Why we need to change electoral system

Australian Greens

Australia’s single-member district system creates two-party dominance that makes it more difficult for the Greens to become a partner in government. According to Professor Klaas Woldring, we must continue to agitate for a shift toward the proportional representation system adopted by 89 countries around the world.

By Klaas Woldring

Soon, the important task of improving Australia’s democracy will return as a major political objective. On top of that, there is urgent catching up to be done on environmental policies.

These matters have been left in a fossilised state – at least 10 years behind the rest of the world. The situation presents the all-important question: is the Albanese-led opposition actually equipped to undertake these tasks on their own?

The most recent changes in the ALP leadership team – and the mere promise of ‘new and bold policies’ – have raised several questions. First and foremost: what exactly are these bold new policies?

In terms of environmental and new energy policies, the replacement of Mark Butler with Chris Bowen is a surprise. Given Albanese’s own emphatic commitment to new energy policies, he will need close cooperation with the Greens. To achieve that, I believe the ALP should adopt a policy to change the electoral system to a proportional one.

To beat Scott Morrison’s government, which has notched up considerable credit with the successful handling of the pandemic, emphasis on the traditional ALP policies won’t be enough. Bowen could develop a credible transitional strategy to provide new jobs for coal miners and/or transition measures such as re-training and welfare payments for their families.

However, there also has to be close cooperation between the ALP and the Greens in the run up to the next election, instead of costly competition. In particular, by adopting policies towards a new electoral system improving democracy and favouring the Greens, the ALP can secure new support from many voters.

After all, fairness is a key Australian value. In the 2019 federal election the Greens gained 10.4 percent of the vote. Proportionally, that would translate into 15 seats.

The problem with Australia’s political system and the Westminster heritage

Trust in the political system has declined significantly in the last 15 years. In part, it is the adversarial parliamentary culture that produces constant antagonism and public disapproval. The outcome is often de facto minority government – government by the strongest faction of the governing major party!

Australia should drop its Westminster baggage, especially the single-member district system (SMD), which is the principal cause of that combative culture.

But there are other major problems than just the questionable majority and undemocratic representation: not least that, in Australia, Green objectives are clearly frustrated. The current plan of the Morrison Government now appears to be to shift environmental issues to the states, away from the federal government – surely a retrograde step.

The 1901 Constitution is an archaic document that can hardly be amended. Federation is now a very costly, often dysfunctional form of state that also prevents effective decentralisation. Some 850 politicians for 25 million people, and nine public services?

Furthermore, the Westminster practice that ministers be selected only from elected MPs, in reality from the victorious party only – a very small pool of people – results in a lack of competence. Most other countries select ministers from outside the legislature, sometimes from the entire society. The system in Australia at times results in ministerial amateurism.

The claim that the Westminster system guarantees the separation of the legislature, political executive and judiciary is quite incorrect. The government actually sits permanently in the Parliament and dominates the legislature, which reduces the democratic effectiveness of the legislature significantly.

Simply put, Australia can do much better over a wide front.

Sadly, at election time, pork barrelling is the norm: another consequence of the SMD electoral system. This is poor economic management that involves misuse of public funds. Similarly, branch-stacking is a consequence of the SMD system. These practices are simply not doable in the multi-member districts of PR. In other words, the scope for meaningful reform is plainly immense.

The case for proportional representation

For all the lower houses except Tasmania, the SMD system produces two-party dominance. In contrast, in the 89 countries that have proportional representation, this problem does not exist.

So, which parties here favour proportional representation? Not the major parties! But the Greens do, and no doubt many of the over 60 minor parties that participated in recent federal elections. Could the ABC start educational programs that enlighten the public about democratic electoral systems? Neither parties nor voters seem to know much about them. Is education about this also not a task of the Australian Electoral Commission?

Just recently the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters (JSCEM) issued a new set of recommendations. It is dominated by the major parties. At best it was another exercise in piecemeal tinkering.

The Greens wrote a dissenting report stating: “Instead, the majority report presents a vitriolic attack on democracy, and on those voices that the government perceives as threatening their business model. It ignores the numerous submissions calling for campaign finance reform and misses the opportunity to promote more rigour in claims made in political advertising. The Chair’s anti-democratic, ideological frolic is entirely unsupported by the evidence presented at hearings to the inquiry.”

ALP Senator Deborah O’Neill has expressed the view to me that the introduction of proportional representation to replace SMD could be regarded as unconstitutional and would require a referendum to effect such a change. That is highly unlikely. I have heard similar suggestions from the legal adviser of the Parliamentary Library in Canberra (Dr. Damian Muller) following discussion with the Greens I had with Richard Di Natale and his staff in October 2019.

The fact is that the drafters of the Constitution were content “for the Parliament to make most of the decisions as to how it will be elected”. In most clauses where the electoral system is mentioned the Constitution states that the Parliament is to legislate to organise elections. It’s time they acted and did just that.

Klaas Woldring is a retired Associate Professor of Southern Cross University, Lismore. He holds a PhD on apartheid (UNSW) and worked for 30 years in universities in Australia and Zambia.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Greens.

Hero image: JJ Harrison.

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