A vision for Australian democracy

| May 29, 2015

Australians feel increasingly disenchanted with the political system. Bede Harris says change can only occur if Australians overcome their political apathy and aversion to constitutional change and take the initiative to demand electoral reform.

As a constitutional lawyer my vision for Australia’s future is that our Constitution should reflect what most people mistakenly think we are – a democracy.

Our electoral system is monumentally unfair to voters. Inequity in representation is a well-known feature of single-member electorate systems such as we have. This is because it is the distribution of electorate boundaries, rather than the number of voters, which determines whether, and to what extent, parties obtain representation in the legislature.

Put simply, a party whose supporters are widely dispersed across the country but which does not have majorities in particular electorates will fail to obtain representation. The single-member electorate system also leads to dominance of politics by two parties, and to the ineffectiveness of any votes cast for parties other than them. The result of this is that the major parties have won an astonishing 99.1 % of all House of Representatives seats in the 26 elections held since 1949.

In 1990 the 11.4% of first preference votes won by the Australian Democrats yielded not one seat for the party – yet by contrast, the Nationals won only 8.4% of first preference but 9.5% of the seats in the House of Representatives, simply because of where their voters lived relative to electoral boundaries.

In 2004 and 2007 the Greens won over 7% of the vote but achieved no representation in the House, and when they won their first and only seat in the House in 2010, that was after winning 11.7% of first preference votes nationwide.

Even more disturbing for democratic legitimacy are the anomalies produced on a national scale, as the system allows a party to win power with fewer votes nationwide than the opposition. This is by no means rare, having occurred in 1954, 1961, 1969, 1987, 1990 and 1998.

Surely it is a fundamental principle of democracy that the legislature should accurately reflect the view of voters, that each vote should have equal impact no matter where it is cast? Yet these results indicate a system which seems almost purpose-built to deny fair representation. How can an electoral system under which the formation of government depends upon the geographical location of a tiny number of voters be considered fair?

Because it is the location rather than the number of voters that a party obtains that is critical to its electoral success, parties put most effort into campaigning and making promises in marginal seats.  So while 12 930 814 votes were cast in the 2007 election, the outcome was effectively decided by 8 772 voters in 11 electorates who, if they had given their first preferences to the Coalition instead of to Labor, would have handed victory to the former – and this in an election which, the allocation of seats in Parliament (83 to Labor and 65 to the Coalition) gave the appearance of a Labor landslide.

In 2010 the margin was even closer – 13 131 667 votes were cast, but had just 2 175 voters in two electorates voted for the Coalition instead of Labor (and had the Greens and Independents made the same decisions as to who to support in government), the Coalition would have won power. How can an electoral system under which the formation of government depends upon the geographical location of a tiny number of voters be considered fair?

There has been much comment in recent years of how voters are becoming resentful of, and disengaged from, the political system.  A reflection of this is the fact that an ever-increasing number of voters are venting frustration with the major parties by directing their support to parties other than Labor or the Coalition: In the 2007 election 14.5% of first preference votes went to minor parties or independents. This increased to 18.2% in 2010 and to 21% in 2013 – and this is despite the fact that a first preference vote cast other than for one of the major parties amounts, in most instances, to no more than a gesture to be made before having to make a reluctant choice between parties that can actually win a seat.

Despite this, the suggestion that we should reform the electoral system by adopting proportional representation meets with vigorous opposition, based on the erroneous argument that it leads to governmental instability. Yet a wealth of data from overseas refutes that contention.

The most comprehensive study conducted by University College Dublin academic David Farrell, indicated that whereas some countries (for example, the UK and Jamaica) using disproportionate single-member constituency systems produce long-lived governments, other countries using the same system (such as India and PNG) are afflicted with severe governmental instability. Conversely, while some countries using proportional representation (such as Italy and Israel) are prone to instability, others (such as Switzerland and Austria) have governments that are more stable than those in the UK or Australia.

In other words, the data does not support a causative relationship between proportional electoral systems and governmental instability. This is not surprising. It reflects the fact that a range of factors – economic prosperity, ethnic homogeneity and national character – affect politics in a country, and thus how stable its governments are.

Contrary to the idea that internal disputes are likely to cause coalition governments to fracture, coalitions have a powerful incentive to ensure that they endure, as voters are likely to punish parties which undermine governmental stability. In other words, there are both centrifugal and centripetal forces at work in a coalition, and it is wrong to assume that simply because coalition governments contain two or more partners they are inevitably unstable – as witness the fact that the Liberal / National Coalition has endured over the 43 years it has governed since federation. Why would coalitions between parties which were elected to a Parliament under a system which accurately and fairly reflected voter sentiment be any less stable?

Australia is not a true democracy – it is a Coalition/ Labor duopoly, with the electorate performing the role of a hapless tennis ball hit between them every three years. Is it any wonder that Australians feel increasingly disengaged from, and disenchanted with, the political system?

Proportional representation is right in principle. Its adoption would mean that governments would always represent a majority of voters. It would also enhance the quality of government by expanding the pool of political talent beyond those who are willing to join Labor, Liberals or Nationals – the only parties with which there is currently a realistic chance of having a political career, and whose current MPs surely cannot represent the best this country has to offer.

The major parties have not the slightest interest in electoral reform, given that it would signal the end of their political dominance. To them it is the very unfairness of the electoral system that is its key strength. So change will occur only if enough people realize how unjust the current system is and become motivated to do something about it. And therein lies the challenge: Australians need to overcome their political apathy and their aversion to constitutional change and take the initiative to demand electoral reform, rather than passively bewailing their dissatisfaction with the status quo.

The results of the survey appear in a book entitled Exploring the Frozen Continent – What Australians Think of Constitutional Reform (2014, Vivid Publishing, Fremantle). The research was funded by the Faculty of Business at Charles Sturt University.



  1. Max Thomas

    Max Thomas

    June 2, 2015 at 8:00 am


    Hear-hear! Bede. It would be interesting to read your views on how electoral reform – including proportional representation – might be brought about. Do you envisage 'wholesale' constitutional amendment with abolition of the states? Is there a case for building the initial framework of a future republic, perhaps to be established incrementally? And what of the Senate? Do you think progress could be made on electoral reform without referenda? The "Beyond Federation" group advocates 'tearing up' the constitution and strongly opposes what they describe as 'tinkering'. I understand that view; a plethora of minor amendments might lead to endless interpretation with uncertain outcomes and government being further removed from the people. On the other hand, the constitution does not appear to provide for its own replacement, so that course seems unrealistic. The founders made sure that change would have to be hard won. I agree that people need to do as you say in the final paragraph of your article. However, I would add that action needs to be based on sound information to avoid the pitfalls of political 'fashion'.

    • Bede Harris

      Bede Harris

      June 4, 2015 at 4:44 am

      Achieving reform

      Dear Max Thank you for your kind comments. Our electoral system could be reformed simply by ordinary legislation (except for the requirement that each State must have a minimum of five MP's irrespective of population, which would have to be removed from the Constitution). However I see electoral reform as only part of the picture, and do advocate a completely new Constitution. I published a book about this, called 'Freedom, Democracy and Accountability – A Vision for a New Australian Constitution' in 2012, which includes the complete text of a new constitution. In a nutshell I advocate proportional representation for the HoR (using the single transferrable vote system used in the ACT, Tasmania and Ireland to name but a few jurisdictions), the abolitioon of federalism (and thus of the Senate), very much increased powers on the part of memmbers of parliamentary committees to compel ministers and public servants to answer questions, a Bill of Rights and a Republic with an elected President whose powers would be codified in the Constitution. As to how to achieve this? Section 128 of the current Constitution would permit the adoption of a completely new Constitution, as there is no limit to how much of the current Constitution could be repealed by referendum. The difficulty is of course political, and such a project would take decades to achieve. But thinking strategically proportional representation is the best place to start (i) because the unfairness of the current system is so manifest that it should be possible to whip up sufficient public indignation to press for change and (ii) once a broader range of parties were represented in Parliament it would be easier to get constitutional referenda put before the voters. Best wishes Bede

      • klaas.woldring


        June 5, 2015 at 1:32 am

        New Constitution via section 128

        Hi Bede, I am delighted to read your comments because they are very similar to what the Group Beyond Federation have been arguing for several years and have recently explained in more detail in a book: Beyond Federation – Option to renew Australia's 1901 Constitution (dec 2014). Perhaps the fact that we both originate from countries other than Australia means that we see more clearly how frozen Australia constitutionally is. The strategic path we also agree on, electoral reform to proportional representation, abolish of federation and an entirely new Constitution achieved via section 128. The only significant point of difference, although not specifically discussed in our book, is the kind proportional representation that Australia should introduce. I am not a supporter of Hare-Clark as it is only suitable for small assemblies like local government and clubs where the various candidates are all reasonably well known. Hare-Clark originates from the UK, even prior to mid-19th century and prior to mass political parties. It requires a great deal of referencing which is cumbersome, confusing for voters and liable to manipulation as we have witnessed in Australia since 1984. The PR Party List system has much greater advantages and is used extensively in European countries as you no doubt know. clearly, the Australian Electoral Commission has also fallen down on the job of educating the nation about alternatives. I have pointed that out to them but the responses were plainly arrogant. Beyond Federation is planning a conference/workshop towards the end of this year or early next year. I'll send a (very) provisional program. We are hoping to attract some very well known people like John Hewson and Geoffrey Robertson and are now considering to hold it in Gosford. We do have you provisionally on our list of speakers. Yes, the Australian attitudes on this very important topic have suffered severely from very inadequate civics education. We do need a crisis for people to ask these very fundamental questions: How is it possible that we end up with this frozen situation? and with a government that fails so many tests? There are definite answers to these questions and they go to the heart of what we are talking and writing about. We have a lot of work ahead of us. It would help if the media came to the party, especially the public broadcasters! Klaas Woldring.

  2. Anti Cupiditas

    June 13, 2015 at 1:32 am

    On the surface & particularly in the academic mentality Democracy is just about the best society could wish for. Nice, warm’n fozzy. Enter harsh reality. In Australia for example we are dictated to by minority groups left, right & centre. Look at the judicial system, democratcic ? Don’t be ridiculous ! When is the last time we read/heard about a sentence to the satisfaction of the majority i.e. democratic agreement ? We have a billion Dollar industry to enable the shifties to play their game with impunity. The only time we hear of a big-wig being nailed is when he upset some high up yes-man bureaucrat or head of some shonky outfit.
    Look at Taxation ? Democratic ? Since when is the steep incline from corporate rates to individual tax a level playing field ? We do not have a Democracy, we can’t have one because the greed mongers will never permit it nor will Governments because it wouldn’t allow them to cover their incompetence with the money workers provide. I’m not just referring to the present outfit, all are as incompetent as the one they replace, the clearest example was the outcome of the last Qld & Federal Elections.
    The inccompetent politicians who found their niche in the tapayer trough by way of surrounding themselves with the majority of incompetent bureaucrats can not risk their positions, in other words Superannuations, by actually performing to the benefit of their constituents.
    Democracy in reality is one of the more sinister forms of dictatorship & considering the boat loads of reality & integrity devoid & brainwashed emptying the coffers, courtesy of vote-hungry political parties will so quickly worsen the situation in this country that many have not yet realised how far down the tube we already are. Yes, it is Democracy that brought all this on. Well, not really Democracy but that’s what it’s called in Australia.