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Issue #1543      18 April 2012

Editorial

Undemocratic outcome under single seat system

In the Queensland state elections last month, the conservative Liberal National Party (LNP) almost made a clean sweep, taking 78 out of 89 seats – close to 90 percent of the seats. Yet nothing like 90 percent of the electorate voted for the LNP, not even after distribution of preferences. Its primary vote was just under 50 percent. The LNP more than doubled the number of its seats from 37 to 78 while its vote only increased by eight percent from 41.6 percent in 2009 to 49.7 percent! Labor with 26 percent of the vote has only seven elected representatives – just under eight percent of the seats. The Australian Greens with no seats and 7.5 percent of the primary vote and Bob Katter’s The Australian Party with two seats and 11.5 percent were also short-changed. So why such a huge discrepancy between voting sentiments and the outcome in seats?

The key question is the electoral system itself. The Queensland state parliament is based on a single seat, preferential voting system, similar to that used in the federal sphere and other state parliaments, with the exception of Tasmania.

With such a system it makes no difference if a seat is won with 80 percent or 51 percent of the vote. Likewise it matters little if a seat is lost with 49 percent or one percent of the vote. There is no recognition for the 49 percent. This is the underlying reason why the electoral system can produce such extreme distortions as occurred in the Queensland elections.

The system does not recognise in parliamentary outcomes support for parties not receiving majority support in specific electorates, even though they might have quite substantial support in that seat, within a region or across the state. The situation is made more serious in Queensland in that it only has one chamber, there is no second “house of review” with members elected under a far more democratic system of proportional representation as exists federally and in other states.

While perhaps their most dramatic in Queensland, the undemocratic outcomes of the single seat, preferential system are not confined to that state. In the Victorian state elections, the National Party with 6.75 percent of the vote took 10 seats and the Greens with almost double their vote (11.2 percent) won no seats. In NSW, the Greens won one seat with ten percent of the vote, under a proportional system they would have been entitled to around nine seats. The Liberals with 38.8 percent (hardly a majority) won over half the seats. In the federal system, the Greens with 11.76 percent of the vote only won one out of 150 seats in the House of Representatives – a proportional system might have resulted in 17 or 18 seats. Similar analyses can be made of electoral outcomes in the other states. In all instances, one or both the major parties were beneficiaries, with seat numbers well beyond their proportion of the vote.

The present system is in urgent need of replacement by a more democratic method of election. It results in huge distortions in parliamentary outcomes. In particular, it serves to perpetrate the two-party system, despite the growing disillusionment and opposition to the two major parties. The Communist Party of Australia is calling for a system of proportional-preferential voting with larger, multi-member electorates.

Proportional representation means the election of representatives in accordance with the proportion of votes they receive. The preferential component means voters still have their priority ranking of candidates recognised and counted, should their first choice not be elected. The Hare-Clark system used in Tasmania has five, five-member electorates incorporating proportional-preferential representation. It is a desirable option for Australia as a whole. The results give a far more accurate representation of voting intentions.

Electoral reform is becoming more urgent than ever as state and federal governments cut services, sack public sector employees and take away our rights and social gains won in years of struggle. The ruthless global drive of capital to maximise profits while destroying jobs, seizing public assets, crushing unions and destroying the environment has produced a wave of public anger, in Australia, and around the globe.

In Australia, the two-party system has served big business well for over a century, guaranteeing “stability” – code for the best political and economic environment for profit-making by corporations. A more democratic electoral system would greatly assist in the struggle to break the two-party system and elect representatives and a government that would be prepared to challenge corporate interests and defend workers’ rights, social justice, sustainable development and environmental protection.

Next article – A little gem in the Party office

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