Peter Fry – Marginal voters in a few marginal seats decide our political outcome. NZ does it better.

May 26, 2022
NZ Ministry 2020
When Ardern won with a Labour majority, she still chose to give a ministry to the Greens to maintain a diversity in the government. Image: Wikimedia Commons

In this second article on the problems of our voting system I argue that the current election results may give the impression that our democracy is working well. But that ignores the enormous effort needed by community groups and volunteer organisations simply to achieve a parliament which only begins to approximate the needs and wishes of the bulk of the population.

Parliamentary electoral systems need to serve a variety of purposes. They need to give voice and representation to local communities. But they also need to give representation to the broad range of political views across many communities, so that the government of the country as a whole is broadly representative of the views of the population as a whole on a range of issues These views are normally articulated at national level by political parties.

In Australia the totalling up of the successful local candidates representing different political parties is what determines which party shall govern the country. This can seem obvious and simple to us but it actually allows the sort of disconnect between the wishes of ordinary voters and the actions of politicians which so many of us are complaining about.

In a previous article, before the election results became clear, I argued that Australia would be better served by an electoral system more like New Zealand’s, in which the political parties are represented in Parliament in proportion to the votes the different parties directly receive from across the country. But importantly, in adopting a system of proportional representation, New Zealand has managed nevertheless to retain the valuable local community representation which results from having MP’s elected primarily to represent their local districts.

The NewZealand constitution, which is a very modern late twentieth century system, achieves this double act by a very simple process in which the voter votes separately on these questions and after the successful electorate candidates are seated then the parties are allocated extra seats to be occupied by party representatives until the total numbers for each party in the house are in proportion to the party vote across the country.

Australia’s voting system is distorting and confusing in comparison. The voters choice on the suitability of the local candidate impacts directly on the ability of the parties to form government. But the suitability of the local candidate and the desirability of certain national policies may sensibly be quite different choices in the voter’s mind. And in reality of course they are quite different issues and should be handled as such.

And our single member electorate system requires the competing parties to concentrate their campaigns in ways which are quite alienating to most voters across the country. Major parties routinely focus on a small number of swinging seats and the campaigns and the results are often only marginally representative of the wishers of the vast bulk of the population. For instance the ability of governments to ignore for so long the wishes of the majority of the population regarding climate change.

In this election there has been an extraordinary breakthrough of more progressive candidates. Environmentally and socially progressive independents have taken a large number of seats from the Liberals, whilst Labor has increased its seat numbers by at least eight and probably more, whilst the Greens in turn have taken seats from both Labor and the Liberals

The breakthrough of the Teals and Greens could give progressives the hope that our electoral system can work quite well and that the two party system is finally breaking open to allow a wider range of more nuanced views in our parliament.

But some of the coverage of the campaign makes clear the sheer scale of the effort on the part of community organisations and huge numbers of volunteers required to effect these changes.

Many of the community organisations supporting the independent candidates long pre-existed and chose their candidates , as occurred in Cathy McGowan’s overthrow of the conservative stronghold on the electorate of Indi in 2013, widely seen as the original organisational model for these independent campaigns. And these campaigns were also able to attract large amounts of funding. Media attacks on these independent campaigns focussed on Simon Holmes à Court’s contribution but he claims it amounted to no more than 2% of the funds raised.

Whilst lacking the same scale of funding as the independents, the Greens also attribute their wins to huge efforts over a long time to build the same sort of community engagement. Greens successes and representation in local government around Australia built over the years are routinely under the radar of mainstream media.

It will be argued by some that this result shows that our democracy is working well. That all that is needed is that people recognise that democracy is not a spectator sport, it simply requires active participation.

But such large amounts of community struggle, with the specific targeting of frequently quite unrepresentative seats should not be required for a democratic system to be able to deliver a broadly representative outcome.

And in the immediate future we can expect well funded parties of the right to be targeting vulnerable marginal seats as the progressives have done in this election.

Fairer electoral systems exist, such as that of New Zealand as I’ve suggested, where all votes are of equal value – where political parties are not required to make large donations of taxpayer funds to selected unrepresentative swinging voters whilst ignoring the wishes and needs of the great majority in ‘safe’ seats across the country. This was the original complaint of the community leaders of Indi in 2013 and it still applies across Australia today.

A proportional representation electoral system in Australia could help to allow a less adversarial form of politics. In PR legislatures it’s normal for no one party to have a commanding majority so its required that party leaderships be able to negotiate and compromise, accommodating a wider range of views, rather than the ‘winner take all’ values that dominate Australia’s major parties today. This can change the political culture.

Jacinda Ardern brought Labour to power in NZ in 2017 in a minority government collaborating with the Greens to her left and the NZ First party to her right. But when Ardern won with a Labour majority in the last NZ election and was no longer in minority, she still chose to give a ministry to the Greens to maintain a diversity in the government. A very different political culture.

Peter Fry is a former ABC Radio documentary maker who is a member of the Greens and whose grandparents were New Zealanders. 

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