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Poll Bludger: SA Libs should embrace the American dream

The South Australian Liberal Party is trying to bastardise the Westminster system further to deliver it the results it wants. But Crikey’s Poll Bludger says that’s a lost cause — it’s time to think bigger.

After twice failing to topple what is now Australia’s last surviving state Labor government despite winning clear majorities of the statewide vote, the sense of grievance among South Australia’s Liberals shows no sign of abating.

Speaking at the state branch’s annual general meeting in Adelaide on Saturday, party president Robert Lawson complained that the re-election of Jay Weatherill’s government on March 15 was an ”undemocratic and illegitimate result”, and foreshadowed a legislative push to redress the present system’s clear bias to Labor.

Adding insult to injury for the Liberals is the unique provision in South Australia’s electoral legislation that directs the boundaries commissioners to aim for “electoral fairness” when they redraw the map between each election, preferably by creating a situation in which a two-party vote majority converts to a majority of seats in the event of a uniform swing. When it failed to play out that way in 2010, the commissioners took the view that the imbalances produced by a wildly uneven and, from Labor’s perspective, remarkably fortuitous pattern of swings were likely to even out the next time around. They didn’t, and the Liberals were once again left champing at the bit as Labor held firm in decisive marginal seats in Adelaide.

The problem the Liberal Party faces in South Australia is that too much of its vote is locked up in rock-solid rural and regional seats. With the decline of the industrial “iron triangle” centres of Whyalla, Port Augusta and Port Pirie, only the former now gives Labor enough of a support base to sustain a seat for it outside Adelaide, the best efforts of the carbon tax notwithstanding. In no other regional seat is Labor seriously competitive; the four biggest margins in the state are Liberal seats in rural areas. Meanwhile, on the more even electoral terrain of Adelaide, Labor has emerged ascendant across a range of suburban seats held on comparatively modest margins.

The Liberal Party’s big idea to address the problem, articulated again on Saturday by Lawson, is for the members elected to the lower house to be supplemented as necessary by “a top-up system, under which a party which receives 50% plus one is allocated sufficient additional members to enable it to form government”.

Without wishing to diminish the Liberals’ entirely understandable dissatisfaction with the status quo, I can’t help thinking that South Australia isn’t missing much if this is the best they can do.

There can be little doubt that the election’s failure to produce a change of government was out of line with community expectations.”

If one is to accept the logic of the Westminster system, through which government is comprised of the elected delegates of geographically defined communities, the results of the last two elections were as good as any other. Clearly, though, the Liberal Party does not accept this logic in any meaningful way, and in this it’s very far from alone.

There can be little doubt that the election’s failure to produce a change of government was out of line with community expectations. It is no less clear that a majority of the Australian electorate frowns upon minority government, the other regularly recurring consequence of the existing system that top-up seats would presumably do away with. But the Liberals, through a combination of timidity and conservative sentimentality for 19th-century British constitutional forms, would apparently prefer to bastardise the existing system than follow their principles through to their logical conclusions.

My advice to the Liberal Party, in the unlikely event that it should wish to hear it, is that a rare confluence of self-interest and public receptiveness to reform has granted it an opportunity to think big, and in doing so to demonstrate to a sceptical electorate that it is still a party of ideas.

If it is to be granted that government formation should be a matter of a majority vote, there is no point in tethering it to the confidence of a stacked parliament. It would make far more sense to follow the American example, in which a chief executive is directly elected for a fixed term and required to negotiate the passage of laws and the budget with the legislature.

In Australia, the normal pattern is for an upper house chosen through proportional representation to serve as a check on an executive that maintains an iron grip on the lower house through party discipline and a majoritarian electoral system. If it’s already unclear what real purpose the lower house serves in this circumstance, a presidential-style executive would definitively render it redundant. The way would thus be open for a second sweeping and potentially very popular reform, namely the abolition of one of the two chambers of parliament.

To ensure that the remaining chamber does indeed serve as a brake on the executive, and also for the sake of genuine representativeness, its method of election should be proportional representation. As the mixed-member systems of New Zealand and Germany illustrate, this need not entail doing away with local representatives, who can be topped up in the chamber with party list MPs as required to achieve a proportional result.

If that sounds a forlorn dream, so too is the Liberal plan, at least for now. Labor has been justifying the March election result by dismissing the two-party preferred vote as a “mathematical construct”, and is unlikely to find the appetite to reform a system that has lately served it so very well.

Realistically, the ball is in the court of the boundaries commissioners. Next year, they will again be required to redraw the electoral map, keeping in mind the ultimately non-binding direction that they should do so with an eye to the fairness of the previous election result. This time around, the pressure to torture the boundaries to the advantage of a twice-jilted Liberal Party is likely to prove irresistible.

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  • 1
    michael dwyer
    Posted Monday, 25 August 2014 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

    Tom Playford was premier of South Australia for over 25 tears, aided by an electoral system that provided two thirds of the seats outside Adelaide, even though Adelaide had two thirds of the population. Tom ran a conservative government which was probably to the left of the long-term Labor governments in New South Wales.
    Most states had a heavy rural bias in electoral boundaries, leading to conservative governments most of the time. Queensland had a maldistribution favoring rural areas in such a way that returned Labor governments until the late 1950s. The Nationals rejigged the boundaries outside Brisbane and the large coastal cities to their advantage.
    As stated the Liberals problem in South Australia is the concentration of votes in extremely safe electorates.

  • 2
    The Old Bill
    Posted Monday, 25 August 2014 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

    Perhaps it will all come out in the wash as the children of rural Liberal voters, unable to afford University, move to the city to find work, any work, after their dole is cut for 6 months. This could well be a stunning long term sea change in the redistribution of conservative votes thanks to the Federal Liberal Party’s long term vision for the country.

  • 3
    CML
    Posted Monday, 25 August 2014 at 4:38 pm | Permalink

    The Liberals here in SA are having one of the longest dummy-spits in recent times.
    What surprises me is that the Libs went into the last election knowing what the rules were, so why the outcry now?
    If they want to change the electoral system because it disadvantages them, they will have to wait until they are in government. Then present legislation to the parliament, and if it is passed, they can celebrate. Until that happens, the existing system, which legislation was democratically passed by the parliament some years ago, will and should stand.

  • 4
    Roger
    Posted Monday, 25 August 2014 at 6:22 pm | Permalink

    Why not consider the Hare Clarke electoral system used in Tasmania? Apply it to both houses of,parliament.

  • 5
    Duncan Gilbey
    Posted Monday, 25 August 2014 at 7:31 pm | Permalink

    An “undemocratic and illegitimate result”?
    These people are a joke.
    Happy to describe themselves as “conservative” but show no respect for the due process when decisions go against them.
    They lost an election they expected to win against a tired 3rd term government, and it’s all someone else’s fault.
    Pathetic.

  • 6
    Ian Brown
    Posted Monday, 25 August 2014 at 7:52 pm | Permalink

    I have always thought that a “top up” device would be a reasonable way to democratise the Westminster single member per seat system - whether in SA or elsewhere in Australia. What is the problem with this concept?

  • 7
    Glen McCabe
    Posted Monday, 25 August 2014 at 8:58 pm | Permalink

    If the problem is a concentration of voters in safe seats, then the answer is proportional representation. The mechanics of the system are just details.

  • 8
    John Turner
    Posted Monday, 25 August 2014 at 9:38 pm | Permalink

    There can be little doubt that the election’s failure to produce a change of government was out of line with community expectations”. How far removed is this from Lawson’s claim that the result was “undemocratic and illegitimate”?
    And, as other commenters have asked,what’s wrong with top up MPs or proportional representation?

  • 9
    Posted Tuesday, 26 August 2014 at 12:12 am | Permalink

    John, I never took any issue with Lawson’s claim, and never said there was anything wrong with PR - indeed, you’ll see that I end up advocating it. What’s wrong with a top-up system is that it presumes the parliament is there to give effect to the will of the party that won a majority of the vote — which is to say that it’s an expensive waste of space.

  • 10
    Ian Roberts
    Posted Tuesday, 26 August 2014 at 2:55 am | Permalink

    The Libs *could* perhaps stop bickering, choose a team with some sort of future (rather than a decades-long, terminal past) and develop some policies attractive to metropolitan South Australians.

  • 11
    Bob's Uncle
    Posted Tuesday, 26 August 2014 at 11:06 am | Permalink

    Sod’s law posits that any party engaging in shenanigans to tilt the electoral machine in their favour is liable to have the whole thing crash down on them in spectacular fashion – see Qld ALP’s abolition of the Upper House and OPV changes as a prime example.

  • 12
    Peter Hannigan
    Posted Tuesday, 26 August 2014 at 11:14 am | Permalink

    I am surprised at the advocacy of an elected chief executive (which follows the US ‘elected monarch’ presidency model) given the issues in recent decades with an over powerful executive branch even in a Westminster system. The governmental disfunction that arises from combat between an elected executive president and an elected parliament with different views is on public display in the USA.

  • 13
    PaulM
    Posted Tuesday, 26 August 2014 at 10:31 pm | Permalink

    You reap what you sow. The Libs in SA have been opposed to PR for 40 years. Now they bleat about the unfairness of the system which was introdcued to appease them.

    If this year’s elections had used PR, based on eight 5-member electorates and one 7-member (central Adelaide and the western suburbs), the actual recorded vote would have given the Liberals 24 seats out of 47. Interstingly, The Greens would have picked up 2, and at least one of the Independents would also have been elected.

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