Time to talk about PR

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There’s been a lot of chatter about the low primary vote for the major parties, and Labor in particular polling their lowest primary vote in many decades.

There are plenty of excuses to explain why the vote is so low, such as strategic voting for “teal independents”, but they only explain some of the decline. Ultimately the teal movement is not the reason why a government was elected with the lowest primary vote under our modern party system.

And yes it is true that we have a voting system that (in most seats) makes it easy for someone to, say, vote Greens first and give a second preference to Labor. Some of them may have chosen just for Labor in different circumstances, but there’s also plenty of evidence that there are voters who choose to vote Greens when they can win, but otherwise vote Labor. I cannot say which group is bigger, but what we do know is those voters could have voted Labor and chose not to do so.

So we need to talk about the voting system. Is it really a fair result for a party that wins less than a third of the vote to win total control of government?

There have been some silly suggestions, such as that from Resolve pollster Jim Reed who advocated for first-past-the-post. I think that is the wrong way to move. While the Coalition outpolled Labor, it is clear that a majority of the country would prefer a Labor-led government to a Coalition-led government. I just don’t think they necessarily voted for that Labor government to have a single-party majority. In a first-past-the-post system, people would definitely change how they vote. It seems likely a large proportion of Greens voters would have simply voted Labor, particularly in marginal seats, giving Labor government, but it puts the burden of thinking strategically back on the voter and leads to even more erratic outcomes.

Instead, I want us to start talking about a move to a proportional system.

In this post I’m not arguing for any particular system, although I think if we were to apply a proportional voting system at a federal level without constitutional change it would only be possible to switch to multi-member districts using the single transferable vote, ideally alongside an expansion of the size of the parliament. I don’t think a party list or MMP system is currently constitutional. Still, this argument applies to proportional systems in general.

This election was objectively the most disproportionate House result we’ve had in at least three quarters of a century. The Gallagher index, or the least squares index, measures disproportionality. Very proportional voting systems tend to produce Gallagher scores close to zero, usually below 5. Most Australian elections during my lifetime have produced Gallagher scores between 8 and 12, although the 1975 and 1977 elections scored above 14.

The 2022 score is 16.5.

The Greens and the Liberal Party are significantly under-represented in the current Parliament, while Labor and the LNP (who for this historic dataset had been treated as a separate party, so I've been consistent) are significantly over-represented, with the independents and the Nationals slightly overrepresented.

If you amalgamate the Coalition as a single unit, then the Coalition, Labor, independents and the Katter and Centre Alliance parties between them polled 22.7% less of the primary vote than their seat share would suggest. The Greens polled 9.2% more than their seat share suggests, with the three largest minor right-wing parties (ON, UAP and LDP) under-represented by 10.6%.

So I've always been an advocate for proportionality. I just don't believe that the supposed "stability" arguments for majoritarian voting systems justify putting power in the hands of minority parties (and for the purposes of this essay I define the Coalition as a single party). I think we should elect a parliament that represents the true diversity of the people, and then allow the parties to come to agreements to represent that diversity, rather than hiding that diversity away.

Of course that's not to say we need to have pure proportionality. I wouldn't support an Israeli or Dutch style system with a national PR list. I think geographic representation has some value, if not as much value as the current system places in it, and that you can achieve a middle-range outcome with more than two strong parties but without a totally fragmented political system. Indeed this paper suggests that PR systems with a low magnitude district size can gain most of the proportionality benefits while still electing relatively stable parliaments without too many parties and with accountability for government decisions. The trade-offs are not linear. You can have stability and proportionality.

But even if you don't buy my arguments about proportionality, I think we are now entering a stage in Australia's party system where the electoral system will no longer deliver the stability that is promised, and indeed a proportional system may be the best way to make outcomes more predictable and stable.

Single-member electorates have a tendency to exaggerate swings. A party can win a bunch of seats by slim margins, and thus outperform their proportional share. This doesn't just apply to the major parties. In Sydney and Melbourne, it looks like the teals had a devastating impact on the Liberal Party in certain parts of the city which exceed the actual shift in vote. They won four seats in Sydney, and almost won five. In a proportional result that wouldn't have been so dramatic.

Indeed we saw a similar outcome for the Greens in inner city Brisbane, winning three seats in a small area with no more than 35% in any of those three seats. The preferential system makes this quite possible when the vote is split three ways (as would a first past the post system).

This might be the fair outcome for a single electorate, but when you scale it up to dozens of seats it can be quite erratic and produce lopsided outcomes. You need only look at the late counting in seats like Macnamara, Richmond and Brisbane. A small change in the vote share switches the winner, and you could imagine this sort of outcome happening in more seats if the major party vote continues to decline.

I think it's unlikely the Greens would get to a point where they win more seats than their proportional seat share, but independents and Greens are getting better at taking advantage of these peculiarities of the single-member system and I think we may see more local disproportionalities in their favour, as they wipe out the major parties in one area.

In contrast, a proportional system would probably elect more Greens (and if the teals decided to go in the direction of forming a genuine centrist liberal party, they could elect more too), but spread across a wider range of the country, while the Liberal Party would still have safe seats in places like the North Shore.

Which brings me to my next point: protection of party talent. The Coalition was hit hard by losing a generation of potential future leaders (in the broader sense of the term). Labor was also unable to find an appropriate seat for frontbencher Kristina Keneally, which ended in her losing a previously safe Labor seat.

While there wouldn't be "safe electorates" in the way there are now under proportional representation, the major parties would be assured of a certain number of seats in each area, and prominent members of the party would be able to hold on to those seats with more ease. Exactly how much control the party would have over who holds these seats depends on the voting system - under Hare-Clark it's possible a seat could be "safe for Labor" while not being safe for any individual Labor candidate, but generally prominent senior party figures are able to win even under that system, let alone a mostly-closed list system like that we see for the Senate.

And more generally, a PR system produces less erratic and more stable seat counts. You don't see the kind of major party wipe-outs we saw in Queensland in 2012 or more often in Canada over recent decades. We saw a localised version of that for the Liberal Party in northern Sydney and eastern Melbourne in 2022, and such an outcome could happen nationally. A proportional system tends to result in seat changes that are proportional to vote changes, while a majoritarian system can exaggerate seat changes off small vote changes.

I think we have also reached the point where we can no longer argue that the majoritarian system protects the system of single-party majority government. Yes Labor barely scraped across the line this time, but the range of 2PP outcomes that would produce a hung parliament will end up being much wider than it has been at the past. If the vote for minor parties and independents remains as strong as it was in 2022, hung parliaments will likely be more common than single-party majority governments. So if we will end up with minor parties and independents in the balance of power, the question is how they are elected. Do they win in an unpredictable and erratic manner in particular single-member electorates, or are they proportionally elected according to their strength across the country?

And if we are going to end up with common hung parliaments, it's probably better to give up on the pretence that a government of a single party is better than shared power. Labor could probably govern in current circumstances with less than 76 seats, but I don't think it's a good thing.

Australia's party system has generally worked pretty well with its electoral system, but that isn't the case everywhere. Take a look at Canada, where there are three major parties, hung parliaments are more common, but governments tend to govern in minority. It's quite common for the party that is less preferred overall to stay in government because they happen to have more seats. That sort of thing could easily happen under our preferential voting system. Canada also has a history of parties winning large landslides in seat terms while not doing that well in terms of votes. That was unlikely as long as the seat contests were dominated by the same two parties, but as we get more diversity in types of contests, the possibility of lopsided outcomes becomes more possible.

If we're electing minor party and independent MPs, they should have the opportunity to share power, but also the accountability of being responsible for decisions.

I suspect the Coalition will have a great deal of trouble defeating the independents who beat them in their former heartlands in part because those MPs won't be in any governmental role in the new parliament. While the Coalition will be able to criticise government decisions in seats they are trying to win from Labor, that doesn't apply here.

Wouldn't it be healthier if a bloc of independents like those elected were to take on some ministerial responsibility, take some decisions, and then be accountable for that in 2025?

I don't think we are about to switch to proportional representation, but let's have the conversation. Not just because it's unfair to give total majority power to a party polling under 33% (although it is), but also because the majoritarian voting system is erratic, produces unusual outcomes, and will be a less stable counterpart to a more heterogenous party system.

I'm going to return, hopefully tomorrow, with some analysis of potential models for proportional representation and how they would play out on the results of the 2019 and 2022 elections.

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55 COMMENTS

  1. @ joeldipops

    An interesting suggestion.

    Personally I think too many posters are tackling this issue from a retrofit perspective. They are all seeking to fit their suggestion into a situation that fits the current constitution (although I haven’t checked what it said), but I find it weird that the Constitution would define set number of seats or proportion of seats per states, which would infer that States don’t grow or decline in population over the years. There is also a lot of discussion around trying to fit seats into a fixed number of representatives.

    I am more inclined to view this from a blow up the entire system and imagine what would be the best way to have political representation in the Australian parliament looking forward for next 100 years. That will most likely mean a Constitutional amendment, but if that is the case and it results in a better form of fairer political representation AND governance – then lets look at it from that perspective.

    I would would also put the future and role of States into that imagining. That is why I was suggesting regions in my previous post. There will be some regions (based on communities of interests) that will have larger population and hence number of representatives. And there will be some regions that will have smaller populations and that is fine, in such instances, they will just have few representatives based on that total population. In the more remote regions, we shouldn’t get hung up with having multiple representative, but maybe just 1 will be suffice (depending on how many houses we land on).

  2. https://www.tallyroom.com.au/47873/comment-page-1#comment-771518

    There does need to be a balance between the two parties views the resulting compromise, in approximate relative proportion to their votes (on a 3PP basis), with relevant adjustments for Pocock or JLN to pass it. Both parties are needed for a majority on many issues, it is ridiculous and unrealistic to expect the Greens to provide 100% of the compromising and the ALP to get 0. That is not how compromising works, its how surrender works.

  3. https://www.tallyroom.com.au/47873#comment-771521

    It is always good to check the constitution on constitutional matters:

    https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Commonwealth_of_Australia_Constitution_Act

    The Constitution requires that seats in the House of Reps be distributed between the states by population and provides a formula for doing so and the High Court has ruled this has to be done after every election and it is.

    The Constitution distributes senators equally to every state. The theory behind this is so that the bigger states don`t trample the small states. However the overall number of can be altered to adjust the size of the Senate and through the nexus clause, the size of the House of Reps.

    Every bill to amend the constitution has to pass a referendum and abolishing the states is not a popular idea, even compared to many of the referenda that have failed.

  4. Like this chat – yes all for Proportional Representation as it reflects much closer the will of the people.

    Also many people will take their vote more seriously (in my opinion). Especially those in ‘safe seats’ where 2PP is usually 60 to 75%. A lot of these people vote for a minor party (and preference their prefered major party 2,3, or 4th OR some in safe seats even vote the opposite of what they actually prefer!! just because they want their seat to be marginal and get closer to 50% so their area will get more attention from the government (at least in their mind the safe seats get less than half the funding for local infrastructure than marginal seats 🙂 – I think that is factually incorrect but there are hundreds that I know who think this and I bet tens of thousands vote this way.

    I really do like the NZ system of PR – just requires a bit of education to explain it. (how will that fit with the Senate that is also PR?) NZ only has one house, we have 2 houses of national parliament! They have no states – lucky them, less blame game and administration duplication!

    German system of PR – they do have ‘states’ – they have a federation like us. Do they have a senate? (2 houses of federal parliament)

  5. Nathan Jones, the answer to your question about Germany is complicated.

    International descriptions often refer to Germany having a bicameral parliament, but this is not technically accurate. The German Basic Law* never refers to the Bundestag and Bundesrat collectively as forming a single body/institution/entity such as a parliament (with one as a ‘lower house’ and one as an ‘upper house’): it defines the composition and powers of each independently. The Bundesrat is made up of delegations from each Land (state/province), but these delegations are not elected: each one is chosen by its Land government, and typically it’s made up of the senior ministers from that government. (More populous Länder have more votes and less populous ones fewer, but it’s not purely proportional: less populous Länder have _proportionally_ more votes than more populous ones.) The members of the Bundesrat don’t have separate individual voting rights: the votes of each Land are cast as a block, as determined by the Land government. There is a common and traditionally recognised pattern where Länder in which all parties in the government coalition are also included in the Federal government vote ‘Yes’ in the Bundesrat to government proposals, Länder in which all parties in the government coalition are in opposition Federally vote ‘No’, and Länder where the coalition includes some parties which are in the Federal government and some which aren’t abstain** from voting.

    The Bundesrat does not have equal legislative power with the Bundestag, but if you want to delve into the details of exactly how much power it has, I suggest you start with its Wikipedia article:
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/German_Bundesrat#Tasks
    ** If you check that out you will also find more information about the effects of abstention in the Bundesrat: in some situations it has the same practical effect as voting to block a government proposal, while in some it’s the opposite.

    * International descriptions sometimes refer to this as Germany’s constitution: the German word for constitution was deliberately avoided when it was written, for reasons which are now only of historical interest.

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