QLD 2012: A broken system

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In my previous posts I examined the results of the Queensland 2012 election and what it means for the ALP to be so decisively defeated.

The defeat of Labor by such a massive margin raises other questions about how well Queensland’s electoral system represents the will of the people, and whether it will be able to produce fair results in a multi-party system.

Our single-member-electorate system tends to produce results in Australia that are not proportional, but still give a solid proportion of the seats in parliament to the defeated major party. While the winning party usually wins a majority of seats without winning a majority of votes, the other major party (counting the Coalition as a single party) usually wins enough to be able to form a credible opposition. The lack of proportionality falls hardest on minor parties, who are usually locked out.

Yet there is nothing about single-member electorates that ensures such a balanced result, with one party winning a solid majority, but leaving the party enough seats to function in Parliament and serve as an effective opposition. The distribution of swings can mean the same statewide result can produce wildly different outcomes.

This can be seen in Queensland, where Labor managed 7/89 seats on 26.6%, compared to New South Wales a year earlier, where Labor managed 20/93 seats on 25.5%.

A large part of the explanation as to why Labor was hit so hard can be found in the high vote for minor parties. The Greens and Katter’s Australian Party together polled over 19%, with an additional 4% for other parties and independents.

When large minor parties take a large part of the vote and fail to win many seats, the result is that the dominant major party can win a super-majority with about half of the vote. This is particularly the case when most of those minor-party voters choose not to preference, as they did in Queensland.

A single-member system can become much more severely disproportionate and produce more lopsided results when a large number of voters cast their ballots for minor parties, and then choose to exhaust, effectively taking their votes out of the race. Katter’s party polled 13% and the Greens polled 7%. While there was a small number of seats where these parties were in the top two, most of these votes ended up exhausting, taking a fifth of Queensland’s voters out of the game.

As long as there are two large minor parties, a large proportion of voters will be taken out of play, and as long as those two parties take a large chunk of Labor’s vote away, the party will find it hard to compete. Even if the party can win back many of its seats in 2015, it will find it very hard to return to a majority without working more closely with either of those minor parties.

If Queenslanders continue to vote in such large numbers (over 23%) for candidates outside the major parties, the issue of proportional representation isn’t going to go away. We will continue to see around a quarter of the voters barely represented in that Parliament, and if the voters that Katter’s party and the Greens have taken from Labor don’t go back to Labor as preferences, it becomes very hard for the ALP to build the numbers needed to win government. This is going to be a long-term structural problem for Labor in both New South Wales and Queensland.

I think it’s a mistake for people to focus on campaigning for a proportional upper house. It is difficult to explain why we would create a second, less powerful house that would be elected by a different system. If the current system is unfair, why not change it? Extremely lopsided results like this one can make the issue of electoral reform relevant for people who wouldn’t normally see it as something that affects their lives.

In 2001, the governing centre-left New Democratic Party was decimated at the provincial elections in British Columbia, only winning 2 of 79 seats in the Assembly. The new Liberal government held 77. The extreme result was such that the issue of electoral reform took off, and a referendum on electoral reform almost passed at a referendum in 2005, only failing due to a 60% threshold imposed by the government.

History of electoral reform campaigning in countries like New Zealand suggests that the issue gains power as minor parties grow stronger, and in different parts of the political spectrum. At the moment the issue of electoral reform in federal politics largely benefits the Greens. If a significant right-wing minor party was to emerge, the issue would have a much large base of support.

I don’t think Katter’s Australian Party are going to disappear overnight. Australia’s right-wing minor parties remain divided and scattered, with different parties in each state. As long as there isn’t a right-wing minor party with similar levels of success to the Greens, able to win ground from the Liberals and Nationals, issues of electoral reform and fairness will be confined to the left. If Katter’s party is able to replicate its success on a national stage, or could bring in people who have supported other small right-wing parties, it may well produce the kinds of results that usually force a change on this issue.

If Labor continues to have its base eaten away on the left by the Greens and on the right by parties like the KAP, the electoral system will become a long-term problem for the centre-left. If the issue is no longer seen as one that only benefits the Greens, we may see some real movement on it.

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28 COMMENTS

  1. Great to see another Green making the case against an Upper House and for PR in the Assembly. The short-sightedness and impracticality of The Serious People in the party on this issue drives me up the wall!

    d

  2. Another incisive analysis Ben, and one that needs to be raised widely and loud. QLD2012 demonstrates decisively that the single-member-electorate system is indeed broken and can in no way be held to fairly serve the public interest in the more complex and competitive political landscape we now have. Electing such a massively dominant governing party without an opposition with the numbers or resources to be effective obliterates the democratic process of government.

    What amounts to the disenfranchisement of over a quarter of the voters is so blatantly unfair is scarcely needs repeating, and fatally compromises any pretence of fairness or legitimacy in the system

    “Unbridled Power” as the resultant system of government was know in New Zealand until electoral reform was achieved, benefits nobody (apart from the few that exercise it temporarily). The most important legacy of the elected dictatorship that has just been installed must be the demise of the unfair voting system that created it.

    QLD2012 benefits nobody. Even the ostensible LNP victors are delegitimised by their vulnerability to accusations of Queensland now being a one party State, and the potential of such a large party room to become divided and unruly is obvious.

    Your last sentence says it all. It should now be abundantly clear that electoral reform is needed not just to allow for fair representation of minor parties, but to ensure a fair go for all parties and the survival of democracy.

    The question now is how long will we have to wait for brave thinkers within the ALP to speak up and join the call for electoral reform and espouse a vision of truly Democratic Republic of Australia?

  3. The minor party voters in Qld were not disenfranchised by the system, they disenfranchised themselves by allowing their votes to exhaust and removed from the final tally. If they had allocated preferences they would still have been part of the process after first preferences were counted.

  4. That’s rubbish Peter, even if those people had given preferences they still wouldn’t have elected any KAP or Greens MPs. Your idea of enfranchisement is that they can only choose between Labor and LNP. Not much of a choice.

  5. Absolutely. Nothing less than a “What You Vote Is What You Get” proportional electoral system will resolve the grossly unfair and distorted result Queenslanders will be forced to endure for the next 3 years. Politics in this country long ago evolved beyond a 2 horse race, and it is well passed time the electoral system caught up with this fact.

    Thanks again Ben, your post inspired me to publish this comment on The Age story below.

    The ALP was not all but wiped out for any reason other than the grossly unfair single member electorate voting system. It is this broken electoral system that cannot cope with the complexity of multiple parties, and desperately needs to be changed.
    Queensland has only been able to give an elected dictatorship unbridled power because a flawed electoral system has allowed it, and has left a fifth of voters or more with no representation. So much for a “fair go”.

    If Queensland had a Mixed Member Proportional representation system the result would be: LNP 46 seats, ALP 25, KAP 11, GRN 7, IND 2. Far from revelling in a landslide, the LNP would be humbly negotiating to back up a wafer thin majority on confidence and supply at least.

    Queensland would still be a democracy, rather than an inadvertently imposed one party State.

    As the ALP’s base is eroded from the left and the right by strong minor parties, this will not be the last time we see such an appalling result for all concerned.

    How long will it be before the ALP realises their future is on the line, and we see their Statespersons step forward and hear them speak up about the need to fix our broken State electoral systems?

    Read more: http://www.theage.com.au/opinion/politics/losers-turn-on-bligh-who-fires-a-final-shot-20120325-1vsii.html#ixzz1qBTTtbKk

  6. OPV has effectively become “first pas the post” given the “just vote one” campaigns run by Labor in the past. Another decision of labor in Qld (the other being the abolition of the upper house) that has given short term political gain but long term problems. Given the left vote is now split between labor and the greens (and arguably KAP in QLD rural areas) and the right vote has been consolidated by the merger of the liberals and the national parties OPV is now a major disadvantge to labor. Unless labor and the greens merge – unlikely….

    At least with compulsory preferential voting the candidate “preferred” by 50.1% of the electorate is elected thereby forcing the “left” and “right” votes to consolidate.

    I am not a supporter of proporional representation as it allows a minority to weild disproportionate power (eg Brian Harridine and Mal Colston in the Federal Senate or the NSW Shooters party in the NSW Upper House or the Nationals in the WA upper house). All of these “groups” have obtained special returns for their interest groups (and good on them for taking advantage of the situtiation they find themselves in) over what is best for the state / country as a whole. Of couse, individuals can also find themselves in this position under the CPV (see federal parliament) – New hospital in Tamworth anyone.

    It is better to have a Government and an Opposition and if the Government does not deliver then they get voted out at the next election. Of course with no check from an upper house in Qld there is no checks or balances on the LNP Governement. At least in 1974, the liberals and labor could vote together against the nationals to keep Joh in line. That is gone. “New-mander” any one?

  7. Good point on OPV effectively operating as FPP. Under the Mixed Member Proportional representation system in New Zealand (with 5% threshold to exclude extremist lunatics and silly parties like political Christians and Shooters), minorities wielding disproportionate power has not been a problem to date. The ability of the electorate to punish small parties behaving unreasonably by reducing their support below the threshold is a powerful constraint on political blackmail.

    A sensibly constructed PR system that allows for geographical representation balanced by party lists has worked well in Germany too, and deserves serious consideration in Australia to prevent repetitions of QLD 2012.

  8. The Electoral and Administrative Review Commission set up by the Goss Government to review the electoral system in Queensland it is said may have only voted not to recomend PR by 3 votes to 2.

    http://www.prsa.org.au/earc/index.html

    Imagine Qld electoral history in the 2 decades since if the vote had gone the other way and it had then been adopted.

  9. I’m less certain electoral reform will ever be on agenda, despite the grossly distorted parliament this result has produced. Few media commentators (apart form the usual suspects like Ben here) have managed to make any sense of the Qld result. If you say to most people “hang on, LNP only won half the vote” they will look at you as if you are mad.

    Well, maybe all reformers are…

    In NZ (where I come from), the people voted for a change in their electoral system only after the combined effects of a severe economic downturn, the hardships of Thatcherite “Rogernomics”, and the prevailing sense that they had been “lied to” by the government they had previously elected.

    In Australia, only one of those factors is in play. The last one.

  10. Ben,
    What system is proposed for Bob Brown’s “global democracy and parliament under the grand idea of one planet, one person, one vote, one value” – Preferential, Optional Preferential, First-past-the post, Hare-Clark or something else?

  11. Agree there is not much incentive for a group to disown the system that has got them into a position of power. But then again the Labor party did vote to abolish the upper house…… So may be there is a chance of reform.

  12. I don’t agree with this argument. Many other democracies do not have formal oppositions and do just fine. The US for example.

    In effect, Qlders have given the LNP a 6 year term. That’s not an absurd amount of time. French presidents are elected for 8 years.

    The Labor party will be back.

  13. That’s a ridiculous argument. The US political system is entirely built on dividing power between different political parties – look at how the House of Representatives is currently held by the Republican party. The US political system usually has far more power for opposition parties than in the Westminster system.

  14. An elected chamber for the UN would be a very interesting system to discuss but we probably should not clog up the Queensland tread with it.

  15. I’d also say that part of the problem re: getting more traction for a more proportional system is not having an independent all-party organisation with representation from all sides advocating for it & other forms of electoral reform, similar to Unlock Democracy in the United Kingdom.

    So long as electoral reform is seen through party lenses (and this applies to all parties including the Greens), there is unlikely to be a substantial change.

  16. Funny how when Beattie had crushing numbers there were few complaints but now Newman does everyone cries foul. Just part of the Queensland cycle. ALP will come back with a crushing defeat of the LNP in the future.

  17. There were twice as many non-government members after the 2001 election. There were 23 Liberal, National, One Nation or Independent MPs in 2001. There’s going to be 10-14 Labor, KAP or Independent MPs in 2012.

  18. And in Queensland 24 or 14 is about as meaningless as the other 🙂 Both huge margins that mean that the party in power can do what it wants with little concern about losing the next election.

    I think the bigger concern in regards to the opposition is not the quantity but the quality that is now there. If there were 7 very good members there then it would be a good opposition who would keep the LNP to account. As it stands I am hardly inspired by what’s there; really in 12 months time the ALP needs to bite the bullet and go to by-elections in Bundamba and Woodridge to put in someone who is going to be a future leader. In 12 months these seats should be safe enough to hold easily for the ALP again and they will allow for the rebuilding to take place. Same applies to South Brisbane. Don’t blame the LNP for the ALP’s preselection choices in safe seats; it was a stupid idea of them to have the likes of Fraser, Jones, Grace, Dick etc in anything but the safest of safe seats and leave those who they do not consider Ministerial material in the safest. Should have been the reverse and allowed those with responsibility only to their electorates to focus solely on the local area which would mean they may have also held some more seats while having a leadership caste still alive.

  19. The ALP could pass any legislation they like in the last term, just like the Liberals could in this term. So all those crying out about how bad the parliament is, you should have been doing it last term as well

    When a party have absolute power in an parliament, often it is member of the government who become the opposition, which is in my view much better then the normal partisan politics.

    Having minor party (whom less then 10% of Australian voted for) vet policies is undemocratic in my opinion, Canberra is a classic example, the 2 major party went to the last election saying no to a “Carbon Tax” and 90% of people voted for those party, yet because Gillard would do anything to remain in power, we have a Carbon tax

    Another example is the exclusion under the GST act added 500 pages to the GST act, which means money for accountant and did not help the less well off much.

  20. Furthermore, Dave, it’s pretty ridiculous to say “why didn’t you say that about the 2001 election”. I talk about disproportional results all the time. I’m sure if I had a blog back in 2001 I would’ve written about how Labor didn’t deserve a majority, as well as the absurdity of the Nationals winning four times as many seats as the Liberals despite winning less seats.

  21. Hi Ben, never said ‘you’. I was referring to the commentary as a whole; especially the ALP whose last week was all about large majorities being a very bad thing (I don’t recall them saying this in say ’01). I fully agree that there needs to be a good close look into making the system more representative of the peoples desires when they cast their votes whether that be by a zonal vote for lower house or the re-introduction of an upper house.

    One system that looked ok to me was basing the state seats around the Federal Zones, so at current you would do say 90 members over 30 electorates (3 each) with a quota of 25%. This would then allow representation of the ALP in strong LNP areas (and vice versa) the greens to pick up some in their core bases and likewise KAP. It would also mean that each of the major parties must focus on every area and actually represent the area as they have vested interest in it because they are ‘winnable’ for want of a better word. Any redistribution would simply follow the federal one and if a new seat added then 3 extra MP’s elected at state level etc. This would then cover oversized electorates etc and cover the growth in Qld.

  22. I really wouldn’t want Labor to be back in 6 years. I just about fell off my chair back when Howard said they were better for Australia than The Greens. Their sole political strategy is Fabian lies, quoting out of context and maintaining that opposing views are in the minority, even when it is blatantly not true. Now that they have been reduced to such small numbers they won’t have that as a drawcard. It will be interesting to see what will happen in a few decades when the Green vote is predicted to be equal to or even greater than Labor.

    Katter’s Party is a bit of a letdown for me. I strongly agree with their view that pure economic rationalism can be quite unethical, as is the case with Coles and Woolworths. However as many on here have mentioned, they are built on bigotry and hate. I am a big fan of the Right parties that have been successful in Holland and Finland, and believe that multiculturalism is not the answer for the West. However, I fear Katter’s party is a bit more backward.

  23. Surely it is undeniable that massive swings in the number of seats held by parties which are not reflective of the number of people who voted for them is a bad thing for democracy and sound Government? Surely it is completely unfair for large numbers of voters to have no representatives elected to the Parliament? Just because we have endured this situation for a long time, why should it be tolerated any longer?

    Change happened in New Zealand because of years of campaigning at the community level, because leading intellectuals and political figures railed against the FPP system and championed the cause of electoral reform (e.g. Sir Geoffrey Palmer, author of “Unbridled Power”), and because the public were convinced of the gross unfairness of the exclusion of significant 3rd parties such as Values and Social Credit from the Parliament in spite of significant popular support.

    The abuse of power in the Muldoon era I think had as much to do with generating a desire for reform as the sweeping economic changes under “Rogernomics”. The key element was the establishment of a Coalition for Electoral Reform which campaigned cleverly for years against great odds, and succeeded in having a process established which eventually led to people being able to have a say, in stages, and to bring about change. The account on Wikipedia is a very good history worth reading.

    MMP has the great advantage of Ministers being able to be drawn from party lists, and not be subject to the demands of looking after the needs of a particular geographic constituency – they are able to devote all their time and attention to working for the whole State, and good politicians need not be lost due to local circumstances or demographic changes. Topping up the electoral vote with the party list seats is also a very effective way of ensuring fair representation is achieved.

    Government by coalitions of parties is the norm in most democracies around the world. Requiring parties to negotiate and compromise to achieve outcomes is a much better way to ensure sensible policy development that is sensitive to the community’s needs and wishes, than handing absolute power to a ‘strong leader’ and hoping for the best. As Queensland is about to discover, again.

    It hardly need be said that achieving electoral reform will not be easy or rapid, but if it’s worth doing, it’s worth starting now.

  24. Ben, you’re right on the money with your comment about electoral reform and fairness being confined to the left. It’s only being said at the moment because the left-wing Greens are missing out, but I remember some conservatives bemoaning what they saw as electoral unfairness when Hansonism was at its peak, though they didn’t strictly call for reforms.
    Moreover, we should remember how fickle democracy can be, and no system is perfectly or fair. Those who moan about preference distribution should look at the UK, where the non-preference first-past-the-post system produced a hung parliament in 2010. Those who moan about gerrymandering should look at the US, where the Democrats won 52% of the popular vote but almost 70% of the electoral college vote in 2008, in a system whereby you only have to come first in a dozen of 51 jurisdictions or so to win a majority of the college vote. Also, it’s important to remember that John Howard got a majority in the proportionally-represented Senate, when the voting system there generally makes it all but impossible for either major side of politics to get a majority.
    Minor parties like the Greens and KAP should perhaps focus the bulk of their resources into seats where they believe their vote to be strongest, and just forget others seats. I don’t see why the Greens bother campaigning in many rural areas where they’re utterly detested. And if the Hansonites could somehow win seats despite almost the entire media establishment being vociferously against them, there’s no reason why the Greens can’t win seats in the face of sustained and vociferous denigration by the conservative establishment.

  25. Don’t think the system is broken at all. Lived in four countries and think that the Queensland system is extremely fair. For someone who is inclined to vote for a minority he can do so without fear of weakening a good opposition by the system of preferences. In other countries I have ended up voting for the “lesser of two evils” rather that my own beliefs.

    I think us Queenslanders have taken back ownership of the government. Labor created laws it said it wouldn’t create and which people didn’t and still don’t want. Out they went. Not because it “was time” but because of lack of integrity, lack of good government and lost connection with the electorate.

    Labor lost respect too because it needs to pander too much to the greens and independents to maintain a majority. Also having traditionally represented the working class, who do they represent now after the working class has stopped voting for them?

    I wouldn’t mind a carbon tax if it went directly to promoting alternate energy sources. But we now have the carbon tax and the removal of solar subsidies at the same time. So what is the tax income being spent on? It’s just being swallowed up by the general sea of debt Labor creates. People aren’t being fooled by the spin anymore.

    The good Queensland electoral system has thrown out the rot and brought back good government. Good MPs win seats regardless of their political alignments. By the next election bad LNP MPs will get the boot as well.

    Certainly we can’t have a clear winners in a selected seats stand aside so as to let the poor Labor voters get “some” representation in parliament.

  26. Calling for major change always makes for a more dramatic read, Ben. Thanks for that. Getting to reality, though, the system isn’t THAT broken. Parties that fail as badly as the ALP don’t have some residual birthright to hold on to seats just because they used to have them.

    The only change the Queensland system really needs is to turn off the “option” in preferential. Then they wouldn’t get results that are more akin to “first past the post”, which seems to be your real point.

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