Steve Bracks deserves credit for reform of Victoria’s upper house. As I predicted last week, Labor looks like retaining its majority there, but Bracks put that very much at risk in the interests of democracy.
What Saturday’s result shows, however, is that he picked the wrong house to reform. The Legislative Assembly, where governments are made and broken, is now the real affront to democracy in Victoria.
Australia’s love affair with single-member electorates is more than ever out of step with world’s best democratic practice. It exaggerates majorities, discriminates against broadly-based minor parties, and throws up random unfairness.
There is some argument that stable government requires the winner to be assured of a majority, so it is not necessarily unfair that Labor will control the lower house with only 43.5% of the vote. But by what logic should it have nearly two-thirds of the seats?
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It is often argued that proportional representation gives minor parties disproportionate power, but the current system discriminates selectively against minorities. The Nationals with 5.3% of the vote look like winning nine seats, but the Greens with 9.5% are not winning any. Family First with 4.3% has about the same vote as the Nationals had last time; not only will it not win any seats, but (unlike the Greens) it is not even remotely close. Its vote would probably have to treble to put it in contention.
In other words, parties representing a narrow geographic interest can win seats, but those with more broad-based support miss out. How is this supposed to be good for democracy?
Single-member districts do not even guarantee that the winning side will be able to form government; if marginal seats happen to fall the wrong way, the party with majority support can miss out. Labor used to have that problem, but in recent years its opponents seem to be more disadvantaged: in the last 20 years, six state or federal elections have given the non-Labor parties a majority of the two-party-preferred vote but resulted in a Labor government.
It happened in Victoria in 1988, and if Ted Baillieu (or whoever else is leader) gets a 5% swing in 2010 it will probably happen again. Voters should be more offended than they are at the defective and capricious way that their wishes are translated into representatives.
The new upper house, although not perfect, is a good example of what a democratic chamber looks like. Labor will have at best a very narrow majority, the Greens will have as many seats as the Nationals (with some chance of winning more), and Family First, although missing out this time, will at least be within reach of a possible seat.