We need a fair electoral system

March 4, 2022
Graphic: Pixabay

The voting system in the lower houses of federal and state parliaments gives a disproportionate advantage to the major parties.

There is little analysis of the role it plays in politics, nor much exploration of alternatives. Most of us have no direct voice in government, even though we are told we do — every three or four years.

The proportional voting system in the upper houses provides some opportunity for minor parties to be elected. This is because to be elected to the Senate, for example, a candidate needs 14.7% of the vote, whereas to be elected to the House of Representatives, a candidate needs 50% plus one of the vote.

Fairer systems do exist, such as New Zealand’s Mixed Member Proportional system, where you vote for a party list, as well as having a constituency vote.

Since the voting averages are reflected by a similar proportion of seats in parliament, it means a fairer representation of smaller parties.

Why is there so little analysis of the flawed electoral system in Australia? Since both major parties embraced neoliberalism about 40 years ago, ideological differences between the two have narrowed and mainstream politics has moved further right.

Elections are decided by a handful of electors in a handful of electorates. These electors are either in swinging electorates or special interest electorates, such as the Queensland coal fields. Due to the way the system is stacked, it does not matter how the rest vote.

Some form of proportional representation system is needed. Multi-member electorates, as in the Senate and the Tasmanian lower house, are more democratic.

Scotland provides a clear comparison of the two systems: the Scots vote for two parliaments — their own and seats in the British parliament. The vote for the latter is first-past-the-post, which has led to a higher number of seats for the Scottish Nationalists. They have single member electorates, plus an added list system for their own parliament, which is akin to NZ.

A proportional system can mean that no one party wins a clear majority, which can lead to delays while parties cobble together a coalition. But hung parliaments are increasingly common, as major parties seek support from smaller parties and independents.

One of the two governmental options in Australia is already a coalition, with the minor party wielding a lot of power. 

The Tasmanian House of Assembly is based on multi-member electorates, using federal electoral boundaries to prevent local gerrymandering. Even though the Liberal Party and Labor have colluded to reduce the number of representatives, making it harder for Greens to be elected, most elections still provide a majority government, while also allowing minorities to be represented.

The biggest challenge facing the introduction of proportional representation in Australia is probably the fact that neither major party supports it: they do too well out of the current system.

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