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Sep 3, 2010

The crisis in governance in two-party systems

Our cozy political duopoly has run into trouble -- time for some new thinking on two party systems.

We Australians seem to like duopolies or quasi-monopolies.  From groceries (Woolworths/Coles), cars (Holden/Falcon), communications (Telstra), print media (News Ltd/Fairfax), arguably banks (cartel of top four) to political parties. As these examples show, such arrangements do not always deliver what is best for the nation or most people.

Now our cozy political duopoly has run into trouble. Thousands of words have been written on the uninspiring election campaign so it will not be revisited here, except to say that it reflected the near impossibility of crafting meaningful policy to appeal across the multicultural, geographically diverse complex organism that modern Australia is today. In reality only a multiplicity of parties can do that.

There has been much wringing of hands about the need for stability but this reaction was either confected or perhaps reflected an understandable nervousness about anything that might disturb the status quo that has, by definition, worked to the advantage of those established interests. There have been a few voices urging everyone there is no need to panic based on some obvious evidence. We have all read many comments on this but bear with me while I attempt to summarize the important points leading to the main contention.

First, the most obvious counter-example is of most European countries which have long had governments formed from multiple and changing party affiliations. No one can argue credibly that Germany shows any ill effects of such a system, being the third or fourth largest economy in the world and the world’s largest exporting nation. The Greens have participated in ruling governments from the late 90s, first in centre-left (so-called red-green) coalitions with the Social Democrats at the federal level and more recently in three-party centre-right coalitions with the conservative Christian Democrats at state level. The respected German foreign minister and deputy PM, Joschka Fischer was a Green.

Second, minority state governments including three in the recent past (Greiner-NSW; Bracks-Vic; Rann-SA) and two today (Barnett-WA and Labor-Greens, Tas) point to the fact that such governments can be stable despite initial expectations. The Tasmanian experiment is only four months old but Labor Premier David Bartlet was extolling his minority government last week and on Insight Tuesday night, even amidst their first disagreement over betting regulation.

All five key players (two Liberal, three Labor) were in exceptional agreement that, even if uncomfortable at times, these governments were successful.

Third, of the four Anglo democracies of most interest to Australians (USA, UK, Australia, Canada) there has been an effective crisis in governance in the three (USA, UK, Australia) who have inflexible two-party systems. Canada, one of the most successful countries in the world currently has a ministry of right (Conservative) and centre-right (Liberal). In the USA the Tea Partiers, representing less than 1% of Republicans, drive the public agenda of both sides of politics to extremes and into dysfunction. The United Kingdom resolved their hung parliament earlier this year with an unexpected coalition between conservative and centre-left parties, at almost 6 months, shows all the signs that it might be a successful government.

This brief history shows that multi-party politics exists in many of the world’s most successful countries while two-party politics has run into trouble in all countries encumbered with it. Our hung parliament will be resolved shortly and is dependent on four independents whose votes collectively represent 1.23%, but feasibly just one of them might end up being decisive.  This means a sole MP with a low of 0.13% (13,681 primary votes, Andrew Wilkie, Denison) to a high of 0.46% (50,366 primary votes, Tony Windsor, New England) of total valid votes cast could determine our government for the next three years.

Although they come from regional Australia — hardly representative of most Australians — we seem to be lucky with all four independents acting responsibly, calmly and rationally in the national interest– imagine if it was someone like Barnaby Joyce, Wilson Tuckey, Bill Heffernan or Steve Fielding!  This time we have dodged a bullet.

Nevertheless it can hardly be considered a triumph of our electoral system.

But it is worse. As of Monday the Coalition has moved marginally ahead in two-party preferred terms — by 1,909 votes or 0.017% of the total. At the time of writing the Coalition are attempting to build a moral case around this miniscule difference. Technically the only thing that is functionally and constitutionally important is that a prospective government must command a majority of seats (76) in the lower house. Morally one would hope that the 1.26 million primary votes of the Greens should matter but their 11.4% share of the vote across the 150 seats in which they ran candidates, won a single seat (Adam Bandt, Melbourne). By contrast, the Nationals, with 3.86% of the vote got seven seats, and the Queensland LNP, with 1.02 million votes (8.95%) achieved 21 seats. An average per seat won of 1.26 million votes versus 48,857 votes. That is a discrepancy of 26 fold.

The main parties and other beneficiaries of this grotesquely skewed result will shrug their shoulders and say that is just the way the cookie crumbles. But it is manifestly unfair and beyond perverse. It is broke and it self-evidently needs fixing.

The last decade of government from both Liberals and Labor has shown paralysis on some critical issues from climate, land management, energy, water, public transport and urban planning. There are plenty of solutions but the impediment to their implementation is political and the apparent loss of political validity of the major parties. It seems clear we need to resolve that by breaking up the monolithic parties into smaller units that can honestly represent the diversity of options available. It is interesting that the resolution to the election and many of the divisive policies lies outside the main parties, by parliamentarians who years ago came to the conclusion that the solutions did not lie within those parties. But a proliferation of independents (which may well be on the cards) cannot by itself lead to a long term resolution and it seems the only way to achieve this is via electoral reform.

Electoral reform is extremely difficult to introduce but not impossible. Entrenched interests of major parties, conservatism and inertia all work against it. Hare-Clark is a proportional representational  (PR) voting system—with multi-member electorates—that combines features of both PR and a preferential system (otherwise known as Single Transferable Vote, STV). The original Hare-Clark PR-STV system was introduced very early in Tasmania in 1896 but the popularity of versions of PR-STV in the modern world can be judged by its adoption in totally new constituencies such as Scotland’s and Northern Ireland’s regional governments and the Australian Capital Territory.

The UK election in March this year is a clear model for what can be wrong about electoral systems. The two main parties got 36.1% and 29% (total 65.1%) of the vote but in their first-past-the-post system it won them 87% of the seats. Neither party obtained a majority to be able to form a government. The Liberal-Democrats won 23% of the vote yet obtained only 8.8% of the seats. It has become generally accepted that there needs to be electoral reform but the graphic shows that if the UK adopts our version of preferential (Alternative) voting this extreme inequality in distribution of seats will only modestly be corrected. Any Australian could have told them! On the other hand if they adopted PR-STV (see graph) the political situation is transformed.

reform

The Australian data in the graph shows a similar effect if this election’s data are modeled* on a Hare-Clark system. As noted* this is a very broadbrush view. The increases or decreases in Liberal and LNQ seat tally presumably reflects current concentration of those votes in specific locations which is not accurately accounted for by the national or state averaging performed here. As with today’s outcome no single party has a majority.

The defining mechanism of Hare-Clark is the quota (or threshold) of votes required for a candidate to be elected: if 100 valid votes are cast then the quota is: 100 divided by “number of seats plus 1”, plus 1.  Thus in a 5 seat system the quota is 16.7+1=17.7 ie. 18 votes; or more generally “16.7% of votes plus one vote”—for example if 1000 valid votes are cast the quota is 168 votes (167+1).

A strong feature of STV is to minimize “wasted votes”. It does this by transferring surplus votes from those candidates who have reached the quota; that candidate’s surplus votes are transferred in proportion to the overall second choice preferences of that winning candidate. Thus if in an election for 5 seats with 100 valid votes cast, requiring a quota of 16.7% (ie. 18 votes) if one candidate receives 50 votes then the 32 surplus votes are transferred to the second-preference candidates according to the overall preference of that candidate’s 50 voters.

The process is repeated until all seats are filled or, if unfilled, then the lowest-polling candidate is eliminated with their votes being redistributed to their second preferences.

While this may be complicated to explain, and is criticized as impractical for that reason, in the voting booth it is little different to our current Senate PR voting system. It is admirably simple and clear: the voter numbers 1 to 5 their top choice of candidates. In STV there is no party list and no “above the line” voting. Strong independent candidates, such as the four currently determining our future, have nothing to fear from such a system.

The five member system is the preferred choice because it is a balance between reasonable representation of “significant” minorities (requiring, after allocation of preferences, 16.7% of all votes) and simplicity and practicality. It has the added benefit of always voting for individuals but the larger the number of seats per electorate, the larger the electorate needs to be and thus a diminution of “local” representation.

So, is it very likely that we might use this exceptional opportunity to evolve our electoral system to be both fair and more likely to cope with our increasingly complex society in an increasingly integrated complex, changing world?  No, of course not.

With responsible independents in the lower house we have a real chance at improved quality of governance.  In the coming months and years the Greens with their balance of power in the Senate will have their chance to express their political power.  The public will probably not give them a second chance if they refuse to be pragmatic and flexible and deign to be obstructionist.

Most of all we might hope that the media and commentariat might accept that our creaky old electoral system is broke and is at least partly responsible for our political system being so dysfunctional. A multi-party system more accurately allows honest expression of policy differences rather than the grey soup we currently have from attempts to not upset anyone.

In the past Australia has been a world leader in women’s right to vote, protection of workers rights, the first Labor party and the first national preferential voting system. Once again we could show the world how to evolve a fairer and responsive democracy.

*Footnote on Methodology: Calculating outcomes with Hare-Clark models is simple with actual multimember polling data but very problematic to impose on existing polling data, for three main reasons. 1) Voter behaviour: this will change considerably due to both local candidates carrying more weight and perception of less “waste” of their vote for minor parties and independents. Tasmania proves both points and led to a Labor-Green government. 2) Preference allocation: with multi-member electorates voters are faced with very different choices than in our two party system; however giving the main parties the benefit of the doubt we assume the main parties will preference either their second candidate 75%, or in the case of the Greens and Nationals (if the Nats can still be called a major party) the second preference will go to Labor and Liberal respectively. 3) A third factor is geography which would require complex highly-locale specific data and assumptions about make-up of the much bigger electorates; it is not attempted here.

As a simplistic broad-brush look, the formal vote totals were divided by the calculated quota. Due to the LNP in Queensland that state was modeled separately to the rest of the country. Data for the 2010 election was downloaded from the AEC on Saturday 28 August and partly updated Monday 30 August.

Dr Michael R. James is a research scientist and writer. He is not a member of any political party.

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20 thoughts on “The crisis in governance in two-party systems

  1. Don

    without analysing all the above, it seems to me the fundamental and very simple problem with the current preferential system, which if addressed may well largely fix the inequitities referred to, without introducing a very comples and entirely different system.

    and the problem i refer to is this. with the existing preferential system, a FULL VALUE vote flows down (is distributed) to the Nth level of preferences.

    this is manifestly mathetically & statically & logically untenable and ridiculous.

    the obvious mathetically and logical method would be to reduce the value of the vote for each time it was successively distributed.

    1/2 vote on 1st preference distribution (2nd preference), 1/3 vote on 2nd (3rd preference), 1/4 on 3rd (4th preference) etc

    this would give real meaning (and logic) – and real bite to preferential voting!

    (it could/should also be combined with optional preferential voting as well)

    and would give people a real and greater reason to put minor parties (they prefer) as 1st preference – knowing it would actually make a significant difference, instead of, in most cases now, people not voting for minor parties because they know under current system, it rarely counts or matters

    without knowing the history at all, it strikes me that the major parties quite deliberately set up preferential votinng in this manner knowing full well that at end of the day (or counting 🙂 it didn’t make any difference (in almost all cases) if voters put a minor party as 1st preference.

    i would be grateful is someone (antony are you there?) could estimate what the result/s might have been if we applied the the above concept/maths

  2. Down and Out of Sài Gòn

    Don: you say full preference flows are a problem, but you don’t say what’s wrong with it. “Mathetically & statically & logically untenable and ridiculous” is just meaningless verbiage. All voting systems can be modeled mathematically, including STV.

    You might as well say “I don’t like full preference flows”; at least you’re being direct and honest.

    There are several advantages to full value preference flows. One of the most important is that you don’t need all the calculator keys to tabulate all the preference flows – just simple addition. The winning candidate is then the person with the biggest bundle of ballots. It doesn’t matter if a paper passed though the Greens, Foetus First, or the Monster Raving Loony Party – each paper is simply added to the bundle. Scrutineers can also follow the process by counting. It follows that it is far quicker to count the ballot papers under the present system than under your reciprocal preferencing system.

  3. Gavin Moodie

    Thanx for this explanation. I wondered how preferences were distributed under the Hare-Clark system. I presume preferences can be optional under Hare-Clark.

  4. John Bennetts

    Thank your lucky stars that we do not vote via a first past the post system. That system may be smple, but that’s all that can be said for it.

  5. Don

    dear down & out.

    sorry. i thought it was (very) self evident what was wrong with a full value vote being endlessly distributed. and as for “meaningless verbiage”, each of those adjectives, sorry adverbs, was actually meaningful, and accurate in my view.

    if i can try it to put it simply. your 4th preference vote should not be equal in value to my 1st preference vote. that is manifestily inequitable. sorry if you don’t find that self-evident.

    it seems to me, mathematically, statistically, and logically (more verbiage) inituitive, and dare i saw obvious (and i speak as an (ex) statistican), that as votes ‘flow down’ they should be worth less

    obviously (i thought), people manifestly preference candidates in a certain order based on how much they like, or dislike, the person, or the party, or their policies, or all three.

    and the reason this concept should be combined with optional preferences is that many people don’t/wouldn’t want ANY part of their vote going to certain parties or people, let alone a FULL vote (hence greater informal votes)

    diluting the value of a vote with each successive distribution recognises that the simple inescapable fact that the person voting liked that party or candidate LESS than the preference/s above it

    really the current method and what you are supporting/suggesting, is saying that the voter likes all parties and canditates EQUALLY because they all get the same value vote when distributed (not ‘all’ exactly as someone actually wins at some point . but you see the point?)

    as to calculating, well, if the hare-clark can be calculated, so can this. that is what we have calculators and indeed computers for, and indeed what they are already being used for in every election. and this calcualtion is actually extremly simple to calculate and collate.

  6. Norman Hanscombe

    Michael R. james tells us:

    “First, the most obvious counter-example is of most European countries which have long had governments formed from multiple and changing party affiliations.” It’s understandable that he’s then very careful to mention only one,Germany, and omit other European nations, because many have terrible records re musical chair governments. A wise decision on his part?

    “Second, minority state governments — point to the fact that such governments can be stable despite initial expectations.” Again true, although the claim re “initial expectations” (whatever Dr James’ expectations were} didn’t apply to all observers.

    His “Third” item is at least amusing in its implications re the negative effects of an “extreme” rightwing group, the Tea Party, while he remains sanguine about the even greater influence the Greens have had on Australian politics. Could it be right influence bad, left good? This is as non-sensical as another True Believer mantra, right good, left bad.

    His True Believer status is reflected in the “brief history” claim which shows he’s blissfully unaware of the logical error he’s committing with the assumption that whatever he genuinely believes can be used to support what he wants to believe. On the other hand, since he’s an ‘academic’ Research Scientist, should we exempt him from normal logical restraints?

    He’s spot on pointing out that, “The last decade of government — has shown paralysis on some critical issues from climate, land management, energy, water, public transport and urban planning.”
    There’s no shortage of suggested “solutions”, of course, but two problems are i) many of the ideas more popular among True Believers (of all stipes) are at best unattainable, at worst gobblegook, and ii) the major Parties, which are actually capable of implementing meaningful changes, know from experience that articulate fringe dwellers will back their opponents as soon as any hard decision is made.

    He could have made the reference to the Hare-Clark system easier for mainlanders to understand if he’d said it was basically a more sophisticated variety of the P.R. system used for the Senate. In Tasmania it has helped elect more footballers and Greens than anywhere else in Australia; but it also has helped ensure neither major Party was able to enact policies supported by the majority of the supporters both those major Parties, and the majority of the Tasmanian voters. That can be good news for a minority, but — ?
    The Doctor is suggesting a move to proportional representation will change politics. On that, clearly he’s correct. Whether, however, it ensures an improvement (no matter how confident its proponents are they know what’s ‘best’ for the rest of us) clearly is far from established.

  7. David Hand

    Another factor that should be considered in the UK experience is the massive tactical voting that occurs. If you are a Tory but you think the Lib Dem will run second to Labour, you vote Lib Dem. Likewise a Labour voter will vote Lib Dem to stop a Tory favourite if the Lib Dem looks more electable than Labour. Lib Dems will vote Labour or Conservative based on getting their least hated major party candidate elected. So applying the actual FPP vote to other systems does not recognise the probability that voters will change their vote under a different system.

  8. Michael R James

    @NORMAN HANSCOMBE Posted Friday, 3 September 2010 at 4:27 pm

    Thanks for a considered reply. I should probably let others speak but it being Friday afternoon etc….

    I only had space to mention Germany because it is the most conspicuous success. I notice that you have not given any contra-examples? In my first draft I had a list that would include the Scandinavians, Netherlands and others. But I also wrote this (that didn’t make the final version):

    “On Monday night’s ABC QandA former PM Malcolm Fraser pointed out that the post-war Italian government has usually been perceived as dysfunctional—with 41 PMs in 59 governments in 64 years, though it has to be said for most of that time one party elected by proportional representation—yet Italy has the ninth largest economy in the world and has performed better in manufacturing than the UK. One could make similar remarks about Japan—48 PMs but from essentially one party, in the postwar period.”

    The point is that many of us (once that would have been me) confuse this overt jockeying between multiple parties after an election result (the Dutch one is still going on …after several months if I remember), or indeed the musical chairs you mention, with “bad”. That it is a given is all over the media. But the facts do not jibe with that simplistic view. In fact as a geneticist I now interpret the so-called horsetrading, or argy-bargy, in a multiple party PR system, in direct Darwinian terms. It is entirely honest (why would a part misrepresent itself in such negotiations when they will be tied into whatever policy is being argued? and is presumably the point of differentiation from other parties)–in fact it legitimizes the whole process. During such tortuous negotiation, and in the aftermath, many of the participants actually do change their positions, sometimes on fundamental points, in a sincere manner. Listen to those 5 state premiers; most of them were speaking like born-again true democrats–discovering democracy instead of the brutal winner-takes-all that most Australian politicians have been habituated to. Two parties simply cannot either contain the diversity of the electorate or the diversity of “solutions” or even perceptions of the challenges, so it is appropriate and constructive that a Darwinian process applies, first at the election then in the immediate post-election period in forming a working government. The nonsense that our two monolithic parties are “a broad church” is manifestly not true in how they operate, but true in that they are both close to exploding from the impossible internal stress (Malcolm Turnbull one hand, the far-right from Sussex street and centre-left of Labor etc.)

    The point about the Tea Partiers is simply that this tiny minority (1% of one party) is able to tear apart both major parties. The loudest least democratic ranters are taking over the asylum. In Europe they would simply have their own minority party that would almost certainly fade away after one election or so.

  9. Norman Hanscombe

    Doctor James, I didn’t give “any contra-examples” because anyone familiar with the effects of proportional representation would know its effect.

    It may be that, as you say, “Italy has the ninth largest economy in the world and has performed better in manufacturing than the UK”; but are you sure that even IF the musical chairs approach to parliaments (via P.R) is appropriate for the fractured nation Italy is, this should be the goal Australia sets itself? Nor am I as enthusiastic as you seem, that the post war Japanese solution (manipulated so successfully as it was for minority over-representation) is anything to boast about.

    I accept that you don’t see the sort of “jockeying between multiple parties after an election result — or indeed the musical chairs (I) mention (as) bad”. Why, I even accept that you believe, “as a geneticist” you can interpret horsetrading, or argy-bargy, in “direct Darwinian terms”. Some of us, however, aren’t convinced that this sort of Social Pseudo Darwinism is an adequate argument for adopting a law of the jungle, anything goes mentality. Perhaps we’re simply too soft?

    You tell us “Two parties simply cannot either contain the diversity of the electorate or the diversity of ‘solutions’ or even perceptions of the challenges–.” Wow!!! What a discovery!!! But I’m sure you can’t really believe the diversity of beliefs found in the population as a whole can be covered by even the most proportional of practical voting systems, so on what basis will you decide WHICH of these many (as you call them) ‘diversities’ you deem worthy of inclusion?

    Finally, I now appreciate your reaction to the Tea Party. It can hardly be merely you object that “this tiny minority (1% of one party) is able to tear apart both major parties,” because the major Parties are anathema to a ‘progressive Darwinist such as you anyway. It seems not unreasonable to suspect then, that when you complain about them “taking over the asylum” YOU want to be the one who choose swhich minority takes over the asylum?