Australian electoral system

From electowiki

The Australian electoral system is a system of parliamentary democracy, largely based on the Westminster system. Since 1920, Australia has used preferential voting systems (PV):

In Australia, voting is compulsory for all Australian citizens over 18, except prisoners currently serving a 5-year term or more. It is also compulsory to be on the electoral roll.

The federal parliament of Australia

The Australian parliament consists of two houses, the Senate (upper house) and the House of Representatives (HoR or lower house). The House of Representatives is similar to the British House of Commons and the Senate is similar to the British House of Lords. The government of the day and the Prime Minister come from the House of Representatives and the Senate represents the interests of the 6 states and two territories. All of Australia's States and territories use PV.

The House of Representatives is made up of MPs elected from 150 single member electorates all of which have a similar voter population. The Senate is also elected using Preferential Voting, but instead it consists of 76 MPs who are selected from 8 multiple member electorates representing the 6 states and 2 territories. The Senate uses the same preferential system as for the HoR but in conjunction with proportional representation. A senate term is twice that of the HoR so that 6 members are elected each normal election from each of the six states(approximately every three years) and both territory senators from the two territories face re-election each parliamentary term.

Australian states and territories

All 6 Australian states and territories have compulsory voting and preferential voting, the ACT and Tasmania however use a proportional representation method of PV for the lower house called Hare-Clark. All states use PR-STV for their upper houses (senate equivalent) except Tasmania and Queensland which has abolished it's upper house. Minor parties do much better in these parliaments, often gaining seats in both houses and occasionally holding the balance of power. This is largely due to smaller electorates and the structure of revenue raising and service delivery in the Australian federation. The Federal government does the vast bulk of revenue raising, income tax, company and consumption taxes such as the GST, and the states are left to spend, once the money comes back to them from the federal government. Thus some people consider minor parties to be capable and wise spenders, but bad revenue raising and economic managers.

Major party duopoly

Party support vs actual representation in Australian Senate vs House

The two party duopoly reigns supreme and had never been threatened. Minor parties are rarely if ever elected to the lower house (HoR), although strong independent candidates much more frequently are. The noteworthy parties in Australian politics today are the Australian Labor Party (ALP) which follows the progressive ideology; The Liberal Party which follow a Liberal ideology and together with the National party, who represent rural and regional interests, they form a coalition to become the second major party. Left-wing minor parties include the Greens and the Democrats and right-wing minor parties include One Nation and Family First. All other minor parties typically receive less than 1% of the overall first preference vote.

In 2022, there was a marked move in first preferences away from the two major parties and towards minor parties and independents.

Percentage of First Preference Votes, House of Representatives 2004‒2022 (Australian Electoral Commission)
2004 2007 2010 2013 2016 2019 2022
Australian Labor Party 37.64% 43.38% 37.99% 33.38% 34.73% 33.34% 32.58%
Liberal/Nationals 40.47% 36.28% 30.46% 32.02% 28.67% 27.99% 23.89%
The Greens 7.19% 7.79% 11.76% 8.65% 10.23% 10.40% 12.25%
Palmer United Party / United Australia Party 0.00% 0.00% 0.00% 5.49% 0.00% 3.43% 4.12%
One Nation 1.19% 0.26% 0.22% 0.17% 1.29% 3.08% 4.96%
Australian Democrats 1.24% 0.72% 0.18% 0.03% 0.00% 0.01% 0.00%
Family First 2.01% 1.99% 2.25% 1.41% 1.49% 0.00% 0.00%
Nick Xenophon Team / Centre Alliance 0.00% 0.00% 0.00% 0.00% 1.85% 0.33% 0.25%
Liberal Democrats (LDP) 0.00% 0.00% 0.20% 0.04% 0.49% 0.24% 1.73%
Christian Democratic Party 0.62% 0.84% 0.67% 0.69% 1.31% 0.68% 0.00%
Katter's Australian Party 0.00% 0.00% 0.00% 1.04% 0.54% 0.49% 0.38%
Animal Justice Party 0.00% 0.00% 0.00% 0.01% 0.70% 0.82% 0.60%
Independent 2.44% 2.22% 2.52% 1.37% 2.81% 3.37% 5.29%
Others 0.97% 0.69% 0.60% 2.17% 2.51% 2.36% 2.13%

Theories for the continuation of the major party duopoly

Some argue that the reason that the major party duopoly is still apparent in Australia is because strategic voting still widely occurs in the PV system, that is that people frequently have to sacrifice their true preference in order to pick 'the lesser of two evils'. This is known as the Center squeeze effect.

Another theory for the reasons why the duopoly exists is because the minor parties provide a moderating effect on the extremes of the major parties. For instance the Australian Labor Party (ALP) wouldn't be so environmentally friendly if it weren't for the threat of voters deserting for the Australian Greens (Greens) and its policies on the mandatory detention of refugees would probably be stronger as well.

On the other side of politics a Liberal party candidate for the seat of Ipswich near Brisbane, Pauline Hanson caused a stir by her widely perceived as racist comments about Aborigines and Asian immigration. As a consequence she was disowned by her party and went on to found Australia's most successful minor party One Nation. However One Nation failed to do well partly because of constitutional failings in the party, but mostly because the John Winston Howard lead Liberal/National coalition appropriated some of her racist, inhumane and divisive policies and successfully implemented them in time to win the 2001 election.

Both the Centre squeeze effect and the moderating effect of viable more extreme parties cause a polarization in the centre and an underserving of moderates.

Another major reason that Australia has a two-party system is that the House is elected by electoral division (also called seats, electorates, or constituencies). To win an electoral division, a candidate must gather 50% of the preferences of the voters in that electorate, after redistribution of preferences from eliminated candidates. This leads to minority parties not winning seats, as, although there may be a large total number of first-preference voters for the minority party, they are distributed among the divisions, and do not gain a majority of preferences in any particular seat.

The system of electoral division means that a party can win a majority of seats without enjoying a majority of voter support, if the "majority party by voters" voters are many in number in a few electorates, and few in number in the majority of electorates. Moreover, losing ballots in each electorate have no affect on the composition of the House of Representatives. When done purposely, this phenomenon is known as Gerrymandering. Thankfully Australia sees little true Gerrymandering, as division boundaries are directed by the independent Australian Electoral Commission.[1] To remedy this issue, an electoral system that guarantees a measure of proportional representation has to be used.

Other reasons why minor parties are underrepresented in the Australian House of Representatives are:

  1. Many voters choose to vote above the line instead of ranking candidates. This allowance is made to to the high cognitive load of ranking. This reduces the system to Party List.
  2. The method of Parliamentary government formation is party based which causes further partisanship and polarization.

Compulsory voting in Australia

Although in theory it is compulsory to vote in Australia and 95% of Australians do, it is not a strictly enforceable law. All that is really required by law is that the voter show up to a polling place between 7am and 6pm on polling day (always a Saturday) and have their name ticked of the electoral roll. Once in the polling booth, due to the secret ballot, what you do is up to you, that is whether you choose to register a "formal ballot" or an "informal ballot". A fine for failing register at the voting booth frequently results in a fine, unless one has a 'valid and reasonable excuse' as defined by the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC), what actually constitutes a valid excuse is a safely guarded secret. Even if one fails to turn up on polling day and receive a letter after the election, one still has the opportunity to provide a reasonable excuse (perhaps saying "I did vote; there must be an error in your records").

Advantages of compulsory voting in Australia

Political parties don't need to spend their time and money convincing their own supporters to be bothered on the day, instead they can concentrate on winning voters who aren't traditional supporters, thus no party can afford to alienate a sizeable number of people, this also helps to break down the extremes of the two major parties.

It encourages responsible citizens, voting is no longer just a right in a democracy but a fundamental responsibility, on par with tax.

Disadvantages of compulsory voting

The small fee for non-compliance doesn't deter many voters.

External links

Notable sites criticising PV include note they have a lot of material on the disadvantages and un-democraticness of IRV, but absolutely no Australian case study.

Notable Australian sites are:

  1. "Electoral divisions". Parliament of Australia.