Features Australia

Voting systems matter – ours is a problem

Our politicians are secure in the knowledge they can ignore the base

10 October 2020

9:00 AM

10 October 2020

9:00 AM

For those readers who share my right-of-centre political preferences, cast your eye over the state of Liberal party politics in this country.  It’s pretty abysmal isn’t it? In Victoria and Queensland the Liberal/LNP oppositions are wholly useless. They don’t stand on any noticeable freedom-loving principles or for small government. They don’t attack the two awful Labor premiers in any way you could distinguish from a wet noodle. Neither is prepared to promise to repeal the woeful statutory bills of rights that Labor rammed in over their earlier objections. The plan appears to be to stay low profile and hope to limp into office – with a mandate for nothing.

Meantime in Tasmania a Liberal government oversees an anti-discrimination commissioner who is prepared to accept complaints against a sitting federal senator who happens to have a view on the transgender debate that would be shared by over four-fifths of Australians (and virtually all of Liberal voters). This Tasmanian Liberal government should repeal the Act that empowers this jumped-up bureaucrat – that’s what she is, right, this thin-skinned ‘you can’t insult me’ anti-discrimination commissioner? Or just fire her. Or do something, anything, that shows you believe to some attenuated degree at least in freedom and free speech.

And what of Gladys Berejiklian? It amazes me that a fair few right-of-centre types actually think she’s doing a good job. Really? Name any area at all where this Berejiklian government is to the right of the former Neville Wran Labor government. Anything at all? I’ll bet you can’t. Not on social policy, sanity in the schools, small government, not being heavy-handed, a sane energy policy, not indulging in worthless virtue-signalling, making sane appointments, nothing. And yet Gladys is supposed to be the gold standard right now for a Liberal premier in this country? If true, then alchemy works and tin has been transmogrified into gold.

Of course we can’t forget the Feds.  Mr Morrison and his team more and more make one wonder – and I know this is heresy but be honest with yourself – if they really are any better at all than Team Turnbull would have been. And I don’t mean that as any form of praise, believe me.


ScoMo seems not to have a single cell in his body that cares about freedom and free speech and trusting the individual citizen. In the face of a virus that more and more looks to have the fatality rate of a very bad flu season he and Mr Frydenberg have opted not to fight in the courts over the borders. They’ve run the biggest spend-a-thon of any government ever. We’re the only democracy on earth that won’t let its own citizens leave the country without first applying to some two-bit bureaucrats who regularly say ‘no’ (but never to politicians or others in the elite). They won’t criticise or stand up to the premiers (not even Il Duce Dan), in part because ScoMo dreamt up an idiotic ‘national cabinet’ that has been a disaster. They’ve basically destroyed the small business private sector in this country (in other words, the Libs’ own voting base), while Morrison and all the other politicians and public servants refuse to take any sort of pay cut at all. Oh, and they seem allergic to appointing any real conservatives to anything, or take on the ABC. If the prime minister has any core beliefs and principles at all – other than talking inanely about being non-ideological and pragmatic, which of course is itself an ideology as he’d realise if he stopped to ponder – I can’t detect them. Yuck!

So why are things so bad at the moment? Well, in part it’s because of our voting systems. Leave talk of the single transferable vote system we use for the Senate for another day and think about the House of Representatives. The famous philosopher Karl Popper once said that the most important feature of democracy is that it allows you to throw the bums out. That’s why Popper was against proportional voting systems, because all the work of coalition building is done after the election, away from the voters, and it can be very difficult for voters to get entrenched parties out. Our preferential voting system (known as AV or ATV) is a majoritarian voting system. As with its close cousin First-Past-the-Post (‘FPP’), it overwhelmingly delivers a winning team and a losing team, an ‘IN’ and an ‘OUT’. It also to some extent measures voters’ dislikes as well as likes.

When I arrived here 15 years ago, I thought Australia’s AV system was preferable to Canada’s, Britain’s and the US’s FPP systems. But I’ve changed my mind. As we’ve seen over the last five or six years, our AV preferential voting system entrenches the two main parties. Sure, you can get rid of one for the other. But it is basically impossible to punish your side of politics by opting for a newcomer on the same side. That’s because at some point on your ballot you have to preference either the Libs or Labor. And however bad your side is, most of the party base simply will not preference the other side. And the politicians know this. They can’t be disciplined by their core voters as a result. The Black Hand brigade can thumb its nose at the party base with impunity, to put it in more basic terms.

Compare this to Canada. Back in 1993, the Conservative party there went from holding 156 seats (and in government) to holding 2 seats and in fourth place. Why? Because disaffected voters could vote for another party and not have to preference the main party on the other side. You just tick one party’s candidate and that’s it with FPP.

That’s also why Nigel Farage and his party were more responsible for Brexit than anyone else even though they barely ever won a single seat. They could destroy the Tories just by offering an alternative that many would plump for, and eventually that meant May out and Boris in.

Or consider the new party in Britain formed by the actor Laurence Fox, aimed at those who are proud of their country and against cancel culture and political correctness in all its forms. When Fox got former Tory donors to give 5 million pounds to start this party, Boris and the Tories immediately sensed danger. Rumours immediately were leaked of big appointments going to Charles Moore and Paul Dacre, real conservatives of the sort that have no chance of ever being appointed to anything in Australia.

There are all sorts of aspects to any country’s democratic set-up – federalism or not, bicameralism or not, republic or constitutional monarchy, the list goes on. But in some ways the most important is often the voting system. And here in Australia ours just happens to entrench the two main parties in a way that is very, very comfortable for the elected politicians.

The results are everywhere around us. And they’re not pretty.

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