The Greek crisis has got me thinking about Australian politics again. More particularly, what is thought-provoking is the strange take on it in the mainstream press — that a people voting clearly, vigorously and decisively to overthrow the mainstream parties and choose a range of new parties to represent their interests somehow marks the failure of democracy, rather than its full functioning.

Many Australians might look at the Greek situation and say if that is full democracy, they’ll stick with the partial version currently on offer here. But in fact the Greek crisis arose from a system very much like Australia’s — a two-party dominated system, with internal dynastic politics and a great deal of big-party collusion against smaller outfits. It was the lack of accountability in the Greek system between 1974 and 2008 that helped get them into this mess.

There are parallels aplenty with our deadened “triple-lock” system of compulsory voting, compulsory preferencing and public funding for elections, but that isn’t what really came back to mind this time. Instead, it’s the mismatch between the voting system and the creation of a majority government.

Twice in the past 20 years, and four times in the past 60 years, we have had governments that failed to win a majority of the national two-party preferred vote, but who took a majority of seats due to the inevitable uneven distribution. In 1998, Kim Beazley won 51.15% of the vote, against a first-term prime minister whose championing of a goods-and-services tax had proved highly unpopular. In 1990, Andrew Peacock won the popular vote by 20,000 votes out of nearly 10 million cast  — and still wound up with nine seats less than Labor, 78-69. In 1961, Arthur Calwell gained 50.50% 2PP, and lost by two seats: 62-60. And in 1954, perhaps the most pivotal election of all, Doc Evatt defeated Robert Menzies by 1.4% of the vote, 50.7% to 49.3%, but still lost 64-57 seats.

For a political system based on a voting method — compulsory preferential — whose claimed virtue is that it always delivers a majority result, this is a stunning failure. Each of these elections was followed by the elected government acting as if it had won a resounding mandate. In the ’50s and ’60s that involved, inter alia, extending state aid to religious schools, a concerted attack (in 1955) on the arbitration system, a commitment to assisting the UK in its suppression of the Malaysian anti-imperial war (the so-called “emergency”) and much more. The denial of government to Calwell in 1961 meant we were denied the chance at a national health service, the revival of free hospitals, a focus on Australian industrial development, non-participation in US adventures abroad, a push on affordable housing and a referendum for indigenous citizenship.

Following the 1990 election, the Hawke-Keating government made its most comprehensive push on tariff and labour market transformation, and in 1998 John Howard — after, on election night, when he thought he’d lost, reflecting ruefully that he hadn’t paid enough attention to reconciliation (check the tape, people) — went on to become the Howard of memory, doubling down on refugees and the US alliance.

But it’s even more complicated than that. Each of these elections had decisive results for the parties concerned. Following the ’54 result and the split, the breach between the ALP and DLP was institutionalised. Would that have been the case if the spoils of office had been there to share? Would the split have happened at all? The defeat of Peacock in 1990 put paid to a pluralistic Liberal Party, with a genuine social liberal formation — after that it was the Hewson adventure, the Downer debacle and the return of Howard. Following the 1998 election, that path was confirmed, and the ALP was thrown into a decade of doldrums.

Had the governments elected reflected the election results, it seems likely Australia would be a somewhat different place, in numerous ways. Indeed our whole idea of what Australia is — most particularly that it was the sort of place that would re-elect Menzies seven times in a row. Had Beazley been elected in 1998, then Labor would have dominated Australia for two full decades, with brief Howard interregnum. And so on. And as a footnote, our view of these people would be changed too.

Would Evatt be the vainglorious madman who led the ALP to folly if he had become prime minister in 1954? Would Menzies seem the personification of Australia — or a man the public had never really trusted? Would he have returned to contest an election in 1957 (I’m presuming the 1955 election would not have occurred), or would the Liberal Party have chosen a new leader? Would Andrew Peacock seem such an afterthought had he won in 1990 — and would Keating have hung around to contest him in 1993?

Most pertinent for our era, Beazley’s victory would have turned him from a tragic figure into an enduring Labor hero — the man who got it back. Howard’s one-term disaster would have confirmed what everyone thought of him in the ’80s — that he was a figure the Australian public would not accept. None of these judgments would have been any truer than the alternatives that stand, but it’s a measure of how shockingly arbitrary the whole business is that this can be the case.

Four elections out of 24 have delivered the wrong result. That is an absurd situation and one that makes a lie of any notion of real democracy. Yet what is most amazing is that these results occasion no great consternation in the land. The 2009 green paper on electoral reform barely mentions the situation — when it should be the pivotal problem on which electoral reform is based.

Multi-member electorate proportional voting would fix that — but there seems no chance of that getting up. And the 2009 paper doesn’t mention the simplest and easiest fix available: a bonus of, say, 10 “at-large” MPs awarded to the party with the majority 2PP vote. That would be sufficient to guarantee a majority of seats to whoever had won the majority — on the downside (or up, depending on your politics) it would also mean minority C0alition governments were unlikely.

I’d prefer a proportional system, but in the absence of that, I’d prefer a system that made a repeat of ’98 impossible.

There’s no compelling reason to raise this now, but there’s no reason not to. Nothing can be done about it in an election period — but it seems nothing will be done about it outside of one either. And if we continue to muddle along with the current situation, what then? What would happen, for example, if the Gillard government managed to win enough seats to strike a renewed deal with independents — but had lost the 2PP overall vote by 1-1.5%? The Right would see this as nothing less than a crisis of legitimacy, and they would be right.

Would this finally shock us out of our complacency about a system that is little more than an electoral dictatorship, randomised one-time-in-six — a sort of Australian roulette? Or will we go on forever — unlike the Greeks — not really caring about how our governments are made?

Peter Fray

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