Here’s a quote I read today.
It’s how PR (Proportional Representation) systems are meant to operate, and is far preferable to a minority government. It’s a mature and sensible approach, and a step away from the pathologies of winner-takes all so common to Westminster systems with single member electorates. The result will be the representation of the will of a larger proportion of the electorate, and it’s hard to see how that’s anything other than a positive..
There’s nothing particular about the source or its context (Tasmania) I want to note, but its a sentiment I’ve heard many times and it happens to trouble me.
The positive in this instance seems to be that the government will be made up of politicians elected by a greater proportion. Likewise proportional representation is desirable because it increases a chance that an elector will have a politician in parliament to call their own.
The problem I have with this viewpoint is that it implicitly supposes the reason we have elections is to have politicians, and that I guess the point of politicians is giving viewpoints in parliament and arguing.
Are politicians really the end goal of democracy?
As far as I see it, politicians are only the means to an end: governance – which I’ll start calling policy. The identity of and colours flown by the people implementing the policy may be of great importance to political tragics (who should get football teams), but it’s what they do that counts more than whom they are.
[I’ll put in an apology here to any political scientists whose grass I am ignorantly cutting]
And we can’t make policy proportional. Under one government, there can be, at any given time, only one basket of policy. We can’t have an ETS that runs only for Labor voters and a restriction on immigration only for Liberal voters, a legalisation of drugs and guns for LDP voters, gay marriage and forests for Greens voters and massive cash payments for clearing paddocks for Nationals voters.
No matter how a government is constituted as a single party or a dizzyingly diverse coalition, there will only be one policy basket. Whilst there is diversity in the electorate this policy basket isn’t going to satisfy everyone no matter how we structure the voting system.
So then what? If the policy basket by nature will be singular, maybe then the only real choice is to find a singular voter that is still shaped by all of the electorate. The mythical average voter. Any one person’s changing opinions will affect in some way the average, so a electoral system in which the winner is s/he who espouses the policy most attractive to the average may well be as democratic as we can get in a practical sense.
Of course, this is just the Median Voter Theorem transformed into a normative statement. It’s not a very good description of most winner take all electoral systems, but I think the unusual combination of compulsory preferential voting gets us closer than we might otherwise be, since there is no virtue in playing to the base.
In a winner takes all parliament, quite apart from matters of stability, the vote that gives a majority is less likely to come from a party playing to the edge. Since major parties dislike dealing with each other (since it helps their greatest adversaries) they will prefer a coalition with the smaller parties whom play to the fringe, which can only pull policy away from the average. A parliament that looks less representative by its members may produce more representative policy.
By all means, if someone wants to vote for a minor party, let them (I do). Finding the median relies on everyone acting normally. If they’re fortunate they’ll shift the median voter
It’s just that I don’t think the best outcome of voting is getting a personal ideological champion’s words inscribed in the hansard. It’s about getting a policy mix acceptable to the electorate collectively, if not as a mass of individuals.