Frequently Asked Questions

The below answers relate to a ‘pure’ proportional representation system where the total electorate is undivided, remains one zone and is used to elect, by what is known as a party list system, only the legislature. The executive (The Prime Minister, Chancellor or President) would then be elected, as in presidential systems, directly by the people in a separate ballot.

Practicalities
what if no single party wins a majority of seats?
legislation only passed by horse trading politicians behind closed doors?
why not a compromise solution?
won’t it be a large ballot paper?
how could voter’s secondary preferences be worked out?
    

Stable government

if it ain't broke, why fix it?
no 'leader of the government' in the legislature

Extremists
doesn’t proportional representation give rise to small extremist parties?
extremist parties control the balance of power
parliament will be a collection of single issue candidates

Representation
doesn't it mean I will miss out on having a local representative?                       
with S.M.V. voting at least I will have a member of parliament who MUST respond to my concerns
the fundamental flaw of proportional representation is that it substitutes voting in support of party tickets, for voting in support of individuals
with proportional representation, party machines take over and candidates no longer have an incentive to appeal to individual voters
S.M.V. compels attention to local issues and regional differences
concentration of representation in metropolitan areas at the expense of rural
with ‘above the line’ voting you sometimes don’t know who you ultimately elect

 

Practicalities

What if no single party wins a majority of seats, do we have to depend on a coalition of parties of differing agendas to form a government which will probably last until their first disagreement?

There would be a separate popular vote for the prime minister who would become the executive, appointing his/her own cabinet and responsible for day to day running of the country even though he/she would have minimal effect on introducing legislation.

Won’t proportional representation lead to a situation where, instead of a party given a mandate from the people to govern in its own right, without hindrance, for a set period of time to carry out its promised agenda, we would have the situation where the only way any legislation can be passed is by a lot of horse trading between politicians in smoke filled rooms behind closed doors?

If at any election no party could gain a majority of votes under P.R., then it follows that at the same time no party could have garnished true majority support under S.M.V., despite the fact they may have technically won a ‘majority’ due to third party votes not counting. It should hardly be a virtue that that party would then have a mandate to govern without hindrance. Under P.R. any legislation that is truly desired by the majority of the populace should have no problem being introduced and passed by a majority of MP's. If not, publicity would be given to those members who were holding back despite their constituents wanting a positive vote on the issue, and pressure would thus be brought to bear on them either immediately or at the next election. Alternatively, where support from small parties (who were ideological indifferent to the issue at hand) was needed, so called horse trading would exist, but is that in itself a bad thing? All it is, is people's representatives compromising on an issue. Two or more parties tolerating the desires and aspirations of each other (where they don't find those desires too obnoxious) and creating a situation where all may attain what they want.

Why not a compromise situation where the nation is divided up into regions of say, three electorates each? That way people can have representatives accommodating a plurality of interests while at the same time not being denied a local representative.

Compromises are only acceptable when both sides represent legitimate positions. You do not compromise with your recently discovered corrupt accountant about how much of your embezzled money is to be handed back. Geographical orientation voting is always promoted by the larger parties because it offers them a larger than deserved share of the political pie at the expense of smaller parties. There are simply no benefits that make up for S.M.V’s disproportionate representation.

Whatever its virtues in provincial times when mass communication did not exist, single, or even three member voting in the twenty-first century offers nothing that pure P.R. can’t also provide. People in an area which is dominated by a common characteristic (for example: agricultural production, fundamentalist religion, unemployment)  can just as easily vote and elect a local candidate as they might a national one if their interests were different.
It is ridiculous to state that the problem with PR is that people are denied a local representative when, in regions where no local candidate has been elected, the reason the people are ‘denied’ such is that they simply chose not to have one.

The irony is that proportional representation is probably more accommodating to some peoples whose political concerns are orientated in a criterion more geographical than nation wide. Suppose there was a small fishing community of 10,000 people who were concerned that their main livelihood may be in danger by current government considerations about modifying fishing regulations and quotas. Being the population of only a fraction of the average S.M.V electorate, it would have no chance of getting its interests represented in parliament even though its interests were primarily regional. Yet, under proportional representation, if there also happened to be a number of similar fishing communities scattered along the coastline of the country, their common concerns relating to their own geography could be represented by one representative elected by voters from many different districts.

Isn't it going to be rather a large ballot paper?

It is true that each voter will be confronted with an extremely large selection of candidates and parties.

However, as we live in a high tech computer age this would not be not that difficult to accommodate. Parties or candidates could be issued with three letter number identification codes as some political parties already use now, e.g. ALP, DEM, NAT, CON, GRN etc. Ballot papers could be in the form of thin cardboard cards with printed on them, three parallel lists of the alphabet together with adjacent boxes for each of the seventy-eight letters.

Each voter’s three letter choice could then be expressed by filling in a mark with a pencil in the appropriate boxes as one fills in a lottery card. The added bonus with this system is that vote counting could be mechanical and thus save both cost and time. As with letter sorting, machines with optical character readers (O.C.R) could sort voting cards into their own groups for counting and verification. An additional feature could be that an O.C.R discriminator could be installed at each polling station above the collection bins. On filling out the card, voters could insert it into the reader and wait for a response. The OCR  returning the card would mean it has been filled out incorrectly, while accepting the card would give the voter the assurance that he/she has completed the card correctly. This would then eliminate informal votes.   

How could voter’s secondary preferences be worked out on that scale?     

Even though the candidates would be able to direct their unused votes towards other parties, voting by the people would not be preferential as the logistics for doing this would be extremely complex. However with a one zone electorate where only a very small quota (percentage of votes) would be needed to win a seat, even the most acutely defined political viewpoints would have a reasonable chance of winning a voice in Parliament, thus causing fewer votes than normal running off into preferences anyway.

Also, with the option of an estimated so many parties/candidates to choose from, the voter’s defined political viewpoint would be quite similar to that of the candidate of his or her choice and therefore their preferences would in probability be also quite similar.

Stable government

If it ain't broke, why fix it? Under the single member, preferential voting system, everyone gets to vote, the majority preferred candidate gets in, there is almost always a majority party in control and we thus get strong stable government.

In most elections a majority do not vote for the winning party. Some voters do, but other voters merely declare the winning party to be their least worst choice. When only one candidate in a single member electorate can win, it is very disingenuous to state that voters actually supported that candidate merely because they didn’t detest him or her as much as they did the others.

We have to draw a limit to the alleged virtues of stability when it means that so many voters end up with a representative who wasn’t their first choice. Besides, when there is a separately elected executive, the stability given by having a majority party in parliament is of much less importance.

How can we have confidence in our government when, because of the proliferation of large and small parties, at any time we don't know who has the power. What if we need emergency legislation passed? No 'leader of the government' can give an assurance that legislation can immediately be enacted into law.

There will be stability because the chief executive (Prime Minister, President), who does have some powers, is in for a fixed term immaterial of his support in Parliament House. It is true that no MP / party leader can speak for the legislative assembly and declare that some legislation will definitely be passed. This however probably only appears a problem as it is something we have been used to experience. For all of its history the US Congress has been in the same situation and they have never really viewed it as a problem. Members of congress are not bound to their parties’ call and even when one party has a majority in both houses in still does not guarantee that that party's leader can introduce legislation and be sure that it will be passed.

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Doesn’t proportional representation give rise to small extremist parties and allow them a platform for their unpleasant views?


Well we do live in a democracy. They possibly find our views unpleasant. If we truly believe we are right then we cannot fear the words spoken by our political enemies. Besides, in parliament they would only be granted time to speak in proportion to the size of their party.

Won't we be in the situation where small and possibly extremist parties control the balance of power and dictate legislation in return for their support with required legislation.

The bark of “control the balance of power” is a lot worse than its bite. What many people don’t realise is that a lot of legislation is passed with bi-partisan support, that is, support from all of the major parties. No party appealing to what may be described as the middle-of-the-road voter, wants to be left behind by not being seen to endorse predominately popular legislation whose time has come. A common effective criticism of one party from another is something similar to the line “ten years ago when this important legislation was first introduced members seated on the other side failed to give it their support”.
The minority parties only begin to get their leverage when the proposed legislation itself is partisan and somewhat controversial. In such cases there will always be a limit to what deal a major party will do, because after all, it always has to maintain its own reputation. It's not going to be in its interest if the price it has to pay to get its own program through is supporting some really bizarre legislation, the publicity from which would cause it to lose substantial votes at the next election. If the legislation it has to support in the horse trade is odd but relatively unobtrusive and benign to the population as a whole, then is it really so bad that a small party manages to get some minor legislation through? After all, they represent the electorate too.

All that's going to happen is that parliament will be joined by a collection of single issue candidates. What intelligent input on the bread and butter issues such as maintaining the economic health of the nation through low unemployment and a high value of the dollar will we get by candidates dedicated to gun rights, euthanasia, legalising marijuana, capital punishment, or saving the forests, public schools or whales?

You can't choose an electoral system so as to filter out the type of representatives you don't want. In a democracy a person should be able to choose anyone to represent them. What comes next? Anyone who hasn't a university degree or anyone who has never done manual labour should be denied access to Parliament?
In response to the specific criticism, single issue politicians might claim that others place too much emphasis on interest rates at the expense of human rights. No one has the arbitrary authority to declare what issues take priority. The best indication would be in the numbers manifested from election results proportional to all those who voted. Also, it must be remembered that in Germany, where, because of proportional representation, the Bundestag is populated by five different parties, the economy is still managed so as to remain the strongest in Europe. 

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Representation

Doesn't it mean I will miss out on having a local representative?                       

Any group of people who felt at a loss in not being able to now have a local representative could be reminded that if there were sufficient numbers of them in the same area with similar thoughts, they still could elect someone local. As there would no longer be electorate boundaries, a popular MP in any area could spread his net further to adjacent localities to garner sufficient votes to make up his quota. If it turned out that there were still not enough votes  it would simply mean that the people in that general area wish to define themselves by other criteria than geography.  A minority of people in any specific area can hardly have a right to complain if the majority think other issues are more important than the fact of where they live. 

With S.M.V. voting at least I will have a member of parliament who MUST respond to my concerns. With Proportional Representation, if I can not prove I voted for any particular M.P. how could I get any of them to give me time.

It is quite true that under S.M.V. the local member technically is your representative in Parliament / Congress, but the situation is far from comparable with a retained lawyer being your representative in court. In that situation legal counsel, by law, must take instructions from you and must, to the degree that it is legal, do your bidding. The lawyer is representing you and only you. In contrast, bearing in mind that an electorate can consist of 100,000 people (in India they reach one million) it would be fair to say that in practice the member can only cater to the concerns of a constituent to the degree that they represent the concerns of most constituents. Just how, for example, can the member respond to requests for an increase in pensions or unemployment benefits if it means the working people he also represents would ultimately have to pay more in income taxes?

 In modern times the practice of instituting ombudsman’s offices has permeated many government departments and public agencies. These are now often becoming the first port of call when people have found themselves having cause for complaints with government which are less of a political nature. When problems are more political, surely a nationally elected MP who campaigned on the specific issue in question, amongst others, would be more willing to give time to a complainant than the local member representative who, by force of circumstance, is compelled to be all things to all men.

The fundamental flaw of proportional representation is that it substitutes voting in support of party tickets, for voting in support of individuals. 

Nothing about party list proportional representation specifically prevents individuals from running. Also a member of a political party could, if he felt he had sufficient name recognition, run as an individual and then simply direct all his preferences back to his party. It is disingenuous to claim that all people vote for a person rather than a party. Many people vote strictly according to the preferred political platform they see advertised while knowing quite little about the actual candidates standing for that platform.

The proportional representation system of voting encourages party candidates to ingratiate themselves with the respective party machines so as to maintain a winnable ranking on the party ticket. They then have no need or incentive to appeal to individual voters or respond to their concerns.

To the extent that that may be true it is still the party machine which must ingratiate itself with the voter. It must be sure that by its policy platform and by its members’ performances in Parliament that it keeps itself ‘in good’ with its supporters.

Any competent advertising executive would admit that it is much harder to sell a product in a completely free market than it is in a government sanctioned duopoly where there is only one opposition product. The buying public can be very fickle and any act of indifference by the service provider can always send the potential customer off to one of the many competitors.

Single member voting, on the other hand, compels a close relationship with a specific group of electors and a defined part of the state. It requires attention to local issues and regional differences.

Quite true, but why is that a good? Why should voters be compelled to only be represented by local issues? What if the issues that concern the voter are state wide? We don’t all live in a dairy farming or market garden area or a region where there is high unemployment. At least half if not the majority of voters actually live in a medium income urban area not unlike most other urban areas. Why should the representative from a northern metropolitan suburb be somehow different in issues orientation from that of a southern or eastern metropolitan area?

Proportional representation on a state wide basis would have the inevitable result of concentrating political representation in metropolitan areas and further reducing the opportunity for rural opinions to be expressed in the Parliament.

No opinions, whether rural, inner city, religious, environmental or indigenous rights, deserve to have a higher profile in Parliament than what is reflected by the popular belief. The great virtue of a P.R. election is that it lets the head of state know what issues are concerning the public at the moment by filling his/her parliamentary chambers with candidates who have won sufficient votes because of the message they have espoused.

Experience from the Australian federal election of 2004 and the Victorian 2006 state election has shown that with ‘above the line’ voting, where parties try to arrange the best deals for themselves in swapping promised preferences, some people have unknowingly voted to ultimately elect candidates they had absolutely no sympathy for.

Two things must be remembered when looking at this alleged fault in the system. First, this criticism is only in fact about the degree of success of the proportional representation system. In both of the above instances the complaint was that approximately three quarters of a winning candidates votes ( of one quota) were not knowingly for him. This would translate to approximately 12% of the electorate not getting the candidate they preferred. Compare this with almost any S.M.V. election where approximately 46% of the electorate always are denied their preferred choice.

Also bear in mind that the number of preference votes, or transfer votes, at any election is proportional to the impurity of the specific proportional representation system being utilized.  If a country or state is divided up into electoral zones of five or six available seats then technically this is more of a hybrid ‘geographical orientation / proportional representation’ voting system rather than just a proportional representation system. As explained below, the more pure the system is (i.e. the fewer divisions that the total geographic area is divided into), the fewer the votes that get transferred.  This will thus diminish the number of complaints about votes going to the ‘wrong’ candidate.  Fewer votes will be transferred because when the number of available seats is higher there is obviously a higher chance that smaller political parties will be successful. The country of Israel has a one-zone proportional representation electoral system. With over one hundred seats in their Knesset (parliament), a candidate or party will more easily gain success as they only need less than 1% of the vote to win a seat. Even though there will still be some transfer votes, most of the electorate’s votes, rather than being directed off somewhere to preferences, will actually end up with the first preference candidate on the voter’s ballot paper because of such a low quota.

Second, there appears to be this myth that a political party’s preference list is some self serving corrupt arrangement concocted  behind closed doors to personally benefit party managers at the expense of ideology, party supporters, and almost everyone else. It is quite true that preference lists are not always in correct ideological order according to that of the beliefs and values of the nominating political party. The reason for this is quite simple. Parties go to the considerable trouble and expense of entering elections and campaigning for one reason only: to get their candidates elected. To engineer that, they sometimes have to do ‘deals with the devil’ in swapping preferences with parties of a different ideology. This is a gamble. When they win they not only win a seat at the table of parliament but they know that they won it by taking votes from a party at the other side of the political spectrum.  Sometimes they lose and the reverse happens. Either way the possibility of winning is still better than a guaranteed loss by regularly supporting ideological similar parties who offer nothing in return.

When people ‘blindly’ vote above the line for their party, they are, at the advice of their party, in effect making a strategic vote to best optimize their party’s chances.  One suspects that the voter complaining that not only did their party lose a seat but that his preference went to support the ‘wrong’ winning candidate, would not be complaining so much if his candidate had actually won with the help of that other candidate’s votes.

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