In order to have any hope of improving the situation, changes have to be made. I refer to my opening suggestions:
Option One – We pick out any good bits and keep them, and chuck away the bits that are crap.
Option Two – We don’t try to fix it. We give it a heave and start again, but in doing so, we should be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
Why don’t we start with Option One? Let’s pick out the good bits of the current system. Seriously, there must be some.
Firstly, in the current system, a successful candidate has to receive the majority of the votes. This is a good thing, if the voters know enough to make informed choices, but it’s possibly corrupted a bit by “preferences”, where it’s possible that your vote could end up helping to elect a cretin for whom you would never have voted.
A preferential voting system is supposed to allow voters to elect the candidate who is most widely acceptable. If you have a good head for mathematics, and you have nothing better to do with your time, you can find out exactly how the system works. If you don’t, or you haven’t, you can take my extremely simplistic explanation as a guide. (I really hope that I’ve got it, at least, almost right.)
Although I have always considered myself to be basically politically aware, the intricacies of the election process have never piqued my interest. Until I began this rant, I didn’t even know how ignorant of the process I was.
For example, I wasn’t aware that each state has its own systems, which may vary depending upon the type of election being held. The federal systems can differ again, so I think that it’s possible to vote in local, state and national elections using a different system each time.
I suspect that, like me, many voters expected that the candidate who achieved the most primary votes would be elected, even under the preferential voting system. Not so. This is true with respect to all governments, including the Federal Parliament, with both the House of Representatives and the Senate being elected in this way.
Under the preferential system, in order to be elected, a candidate has to receive, not the largest percentage of the first preference votes, but more than 50% of them. Here’s a hypothetical situation which I think could reasonably arise in a NSW state election.
In a south coast electorate, independent candidate Jill gets 45% of the first preference votes, Joe gets 25% and Mary, Fred and Arnold each receive 10%. At first glance, it looks like Jill is easily the most popular candidate and should win by a country 1.6 kilometres, but, in politics, little is as it seems.
Preferences from the three least popular candidates are eventually distributed between Jill and Joe. Jill gets 3% of the preferences bringing her total vote up to 48%. Joe gets 27% of the preferences and his 25% suddenly becomes 52% and he is elected, despite earning little more than half the number of first preference votes that Jill received.
[It is later revealed that Mary, Fred and Arnold are the major shareholders in a company that wishes to develop a large tract of land for housing and commercial purposes. They stand to make brazillions of dollars from the venture, if they can get an access corridor built through an area of environmentally sensitive native forest. Since they know that they won’t be elected, their involvement in the development company won’t eventually represent a conflict of interest.
Prior to the election, they haven’t approached Jill to see if she will use her influence, if elected, to open the corridor, since her views on environmental destruction are well known. (Ultimately, it was primarily those views which helped her to secure the 45% of the votes which she received.)
However, the trio has approached Joe. He has no ethics, no principles and no interest in anything other than being elected. Joe does a deal with the trio – if they will direct their preferences to him, and he is elected, he will use his influence with others pollies, doing deals, in order to ensure that the corridor is opened.]
Although clearly the most popular candidate, standing on a platform of environment protection, Jill, and the 45% of the electorate who voted to protect the proposed corridor, have to sit back and watch the bulldozers.
Since it is used to gradually whittle away the independent and minor party candidates, reallocating their preferences to major party candidates, it appears that preferential voting is more about supporting the two-party system, than giving the electorate the most suitable representative in parliament.
In my (possibly naïve) view, it is the two-party system itself which limits the democratic process in Australia.
It also appears that the use of a preferential voting system represents yet another opportunity for the corrupt use of power and influence.
A second “plus” for the current system lies in the fact that most voters can find a candidate, independent or within a party, for whom to vote.
In my earliest voting years the Labor Party received my vote because they seemed to represent the working class, of which I am a member (although no longer working), and because they appeared to provide society’s best chance to achieve some semblance of social justice.
The Liberal Party, and it’s Country Party allies, represented the needs of the wealthy to retain and enhance their wealth and power as society’s elite class. Until the emergence of Gough Whitlam, their record in protecting the interests of the gentry and promoting the British class system in this country was indeed impressive.
It might even be suggested that long-term Liberal Prime Minister, (Sir) Robert Menzies, could “out-British” the British. In 1965, Menzies’ loyalty to the monarchy was rewarded when he took the ceremonial office of Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports and Constable of Dover Castle, appointed by the Queen. The office included an official residence at Walmer Castle, for his use during his annual visits to Britain.
Not prepared to limit his subservience only to Mother England, “. . . after close consultation with the Government of the United States”, Menzies committed Australian soldiers to America’s war in Vietnam, singing the American song that “The takeover of South Vietnam would be a direct military threat to Australia and all the countries of South and South-East Asia.”
National Service, probably the most vile act, after slavery, ever perpetrated upon the powerless by the powerful, was introduced by Menzies’ Liberal-Country Party coalition, and young men who were too young to vote were sent to die in Vietnamese rice paddies.
So much for Australian democracy.
Sadly, during the last four decades, the once clear distinction between Labor and Liberal/Country Party (now Liberal/National Party) policies has blurred so dramatically that by the time we had reached the end of Hawke’s reign as PM, it was almost impossible to distinguish one from the other.
It appears that, in modern times, rather than presenting policies for the electorate to consider, politicians prefer to resort to insult, innuendo and character assassination in order to encourage the electorate to choose a government by voting against their opponents rather than voting for a candidate who presents viable policies.
For many years, I have found it extremely difficult to find a candidate who deserves my vote, and I have been in the habit of voting against the most unsatisfactory candidate, instead of voting for a candidate in whom I can believe. It seems that we have now become mired in the “politics of the personality”.
The third and final “plus” for the current system lies in the fact that, in most cases, each person’s vote has roughly equal value. Rural voters are supposedly not disadvantaged by living in remote areas, since each electorate must have approximately the same number of voters.
There have been notable exceptions to this “rule”. Queensland Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen managed to keep the Queensland Labor Party out of government for over thirty years by rigging electoral boundaries in a process known as gerrymandering. Joh’s corrupt practice made Queensland a laughing stock in a social as well as a political sense.
In a more recent attempt to avoid the “one person, one vote” convention, in 2014, the NSW Liberal Government allied itself to a minor special interest party, in order to overcome “obstruction” from the City of Sydney Council, by passing laws that would allow businesses in the City of Sydney to have two votes in local government elections, compared to just one vote per resident. It was perhaps no coincidence that, at that time, the Liberal Government was struggling to lift its head out of the shitpile created by a developer donations scandal.
In retrospect, it seems as though each of the three “plusses” is afflicted with its own “minuses”, but in principle if not in practice, these seem to be the three most suitable concepts to retain.
It had been my intention, at this point, to suggest ways in which the current system could be improved, but I truly think that the present system is beyond saving. By the time I propose the aspects of the current system which need to be discarded, there’s precious little left to retain.
Therefore, I’m going to dispense with Option One, and go straight to Option Two.
My alternative system would be cognisant of the fact that we need to achieve a number of key objectives in order to build governments that actually reflect the wishes of the electorate:
- We must ensure that the vote of each and every Australian has the same value.
- We make certain that the candidate who secures the most votes in an electorate secures the seat.
- We provide equal opportunity for all candidates to be elected.
- We remove as many as possible of the avenues for corrupt behaviour.
I’ll suggest a strategy which might ensure that each objective can be achieved, at least as far as it is possible to do so:
- Ensure that the Australian Electoral Commission (A.E.C.) has sufficient powers, and manpower, to effectively audit the number of voters per electorate and to conduct redistributions as they become necessary. This should eliminate any possibility of gerrymandering.
- Chuck the preferential voting system and use the “first past the post” system to elect the candidate who receives the greatest share of the votes. This should eliminate the possibility of “special deals” being done to secure preferences in order to elect a candidate whom the majority of voters do not want.
- Dispose of the “party system”. Parties provide power, influence and finance to favoured people who stand as candidates representing the party, not necessarily the voters. Unless a potential candidate has party support, s/he has less chance of being elected. This is undemocratic. In addition, the party system automatically introduces a distracting and time-wasting element of conflict into the process of governing.
- Have the A.E.C. conduct an in-depth and exhaustive investigation of the current system, identify the means by which inequality and corruption may impact upon the fairness of the election process and propose legislative changes which will, as far as it is possible to do so, eliminate corruption.
Strategies one and two should be manageable, provided that the processes utilised in order to achieve the desired outcomes are, themselves, not compromised by corruption. However, as long as the “human factor” plays a part in any action, it is impossible to guarantee that improper behaviour does not occur.
Pursuing strategies three and four will effectively turn the whole political scene in Australia “on its head”. Which is actually what needs to happen.
At the risk of being accused of “kite flying”, I’ll put forward a range of ideas. It could be that some of them might even be feasible.
It could be argued by its proponents, that the party system provides the most “efficient” form of government. Without it, they say, nothing would ever be achieved because there’d be too much argument about “unimportant” issues.
As I understand it, elected candidates who belong to a party (that’s most of them) vote for a leader and perhaps have some involvement in choosing who gets to play first grade, to be a “minister” or a “shadow minister”.
After that takes place, the second graders probably get to have a whinge during team meetings, if things are happening which might make their particular voters annoyed, but they pretty much have to live with the decisions made by the first grade team and its captain.
In order to become a party’s candidate in an election, you have to be “selected” by the party members. If you disagree loudly with party policy you’ll upset the other members and your chance of getting selected to stand as a party candidate goes out the window.
You don’t have any chance of being elected because even your own party members don’t want you, so you toe the “party line” even if your principles (should you have any) make you feel that you’re doing something wrong.
If you do get elected the situation is perhaps even worse because, if you’ve managed to hang on to any principles, you might one day find that you can’t vote the way the party tells you to, and you “cross the floor”. Guess who’ll get “de-selected” as a candidate before the next election.
So we end up with a situation where, although there might be eighty members of the governing party, only a relative handful of those has any real influence on decision-making.
The remaining seventy or so elected representatives, the opposition party, have virtually no say in the making of policies which affect the nation. Instead of being productive, they sit back, twiddling their thumbs and waiting for the next election, or they take any chance on offer to throw shit at the people who got the jobs which they had missed out on.
That’s not representative government, it’s convenient government.
I suggest that all candidates for election must be independent. This would eliminate the adversarial nature of the current system, which serves nobody’s best interests.
As taxpayers, we fund governments and the politicians who are paid from the public purse. Aren’t we therefore, the employers of the politicians?
If you were a business owner who paid staff to complete specific tasks, and you found that those people spent much of their time arguing about who performed those tasks better, instead of completing the tasks themselves, what would you do?
I have often been moved to wonder why it is that our politicians spend so much of the time and energy for which we pay them, insulting and degrading each other, or providing the ammunition which their opponents can then use to insult and degrade them.
What benefits accrue to an adversarial system? Is it better, more effective, more efficient, more democratic than a consensus system? Do we adhere to it simply because it’s what has always been done, because it’s one of the great legacies bequeathed to us by The Mother Country?
“It’s the Westminster System, old boy. It must be the best!”