Australia

Mar 31, 2014

Imagine there were proportional representation in your parliament …

Is there a fairer way to decide who represents us in parliament? Proportional representation is one solution. Matthew Brown crunches the numbers to see just what that would look like.

What would Australia’s parliaments look like if each lower house had proportional representation? How about this in Canberra …

And in the states (click through to a larger version) …

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12 comments

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12 thoughts on “Imagine there were proportional representation in your parliament …

  1. Kevin Evans

    In addition to proportionality, as highlighted above, there are other critical issues to consider. These also link to the constitutional system.

    Fortunately with a 2 house system of parliament it is possible to seek a balance between demography and geography. This also means it is possible to use 2 quite different electoral systems to provide the best chance of balancing political and electoral dynamics.

    In a parliamentary system (unlike presidential system) there is great value in creating workable and coherent governments. Single member constituency based systems usually do this better – except in countries with extreme geographic on top of demographic diversity (eg India).

    The great merit of Australia’s system is that we use single member constituency for the House of Reps and PR for the Senate. This usually creates a stable working majority for the Government created in the House of Reps. At the same time to prevent a “parliamentary dictatorship” as often seen in unicameral places, we use proportional representation in the Senate.

    Australia has been fortunate to have such a balanced system of representation. Parties with widely scattered but not deep support (eg Greens) can still get elected.

    In countries like NZ where there is only 1 house (or Germany where the upper house is weak) there is an incentive to try mixing both single member representation with proportional top ups. Where both system are used already as in Australia there is little value in creating this “2 door” system for entering the House of Reps.

    One fundamental advantage of Australia’s preferential vote is precisely that the “most popular” candidate does not always win. The beauty of the preferential vote is that the winner is the candidate most acceptable, not necessarily the most popular. This is because to win you must demonstrate that over 50% of voters can accept you, even if say only 35% like you the most. This system tends to make it harder for loud, abrasive or extremist forces from being elected. While they may get lots of enthusiastic followers, they tend to get more “loathers”. Pauline Hanson’s failure to win in Blair in 1998 was not because she was not popular. Indeed she was the most popular candidate. Unfortunately she was also the most loathed. This meant that aside from her own supporters, supporters of other candidates did not wanted her at all, thus she lost. Under the US, British or Indian system she would have won.

    The use of single member electorate systems allows for stable and long term coalition formation (not political one night stands as often seen in PR based systems). Unlike first past the post which forces voters to vote tactically (usually to stop the party they dislike), preferential voting actually lets you vote for whom you like first.

    As noted in your review Qld has only 1 house. Hardly surprising in this state there have been efforts to contort the single house to create a balance between geography and demography. It produced the basis for the warped system that existed for decades. Retaining the Upper House would have allowed this to be done while retaining the integrity of lower house elections.

    If there was one improvement that could be considered it might be to replace the current Single Transferable Vote (STV) used in the Senate with a simpler system of proportional representation in which the voter can vote for which ever candidate from their party/list they like. There would be other factors to consider, eg. keeping the above the line or having voters select their preferred senator an also identify party preference list etc. One issue to note is that since the use of this STV system in 1949, no person has ever been elected unless the person above the, has also been elected. Basically it means that the list is not really open as we would usually presume.

    Best of luck with considerations.
    Kevin – Jakarta

  2. Shaniq'ua Shardonn'ay

    Like Kevin I quite like the system where we have a separate senate that takes proportional representation into account. The method of voting in the senate does need reform however – people should have the ability to number ALL boxes above the line and have their preferences counted accordingly.
    I’d also like Australia to have a look at the system used in the US where if enough people sign up for a particular cause a referendum is then called (which I believe is how marijuana has been legalised). This would be a good initiative to give a voice to issues that the professional politician won’t touch (e.g. Euthanasia, Gay Marriage etc)

  3. fractious

    Thanks Matthew. I’d always wanted a handy ready reference to throw into a political discussion where representativeness is being argued.

  4. bjb

    As a member of the Greens, I’d certainly like to see a more equitable representation of the the electorate’s preferences. When you see the graphed proportions it makes a mockery of the Libs labelling the Greens a “fringe” party. It also shows why the bluster of Downer and Pyne over the SA result is just that. There’s no way at a Federal level they want a change, otherwise they’d never be in power.

    1. Sophie Benjamin

      Hi Harry,
      Matthew Brown is Redditor “orru”, and we got in touch to ask permission to post this on the site, which he gave. No conspiracy here.
      Sophie – website producer.

  5. Malcolm Street

    bjb – and if you want a “fringe” party in terms of votes it gets with influence out of all proportion to its size, look at the Nationals…

  6. Simon

    Don’t let Tasmania & the ACT off the hook either. The minute you divide into smaller electorates you sacrifice some degree of proportionality, and even more so if (as in ACT) those electorates are of different sizes with different quotas.

    A proportional result in ACT would have been 6 each to the major parties, 2 to the Greens, 1 each for the Motorist & Bullet Train parties. In Tasmania it would have been 14 Liberal, 7 Labor, 3 Greens, 1 PUP

  7. Simon

    I miscounted ACT. Liberals would have got the last seat, giving them 7

  8. Simon

    The ‘House of Review’ argument, which justifies both the persistence of strong bicameralism, and the adoption of proportional representation in upper houses (but NOT lower houses) is a curious argument. The functions attributed to a House of Review are the functions that should be exercised by the entire parliament. In arguing for a system where the governing house should as often as possible have stable majorities (combined with strong party discipline that is largely unique to Australia), we are in fact arguing for a lower house that is a legislative irrelevance. In which case, why bother having one? Why not just vote for the governing party in a straight popularity contest, and send every bill straight to the ‘house of review’ for the real legislative work to be done?

    On the occasions when our elections fail to produce a majority government, we finally get to see real legislative work in both houses – we finally get to see our lower house MPs doing the meaningful parliamentary work they are paid for. Why is this a bad thing? In most mature democracies, minority governments and strong legislative scrutiny are the norm – surely we should be able to cope with both in Australia?

    The ACT has a unicameral parliament but produces none of the democratic anxieties we have about Queensland. That’s because the ACT have a proportional electoral system which produces few majority governments, and thus strong scrutiny from it’s legislature. Queensland’s problem is not it’s lack of upper house, but it’s unrepresentative electoral system for that house. None of our parliaments would have any need for a second ‘house of review’ if the lower houses were elected in a way that empowered them to do their job properly.

  9. CML

    Simon – I think it has become clear since the Gillard government that voters in this country will NOT accept minority government, particularly in the lower house. The voters have been conditioned to expect majority government only.
    While I understand your point of view, apart from decades of education to change attitudes in the community, there is also the small problem of large vested interests with powerful positions being threatened. Add to that the current media take on all this, and you are looking at an almost impossible situation.
    To say nothing of the Constitutional problems this would present….
    Good luck!!

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