There exists in the world of political commentary a certain kind of analyst who, in effect, agrees with the dictum attributed to Al Smith, the failed 1928 Democratic candidate for the US presidency: “All the ills of democracy can be cured by more democracy.”

Sometimes this dictum takes the form of the slogan that “the solution to the problems of democracy is more democracy”. In the United States belief in that idea has produced a much greater use of primaries than was the case in the days of Smith.

Today’s modern equivalent takes the form of saying that party-list proportional representation is the ideal to which a genuine democracy should aspire. By “party-list PR” is meant the various systems generally used in continental Western Europe, but it also includes the German system known as “mixed member proportional”. (That term was invented by New Zealand which copied Germany in 1996 and gave the term to a system now used by eight countries.) The classic adherent to this view is Guy Rundle and its clearest exposition came in his Crikey article last week.

I am not an admirer of the Greek electoral system. It has the same defect as all the others: it is a system of party machine appointments to the legislature. All the electorate does is to distribute numbers of party machine appointments. However, it does have one virtue. Known as “reinforced PR”, it distributes 250 seats proportionally and then 50 seats are added to the biggest single party. Thus at the election on May 6 the centre-right New Democracy party won 19% of the votes and 36% of the seats; the second biggest was the radical left Syriza which won 17% of the votes and 17% of the seats; the third biggest party was the traditional socialist Pasok with 13% of the votes and 14% of the seats; and the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn came in fourth with 7% of the votes and 7% of the seats.

There will be another election on Sunday, June 17. Let Crikey readers mark my words. New Democracy will again be the biggest single party — and with an increased share in both votes and seats. Consequently the Greek people will have followed the lead set by the Irish people in endorsing austerity.

Greece will NOT leave the 17-nation eurozone. The drachma will NOT be restored. The reinforcing of the system (the 50-seat bonus) is what will produce this desirable result. The reason is that the Greek people will be forced to concentrate their minds on the choice they must make. That was not really the case on May 6.

Contrary to Rundle, I think Australia has good systems whereby we elect our lower houses. Every member is directly elected by the people. It is, however, true to say (as Rundle does) that it is possible under our systems for the second-biggest party in votes to win more seats than the biggest party in votes. To discuss this in detail I consider the first case cited by Rundle: in 1954 Evatt-led Labor won 50.7% of the two-party preferred vote and lost while the Menzies Coalition government won 49.3% and won.

I make two points about that election. The first is that the electoral system (essentially the same then as now) was one accepted by Labor and, indeed, the boundaries of the electoral divisions had been drawn in 1948 when the Chifley Labor government had been in power. Understanding that a losing party cannot complain about a result occurring in such circumstances, Labor accepted the result as legitimate. My second point is that the statistics quoted by Rundle were never official — they were estimates drawn up by me. That was an election for the House of Representatives only. In Bradfield, Richmond and Wentworth in NSW, Mallee and Murray in Victoria and Angas and Hindmarsh in South Australia I made up party vote figures when no votes were actually cast, the sitting members for those seats having been re-elected unopposed.

The same comments apply in approximate terms to the election wins by the Menzies Coalition government in 1961 and the Gorton Coalition government in 1969. However, in 1990 (Bob Hawke winning with fewer two-party preferred votes than Andrew Peacock) and 1998 (John Howard winning with fewer than Kim Beazley) the statistics quoted by Rundle are semi-official inasmuch as the Electoral Commission (as a consequence of a submission made by me to the parliamentary electoral matters committee in 1983) fully counted out the preferences of minor party and independent candidates.

Nevertheless, my main point still applies. Each of Peacock in 1990 and Beazley in 1998 accepted his loss as legitimate, for a simple reason. In 1990 both Hawke and Peacock owned the electoral system. The same applied to both Howard and Beazley in 1998.

I am the first to acknowledge that in cases such as these one cannot truly say that a majority of the Australian people made the choice. Rather, the vagaries of the electoral system made that choice for the people. However, I point out that in four of the five subsequent elections the people clearly made the same choice of governing party. Thus in 1955, 1963, 1993 and 2001 the people clearly chose Menzies, Menzies, Keating and Howard, respectively.

I return to the slogan coined by Al Smith in 1928. Recently I was asked to review an American book titled The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies by Bryan Caplan. He rubbishes Smith and those who think like him. The book really means “why American democracy chooses bad policies” and I go along with that.

However, he advances certain arguments of general application. Thinking about these arguments I do go along with the view that the vagaries of our House of Representatives electoral system chose bad policies in 1990. I also think that in 2004 the vagaries of our Senate electoral system chose bad policies.

Nevertheless, I believe Australia has been lucky. Our democracy has chosen fewer bad policies than most other democracies.

*Malcolm Mackerras is visiting fellow in the Public Policy Institute, Australian Catholic University, Canberra campus

Get more Crikey, for less

It’s more than a newsletter. It’s where readers expect more – fearless journalism from a truly independent perspective. We don’t pander to anyone’s party biases. We question everything, explore the uncomfortable and dig deeper.

Join us this week for 50% off a year of Crikey.

Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
50% off