Change the electoral system and end adversarial politics

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To break free of our destructive adversarial political culture, Australia should adopt a European style proportional representation voting system, says Dr Klaas Woldring.

There is much to be praised in Australia today but a country is only as strong as its weakest link.  

The political system and the Australian Constitution are problem areas. Thinking of updating the Australian Constitution has hardly been possible, the latest update going back to 1977, when the party system was finally recognised.

At present, two constitutional changes are before the federal Parliament:

  1. removing clauses to remove discrimination against Indigenous people (long overdue); and
  2. recognition of local government in the Constitution, first unsuccessfully attempted by the Whitlam Government in 1974. Both proposals face difficulties.
Section 128, prescribing the constitutional amendment procedure, requires a double majority for a referendum to be carried. This has proved to be a formidable barrier for updating a Constitution that, in the late 1890s, was aimed to be both democratic and flexible.

Furthermore, the right to initiate a constitutional amendment lies exclusively with the politicians in Australia — a serious handicap. The existing system is based on two adversarial parties as if there are still only two sides of politics. Concurrence between these parties on anything is hard to achieve. The four failed constitutional referendum proposals in 1988 demonstrated that abundantly.

However, frequently not mentioned as a huge barrier is the single-member electoral district system that grossly favours the major parties. It is virtually impossible for smaller parties and Independents to get a foothold in the House of Representatives. The Commonwealth electoral acts of 1918 and 1924 cemented this system in place. Almost all of the compulsory preferences end up with either major party. Unless these major parties agree on a constitutional amendment it will be futile to put it to the people. Agreement is so rare that only 8 out of 44 proposals have been accepted. Many other sensible proposals have simply never made it to the referendum stage.

The key to unlocking the potential for a new political culture is a major change to the electoral system. This would at the same time create a political climate that actually favours constitutional change. An understanding could develop that the Constitution has to be rewritten altogether.

There are several other reasons why a new electoral regime would remove the weakest link(s). Australia needs a much greater, constructive diversity of political interests. Instead of petty, destructive, adversarialism, a search for common ground would emerge —a healthy development. The introduction of proportional representation (especially the open party list system) would enhance a diverse political culture that would renew the trust and inspire the voters. Much has changed in Australian society in the last 110 years but the political system has not. Contrary to what some theorists argue – that a paradigm shift requires a complete breakdown of the old order – there are several national examples of where major constitutional change has been initiated and achieved in circumstances of relative calm and reflection. Recent examples are Sweden, Finland and, to some extent, Canada. Australia can do this as well. It would seem that the opportunity and the right time is now. The awareness of the sickness in Australia’s political system is growing.

In most other representative democracies, a number of parties seek co-operation to form majority government. It is refreshing to gain just a glimpse of that in Australia now with the "Hung" federal parliament, but unless there is concerted action now to change the electoral system we may soon be back in the full adversarial mode. Australia can do a lot better, but this drive must come from the people.

Proportional representation is based on multi-member electoral districts, say, five, seven, and nine, even 12. This provides much greater opportunity for smaller parties and Independents to achieve quotas and be elected. Roughly, a quota is the total number of voters divided by the seats to be filled, plus one. The result is a more diverse legislature that reflects diverse interests so that there are not just "two sides of politics" — in itself a very dated and inadequate concept. Governments are mostly formed through coalition, after the election, resulting in multi-party government. Usually, the larger parties match up with smaller ones to gain workable majorities on the most important public policies. There is considerable flexibility and coalitions can be changed without new elections.

In Europe, 21 of 28 countries use proportional representation — including Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland.

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 New Zealand, with over 80 per cent of these systems being ‘‘party list’’. What this means is that the political parties present a list of candidates and the voters place one mark next to the party and a particular candidate (at the same time) to indicate the preference for their party and the candidate.

However, proportional representation (P. R.), as used in the Senate, in state upper houses, Tasmania’s lower house and the ACT, has often given rise to much confusion. P. R., always based on multiple-member electoral districts, has great advantages but not always as it is applied in Australia. The reason for that is the P.R. system here is of the Hare-Clark variety, which is based on a preferential (transferable) vote (STV). European P. R. systems are much simpler than Hare-Clark, as they are based on Open Party Lists. The task of the voter is very easy: to mark his/her preferred party and, at the same time, a preferred candidate on its list of candidates, with just ONE vote. Candidates need to achieve a quota to be elected. The system results in multiple party parliaments and, often, coalition government. It is cooperative in nature, instead of adversarial, and ensures diverse and democratic representation. No votes are wasted; there are no by-elections, no pork barrelling and no horse-trading on preferences behind closed door. Counting votes is fast. Its simplicity is the very opposite of what most upper houses here experience now: a very strong rejection of preferential voting.

Klaas Woldring is a retired A/Prof of Southern Cross University and the Convenor of Republic Now! (http://www.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia License
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