two parties and makes the formation of effective new parties virtually impossible. It is also directly responsible for the dysfunctional factional system in the major parties. What a great opportunity for either major party to boldly propose proportional representation (PR) as the solution.

Those Coalition members who in the last of couple of weeks opposed the Government on the amendment to the refugee legislation would have been a lot happier if they were members of an independent, separate liberal party rather than the conservative Liberal Party of John Howard. There happen to be strong supporters of PR among them - as there are in the ALP.

Voters, often in desperation, sometimes settle for an Independent. There are now ten Independents and three in the federal parliament. Most continue to gather voter support but their power remains limited. It is a band-aid solution while major surgery is required.


Proportional representation (PR) is a highly democratic representative system, based on multi-member constituencies. It overcomes the many serious problems of the single-member district system.

First, representation is proportional to the votes cast for any party - a democratic principle in itself. At present nearly half of the people in any one district are not represented by the party of their choice. Second, PR does away with gerrymandering, pork barrelling, economic development occurring in marginal seats only, the problem of safe seats (neglect) and by-elections. It also stops the endless, grotesque overrepresentation of the major parties by the media.

PR would allow a much greater variety of interests to be represented in parliament: interests which don't have to ingratiate themselves with the powerful, generally conservative executives of the major parties.

Why are "minor parties" minor parties?

Minor parties in the current system are condemned to remain minor parties because Australia's electoral system grossly favours the look-alike major parties. The major parties don't want to know about PR as it is not in their short-term interest, but they like the idea of minor parties because their existence, however difficult to maintain, enhance the myth of parliamentary democracy.

Any political system needs fresh ideas to reinvent and revive itself. This is not happening in Australia, except to a small extent in the senate, Tasmania, the ACT and the NSW Legislative Council (all of which have PR). This has resulted in many incompetent, calcified two-party parliaments that have clearly lost the respect of a public that votes in the least offensive of the two options on offer.

The stand of a handful MPs against the refugee amendments has clearly been welcomed by voters as a breath of fresh air in the national parliament. And it was, even though political careers were no doubt damaged. But what we need is a storm of fresh air.


The Howard Government attempted to reduce the diversity of parliaments further when it tried to remove the power of the senate in 2004, but backed off when the voters showed no interest. This followed the successful reduction in diversity in Tasmania by the attacks on the PR system there, adversely affecting the Greens.

The NSW Parliamentary Elections Act Amendment (1999) has made it much more difficult for minor parties to contest upper house elections. This trend reduces diversity of representation and encourages less transparency and more dishonesty in preferencing. The two-party tyranny is a reality.

Glorification of the advantages of the two-party system is common practice by newspaper editors and populist radio reporters, who warn the public of the instability which PR would bring about by pointing to the minority examples of Italy and Israel.

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About the Author

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

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