On Saturday, Australians go to the polls in an election that will, in all likelihood, shape the way we in this country work, eat, travel and power our homes for decades to come. Labor Prime Minister Julia Gillard is seeking a mandate to take Australia three steps closer to the authoritarian workers’ paradise she so fervently advocated as secretary of the Victorian Socialist Forum.
Having replaced the prime minister elected by the people, in a midnight back-room deal engineered by the NSW Labor Party machine, Julia the Red is essentially running a fear campaign on Work Choices, the centre-right Liberal-National coalition government’s industrial relations policy emphatically rejected by the electorate in 2007.
The coalition, led by the sincere but gaffe-prone Tony Abbott, have made a remarkable showing in the polls against a first-term government but, lacking a clear and unified voice on several key policy issues, are unlikely to pip Labor at the post. And in a real sense, it marks a “tipping point” in Australian political history. For many years now, Labor’s primary vote has been in steady decline. In the 2007 election it was 43.3 percent. Current polling has it at around 38 percent. The decline of Australia’s manufacturing industry, trade union membership and blue-collar support base respectively, are usually cited as reasons for this. What is important though, is to see where these votes have gone. And almost without exception, they have gone to the Greens. While unlikely to gain any seats in the House of Representatives (with the possible exception of the inner-city seat of Melbourne), most commentators agree that the only certainty in this election is that the Greens will hold the balance of power in the Senate, and will continue to do so for some time.
The electoral system used is crucial in understanding this issue, so allow me to elaborate briefly. Unlike the first-past-the-post system used in UK general elections, Australian federal elections for the House of Representatives use a system of single-member, preferential voting. That is, while each seat is represented by only one member (as in the UK), the candidate with the most votes does not automatically win the seat (unless he or she polls more than fifty percent). Electors have the ability to nominate their second, third and subsequent choices on the ballot paper. So if no candidate gains a plurality on first preferences, the first-preference votes for the candidate polling the least number of votes are redistributed according to each ballot paper’s nominated second preference. This process is repeated until one candidate holds a plurality of votes, and is declared the winner of that seat. The party (or coalition of parties) which gain a majority of seats around the country forms government, and the parliamentary leader of that party or coalition is sworn in as Prime Minister and selects a cabinet.
While tending to disadvantage non-mainstream parties, this system can and has allowed the success of popular local independent candidates, and is seen around the world as a model for gaining good democratic outcomes—that is, governments which are representative but workable. Had this system been in use in the UK, the Liberal Democrats would have been virtually wiped out electorally, and a single party would be running the British government today.
By contrast, elections in the Australian Federal Senate are an unholy mess. Under a deal cobbled together back in 1897 between the then six colonies, each state in the Australian Federation sends an equal number of senators to the Upper House. The original intention was that the Senate would be the States’ House, senators from different states, even if from the same party, being able to vote in the interests of their own state. Worse, the senators from each state are elected on a purely quota-based system of proportional representation. While designed to most precisely reflect the will of the people, the likelihood that no single party or declared coalition will win a majority of seats is enormous, meaning that governance, in the form of shady deals, takes place in smoke-filled back rooms, not on the floor of the people’s forum. The senate has become just one more Party House, in which a Tasmanian senator representing 20,000 electors has the same voting rights as a New South Welshman representing 200,000. It was a rare moment of clarity for former Prime Minister Paul Keating when he referred to the Senate as “unrepresentative swill”.
It is almost certain that whoever wins Saturday’s election for the House of Representatives will have to deal with the Australian Greens to get any legislation at all through parliament. Purely proportional representation is a system that looks idealistic and fair on paper, but in practice allows malevolent, authoritarian third-force influences to pervade and corrupt the body politic. It places a great responsibility of decisiveness on the shoulders of an electorate; the failure to discharge this responsibility carries the gravest consequences. At the risk of invoking Godwin’s Law, it should be remembered that the Weimar Republic in Germany used a system of purely proportional representation, and was what allowed the National Socialists to gain control of the Reichstag.
Any country considering electoral reform would do well to study the example of Australia, where the best and worst of all democratic systems are on display simultaneously. And electorates should consider carefully their choices when going to the polls, and remember that the refusal to make a clear choice, is a choice in itself.