How democratic are we?

| December 14, 2016

So long as the electoral system remains unchanged, we are condemned to an eternal alternation in power between Labor and the Coalition. That is not a democracy, it is a duopoly, as Bede Harris points out. So what is to be done?

Democracy means more than marking a piece of paper – otherwise North Korea is as much a democracy as is Australia. So how does one distinguish between democracies?

At its most fundamental, the purpose of democracy is to give each voter an equal say in lawmaking and to ensure that the law-making body accurately reflects the political views of society. As originally conceived in Ancient Athens that was easily achieved, because each citizen was a member of the assembly.

The challenge of modern representative democracy is to ensure that those objectives are still met. Unfortunately the electoral system for the House of Representatives markedly fails to do that.

Here’s why: Under any system based on single-member electorates, whether a vote has any effect on the composition of Parliament depends entirely on where it is cast.

This was shown most starkly in the 2010 election. 13 131 667 votes were cast, but had only 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.

So if you voted in a marginal electorate, your vote would have been crucial. If you voted anywhere else and you voted for a party which did not win in your electorate, you might as well have stayed at home, because your vote would have had no effect at all on the composition of the House.

Next, so far as fairly representing the political sentiments of the population is concerned, under our system the number of votes a party obtains is far less important than where those votes are located. A party may have significant nationwide support, but if it does not have concentrated areas of support it will not achieve the representation it deserves.

To take the 2016 election as an example, if parties had won the number of seats that their actual share of the nationwide vote entitled them to, the Coalition would have won 63 seats rather than 76, and Labor would have won 52 rather than 69.

Even more dramatic was the effect on minor parties and independents, who won 27% of first-preference votes but only 3% of seats. This is obviously massively unfair to them and to their voters.

Furthermore, because everything depends on where a party’s voters are located relative to electorate boundaries, it can occur that a party wins a majority of seats, and forms government, even though it obtained less than a majority nationwide. This happened in 1954, 1961, 1969, 1990 and 1998.

The system also leads to absolute political dominance by two major parties. So long as the electoral system remains unchanged, we are condemned to an eternal alternation in power between Labor and the Coalition. That is not a democracy, it is a duopoly.

This has negative consequences for the political process. It increases peoples’ disenchantment with, and disengagement from, politics. It also narrows the pool of political talent: Anyone wanting a realistic chance of a political career must join either Labor or the Coalition and tailor their views to one or the other of them.

Our electoral system is obviously neither fair to voters nor accurate in producing a Parliament that reflects the political views of society. So what is to be done? The answer is to adopt proportional representation, such as the Mixed-Member Proportional (MMP) system, used in Germany and subsequently adopted in New Zealand. Under this system, each voter has two votes, one to choose an MP to represent their electorate, the other for a party list. Half the seats in Parliament are allocated to electorates and half are drawn from party lists. The system requires that each party ends up with seats in Parliament in proportion to its nationwide share of list votes. So once the results in the electorates are known, a party supplements its electorate seats with list candidates to make up its overall entitlement.

Of course reform would be toxic to the major parties. To them it is the very unfairness of the electoral system that is its key strength. They would argue that proportional representation causes governmental instability.

Yet this is ironic, given that the Liberal/National Coalition has endured over the 43 years it has governed since federation. Why would coalitions between different partners, formed from a Parliament elected under a system which fairly reflected voter sentiment, be any less stable?

Contrary to the idea that internal disputes are likely to cause coalition governments to fracture, coalitions in fact have a powerful incentive to endure, as voters are likely to punish parties which undermine governmental stability.

Consider this: Since 1949, there have been 14 changes in Prime Minister of the United Kingdom (which uses single-member electorates) and eight changes in Chancellor of Germany (which uses MMP). Similarly, since introducing proportional representation in 1993, New Zealand has had five changes in Prime Minister, while Australia has had seven. So not only is proportional representation fairer, it seems to be more stable as well.


One Comment

  1. buzz

    March 4, 2017 at 2:24 am

    I write to you to highlight a

    I write to you to highlight a massive injustice to all Australian Pensioners that are trying to keep a roof over their heads. The injustice is the REVERSE Funding of Local Government via "" Rates Notices ""> I beg you to read the history of "" Local Government :"" then try to understand why "" Pensioners ' are paying "" Rates Notices ""….twice ( 2 )….!!!!!! Let me Please start with a little history. PLEASE. In 1974 & 1988 Australia held TWO ( 2 ) Referendums on Local Government . Both sought to make the third level of government LAWFUL . Both were rejected by the People. Also it must be noted at the outset, that "" Local Government "" does NOT appear in the Australian Constitution. Which is the Founding Document of Australia & its LAWS. Now while those above facts remain — HERE is the Question for the forum, Why can STATE Government in Qld have a "" Local Government ACT ???? Under the Federal law of Australia, such a ACT of Parliament would be INVALID on the Facts Above….. I ask because ALL Pensioner`s that have a roof over their heads are being asked to FUND a arm of Government ( Councils ) which is UN CONSTITUTIONAL ????? Rates take away a pension for a FORTNIGHT. Which means a pensioner goes to Prop up the wish list of a Unlawful body. ( The local Council ). leaving the pensioner with nothing to live on for a fortnight. A Pension is a amount of Federal Money $22804 per year. Which is meant for that person to survive on. It is NOT meant to be a amount to give by ANY Conduit to a Fantasy arm of Government. Pensioners must challenge this FRAUD. Local Government has become too BIG for Australia to AFFORD. All pensioners should be Rates Free. After all, that is what the Federal Constitution SAYS. I can send you facts & all the details to bring this FARCE to a end. FAST. Help me – Help millions out of Poverty. One injunction in the HIGH COURT of Australia will bring Millions out of Poverty. The facts are REAL. THE THEFT is REAL. During my research in the theft of the age pension by Local Government i came across some very interesting information. On the 6 September 2006, in the Federal Parliament of Australia , A Mp, Mr J. LLYOLD Moved a motion. It reads : 16 LOCAL GOVERNMENT Mr Lloyd (Minister for Local Government, Territories and Roads), pursuant to notice, moved—That the House: (1) recognises that local government is part of the governance of Australia, serving communities through locally elected councils; (2) values the rich diversity of councils around Australia, reflecting the varied communities they serve; (3) acknowledges the role of local government in governance, advocacy, the provision of infrastructure, service delivery, planning, community development and regulation; (4) acknowledges the importance of cooperating with and consulting with local government on the priorities of their local communities; (5) acknowledges the significant Australian Government funding that is provided to local government to spend on locally determined priorities, such as roads and other local government services; and (6) commends local government elected officials who give their time to serve their communities. I draw your attention to point ( 5 ). The Federal Government ADMITS to funding LOCAL Government. Has that is so, HOW Can Local Government be sending out "" RATES "" Notices to Pensioners to "" TOP UP"" the money they are getting from the Federal Government ?????? The "" Rates "" notice can only be a Reverse Funding of Local Government !!!!!!! . Some odd points : The State Government Pensioner Subsidy : WHAT ROLE at all do State Governments have with a FEDERAL Pension ?????? NONE. So why is that there ?? Why is there NO Federal Pensioner Subsidy Scheme on the "" Rates "" Notice. ????? Council Pensioner Remission : A direct ADMISSION that the owner of the property draws there income from the Federal Government. Which brings me back to : (5) acknowledges the significant Australian Government funding that is provided to local government to spend on locally determined priorities, such as roads and other local government services; So how can the Local Council be seeking to take away two weeks ( 2 ) Pension from the Pensioner to "" Back Fund "" the council via a "" Rates "" notice ????? Further information : The law is based around the Will of the People. In 1988 the people of Australia Spoke. That is the "" LAW". The people REJECTED LOCAL GOVERNMENT. Even if the Pollie class don`t like it. Pensioners are being MILKED of money meant to keep them alive. That is more important that the "" Dreams "" of Mayors & Councillors . No -one should have to pay the same account more than ONCE…. YOURS Kindly, buzz