[Critics of P.R.] are unable to reconcile themselves to the loss of what they term the local character of the representation. A nation does not seem to them to consist of persons, but of artificial units, the creation of geography and statistics. Parliament must represent towns and counties, not human beings.

But I cannot see why the feelings and interests which arrange mankind according to localities, should be the only ones thought worthy of being represented; or why people who have other feelings and interests, which they value more than they do their geographical ones, should be restricted to these as the sole principle of their political classification.”                                        John Stuart Mill#

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Essay: An Argument for Representative Democracy

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#Mill, John Stuart,  "Of True and False Democracy; Representation of All, and Representation of the Majority Only.", Representative Government, 1861.

Keeping the Quota as High as Possible

In states where petitioners have campaigned so tirelessly that electoral reform away from single member voting has finally succeeded, it is often the case that those who profited and achieved power from the original pluralist system will still be fighting a rear guard action to maintain as much legislative occupancy as they possibly can.

One method of this foot-dragging is to keep the representation as unproportional as possible in their favour, despite proclaiming they now accept the principle of proportional representation (PR). So, for example, if a house of parliament containing 76 seats is to change its electoral system to PR (perhaps to create a balance with the other house which still maintains single member representation) then one would think that with that new system, a group of party supporters totalling one seventy-sixth, 1.315% of the voting population, (known as the ‘quota’) would thus be able to elect their candidate to parliament.

Unfortunately, in reality that is rarely the case. If micro parties representing less than 2% of the voters could be elected then that would mean that the major parties at elections could only accrue votes from those who actually supported them and no more. One way to get around this impediment to electoral advantage is to arrange the electoral system so as to maintain the quota higher than its natural state. The more creative one can be, the higher the quota and thus the greater number of micro parties knocked out of the election. So far, the three reasons given to perpetuate high quotas in Australia are the “need” for both multiple zoning and rotating electoral periods, and to maintain necessary constitutional requirements.

raising the bar to participation

Rotating Electoral Periods

A rotation system, as exists in most Australian PR electorates, is when at every election only half the seats are up of election, but for twice the electoral period, followed by at the next election, the remaining seats which would at that stage have completed their double electoral term.

The Need for Stability

The alleged justification for this system is the stability it offers to the parliamentary house it is attached to. “An upper house elected by rotation, with only half of the members facing re-election each time, provides greater continuity of experience and stability. Elections [only] every three years can lead to short-term thinking and planning which may not be in the best interests of the nation”

There are a number of problems with this theory:

  • The premise the argument is based upon is that the public are a fickle lot who are forever changing their representatives at the first whim of displeasure. But history has shown that this is not the case. Even for the Australian House of Representatives which does not have extended terms, well in excess of 50% of incumbents at every election, unless retiring after a long period in Parliament, retain their seats. In fact in some democracies the opposite often appears to be the case. In the United States (where it is not rare for at least 75% of standing incumbents to retain their seats) constitutional amendments known as term limit initiatives have been attempted, with some success, to specifically limit, rather than extend, the tenure of democratic representatives.
  • If indeed the voters are fickle and dismiss an incumbent due to their  “short term thinking”, cannot those same voters at another time be equally fickle and appoint, for a double period, a representative who quickly turns out to be quite unacceptable? In that case the solution to the first problem undeniably becomes the cause of the second.
  • Stability is very important with regards to executive government: the Prime Minister and cabinet and senior public service. It is not a good sign for foreign investment, domestic business or foreign relations to have the occupants of senior government offices regularly changing hands. However to claim that the seats of the legislature possibly changing political texture every three years should be a problem, does seem to be pushing the envelope. Compared to the executive, the actions of Parliament have quite less a direct effect, where often enacted legislation will take a year or more before coming into effect, and then only after being approved by the crown as well as being consistent with the constitution.

Whether or not Parliament attains greater “needed” stability, one thing without doubt is that having only half the seats available at every election doubles the quota needed to win a seat.

First and Second Class Senators

As bad as this is, there seems to be even further attacks on democracy in the way this rotation practice is maintained.

After a normal, so called ‘half-senate’ election, Senators have either three years remaining on their six-year term or are just beginning their six years. However following a Double Dissolution election (where the tenures of all the senators are dissolved), the new senators are still divided into the same separate ‘classes’ (as described by the Constitution) receiving either three or six year terms, despite the fact that there is nothing about any of them that makes them more or less deserving than their peers. Why should some get the plum six-year term while others up with the short straw of only three years? All represent a quota of Australian voters. Senators are merely the representatives of those who voted for them either with their first or later preferences. To divide the Senate into fortunate and unfortunate classes is also to similarly divide their supporters. At the following election, the ‘unfortunate’ voters must vote to return their representative into parliament while the fortunate ones already have that guaranteed, and now get to elect a second representative to act for them in the Senate.

Originally in drafting our constitution classifying the senators was supposed be, as with the US senate, by “lot”, that is, drawing straws. However, Alfred Deakin thought it was a “blot on the face” to leave it to chance, and naively arranged that instead the Senate itself should devise a system which would obviously be fair and not self-serving. Since Federation the what was called ‘Order Elected’ method was used to decide the classes depending on the order of candidates winning their quotas. However in 1984 a bipartisan government review was undertaken which realised that a fairer system, known as the ‘Recount’ method should be used, and entrenched such into law under Section 282 of the Commonwealth Act. Unfortunately, constitutional law always trumps legislative law, and the majority of newly elected Senators from the 1987 DD election simply decided that they would ignore the new legislation and instead use the traditional method as it gave their parties more seats.

To quote renown Australian psephologist Antony Green from his blog,

The reason was self-interest by Labor and Democrat Senators, who found themselves allocated more long-term positions at the expense of the Coalition. It meant that at the next election in 1990, the Coalition had more Senators than normal facing election while Labor and the Democrats had fewer seats to defend. Since 1987 the Senate has several times passed resolutions stating its intention to use the re-count method to allocate seats at any future double dissolution. However, what the Senate will do after the 2 July [2016] double dissolution will be up to the Senators elected. And as in 1987, the majority of Senators present may choose to ignore the fairer re-count method if there is an advantage in sticking to the old order elected method.

Multiple Electoral Zones

The reason for not having the whole state, or even country, as a single zone for proportional representation, but instead dividing the area up into multiple member electorates, (apart from where commentators and politicians actually come out and openly declare it is to raise the quota so as to deny “extremist” and single issue parties representation) is allegedly to give the voter a compromise between PR and maintaining a local member.

[It is interesting to note that the Proportional Representation house is always the one set aside for compromise and not the other. No major-party politician has ever suggested that the upper house should have pure, one-zone proportional representation, while the lower house should use a compromise system of local member representation, but instead of one member per local electorate there should be, perhaps three, to accommodate differing points of view.]

But why do we need this compromise here? The very meaning of compromise is to accommodate the interests of both parties. Are not the interests of single member voting and local area representation already fully accommodated in those lower houses anyway? In fact doubly accounted for in the Australian federal parliament (as well as many state parliaments) considering lower houses generally entertain twice as many representatives as upper houses.

Constitutional Requirements

In fairness to the above mentioned members of Parliament of major parties, abolishing rotation electoral periods and multiple zones would not be as simple as passing normal legislation. Both of these facets of our Senate electoral system are entrenched by the constitution. But the constitution can be, and is sometimes changed, and abolishing these two sections (Sections #7 and #13) might well be supported by many sections of the Australian community.

In 1992 then Prime Minister Paul Keating described Senators as “unPaul Keatingrepresentative swill”. Whether or not they were swill, he was certainly correct in describing them as unrepresentative. Allegedly to prevent the more populous states dominating the others, Section 7 of the constitution was included to ensure all states shall have equal numbers of Senators. In practice what this has meant is that a state such as Tasmania with a population of 500,000 has as many Senators as NSW with a population 14 times larger. This blatant violation of the tradition democratic concept of one-person-one-vote was meant to allow more members of parliament in the so called house of review to specifically act for and defend the smaller states. However in practice this has simply not happened. Politically alignment in the Senate for approximately the last 100 years has strictly been with the nationally established political  parties whether from both small state and large. In name or in policy platform, there has never been a “Small States Defender Party” represented in Australia’s house of person#2

So if the constitution were to be changed to rid us of these undemocratic sections we could have an electoral system for the Senate which not only granted every Australian citizen equal voting power, but also granted truly proportional and fair representation to both large parties and small. This done at the moderate cost of removing a constitutional attribute that has never been utilised anyway.


2013 Australian Senate Election


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