Let’s be frank: our electoral system is pretty poor. It’s not nearly as bad as the US or the UK’s, but should the standard of democracy really be ‘not as bad as that guy’? Steps were made to rectify this earlier in the year, with the Senate vote reform bill changing how we vote for Senators. Parties no longer have the power to decide where preferences flow – a system that allowed Senator Ricky Muir (Motor Enthusiast Party Victoria) and initially Wayne Dropulich (Australian Sports Party WA) to win seats in the Senate despite receiving less than 0.5% of first preferences. If, under a fair and democratic system, voters had chosen to send their preferences towards these two candidates there would be little to complain about; but that was not the case. Instead it allowed micro parties to form alliances in which they would share preferences to benefit themselves rather than reflect what the voter wanted – a frankly gross and undemocratic abuse of voters’ trust. Under the new system voters will be able to distribute their preferences above the line, something they could previously only do below the line (and would be required to fill out over 100 boxes), as long as they number at least 6 boxes. This is surely an improvement and allows voters a greater say in their how their vote is distributed. But, there are still problems.
If you choose to only number the minimum of 6 boxes (or 12 below the line), you run the risk of exhausting your vote – a situation wherein your vote is no longer counted. While some would argue this is the voter’s right if they don’t believe any of the other candidates are worth supporting, it’s not quite as simple as that. The exhaustion of votes would mean more Senators would be elected while being under the required quota (which to be fair, happens already but not as drastically), again allowing groups that did not receive the voter’s nod their preferences to be elected. So either we need to make the minimum boxes checked higher or require voters to number all the boxes like we do in the House. These reforms smack more of a response to the threat of micro-party alliances – something quite evident in the government’s rhetoric – rather than an actual desire for democratic reform. Our reforms shouldn’t be reactions to threats to the major parties, but rather a tool to create a more accountable and representative system.
The House of Representatives is not free from scrutiny either. Any opinion poll will tell you that there are only really two parties that are likely to form government: Labor or the Liberals. However, looking back to the hung parliament of 2010, we had a fully functioning government operating with the support of Independents. So to assume government would break down and chaos ensue is rather pessimistic – and with our revolving door of Prime Ministers, can one say the current system is doing any better? Currently we see parties receiving a share of seats that does not accurately represent their support among voters. The Greens, for instance, received 8.65% of the primary vote in 2013, yet only gained 1 seat in the lower house. Surely this is not democratic? A party with that share of the votes should at a minimum be receiving 12 seats. At the other end, the Coalition received a 45.55% share of the primary vote and nabbed 90 seats, a majority of 60%.
If we were going to be realistic and fair with our electoral system we would make it so that our voting system actually yields results that represent what the people have voted for. Sure this might mean we don’t have a single party government – but is that really so bad? The controversial University fee deregulation bill passed the House but not the Senate simply because the Coalition (which is practically a single party at this point) did not hold a majority in the Senate, rendering them unable to pass it. Yes this may slow down the legislative process some – but in many areas bills often pass both houses without much resistance and it is only the controversial bills that are held up, debated and, in some cases, blocked by the Senate. Surely these are the sorts of bills we would prefer be more thought out and debated? So why not adopt a proportional system like that seen in Europe and truly represent what voters have voted for?
Actual progressive electoral reform could see benefit to all parties involved, major and micro alike, as well as fulfil the principles we require of the houses. We can maintain our representative electorates for the House of Reps, so this would mean you keep your local member, and we can create the proportionality through top up seats, that would make the numbers of votes won proportional to seats won. Our Senate would remain the State’s house with Senators being elected by and representing the entirety of their state. All this would really mean is that your vote matters more and parties have to be more receptive to the wants of their electorate.
Instead of employing reactionary reform to weaken our democracy, why don’t we create a fairer, more representative system?
Words by Mike Anderson