Counting in the ACT election was finalised at the weekend, with the Greens defeating the Liberals for the last seat in Molonglo
– producing a total of seven ALP, six Liberals and four Greens. Most observers expect Labor to continue in office with the support of the Greens.

But after many years of being screwed over by electoral systems in Australia and overseas, the Greens have finally got a result that’s better than their voting strength would suggest, winning 23.5% of the seats with 15.6% of the votes. As Malcolm Mackerras points out, it’s the first time in any Australian parliament that they’ve won two seats in one electorate.

Earlier this month I pointed out one lesson of the Canadian election, that “electoral systems matter”. Here it is again. The Greens have been doing well all year: 9.8% in Brisbane City Council, 4.2% from just four seats in the Northern Territory, and 11.9% in Western Australia.
But only in the ACT does their vote translate into seats in the lower house.

Brisbane City Council is the most obvious case to compare with the ACT; although historical accident gives the ACT Legislative Assembly more status, it is really a smaller version of the same thing. In Brisbane there are 26 seats, of which the Liberals at the last election won 16.

Since the Liberals had 52.6% of the vote, there’s nothing unfair about them winning a majority; the unfairness is in the way that single-member wards entrench the two-party system. The Greens in Brisbane with their 9.8% not only failed to win a seat, but had no real hope of doing so.

If the ACT didn’t have proportional representation, minor parties would be locked out in the same way. Indeed, since Canberra is more socially homogeneous than Brisbane, the results would be even more undemocratic. Michael Cusack, commenting at Poll Bludger, remarked that the ALP (with 37.4% of the vote) would have won 17-nil, and he’s probably right (although depending on how the boundaries were drawn, the Liberals might perhaps be able to win a seat in the southern suburbs).

State parliaments don’t get quite so lopsided, but they’re plenty bad enough. In last year’s New South Wales election, for example, Labor won a substantial majority (53 out of 93) with just 39% of the vote. That should be an object lesson on the dangers of dispensing with democracy.

Peter Fray

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