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02 August 2015
By Matt Hrkac

A case for electoral reform

There is often talk among advocates of electoral reform in Australia in favour of reforming Australia's electoral system. The case, when it comes to the House of Representatives, is often to replace the preferential voting system with a first past the post electoral system or, to a lesser extent, replacing the current single-member constituency system with some form of proportional representation. When it comes to the Senate, advocates for electoral reform almost always universally speak of replacing group voting tickets with optional above or below-the-line preferential voting.

Doing away with Senate group voting tickets

This is something that I definitely support, which would effectively force people to number boxes in sequence below the line or above the line. Although I do support political diversity, this diversity should be represented legitimately. Some would argue that they do get in legitimately under the current rules – which given that is the case; it is the rules that need changing.  

It is ridiculous that candidates can be elected with a minimal percentage of the overall vote, and win on preference deals that the voters have absolutely no control over.

Of course, there are situations where there can be upwards of 90 boxes to number corresponding to the number of candidates standing for a particular election. However, doing away with group voting tickets, where there are often political parties formed for the express purpose of funnelling preferences to their primary affiliate party, the number of parties and candidates contesting any one election would be reduced; leaving, by and large, only parties and candidates who are values-based, as opposed to parties existing for the sole purpose of funnelling preferences, and would significantly reduce the size of the ballot paper to something that is more manageable.

Furthermore, introducing optional preferential (or part-preferential) below-the-line voting (which is already the case in Victoria), where voters would only need to number boxes corresponding to the number of seats up for election, combined with doing away with above the line group voting tickets, would also effectively put preferences in control of the voters without the need for introducing a minimum threshold.

Status: Being proposed by the government and likely to be supported by the Greens.

Above the line Senate preferential voting

As it currently stands, voters can only number 1 box above the line, or number from 1 to last every single box below the line.

If we didn’t want to do away with above the line voting and group voting tickets altogether, another method of putting preferences in control of the voters would be forcing voters to preference each group ticket from 1 to last above the line, instead of just putting a '1' in a single box.

This can, of course, be combined with optional preferential voting below the line, as described above. Going about reform in this way would effectively kill off any so-called 'preference whispering' between the smaller parties. Of course, this adds a new dynamic of parties and candidates indicating preferences on how to vote cards as they do in the House of Representatives – but this system is a lot fairer for voters as it puts the voters in greater control of their vote.

Status: Being proposed by the government and likely to be supported by the Greens. 

Senate thresholds for election

Another school of thought with regards to Senate reform involves setting a minimum vote threshold, say 4% of the vote, that a group or candidate must receive in order to be elected and represented. Any group or candidate to fall below the threshold in a particular election would automatically be ineligible for election, and would have their preferences distributed to those who do achieve above the minimum threshold.

This would certainly, right off the bat, have the effect of discouraging microparties established for the sole purpose of funnelling preferences to each other from contesting elections. However, this would also have a negative impact on the smaller values-based parties - as the only parties that regularly achieve more than 4% of the vote in any one state are the Liberal Party, Labor and The Greens.

Perhaps establishing thresholds for election would be taking it a step too far - as simply putting voters in greater control of their preferences by introducing above-the-line preferential voting and/or below-the-line optional preferential voting, as explained above, would be enough to discourage microparties from contesting elections for the sole purpose of funnelling preferences.

Status: Not on the table, but some have advocated for thresholds for election as part of voting reform..

Doing away with the Senate altogether

Abolishing the senate completely is often a fringe view in the context of electoral reform, and is often advocated for by those who don’t want any opposition or third party review to their preferred party’s policies.

Realistically, abolishing the Senate would only be viable in a context where the House of Representatives voting system is radically reformed; where it would be more difficult for any one party to win and hold an absolute majority on their own on the floor of the house.

Likelihood of seeing this change implemented: Highly unlikely... At least any time soon.

House of Representatives first past the post voting

Changing the preferential single member constituency voting system in the lower house to a first past the post system, as akin to the voting systems of the United Kingdom and the United States, would be a poor way of going about reform as the first past the post method fails to represent the will of the majority of the electorate.

Take for example you have an electorate where there are three candidates: One candidate is a Liberal, the other is from Labor, and the third is from the Greens. Naturally, the Left-leaning vote will be split between the Labor candidate and the Green candidate, who combined, may poll more than the Liberal candidate; whereas the Liberal candidate polls more on their own than either the Labor candidate, or the Greens candidate.

Sample electorate – first past the post result for a single constituency:

The result is a Liberal win, despite the fact that more people voted for Left-leaning candidates. This is where first past the post is flawed, and where preferential voting fills this gap.

Sample electorate – full preferential result for a single constituency:

In contrast, in our current preferential voting system, a majority of Greens voters wouldn’t preference the Liberal candidate ahead of the Labor candidate, nor would a vast majority of Labor voters’ preference the Liberal candidate ahead of the Greens candidate.

This swapping of preferences in the above scenario would be enough to deliver a gain for the Labor candidate and thus would represent the will of the electorate – a majority of whom voted for Left-leaning candidates; and the electorate got a Left-leaning local member.

Another major drawback with regards to the first past the post system is that it favours the big parties and disadvantages smaller parties and independent candidates. This is evident in the United States and to a lesser extent, the United Kingdom, as in this voting system, people are often reluctant to vote for a smaller party that has no chance of winning out of fear that they would be returning their local member that they don’t want by splitting the vote between the bigger party and the smaller parties. This effectively stifles electoral competition.

Status: Very highly unlikely to happen.

We have determined that introducing a first past the post system would be a bad move. If we were to reform the lower house voting system, what is the answer?

Proportional representation in the House of Representatives

The only viable way to completely do away with preferential voting in single member constituencies is to replace it with proportional representation in multi-member constituencies. This is a voting system practiced in a number of countries around the world, and it is by far the best way in ensuring that voters are fairly represented and is easily the most democratic of all voting systems, due to the fact that the number of seats that a party wins corresponds with the percentage of the vote the party receives in a particular election.

Just like it is unfair for people to manipulate the system, even though they are working within the rules, to be elected with a miniscule amount of the vote; it is also unfair that some parties are more disproportionally represented than others – that a party with a smaller percentage of the vote can have more representatives elected than a party with a greater share of the vote. Proportional representation, by and large, solves this.

In its most basic form, in a proportional voting system, if a party or group gets an over certain percentage of the vote, deemed a minimum or a threshold, that party or group are entitled to that same percentage of seats in Parliament. For example, if a party gets 10% of the vote, that party is entitled to 10% of the seats in Parliament.

Sample electorate – results under a proportional voting system electing members to 150 seats.Results assumes an at large national electorate.

Of course, proportional voting on its own has its drawbacks in that it puts non-partisan independents at a grave disadvantage, but it also doesn’t favour the big parties at the expense of smaller parties.

Some states and territories, namely being the ACT and Tasmania [ref], already use a form of proportional representation known as the Hare-Clark System to elect lower house members at the state/territory level in multi-member constituencies, and numerous local councils in Australia also elect members using proportional voting tickets and multi-member wards. The upper-houses of each state also elect members via proportional representation and group voting tickets, similar to the Senate.

What about local members and constituencies?

Should the House of Representatives be reformed to adopt proportional representation; it is possible to still have single member electorates; in that, the proportional system is supplemented by the existing preferential single member constituency system. This is known as the Mixed-member Proportional (MMP) system. [ref]

 Assuming that in the process of adopting proportional voting in the House of Representatives would also lead to the abolition of the Senate, it would be possible to create additional seats in the House of Representatives, say increasing the number of seats to 300 from 150, and have half of the House of Representatives elected via proportional voting of party lists, and the other half elected from single member constituencies via preferential voting.

Such a model would follow a process similar to New Zealand – voters are given two ballot papers; one to vote for their preferred party, which is counted as a national total, and the other to vote for their local member to represent their constituency. To have its representatives elected, a party would need at least 4% of the party vote, or win at least one constituency. Explained more simply:

  • Scenario: Party polls more than 4% of the party vote, but doesn’t win a constituency.
    Result: Party is entitled to that percentage of party list seats in parliament.
     
  • Scenario: Party polls less than 4% of the vote, but wins at least one constituency.
    Result: Party is entitled to that percentage of party list seats in parliament.
     
  • Scenario: Party polls less than 4% of the vote, and fails to win at least one constituency.
    Result: Party is entitled to no party list seats in parliament.

Sample electorate – results of a combined constituency (preferential) and proportional system electing a total of 300 members. List seats assumes an at large national electorate. (detailed constituency totals are considered separate and are not shown below).

This would make the House of Representatives, more representative, while keeping the best of the previous system in place.

Status: Greens support proportional representation in the House of Representatives, but is very unlikely to happen any time soon.

Final conclusion

Yes, there is definitely an argument for electoral reform, especially in the Senate. However, electoral reform cannot happen just for the express purpose of disadvantaging smaller parties, as some would advocate for. As much as the two major parties and their most devout of supporters hate it, representation from smaller parties in parliament helps to keep the majors in check and accountable.

Any opportunity to make it harder for any one party to win an absolute majority in the parliament, such as the adoption of a proportional system, or introducing the proportional system to supplement the existing preferential voting system, should be looked into and strongly considered.

About the author:

Matt Hrkac is a writer and photographer based in Geelong. He has particular interests in politics, elections, social movements and the trade union movement.

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