More diversity, quality and democracy in the major parties? How about reforming the entire system?

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The electoral system in Australia, based on the single-member district, is biased in favour of only two parties and makes the formation of effective new parties virtually impossible. It is also directly responsible for the dysfunctional factional system in the major parties. What a great opportunity for either major party to boldly propose Proportional Representation as the solution. Thus far, we’ve heard nothing of the kind!

Proportional Representation (PR) is a highly democratic representative system, based on multi-member constituencies. It overcomes the many serious problems of the single-member district system. First, representation is proportional to the votes cast for any party. At present nearly half of the people in any one district are not represented by the party of their choice. Secondly, PR does away with gerrymandering, pork barrelling, economic development in marginal seats only, the problem of safe seats (neglect) and by-elections. It also stops the endless, grotesque overrepresentation of the major parties by the media. PR would allow a much greater variety of interests to be represented in Parliament, interests which don’t have to ingratiate themselves with the powerful, generally conservative executives of the major parties.

Why are “minor parties” minor parties?

Minor parties in the current system are condemned to remain minor parties because Australia’s electoral system grossly favours the look-alike major parties. The major parties don’t want to know about PR as it is not in their short-term interest, but they like the idea of minor parties because they enhance the myth of parliamentary democracy.

Any political system needs fresh ideas to reinvent and revive itself. This is not happening in Australia, except to a small extent in the Senate, Tasmania, the ACT and the NSW Legislative Council (all of which have PR), with the result that we have many incompetent, ossified two-party Parliaments which have clearly lost the respect of a public that votes in the least offensive of the two options on offer.

Bill Leak cartoon

Thanks to Bill Leak

The Howard Government attempted to reduce the diversity of Parliaments even further when it tried to reduce the power of the Senate in 2004, but withdrew when the voters showed no interest. This followed the successful reduction in diversity in Tasmania by the attacks on the PR system there, which adversely affected the Greens. The NSW Parliamentary Elections Act Amendment (1999) has made it much more difficult for minor parties to contest Upper House elections in future. This trend reduces diversity of representation and encourages even less transparency and more dishonesty in preferencing.

Glorification of the advantages of the two-party system is common practice by newspaper editors and populist radio reporters, who warn the public of the instability which PR would bring about by pointing to the minority examples of Italy and Israel. The Australian media also rubbished the introduction of PR in NZ, which initially was even deplored by such experienced election commentators as Malcolm Mackerras. It remains unsaid that the great majority of European countries – over 25 – have proportional representation enshrined in their constitutions and that these are stable democracies for whom the PR system causes no problems.

Advantages of Proportional Representation

PR may be introduced as a constitutional package or by separate referendum to adopt the Hare-Clark or other PR system based on multi-member electoral districts (these districts could be same as the administrative regions for local governments, see below). This would provide scope for the representation of more parties and Independents – provided they had minimum support of, say, 4% or 5% in multi-member districts. The proportion of votes required for representation in a district would not be able to be raised without a referendum or some other means of democratic consultation. This would ensure that major parties in a district could not simply vote together and raise the percentage without community consultation, in order to reduce the representation of smaller rival parties and independents.

For example: a system of 30 electoral districts, each returning nine members, would yield a 270-member legislature (House of Representatives). Add to this three Senators per district (possibly not belonging to any party) and a total of 360 MPs would represent the nation in Canberra. That would be less than half the present total number if the states were abolished. The Hare Clark system is well known in Australia as it is used in Tasmania, the ACT, and for the present Senate elections. In Australia it seems to be preferred over other PR systems, such as list PR systems and the NZ multi member district system of PR (based on the German system). The Dutch party list system of PR has superior elements. Only one tick is required to indicate both the preference of the party as well as the particular candidate on the list. However, the important principles of PR are comparable. The present single-member district system is probably the least suitable of all for Australia given that 80% of our population is concentrated in metropolitan areas. This means that the interests of citizens in all rural areas and regions are permanently underrepresented.

R ecently the problem of factionalism in the NSW Liberal opposition has shown up as another major problem of the two party tyranny. The youthful Opposition leader John Brogden, a small “l” Liberal, was forced to resign ostensibly as a result of misbehaving while being intoxicated, but in reality as a result of factional skullduggery. In February 2006 a new bout of factional war mongering broke out in Victoria in relation to pre-selection of candidates in the ALP. In the two party system varied public interests are compelled to seek expression within either party. This also means that a Government is rarely an expression of the democratic will. The unhealthy necessity to maintain an often-dubious front of unity and solidarity over a broad range of public policy areas, applicable to both major parties, can be avoided by introducing PR. This would transform the major party factions into independent political parties whose representatives would be transparent in the Parliament. It would also encourage new entrants. In the past the two-party system indicated a quite clear demarcation between two main classes in society. That demarcation has basically come to an end. More than 90% of Australian voters see themselves as “middle class”. Even if the perception is erroneous it is an electoral reality. PR would permit much greater flexibility in the Parliament and end the backstabbing, branch stacking and internecine strife in the major parties. That would be progress in itself. These negative energies could be spent much more effectively.

If we want reform of the major parties then we have to start with the electoral system. It is now obvious that it is the only way.

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