A tale of two systems


Last Saturday we saw state elections in Australia’s two smallest states. Both states have been governed by the Labor Party for a number of terms and saw a resurgent Liberal Party threaten the ALP’s hold on power. In both states, we saw a swing away from the ALP. That’s where the comparisons end, because South Australia’s election was conducted using a single-member preferential voting system, while Tasmania uses the single transferable vote proportional representation system (known locally as Hare-Clark).

Last weekend stands as a perfect comparison between the two broad options in western democracy about how we organise our elections: do you go for a system of single-member electorates, or do you aim for a system that closely reflects each party’s vote in the seats in the Parliament?

In South Australia, we saw the Liberal Party poll 41%, with the ALP polling 38%. A further 7.8% voted for the Greens and 5.3% voted for Family First. As I write, the ALP is on track for 25 seats out of 47, with only 18 for the Liberal Party, and no seats won by either of the two significant minor parties. In addition, Antony Green has estimated that the ALP won approximately 48% to 48.5% of the two-party preferred vote. Despite this decisive win for the Liberal Party on both primary votes and two-party preferred vote, the ALP’s majority should allow them to govern without much trouble for the next four years.

In contrast, in Tasmania, the Liberal Party polled 39%, the ALP 37% and the Greens 21%. While the last few seats have not been determined, the collective wisdom has settled on a result of 10 Labor, 10 Liberal, 5 Greens, although a 10-11-4 or a 10-9-6 result is entirely possible. In contrast to  South Australia, the Tasmanian result very strongly correlates to the vote numbers.

It’s common to see mainstream media political reporters and commentators, as well as major party figures, bemoaning the prospect of a hung parliament and the ‘instability’ of minority government. Yet the Tasmanian result reflects the reality of Tasmanian politics: no-one won the support of the voters. No-one managed to get over 40%. In a single-member system, one of the parties would have managed to construct a majority of seats in the Assembly while 60% of voters had voted against them.

In contrast, the South Australian system constructs an artificial majority in Parliament for a party that didn’t receive the votes of 62% of voters. A single-member electoral system prizes giving total power to one political party over any questions of whether that reflects the voters’ wishes. In addition, the South Australian result gave power to the major party preferred by less voters, even in a two-horse race. It demonstrates that, in a system of single-member electorates, it is impossible to construct a result that can be considered ‘fair’.

South Australian electoral law goes to a lot of trouble to construct a ‘fair’ set of boundaries. A redistribution is held every four years and redraws the boundaries to ensure that a two-party preferred vote of 50% results in an even number of seats, supposedly to ensure that a party with a majority of the two-party preferred vote wins a majority of seats. The system was established following the 1989 election, when the Labor government held on with a one-seat majority despite polling 48.1% 2PP.

Last weekend’s result demonstrates the folly in trying to introduce the concept of fairness into a system that fundamentally ignores fairness. The 2010 boundaries were drawn based on the 2006 result, and assumed a uniform swing. Instead, the ALP lost a lot of votes in safe seats, not in marginal seats, as Possum has examined. This has resulted in a similar result as in 1989, with a long-term Labor government holding on while a majority of voters express  a preference for the opposition.

No electoral system can exactly reflect the voters wishes. It is possible that the ALP will win more seats than the Liberal Party in Tasmania. The key difference is that, in a single-member system, a distortion results in a majority government ruling while being opposed by a majority. In contrast, the Tasmanian system will mean that, regardless of the individual seat results, a majority in the Parliament will need to be made up of two of the three parties, and any of those combinations adds up to a solid majority of votes cast at the election.

If you want a system that actually reflects voters wishes in any way, you can’t use a system of single-member electorates which has such a checkered history of electing governments who are opposed by a majority of their constituents.

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  1. Thanks for stating the bleeding obvious so cogently! Please send this piece to all politicians and parties in all jurisdictions; but especially to the bull-headed leaders of the Tasmanian Labor and Liberal parties – and the four dinosaurs they wheeled out in the last days of the recent elections campaign – who still don’t get it!

  2. I agree wholeheartedly. I have been a strong proponent for Hare-Clark over single-member, and wish that we could have a more representative government!

  3. I do not see any point in worrying about how FAIR the current electoral system is, as long as.

    1) We are under a Westminster style system, which is inherently unfair, as it places two parties (and no other real ones) into constant opposition … who mostly only disagree on which methods they will use to undermine democracy.

    2) As long as businesses can donate to parties and campaigns, and there are ANY anonymous donations allowed, we have no freedom…just rule by the dollar. If you cannot vote you ought not to be able to donate (which is a powerful vote with your money)…as the most expensive campaign nearly always wins).

    3) As long as parties can legally tell their members how to vote, and mistreat elected members if they do not tow the party line, we will not have a democratic society at all. Under Howard, the Liberals regularly hired private investigators to dig up dirt on the families and friends of any parlimentatirlan who had the guts to vote the way their constituents wanted them to vote. That behavior ought to be a crime that carries a life sentence for vote tampering, not just be business as usual.

    I have never once voted in the board of directors of a political party…for the purpose off telling my elected officials how to vote. As far as I am concerned, every vote ought to be a “conscience” vote, and in REAL democracies they all are. All that dirty politics just to try and subvert the course of democracy by embarrassing ones rebels into silence.

    The entire point of representative government is that individual people are elected into government (not a party – never ever a party). If we are really going to stick to Labor and Liberal being mostly the same, and all the other parties being mostly ways of funneling votes into two parties. Why not just outright appoint the acting board of the liberal party and the acting board of the labor party as the eternal defacto leaders of our government and never have another election again…given that they are now meaningless anyway.

    After all it is the party leaders (mostly there for decade3sd as unelected folk in the offices) who get to tell our senators how to vote “OR ELSE”.

    The system in the USA is a mess…but so is this one. And it will not ever change, because the only people with the power to stop the rot (the polies), revel in every nasty putrescent drop of it.

  4. Chemical Refugee:

    You have some valid points, but you are wrong about how policy is decided within the parties. The “party line” that MPs and Senators are expected to toe is set by the *parliamentary* parties – meaning, the caucus of elected MPs and Senators themselves. So they’re not unelected at all – those MPs and Senators have all been voted into office by the wider electorate, and within the parliamentary parties those MPs and Senators vote on policy and positions with policy-setting power.

    The wider party does also write policy, but they can’t enforce it on the parliamentary members – and when the former comes into conflict with the latter, it is usually the parliamentary party that triumphs. However, even this is still somewhat democratic – party policy isn’t written by “unelected folks in the offices”, it’s written by gatherings like the ALP National Conference, to which delegates are elected by the party membership.

    On the subject of donations: I wonder if it would be possible to have a system allowing donations, but forcing them to go through a independent escrow service (perhaps run by the AEC), that effectively launders them so that the recipient party cannot find out who donated to them. The recipient party simply gets one large cheque once a year from the escrow agency, and the donors get a reciept stating that they made a donation, but not who they made it to (so that the donor cannot _prove_ to the recipient that they have made a donation that they claim to have made).

  5. OK, sorry I got that part wrong. My error.

    Some portions of the Australian system are still a bit of a mystery. I migrated here back in the early Howard years as a skilled migrant, and have only been a citizen for one federal election to date. To be clear, I far prefer the Australian system in most areas to that of my home land.

    I do believe though that there is a great deal more influence by the unelected party insiders, than you are seeing here. You need to look closer at how politics is really practiced. It is a nasty dirty business. A lot of deals for who will be running for an election are made a 1AM in private, then the manuvering takes place to make it really happen. As for cvhposing one of for people to run for a given seat, we are dealing with the political equivalent of playing blackjack with card dealers (chose the one you want as your ddealer/representative to promote), but they all look the same, dress the same, talk the same, and are the same. No person every gets tht close to selection for running for a seat with the Libs or Labor, without already being complient to ever whim of the party.

    Those who act otherwise after they are elected are rarely allowed to run again by that party, and if they do run and get elected they will nbever be on the front bench. Never.

    So all of the dealers in this political blackjack game have stacked the decks. Feel free to play, after all you can’t win if you do not play.

    You also cannot order a meat dish at a vegan only cafe and get what you want.

  6. Chloe Fox in, Hanna out.

    Again the Liberals blunder. Why would you gift Labor the seat of Mitchell instead of running a dud campaign, like Labor have done or previously did in Frome, Mount Gambier and Chaffey.

  7. Fair points. But what PR completely fails to do is give us a TPP count.

    Which leaves whoever holds the BoP as not just kingmakers and horsetraders, but potentially doing so without any sense of which major party leadership their voters preferred. (And the kingmakers would be the. Greens in perpetuity in most places, unless we had the purest of party list PR, which would be chaotic, olde Italian style).

    Note also with just 5 or 6 member electorates you can easily have a plurality winning a majority: think LNP in Senate 2004. But raise that figure and you breakdown electorates based on discernible communities (itself a key ‘act locally’ tenet of progressive politics) as well as a sense of constituency accountability.

  8. Graeme,

    If you look at PR systems in other countries, you will see that most of those concerns aren’t an issue.

    I’d expect if we implemented PR federally you would see the current party system break down and see the growth of centrist and right-wing minor parties, as we saw in New Zealand. Also, you would see a shift towards what we now see in Italy and more so in New Zealand, where most political parties lean towards one side or the other, giving voters greater confidence about how their leaders will jump.

    It’s true that having a Hare-Clark system doesn’t give full pure proportionality. But you can help enormously by having electorates with odd numbers of MPs. The issue in the Senate was that the Howard government was winning half the seats in every state with only 43%, so one big result pushed them over the top. Whereas in Tasmania you need a big result to win that third majority seat in your electorate, and it produces either decisive results (3-2) or a balance of power for a third party (2-2-1).

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