Major parties propose less democracy

Issue 

By Tom Flanagan

SYDNEY — The dust settled after the March 27 NSW state poll to reveal an upper house (Legislative Council) with 13 MPs on the cross benches. The Labor Party has 16 and the Coalition 13.

Four parties are represented for the first time: One Nation, Unity, the Outdoor Recreation Party and Reform the Legal System. Six minor parties have MPs with four years still to serve: the Shooters' Party, A Better Future For Our Children, the Greens, the Australian Democrats, Fred Nile's Christian Democrats and the Australian Small Business Party.

Before the election, capitalist media commentators, the Labor and Coalition parties, the Greens and the Democrats began making disapproving noises about the large number of new parties contesting the upper house.

Under the proportional representation system for the upper house, candidates need to win around 4.5% of the vote after preferences have been distributed, compared to the 50% plus required for a lower house seat. With 80 parties on the ballot, preferences played an important role.

The establishment press made much of the fact that three candidates were elected with votes of around 1% or less. These were Unity's Peter Wong, Reform the Legal System's Peter Breen and Malcolm Jones of the Outdoor Recreation Party. The ORP's first preference vote of 7,264 (0.2%) ranked it 30th in terms of party votes.

While this might seem a flawed result, preferential voting means that, while everyone's most preferred candidate will not be elected, the voter can still have some say in which other candidates are elected. In a preferential system it frequently happens that the elected candidate is not the one with the highest first preference vote, but the one most favoured by most voters. So, candidates elected by preferential voting are more likely to reflect the electorate's choice than those elected in a first-past-the-post system.

The Sydney Morning Herald editorial on April 26 stated that the upper house electoral system had "degenerated into a political farce". It argued that many of the cross bench MPs "will be prepared to exercise this unrepresentative political weight against the policies of the representative government in the Legislative Assembly [lower house]."

It is hard to see what the major parties and big business media are complaining about: in the upper house, Labor won 37.3% of the vote and 38% of the seats. The Liberal/National coalition received 27.4% of the vote and 28.6% of the seats. Other parties claimed 35.3% of the vote and 33.3% of seats.

In contrast, the lower house result does not accurately reflect the parties' level of support: Labor has 55 MPs, the Coalition has 33 and only five of the 93 MPs are not members of the major parties. This is the sort of domination the major parties would like in the upper house, but that can only be achieved with a less democratic electoral system.

The capitalist media supports the dominance of the two establishment parties. Their cries about low primary votes, preference deals and even the size of ballot papers are a smokescreen behind which they hope to convince people to accept less democracy.

Labor treasurer and government leader in the upper house Michael Egan was quoted in the April 26 Sydney Morning Herald as calling for the abolition of the upper house. The next day, the SMH reported that the state government is to introduce legislation requiring parties to be registered for 12 months before an election. It is also proposing to raise the membership required for a party to be registered from 200 to 1000.

These administrative measures are designed to prevent the election of non-establishment MPs. If the 12-month registration requirement had operated federally in the 1980s, it would have prevented the Nuclear Disarmament Party from standing in the 1984 election. The NDP's lead NSW Senate candidate Peter Garrett won 10% of the primary vote that year, but failed to gain a seat due to Labor and the Coalition preferencing one another ahead of the NDP. In WA, NDP Senate candidate Jo Valentine was elected.

The Labor state government faces no problem in getting anti-democratic measures through the upper house because the Coalition also supports them. Last year an alliance between the major parties reduced the number of MPs in the Tasmanian lower house, raising the quota of votes required for a candidate to be elected. The targets were the Green MPs.

As the credibility of the major parties continues to erode they will take more such action to shore up their undemocratic dominance in parliament.