Guest post by Casey Peters
A dramatic groundswell of discontent with Australian politicians led to the lowest voter turnout in over 75 years at the federal election held September 7, 2013. Not in three-quarters of a century has the participation of enrolled voters fallen below 93%. But the most recent federal election saw a turnout of less than 84%. While that would be an extremely high percentage in the United States of America or the United Kingdom, it was an extremely low voter turnout in a nation known for its compulsory voting law. Well over twice as many citizens shunned the polls than in any Australian election since the early 1920s. The total number of votes cast was below any federal election held since 2001.
The 2013 federal election for the Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia resulted in a skewed outcome that left millions of Australian voters voiceless in their own government. Nationally, the “Two Party Preference” [TPP] totals for the House of Representatives show a margin of victory of 7.22 % for the Coalition of the Liberal and National Parties over the Labor Party. TPP is the final calculation after all first preferences have been transferred according to the enumeration of preferences logged by each individual voter.
The 6pm tally on September 16 of the Australian Electoral Commission gives Labor 46.59% of the TPP and the winning Coalition 53.41% of the transferred total. That is due to a 3.61% TPP swing toward the Liberal National Coalition since the 2010 election that ended in a near tie and a forged government of Labor, Greens and independents. However, the new government’s credibility is strained as the total number of votes cast was down more than 15% from the 2010 election. In fact, the Liberal National Coalition received only a handful more votes in 2013 than it earned when it lost the elections of 2007 and 2010.
The expected seating from the 2013 election has an exaggerated result that is truly not reflective of the will of the Australian electorate. According to the official results, the Liberal National Coalition will fill 90 seats and Labor 55 seats, with other parties and independents allotted 5 seats. That distribution would give the Coalition 60% of parliament, leaving the Labor Party with 36.67% of seats, over 23% behind the Coalition that led the TPP by less than 7% among the clearly expressed wishes of electorate.
Official results allow only 3.33% of seats not aligned with either major group. Contrast this with the actual results that gave nearly 20.7% of all formal first preference votes cast to third parties and independent candidates for federal House of Representatives. For instance, 8.39% of Australian voters favored the Greens yet those voters are allowed only 0.67% of the total number of seats in the lower house of the federal parliament. The Australian electoral system has cheated most of those third party and independent voters out of the right to have their own voice in government.
Thus, over one-quarter of Australian voters for the lower house (17% are third party and independent voters, plus over 8% shortage of seats for Labor voters) go unrepresented in Parliament. If you calculate the numbers of voters who live in constituencies represented by candidates they opposed in the election, you will find that the number of misrepresented Australian citizens is considerably greater.
The newly elected Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, stated in his victory speech that “Today, the people of Australia have declared that the right to govern this country does not belong to Mr. Rudd (Mr. Abbott’s predecessor) or to me or to his party or to ours; but it belongs to you, the people of Australia.” Unfortunately, that is not true. The right to govern Australia is actually controlled by an outdated electoral system that does not produce a Parliament that mirrors the desires of the nation’s voters.
Australia has in the past been a leader for democratic reforms in its electoral system. It is the home of the secret ballot, an early implementer of women’s suffrage, since 1925 the world’s strongest advocate for requiring all citizens to participate in voting, and much more. The Australian state of Tasmania introduced its world famous Hare-Clark system of Proportional Representation in 1896. The Australian federal Senate has been elected using Proportional Representation since 1948.
Beginning in 1918, Australia has used ranked choice ballots that allow voters to express the order in which they support various political parties, slates and/or independent candidates without any risk of throwing an election to the candidate they like least. This system, known as Preferential Voting in Australia, is called the Alternative Vote in Great Britain, and in the USA has several names, most prominently Instant Runoff Voting. It is a highly regarded system for the election of individual officers, as it requires them to be elected by majority support without the delay and expense of administering a standard runoff election to achieve it. However, its use to elect legislators from single-seat divisions is a tremendous misapplication of this election method.
The most recent federal election in Australia, held 7 September 2013, provides yet another example of why legislators should not be elected from single member districts (at least without the proportionality producing counter-election as run simultaneously with single seat division elections in Germany and New Zealand, known as MMP for Mixed-Member Proportional). The problem with single seat constituencies is simple and straightforward. When a majority of voters elect just one legislator, the remaining voters in any given division (district) have no voice in the halls of their own government. The single seat system leaves a large number of voters represented only geographically, with no political voice in bodies that make the laws that govern them. The corrective to this civic ailment is in any number of methods known to political scientists as Proportional Representation.
Compared with the United Kingdom and the United States of America, Australia has a fair electoral system, but that is not saying much given that the UK’s and USA’s elections are reviled as among the most backwards and undemocratic in the world. It is time for the Commonwealth of Australia to once again provide meaningful leadership in the conduct of elections and the faithful translation of votes into parliamentary seats. New voices previously suppressed would be heard in debates about public policy. And governmental decision-making would have to be inclusive of all aspects of society rather than just those speaking for the powers that be.
Australia, long a leader in democratic reforms, now has the opportunity to show Britain, Canada, the USA and other countries the way to conduct elections and government affairs in a more representative and productive manner. It is time for The Land Down Under to extend its decades-long experience with proportional voting to the federal House of Representatives.
Various models for proportionality are in use in many countries. Geographically compact countries such as The Netherlands and Israel hold elections where the nation as a whole is one integrated district. Perhaps a more practical approach for Australia is to emulate the German and New Zealand model where single-member constituencies are retained and additional seats are employed to bring the body into balance so the commonwealth’s parliament will accurately reflect the expression of the electorate. The best bet may be for Australia to expand on its use of ranked choice ballots by using the well-tested Tasmanian Hare-Clark example to apply enumeration of preferences to multi-seat divisions, thus ensuring fair results through proportionality.
Such a substantial change will probably mean forging some future governing majorities by coalition rather than by distortion of election results. It would allow public policy to be decided by legislators debating on an issue-by-issue basis rather than by mandate of ruling party leaders. Adopting this more civilized approach to governance will secure Australian greatness in the annals of human history. As Catherine Helen Spence said, “Proportional Representation is the hope of the world.”
This article was written by Casey Peters, Executive Vice-President of Californians for Electoral Reform. It was written without the knowledge of an Australian organization to which readers in agreement with the general thrust of opinion are now referred. That is the Proportional Representation Society of Australia, whose website is www.prsa.org.au Please contact them for further information, or the author at firstname.lastname@example.org Permission to reprint and distribute this article freely is granted, with the proviso that the author be notified. Thank you.Follow @MigloMT