Australia has a Government, but needs to consider electoral reform

The decision of Independent MPs Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor to support Labor has given Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard the numbers to govern.

Their decision follows those of the sole Green Party House of Representatives MP Adam Bandt and former Tasmanian Green Andrew Wilkie (who was elected as an independent) to also support Labor forming a government.

It was always going to be a no-brainer, because under the peculiarities of Australian electoral law, the election resulted in sufficient Green Senators being elected – the election to the Senate is under the somewhat more proportional Single Transferable Vote (STV) system – take office next July that a Liberal-National Coalition Government would have been incredibly unstable and unlikely to pass any controversial legislation.

There are a few lessons to be learned from the recent Australian and UK elections though.  Despite the claims of their supporters, non-proportional systems such as the Australian Preferential Vote (PV) and the UK’s First Past the Post (FPP) don’t necessarily deliver decisive and stable Government. And non-proportional systems can give completely excessive bargaining power to a few renegade electorate MPs when there is a close result between the bigger parties.

Some in the UK want to move to the Australian PV electoral system.  But the Australian election results show that doesn’t necessarily deliver any more representative democracy than the UK’s horrendously undemocratic FPP.

Meanwhile, here in New Zealand, we have MMP – a proportional electoral system that has led to stable government for the last 14 years.  It could do with a tweak or two, considering that NZ First got more votes at the last election than ACT, but NZ First got no MPs and ACT got five. That doesn’t seem fair (despite my disgust for the appeal to bigotry that underpins NZ First).

Australia and the UK could well look to New Zealand as a model for an electoral system.  Sure, it’s not perfect, but it is a hell of a lot better than they have, and it is flexible enough that we can still improve on it.  Maybe the Aussies and thePoms ned to look to how we do it.

10 Comments Posted

  1. It is somewhat surprising to see how reluctant Countries are to learn from Overseas experience on Topical issues.

    Kim Beazley won 53% of the popular vote in Australia’s 1999(?)Federal Election.
    Yet John Howard became PM.
    A small set of inner Sydney Seats (with largely redrawn boundaries) clinched it.
    And Howard was running on the introduction of a GST.

    The Labor Party there wanted someone (me!) to explain the NZ experience with this Tax – they were sure people would strongly oppose it if only they understood it’s ramifications better.
    They should really have sent a study group out here to build their position based on the real experience (didn’t do it).

    There are a whole range of issues which we could study in an effort to clarify best Policy.

    For example – NZ has plenty of precedent in Australia’s Decriminalization of Cannabis, to move forward with some confidence, learn, and do something more in keeping with modern times.
    Imo, the existing Huge Black Market surrounding this issue is reason enough to re-evaluate Policy.

    We have lots to learn – and the lessons are there; I support the Greens as I see them as comparatively pro-active in this regard.

    The old joke about the Qantas 747 Captain landing in Wellington (“Please set your watches back 100 years”)has some substance in that Legislation here seems to tail Needs by quite some way.

    MMP does not look enticing from a distance – this may have a bearing on the willingness of other Governments to take it up.
    Yet Australia has clearly needed Electoral reform for some 20 years.
    I suppose Politics regards any change in the light of it’s Electoral risk – yet once a Government falls far enough behind, it loses touch.

    I was an initial opponent of MMP – and it probably took a year or so (living here) to evaluate it properly – these days I regard it as a huge improvement on the old system.

  2. Yes, most recently Bush in 2000

    In saying that though, the other three instances in which the losing candidate got a higher number of popular votes than the victor were all in the 19th Century (1824, 1876 and 1888). I would also point out that in 1824, there were four candidates who split the vote which meant that Congress had to decide who the President was. In 1876, the vote was heavily disputed and Hayes was eventually deemed the winner by a committee (among the accusations was that in the three disputed states, Republican voters were intimidated and thus discouraged from voting – Hayes was the Republican candidate).

    Thus, of those three, only 1888 was really a clear example of the person getting the most votes and losing the election (interestingly, the election ultimately came down to New York – had Cleveland won New York, then he would have won the 1888 election).


    In terms of the discussion at hand, what about this for an electoral system – having preferential MMP. The way it would work is that you would be able to have a preferential vote for your party vote in much the way the Australians do for their electoral candidates. This would mean that minor parties would benefit immensely (people would no longer fear that their vote is being wasted because their second choice would benefit from the vote).

    If I were a libertarian, I might have the Libertarian Party for my first preference for my party vote, and then the National Party for my second preference for my party vote. If I were a communist, I might have the Communist Party for my first preference for my party vote, and then the Labour Party for my second preference for my party vote.

  3. For example, has a presidential candidate been elected with fewer popular votes than his opponent?

    Yes, most recently Bush in 2000. Fortunately there is a serious move afoot to make the Electoral College moot via the national popular vote initiative. It is up to each state how its EC votes are allocated. Six states have so far decided to change their method to award all their EC votes to the candidate who wins the popular vote. The only proviso is that it becomes law only when enough states pass it equal to or greater than the 270 EC votes needed to win the Presidency. Great idea and may even be in force by 2012.

  4. Sarah Harris,

    I’m also interested in other countries’ electoral procedures(we can always improve) and I’m curious as to how fair the ‘electoral vote’ method is. For example, has a presidential candidate been elected with fewer popular votes than his opponent? Most Americans I’ve discussed politics with seem uninterested in other political systems,your attitude seems atypical.
    Of course there’s always the problem of entrenched interests which will resist change,so I congratulate the Kiwis for successfully reforming their electoral system. In my opinion,the chances of reform here in Oz are negligible unless the Greens(who will benefit) manage to hold the balance of power in the House of Representatives as well as the Senate.

  5. I find the post an interesting read. As an American, I’m always interested in other countries’ voting systems. It seems no matter how hard we try, they are all flawed, but perhaps there are better ways of doing things then just “the way it’s always been.” I personally hate our electoral votes. They work in theory, but in practice they can screw up the general vote and that doesn’t make any sense. If the voting policies in NZ work better, then the UK and Oz should definitely give them a try.

  6. I agree, we should adopt proportional representation in Oz for Federal elections as it more accurately reflects the popular vote.Another electoral reform urgently needed here is the abolition of compulsory voting, a completely hare-brained idea.

  7. I guess there isnt a perfect political system.. but I prefer to stick with MMP.
    The British & Aussie elections have made two things clear to me :
    1) the two party system is not truely representative of a broad range of ideas..
    2) regardless of supposed ideologies, the main parties are so close to the centre.. they are almost indistiguishable.
    Centre left Vs Centre Right.. or just sit on the fence & get a sore A.

    Then again you can look to ‘minor’ parties like the GREENS.

  8. With your next-to-last para I found myself nodding, muttering could I agree more?

    Yet at the end it still came out of well, how about the inordinate power of several ‘elected members’. I don’t have an answer for that..

    Do you?

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