Klaas Woldring-electoral reform,who are the reformers?


Electoral reform in Australia is extremely important. The self-interest of the parties should not dominate it. I believe an entirely Independent Inquiry should be held about Australia’s electoral systems altogether, similar to the Royal Commission in NZ in the 1980s. There are also very major problems with the single-member-electoral district system, problems that have much wider ramifications than the voting system alone. The resulting two-party system has become an absolute negative in itself. Consequences for other governance systems are particularly disturbing and wasteful, e.g. amending the archaic Constitution has become almost impossible and is clearly avoided by the major parties for fear of failure or being “just too difficult”. Replacing the expensive, dysfunctional Federation, where the major parties are frequently in double adversarial contests, has equally become virtually impossible. Economic development frequently follows the path of development in marginal seats to boost electoral outcomes. If there is to be innovation in Australia it should first be in governance systems.

The current Senate reform will fix the gaming fraud, a positive feature of it, a major step in the right direction. But clearly this gaming fraud is a direct consequence of the Hare Clark system of proportional representation, which originated in the mid-19th century UK prior to the emergence of mass parties. It is definitely NOT suitable for large, complex societies in which mass political parties are principal operators. Australia’s obsession with preferencing is a hindrance to reforms. It is clearly not desired by the voters.

Since 1984 voters have consistently avoided using it. In the Senate voters regularly voted over 95% above the line leaving the possibility of gaming the system through the Group Voting Tickets. In the NSW Legislative Council a reform of this kind was introduced in 1999. The federal Joint Standing Committee for Electoral Matters (JSCEM) used it as a model in the May 2014 proposal for the Senate. However, the Optional Preferential Above The Line system in NSW still resulted in voters mostly voting above the line (about 80%) and still voting just for one party (also 80%) in one study by Green of the 2003 election. We should realise that the quota required in the NSW is about 4.5% (21 MLAs to be elected). In the Senate the quota is 14.3% (six to be elected). The Greens’ claim that the Senate Reform is similar is therefore incorrect. Minor parties and Independents in the Senate are clearly at a disadvantage now even though there could be much voter sympathy for the eight Cross Bench Senators. In a Double Dissolution several of them could actually be re-elected on account of voter sympathy and the half quota as 12 have to be re-elected, not six.

Those who argue that the current Constitution (Clause 7) requires Senate candidates to be directly elected, rather than by parties, will have to admit, again, that the Constitution is still a 19th century document that should be tested. However, a PR Open Party List System clearly favours the public choice for preferred candidates of their preferred PARTY. One could easily argue that this does not really offend the spirit of Clause 7!

Proportional Representation System –

Open Party List

European P. R. systems are much simpler than STV – Hare‐Clark as they are based on Open Party Lists. The task of the voter there is easy and effective: to mark his/her preferred party and, at the same time, a preferred candidate on its list of candidates, with just ONE mark. Candidates need to achieve a quota to be elected. Parties usually require achieving an entry threshold to counter too great a diversity. The system results in multiple party parliaments and, often but not always, coalition government. This is mostly a good thing! Flexible majorities are the result. The proportional system is cooperative in nature instead of adversarial, and ensures diverse and democratic representation. There are no by‐elections, no pork barreling and no horse‐trading on preferencing that the voters would know very little about. Counting votes is fast. Its simplicity is the very opposite of what is experienced here often with the Senate: a very strong rejection of preferential voting on account of complexity. Sadly one has to say that the persistent advocacy of P. R. (Hare‐Clark system) in Australia, instead of the Party List systems, has actually done the P. R. cause harm. Surprisingly, the Proportional Representation Society of Australia was found unwilling to broaden their range of P. R. systems to include Party List. Hare-Clark is simply not suitable for any society that aims to operate an indirect democratic system through political parties – common in most Western countries for at least a century. In Europe, 21 of 28 countries use proportional representation (party list), including Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Italy and Switzerland. Altogether 90 countries in the world use a proportional system based on parties, either as the main system or in some provinces or for upper houses. Only Italy has abolished it once only to reintroduce it five years later.

Where new constitutions were introduced in the past few decades proportional representation was mostly adopted and often enshrined in the constitutions such as in Portugal (1974), South Africa (1996), almost all of Eastern Europe (1991), and our neighbours New Zealand with over 80 per cent of these systems being ‘‘party list’’.

Introducing proportional representation can simply be done by changing the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918. No constitutional amendment is required.

Lower Houses

As for the House of Representatives and most state legislatures Proportional representation – Open Party List equally has much to offer as a replacement. The prevailing Single-Member-electoral District System, combined with compulsory voting and compulsory preferencing, has resulted in what could best be described as a two-party tyranny that is thoroughly distrusted by the voters. I will follow up with an explanation.

Dr. Klaas Woldring is a former Associate Professor of Southern Cross University and Secretary of the Australian Employee Ownership Association. He is th convenor of republican group, Republic Now.

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One Response to Klaas Woldring-electoral reform,who are the reformers?

  1. This is a welcome contribution. Thankyou. As with any significant reform proposal of our system of parliamentary representation there are other matters that need to be attended to concurrently. One crucial issue concerns the kind of republic we have already been since 1901. Another concerns the question of how the political parties (the major ones in particular, Liberal, Labor, National and Greens) have drifted away pragmatically from their own founding political commitments if not party constitutions. They no longer see a need to provide a clearly articulated explanation of their particular view of parliamentary democracy and just representation. They rely on opinion polls and “likes”. And the Greens have drifted into other populist waters away from calling for a system of just and fair parliamentary representation. The drift is persistent, without public announcement, avoiding discussion about the drift of political opponents since to do so would bring their own drift into focus. The major parties have become subservient to the beck and call of their self-defining elites, the Parliamentary members who succeed in getting elected after battles for pre-selection which regularly send new party members into disillusionment and resignation. In other words, policy development is no longer on the basis of an appeal to the electorate in terms of a shared commitment to a political philosophy – by allegiance to which one is also willing to lose an election – but by tweaking slogans in order to retain parliamentary power. Consider how public funded elections now are necessary to stave off the bankruptcy of these electoral combine harvesters and taxpayers pay for the tsunamis of rubbish that come through our letterboxes when an election is called. The task of political parties to properly contribute to civic education about the character of our system of public governance has been thereby lost and abused for decades. And so criticism is now even launched at political opponents in terms that allege they are “politicising” an issue. We’ve got a lot of work to do.

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