Politics Opinion

Putting the fork to pork-barrelling and branch-stacking

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(Cartoon by Mark David | @MDavidCartoons)

A record upswing in votes at the Federal Election in May for minor parties or Independents shows voters are abandoning the two-party system and the negatives that go with it, writes Dr Klaas Woldring.

A RECENTLY completed election study by Australian National University and Griffith University political scientists clearly shows the need for an electoral system that will provide democratic opportunity for fair representation. 

Almost one in three voters at the Federal Election in May cast a ballot for minor parties or Independents — a new record. Clearly, voters want change, they want to make their vote count. They are abandoning the two-party system.

However, these political scientists refrained from recommendations for change. Why? Is this not a function of political scientists? Presumably, that is left to the major political parties themselves. However, there is a problem here. They clearly have no interest in a change to proportional representation (PR) as it could well reduce the number of their MPs and that would require them to form post-election coalitions.

The PR system is common in 90 countries, including New Zealand, South Africa (since the mid-1990s) and Ireland.

Australians should reflect on this situation as it provides an opportunity to end the adversarial, combative two-party system. Fortunately, Australia has had some benefits from the Hare-Clark electoral system of PR used in Tasmania, the Senate elections (since 1949), state upper houses and the ACT.

These legislatures are essentially proportional in character, but the need for compulsory preferencing has long made it unnecessarily cumbersome, in fact, rejected by voters. In most PR systems, voters have one vote only (of equal value), but the voter can choose from several parties with equal chances.

Proportional representation does away with basically all the negatives of Australia's current single-member district system. Pork barrelling becomes undoable, branch stacking ditto and gerrymandering (U.S.) meaningless.

PR is based on multi-member districts which can vary in size. The single-district system, in contrast, does NOT guarantee democratic representation at all, although that is often claimed. The distribution in Single Member District seats can be highly unbalanced favouring one of the two major parties grossly over the other. That only happened in the UK quite recently.

Australians have had little experience with PR because of their distance from European countries, most of which use the PR system.

New Zealand adopted a variant of the PR system after an excellent exhaustive Royal Commission on the subject during the 1980s. It adopted a two-vote system – somewhat like Germany – which has been well received. Most New Zealanders have welcomed this change. Except for Italy – for a short period only – PR systems have not been abandoned anywhere.

It's worth noting that women's representation has fared significantly better than in single-member district systems.

Dr Klaas Woldring is a former associate professor at Southern Cross University and former convenor of ABC Friends (Central Coast).

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