Stop tinkering at the edges: Australia needs a bold move to proportional representation

Jan 22, 2021

The pandemic crisis forced Australia to seek national solutions for a specific health threat. This could be a prelude to seeking other national solutions and ending the oppositionist cultures that have damaged democracy.

The Federal Parliament’s Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters of the House of Representatives (JSCEM) recently issued a set of recommendations:

  • To maximise voter choice, compulsory preferential voting should be replaced by optional preferential voting.
  • To increase fairness and to reduce the luck of the ballot draw while minimising the so-called donkey vote, the Robson Rotation of candidates on the ballot paper should be introduced for the House of Representatives in tandem.
  • Voter ID should be introduced for all voters with savings measures similar to provisional votes. Likewise, all electoral enrolments, whether new or changes should require proof of ID.
  • The pre-poll voting period should be reduced from three weeks to a maximum of two weeks. Voters who choose to vote early should be required to explain why they are unable to attend on the day rather than it being a matter of convenience.
  • The Electoral Act should be completely rewritten to make it fit for purpose. A new offence of political violence, both physical and verbal should be introduced.

The Greens wrote a dissenting report stating:

“The majority report presents a vitriolic attack on democracy, and on those voices that the government perceives as threatening their business model. It ignores the numerous submissions calling for campaign finance reform and misses the opportunity to promote more rigour in claims made in political advertising. The Chair’s anti-democratic, ideological frolic is entirely unsupported by the evidence presented at hearings to the inquiry.”

The ALP commented:

“Labor is a strong defender of Australia’s compulsory voting system and we oppose the removal of compulsory preferential voting. Compulsory voting is the cornerstone of Australian democracy and is known to improve satisfaction with democracy. The Chair’s recommendation for optional preferential voting is a clear attack on compulsory voting at a time when we need it the most.” Furthermore, the ALP was very disappointed that there were no recommendations for greater transparency of political donations.”

Frankly, it is not an adequate set of reforms at all. The proposed changes suit primarily the politicians of major parties, especially the Coalition. The committee’s claim that Australia is a successful democracy is highly questionable. In my electorate of Robertson, 48% of the voters are in fact not represented by the Liberal MP.

Australia is a struggling democracy in need of real electoral reforms. The proposals are a further exercise in piecemeal tinkering at best. The surprising first recommendation of optional preferential voting can only be regarded as a step backwards if applied to the House of Representatives.

The JSCEM does not include any representation of the roughly 30% of voters who now vote for a minor party or Independents. This is the result of Australia’s Single Member District electoral system, a relic of the Westminster heritage.

Most newly independent countries in the 1960s and 1970s rejected this system and, again, after the abandonment of the Cold War in Eastern Europe. Australians know very little about the Party List system of Proportional Representation. It is quite unlike the Hare-Clark system of Proportional Representation, used in very few countries.
A real reform would be to introduce Proportional Representation – Party List, used in 89 countries including New Zealand since 1996. It is based on Multi-Member electorates. Parties gain seats in proportion to their vote. This is a very fair system, fairness being a key value in Australia society, misleadingly even mentioned by the JSCEM.

Larger parties would have to share power with other parties. One would hope that Australian Electoral Commission would point this out to the population and commence an education campaign. This Commission has the power to make far-reaching recommendations and could recommend real, meaningful reforms. Not only would it maximise real choice for voters but it would end the adversarial, combative, negative parliamentary system and culture, a major cause of the lack of trust in politicians in Australia. It would be replaced by the need for cooperation, to form coalitions after general elections, which would create a much more cooperative political culture. Australians have no experience with this, but it does exist in many modern societies and would suit the culturally diverse Australian society, also benefit women representation, which is still such a problem particularly for the Liberal Party.

With the Single Member District system “pork barrelling” seems to have become the norm, a serious consequence of that system. This is poor economic management. It involves much misuse of public funds. The dominant electoral system of Australia generates the potential for corruption by donations to the major parties. The state of NSW has again demonstrated recently, through Labor and LNP governments, the capacity for corruption. What about branch stacking? It is unknown in proportional election systems. When it comes to replacing MPs there are no by-elections. Candidates who just missed out at the previous election replace the departing MP. Gerrymandering is hardly doable in multi-member electorates. It is not known in such systems.

However, still the ALP does not recommend Proportional Representation – Party List as an alternative policy. Why not? This is where the political future of Australia lies. The ALP did introduce Hare-Clark PR to the Senate in 1949. Australians should proceed with major electoral system change. The Greens would benefit from this particularly. They now have one MP in the House of Representative yet in a proportional system they would have 15 on the basis of 10% of the total vote. That would only be fair. The ALP would benefit on account of its policy initiative, and an ALP/Green Coalition Government would be likely. The media need to take a lead in alerting the people to the renewal possibilities, including particularly, the ABC whose charter includes education. The media does not include much discussion in the way of major governance system change. The lack of trust in politicians is,  but why this is so and what can be done about it is missing.

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