I don’t intend to talk much about politics on this blog, but in this case I’ll make an exception. Australia will have its 43rd federal election on the 21st, and I am a first-time voter. In a follow-up post either later today or tomorrow, I’ll get into a bit of politics — and given the subject matter of my blog, I’ll mostly be talking about climate policy — but for now, a bit of background about, and analysis of, the Australian electoral system.
Voting is compulsory, though it’s a secret ballot so voters are free to “vote informally” by leaving their ballot paper blank or incorrectly filled in. There are two houses of Parliament: the lower house is called the House of Representatives, and the upper house is the Senate. The House has 150 members, who serve three-year terms and are elected from single-member electorates. Each electorate is supposed to contain more or less the same number of voters (though the rules are complicated, and in practice the number can vary from around 60,000 to around 120,000).
In House of Representatives elections, Australia uses a preferential voting system called instant-runoff voting. Voters must number all the candidates on the ballot paper in order of their preference. If one candidate receives more than 50% of the first-preference votes then they are declared elected. If not, the candidate with the least votes is eliminated and their votes are redistributed according to the second preferences of each person who voted for that candidate. This process continues until one candidate passes the 50% benchmark.
The Senate has 76 members, 12 from each of the 6 states and 2 from each of the 2 territories. The terms of the 4 territory Senators are synchronized with the House of Representatives. However, State Senators have fixed six-year terms, and only half of the Senate seats in any state are contested at a typical election. There is provision in the Constitution of Australia for a double dissolution if the Senate blocks supply, but this does not happen very often. So far in Australia’s history there have been 41 Senate elections (including the current one), but only 6 of them were double dissolutions.
In each state or territory, Senators are elected according to a proportional voting system. Before the election, each group, party, or independent registers a full list of preferences, called a group voting ticket, with the Australian Electoral Commission; and these are made publicly available. Voters have the choice of voting either “below the line”, which involves numbering all the candidates; or “above the line”, which only requires writing the number 1 in the group ticket voting box of their choice, and gives that group the right to distribute their preferences according to the pre-existing group voting ticket.
The counting of Senate votes gets more complicated still, and uses the single transferable vote system. To win a seat, a Senate candidate must win a certain quota of votes, equal to the total number of votes, divided by the number of vacancies plus one, plus one. Any candidates who receive a quota of votes are immediately elected. Their surplus votes are then distributed to voters’ second preferences (or more accurately, all of their votes are transferred at a reduced value). The remaining candidates are eliminated one by one, starting with the least popular and working up, and their preferences are distributed. Whenever a candidate gains a quota of votes, they are elected. This process continues until all of the vacancies have been filled.
Australia has a de facto two-party system. The incumbent centre-left Australian Labor Party is led by Prime Minister Julia Gillard. The other major party is the long-standing Coalition consisting of the centre-right Liberal Party of Australia and rural conservative National Party of Australia. The Coalition is currently led by Liberal Tony Abbott. There is also a growing third party, the progressive Australian Greens, led by Bob Brown, who are too small to form a government but expected to win the balance of power in the Senate.
On an editorial note, as electoral systems go the Australian one seems reasonably democratic, but it’s far from perfect. In my opinion, the single-member electorate system used in the House of Representatives is flawed. Because there are 150 separate contests in 150 electorates, the two major parties win almost all the seats.
In the previous election in 2007, 43.4% of the House of Representatives vote went to Labor, 42.1% to the Liberal/National Coalition, 7.8% to the Greens, 2.0% to the Family First Party, 2.2% to independents, and 2.5% to other parties. Labor won 83 seats, the Liberals 55, the Nationals 10, and independents 2. (Since then the National Party has lost one seat to an independent in a by-election, and the redistribution of electoral boundaries has notionally shifted 5 seats from Liberal to Labor.)
Arguably, though, this injustice is balanced by the Senate system of proportional voting. The 2007 national Senate vote was as follows: Labor 40.3%, Liberal/National Coalition 39.9%, Greens 9.0%, Family First 1.6%, Australian Democrats 1.3%, Pauline’s United Australia Party 1.1%, independents 1.4%, and other parties 6.4%. Labor and the Coalition won 18 seats each, the Greens 3, and independent Nick Xenophon won 1. (They joined 36 continuing Senators, taking the Coalition to 37 seats, Labor to 32, the Greens to 5, Family First to 1, the Australian Democrats to 0, and the number of independents to 1.)
Unfortunately, the Senate system is not without its own problems. I am in favor of preferential voting in principle, and it does seem to work reasonably well most of the time. But in practice, and particularly in the Senate, the flow of preferences tends to be decided by deals between political parties. Party members stand outside voting booths on election day handing out How-to-Vote Cards listing their preferences. And because there can be 60 candidates on a Senate ballot paper, it is much easier to just tick the group voting ticket box, and that is what around 95% of voters do.
One more objection I have to the House of Representatives system is that in practice the only voters whose votes really matter are those in marginal electorates. This results in a system where on the national level, the major parties basically don’t have to do anything to win votes except throw mud at each other, and that’s exactly what they’ve done in this election campaign. The real campaigning happens in marginal seats, and in such cases it often comes down to pork-barreling.
Wow — I didn’t mean to write quite that much. One doesn’t realise how complicated things are until one has to explain them.