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Imagine there were proportional representation in your parliament …

Is there a fairer way to decide who represents us in parliament? Proportional representation is one solution. Matthew Brown crunches the numbers to see just what that would look like.

What would Australia’s parliaments look like if each lower house had proportional representation? How about this in Canberra …

And in the states (click through to a larger version) …

The graphics compare the current state of the lower houses as of their last full elections (not including more recent byelections). The parliaments are dominated by Liberal and Labor, with a sprinkling of Nationals. Currently all states bar Tasmania use the single-member electorate system to elect their lower houses.

I compared these election results with the actual percentage of votes each party received. Using the number of seats available in that particular house, I calculated what that percentage of votes would correspond to under a proportional representation system. This system disregards geographic location of voters and counts each vote equally into an electorate that includes the entire state (or country) — 10% of the vote will result in 10% of the seats, notwithstanding rounding in small parliaments.

I believe single-member electorates are inadequate for these reasons:

  1. Up to 49% of the electorate prefer the second candidate to be their local MP, and are unlikely to be represented by their MP. This can be much more when considered on first preferences.
  2. MPs value their party over their constituents, meaning that those who did not vote for that party are unrepresented in parliament.
  3. It entrenches power in two large parties, as the race for any single electorate usually comes down to those two.
  4. The system values the geographic concentration of support, as opposed to the amount of support. Parties with relatively high support (~15%) evenly spread nation-wide may not win a seat, yet a party with 0.5% support nation-wide can win a seat if it is concentrated in one electorate.
  5. Marginal seats are given far more attention than safe seats, and parties can take certain groups of voters for granted (for example, the Coalition with rural voters or, arguably, Labor with progressive inner-city voters, although some of them are turning Green).

The proportional representation system is used in the NSW upper house, though only half the MLCs are up for re-election at any one time. It is a system that treats all votes equally, regardless of where they are placed geographically. The system is unlikely to be the best available (New Zealand’s Mixed Member Proportional and Tasmania’s Hare-Clark system are both arguably superior), but it is a result that is easy to model and compare to the current system. It can be argued that parliaments predicted under proportional representation are more representative of the views of the voters than the current system.

The graphic is not so much an argument for the pure proportional representation system, as a means for pointing out the disenfranchisement of the current system. It does not show the ~60% of voters who are represented by an MP they actively voted against. But it shows how the system skews results away from what voters may have wished.

The most disenfranchised party under the current system is the Australian Greens. With broad support across a number of electorates, their vote is not geographically concentrated enough to result in seats anywhere near their level of popular support. Few seats are Green (Melbourne in the federal House of Representatives is one). However, if the Greens’ level of representation matched their popular support, I calculate there would be 36 state mainland Greens MPs and 13 in the federal House of Reps.

The biggest winner out of the current system, conversely, is the National Party. With relatively low national support that is concentrated in a small number of rural electorates, their parliamentary representation outstrips their national support.

The function of parliaments would rapidly change with proportional representation. Instead of being a winner-takes-all scenario, governments would have to negotiate with others. The two large parties may even split.

The most starkly unrepresentative parliament is Queensland’s unicameral Parliament, where the LNP holds a 78-seat majority. I argue the result does not represent the will of the Queensland people, as the proportional representation graph shows. Nor is it, as many southerners like to wrongly assume, an example of gerrymandering. It is simply an example of how unrepresentative the single-member electorate system can be. As academic Dean Jaensch points out, if the single member electorate system produces a fair result, it is the result of luck, not the design of the system.

*Matthew Brown is a biology student and political observer. He is a member of the Greens and has volunteered for the party.

12
  • 1
    Kevin Evans
    Posted Monday, 31 March 2014 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

    In addition to proportionality, as highlighted above, there are other critical issues to consider. These also link to the constitutional system.

    Fortunately with a 2 house system of parliament it is possible to seek a balance between demography and geography. This also means it is possible to use 2 quite different electoral systems to provide the best chance of balancing political and electoral dynamics.

    In a parliamentary system (unlike presidential system) there is great value in creating workable and coherent governments. Single member constituency based systems usually do this better - except in countries with extreme geographic on top of demographic diversity (eg India).

    The great merit of Australia’s system is that we use single member constituency for the House of Reps and PR for the Senate. This usually creates a stable working majority for the Government created in the House of Reps. At the same time to prevent a “parliamentary dictatorship” as often seen in unicameral places, we use proportional representation in the Senate.

    Australia has been fortunate to have such a balanced system of representation. Parties with widely scattered but not deep support (eg Greens) can still get elected.

    In countries like NZ where there is only 1 house (or Germany where the upper house is weak) there is an incentive to try mixing both single member representation with proportional top ups. Where both system are used already as in Australia there is little value in creating this “2 door” system for entering the House of Reps.

    One fundamental advantage of Australia’s preferential vote is precisely that the “most popular” candidate does not always win. The beauty of the preferential vote is that the winner is the candidate most acceptable, not necessarily the most popular. This is because to win you must demonstrate that over 50% of voters can accept you, even if say only 35% like you the most. This system tends to make it harder for loud, abrasive or extremist forces from being elected. While they may get lots of enthusiastic followers, they tend to get more “loathers”. Pauline Hanson’s failure to win in Blair in 1998 was not because she was not popular. Indeed she was the most popular candidate. Unfortunately she was also the most loathed. This meant that aside from her own supporters, supporters of other candidates did not wanted her at all, thus she lost. Under the US, British or Indian system she would have won.

    The use of single member electorate systems allows for stable and long term coalition formation (not political one night stands as often seen in PR based systems). Unlike first past the post which forces voters to vote tactically (usually to stop the party they dislike), preferential voting actually lets you vote for whom you like first.

    As noted in your review Qld has only 1 house. Hardly surprising in this state there have been efforts to contort the single house to create a balance between geography and demography. It produced the basis for the warped system that existed for decades. Retaining the Upper House would have allowed this to be done while retaining the integrity of lower house elections.

    If there was one improvement that could be considered it might be to replace the current Single Transferable Vote (STV) used in the Senate with a simpler system of proportional representation in which the voter can vote for which ever candidate from their party/list they like. There would be other factors to consider, eg. keeping the above the line or having voters select their preferred senator an also identify party preference list etc. One issue to note is that since the use of this STV system in 1949, no person has ever been elected unless the person above the, has also been elected. Basically it means that the list is not really open as we would usually presume.

    Best of luck with considerations.
    Kevin - Jakarta

  • 2
    Shaniq'ua Shardonn'ay
    Posted Monday, 31 March 2014 at 4:25 pm | Permalink

    Like Kevin I quite like the system where we have a separate senate that takes proportional representation into account. The method of voting in the senate does need reform however - people should have the ability to number ALL boxes above the line and have their preferences counted accordingly.
    I’d also like Australia to have a look at the system used in the US where if enough people sign up for a particular cause a referendum is then called (which I believe is how marijuana has been legalised). This would be a good initiative to give a voice to issues that the professional politician won’t touch (e.g. Euthanasia, Gay Marriage etc)

  • 3
    fractious
    Posted Monday, 31 March 2014 at 5:23 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Matthew. I’d always wanted a handy ready reference to throw into a political discussion where representativeness is being argued.

  • 4
    bjb
    Posted Monday, 31 March 2014 at 6:36 pm | Permalink

    As a member of the Greens, I’d certainly like to see a more equitable representation of the the electorate’s preferences. When you see the graphed proportions it makes a mockery of the Libs labelling the Greens a “fringe” party. It also shows why the bluster of Downer and Pyne over the SA result is just that. There’s no way at a Federal level they want a change, otherwise they’d never be in power.

  • 5
    Harry Becher
    Posted Tuesday, 1 April 2014 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

    Are you the redditor “orru”, or did you just steal their content? See: http://www.reddit.com/r/australia/comments/217hy1/a_comparison_of_australian_parliaments_to_what/

  • 6
    Malcolm Street
    Posted Tuesday, 1 April 2014 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

    bjb - and if you want a “fringe” party in terms of votes it gets with influence out of all proportion to its size, look at the Nationals…

  • 7
    Simon
    Posted Tuesday, 1 April 2014 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

    Don’t let Tasmania & the ACT off the hook either. The minute you divide into smaller electorates you sacrifice some degree of proportionality, and even more so if (as in ACT) those electorates are of different sizes with different quotas.

    A proportional result in ACT would have been 6 each to the major parties, 2 to the Greens, 1 each for the Motorist & Bullet Train parties. In Tasmania it would have been 14 Liberal, 7 Labor, 3 Greens, 1 PUP

  • 8
    Simon
    Posted Tuesday, 1 April 2014 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

    I miscounted ACT. Liberals would have got the last seat, giving them 7

  • 9
    Simon
    Posted Tuesday, 1 April 2014 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

    The ‘House of Review’ argument, which justifies both the persistence of strong bicameralism, and the adoption of proportional representation in upper houses (but NOT lower houses) is a curious argument. The functions attributed to a House of Review are the functions that should be exercised by the entire parliament. In arguing for a system where the governing house should as often as possible have stable majorities (combined with strong party discipline that is largely unique to Australia), we are in fact arguing for a lower house that is a legislative irrelevance. In which case, why bother having one? Why not just vote for the governing party in a straight popularity contest, and send every bill straight to the ‘house of review’ for the real legislative work to be done?

    On the occasions when our elections fail to produce a majority government, we finally get to see real legislative work in both houses - we finally get to see our lower house MPs doing the meaningful parliamentary work they are paid for. Why is this a bad thing? In most mature democracies, minority governments and strong legislative scrutiny are the norm - surely we should be able to cope with both in Australia?

    The ACT has a unicameral parliament but produces none of the democratic anxieties we have about Queensland. That’s because the ACT have a proportional electoral system which produces few majority governments, and thus strong scrutiny from it’s legislature. Queensland’s problem is not it’s lack of upper house, but it’s unrepresentative electoral system for that house. None of our parliaments would have any need for a second ‘house of review’ if the lower houses were elected in a way that empowered them to do their job properly.

  • 10
    CML
    Posted Wednesday, 2 April 2014 at 2:24 am | Permalink

    Simon - I think it has become clear since the Gillard government that voters in this country will NOT accept minority government, particularly in the lower house. The voters have been conditioned to expect majority government only.
    While I understand your point of view, apart from decades of education to change attitudes in the community, there is also the small problem of large vested interests with powerful positions being threatened. Add to that the current media take on all this, and you are looking at an almost impossible situation.
    To say nothing of the Constitutional problems this would present….
    Good luck!!

  • 11
    Sophie Benjamin
    Posted Wednesday, 2 April 2014 at 9:36 am | Permalink

    Hi Harry,
    Matthew Brown is Redditor “orru”, and we got in touch to ask permission to post this on the site, which he gave. No conspiracy here.
    Sophie - website producer.

  • 12
    Simon
    Posted Wednesday, 2 April 2014 at 10:59 am | Permalink

    CML - you say ‘since the Gillard government’. And yet in 2013, the winning side still got only 46% of the primary vote, and 21% voted for minor parties or independents (a record 32% in the Senate) - these figures don’t indicate a mass movement back to the two party system or majority government.

    Also since the Gillard government, voters in the states and territories have expressed their distaste for minority government by electing two more of them (ACT & SA).

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