Thursday, August 5, 2010

ABC The Drum Unleashed - Is it still a democracy if your vote doesn't count?

ABC The Drum Unleashed - Is it still a democracy if your vote doesn't count?

The above is a discussion about the Australian Electoral system, which to some extent the UK is moving to.
(though thats another issue)

The major points appear to be:
a/ Whats the point voting / most votes don't count
b/ Its rare for a government to actually gain power with a simple majority.
Is our government truly representative ?

Our electoral system was built to accommodate geographical and therefore economic differences and still deliver a stable platform for leadership. To that extent it works and will probably continue to work. The time is probably near (or even past) where we might reasonably ask for more from it.

Aron Paul says at the ABC site :

Our electoral system fails to represent the genuine diversity or proportion of popular opinion because the percentage of votes a party wins is not proportional to the seats won in parliament.

Which of course brings into view proportional representation in the house of reps.
Usually Hare-Clarke or the Senate system or similar.
Some simple arguments for it include :

- represents a broader range of ideas
- enfranchises a larger proportion of the electorate
-- which in turn engages more people in the democratic process

Arguments against include:
- More complex to count
-- so slower to return a result
- leads to unstable parliaments
- allows fringe groups a voice
-- which implies dissent and conflict ?

The arguments against are actually nonsense or at most an inconvenience.

- Computers do the counting the booths need only enter raw data
- It may often take a couple of days, perhaps even longer.
This is not a serious problem we already have a caretaker government in action. It would need to be addressed though, there are sane limits.[1]

- The systems used in New Zealand and Germany , or even the ACT and Tasmanian have not lead to more failures of government.
(just some healthy biffo and even healthy compromise occasionally )[2]
-- yes the system in Italy _was_ a disaster
-- Should a 3rd major force (one that can command say 15% plus in the Senate and grab at least 5 or 6 Reps seats ) rise in Australia or should the big two splinter (DLP ? LIBs at formation)
Our system would be less stable. There is no actionable precedent. The major parties tolerate minor parties in the Senate but are likely to form an agressive and United front against another party in the Reps. (One Nation learnt that lesson, Joh for PM (LOL) similarly )
This argument against proportional representation, is actually an argument for a two party state.

- Technically a Prime Minister could form a government from any collection of members of the house in any case.
-- They need only convince the Governor General that they have the numbers and will play nice.

So our current system is mostly convention, and precedent easily changed, this does not lead to instability.

The upper house was designed as a stablising keel and States Representation (Rights ?) device.
Without it there probably would be no Federation as we currently know it.
It gives the smaller states disproportionate representation but it also has meant that we haven't had any serious conflict (as in armed ) between any states, even the larger two.

As QLD and eventually WA increase their proportion of the population this effect will become even more important.

The redistribution of state treasure to the smaller states has been central to the stability of Australia, though I wonder about how quickly QLD and WA forget about the NSW / Vic subsidy they enjoyed for 80 years or so and still benefit from.
(yeah the GST has eroded all that a little)

The Senate could continue as is (electors drawn from geographic states ) or be reformed around a population based model, the role of the States has been under question for many years in any case. There would need to be a house of review, and even a polity available to form an Emergency type government in case of serious deadlock, and or Constitutional / Supply crisis.

Personally I favor a geographic, environmental region basis for the senate (at least). These would need to overlap congregations of Reps areas very significantly though.

The simple fact is our preferential system is designed to deliver boring compromised stable government, with a focus on the middle ground, itself a compromise. One of the Arts of democratic government is working with compromise while developing and reforming legislation.

A proportional system will give voice to more ideas in that process.
It asks even sometimes demand that the citizenry engage with the concepts behind the nation and her legislation.

Maybe a compromise would be larger multi member electorates ?
I would argue that those would overlap state boundaries, after all this is the National House, we have a States house.

Certainly the current and all recent elections have shown a disproportionate value given to votes from marginally held seats and thereby undue emphasis (almost always) to fringe issues. This is worse than having somebody from a group you disagree with represented as you have no chance at all to change the distorted policy, it will be held in some form by both the big parties.

[1] Usually the caretaker period is about 1 month, Adding a maximum of one more month would be OK but longer may put undue emphasis on the Governor general role (or President :)

[2] While the dialog around the last Tasmanian minority government was less than enlightening it did expose to the local constituency the deep distrust and animosities between all parties and some individuals. Attitudes I would argue that these where / are neither Professional or healthy. The Oxygen of National and local exposure may help restore some sort of collective belief in the states governance. With Tasmanians rather less than diverse economic base I guess its only inevitable that unhealthy entrenched positions develop.

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