PR the price?

What if the Greens make amending the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 to provide for at least some measure of proportional representation in the House of Representatives?  Should Bob Brown do so?  Should either major party agree?

The Greens would have to be tempted to use this possibly unique opportunity to force a long-cherished electoral reform that would give them (and/or other minority parties – and there’s one reason why Brown might hesitate) a permanently influential position in government.  If they don’t make PR a condition of supporting one of the parties, they will certainly retain their Senate balance of power position but their ability to influence which party actually forms government, or to actually participate in government if they wish, will almost certainly be fleeting.

To my way of thinking PR would be a mixed blessing for Australia.  The obvious argument against it is that it may entrench unstable governing coalitions, although neither Tasmania nor the ACT have provided clear proof for such fears. Indeed the Hare-Clark system (partly devised by Andrew Inglis Clark who was the principal drafter of Australia’s Constitution) that prevails in both places seems to work fairly well.

It would certainly open up government to a wider and therefore arguably more truly democratic range of influences, and provide some check on the increasing focus group-driven cynical sameness of the two major parties.  However you can equally argue that PR is undemocratic because it is likely to give disproportionate power to tiny unrepresentative groups and individuals like the egregious Steve Fielding.

My major concern with PR is that the need to satisfy the wish list of minor parties and Independents to form a viable coalition would undermine the reasonably high levels of economic responsibility and moderation that have characterised the performance of both major parties over the last couple of decades,  a phenomenon which has largely underpinned Australia’s excellent economic performance through the Global Financial Crisis.

On balance I think there’s something to be said for a system that provides for (say) 25 of the 140 seats in the House of Reps to be elected by Hare-Clark PR from  a national pool of candidates.  On current Tasmanian rules that would generate a quota for election of 16.7%, which is not all that dissimilar to a Senate quota and should mostly ensure that only candidates with reasonably broad democratic support are elected.

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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Stephen
Stephen
11 years ago

Ken, the 25-member system in Tasmania is 5 members x 5 electorates. Not sure how you were planning to apply that nationally???

Not that your conclusion is necessary incorrect. Even if you elected 25 members from a national pool, that’s 3.85% of the national vote or around ~423 000 votes (11 million / 26 + 1) to be elected.

All that said, I do think the chances of that kind of change are vanishingly small.

Nicholas Gruen
Admin
11 years ago

As John Quiggin keeps arguing, there appears to be the makings of a very strong block of left of centre votes – ALP + Green. Will they have the good sense to cooperate sufficiently to benefit themselves?

I think the Australian political system with a House in which a strong govt can form and a PR elected Senate is pretty ideal. If only the parties forming Government could be forced out of the mould a bit . . .

Swings and roundabouts I guess.

Julia
Julia
11 years ago

The “in principle” argument for a PR system is that it enables broader representation of all voters – that is, it is deliberately a “minoritarian” system with the assumption that negotiation means that the most broadly agreed polices rather than overall platforms get a look-in.
Personally I like the theory but am slightly unsure of the practice. In New Zealand they seem to be coping albeit somewhat grumpily with the need to negotiate arising from the MMP system, and it has not led to Italian (pre Berlusconi) levels of instability.
In favour of PR also is the fact that Australia has an unusually locked in two party system (up until last weekend). What we see as the potential instability of PR, other places see as the normal cut and thrust of politics.
On the Labor / Greens left of centre issue, the antipathy of Labor in particular at both State and Federal levels to Greens has always surprised me. The actual electors tend to see them as a continuum, the antithesis of how the parties see the situation. That may change after the weekend’s results.

Julia
Julia
11 years ago

PS LOVE the idea of climate based voting zones. You could complement that with climate based foreign policy alliances and instead of common market or free trade zones, have common climate zones as the basis of alliance.

derrida derider
derrida derider
11 years ago

Na, the Greens aren’t anywhere near in strong enough position to successfully demand this. The major parties – especially Labor – know it would be to their permanent detriment and would credibly just say they’d rather a (probably short) spell in opposition than grant it.

Have a look at the UK. The Lib-Dems were in a far stronger position than the Greens but could not even get close to extorting PR from either the tories or Labour – both called the Lib-Dem’s bluff straight away, so the negotiation passed on to other issues.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
11 years ago

Yes I’m pretty sure you’re correct. But it’s interesting just the same, and the fact that it obviously isn’t in the private interest of the two major parties doesn’t mean it might not be in the interest of the rest of us and democratic governance generally.

Alan
Alan
11 years ago

Climatic electorates would be fun, but would take an impossible constitutional amendment. Simply shifting to multi-member electorates would do the trick.

You’d make Tasmania and each territory a single electorate. You’d divide the other states into electorates with between 5 and 9 members. There may be a case for smaller electorates in remote areas of the bigger states. You’d maintain one vote one value by providing that the quota of electors to representatives had to be the same (with a margin) in each electorate within a state.

Yobbo
11 years ago

Yes I’m pretty sure you’re correct. But it’s interesting just the same, and the fact that it obviously isn’t in the private interest of the two major parties doesn’t mean it might not be in the interest of the rest of us and democratic governance generally.

It’s only really of interest to the one minor party that could gain from a national advertising campaign thanks to funding from massive global NGOs, and pro rata help from Government Broadcasters and GetUp.

Yobbo
11 years ago

err I meant pro bono.

That will teach me to use big words.

Ingolf
Ingolf
11 years ago

Like DD, (and you) Ken, I can’t see either major party agreeing to such a change except under exceptional duress. Still, if this little experiment in diversity works tolerably well, the electorate might well become much keener on the idea so maybe such duress isn’t that many cycles away.

I haven’t really thought this through but in at least some ways a proliferation of independents under our current system might be preferable. To get elected to the House of Reps, they can’t afford to be too obsessive about single issues, too flaky or too partisan (although one could perhaps argue that Katter pushes some of those boundaries at times). In any event, a successful independent has to appear sensible and authentic to a sizeable chunk of his or her electorate in a way that minor parties don’t. Depending on the percentage cut-off required for election, their bar is a good deal lower: all they have to do is find enough fellow true believers.

Yobbo
11 years ago

Wilson Tuckey had massive support. He used to bring in about 70% of the 2pp vote each and every election. They had to redistribute the electorate to get him out of parliament, what a victory for democracy, eh?

conrad
conrad
11 years ago

“On balance I think there’s something to be said for a system that provides for (say) 25 of the 140 seats in the House of Reps to be elected by Hare-Clark PR from a national pool of candidates.”

I don’t see how this gets you around the problem of either minor parties having more influence than they should when they control the balance of power, or, as has been more common in the last few decades, essentially no influence. I imagine the main effect this would have is that minor parties controlling the balance of power would be more likely, which might good if you think that, in general, minor parties have not had enough influence.

Ingolf
Ingolf
11 years ago

Agreed, Ken, on both counts.

I guess it’s unrealistic in any case to expect independents to ever hold more than a small minority of seats. If they did, they’d probably soon enough start coalescing into parties.

Tim Sim
Tim Sim
11 years ago

Interesting post Ken, I recall after the 2005 NT Election landslide, that the Greens called for PR in the NT. Given the CLP were reduced to a rump of 4 out of 25 it struck me at the time as sensible. Clearly it was in the interest of the Greens, but an opposition of 4 was in nobodies interest. PR especially in such a small parliament and where the seats are so small seats would reduce the volatility, but as others have suggested the chances of it being implement would have to be slim.

observa
observa
11 years ago

PR means one vote one value and the end to branch stacking and marginal seat pork barelling and is the only democratic way to go. It also means Govt can concentrate on big picture issues like sorting out the MDB. If you asked a majority of Australians about that they’d want it sorted pronto and yet the need to gain seats along the basin means sitting on hands.

Ken is reluctant to see the seat based, winner take all system go for stability reasons. Que? What was stable about the last two and a half years we may well ask? Mr 75% sacked and replaced by a bunch of power brokers that were nurtured on branch stacking and local pork barrelling, that could never have survived to such an extent under the need for parties and their candidates to have national appeal and broad based support and here we all are. Dependent on a rag tag of seat based members to give us all their blessing and wish lists via public fibre to their offices and homes if nowhere else. These are the very grass roots local and regional seat based members we need in a House of Review, to deal with lost kittens and Centrelink cheques, while the PR Rep House gets on with the big picture unhindered by the need to kiss babies and attend fetes, allowing the parties to select their best talent and protect them at the top of the ticket. The Senate can have the Katters, Xenophons, Harradines, Clearys, with powerful keep the bastards honest and not too esoteric powers. They would represent the regions and climates and can bring their specific experience and knowledge to their peers in the review process of Govt legislation. No one or two could rule but they’d sure as hell be able to warn of unintended consequences and pitfalls in national legislation and bring that to bear strongly or not as the case may be.

We elect the houses the wrong way round and it’s bleeding obvious now. PR in the Reps negates the need for byelections for casual vacancies and permits a solution to having to elect the HoS as well as nominating mother in laws of party hatchet men. The HoS has 3 yr tenure, the new Reps parties can nominate candidates on the basis of a maxm of one per seat held and the Senate selects the HoS from that. The electorate would go for that as a sensible compromise to that thorny republican problem. I’m a one vote one value democrat and no watermelon fan but the Greens representation in the Reps is a national scandal. Same for the NP or FF or any other party that can raise a national quota. The sooner they’re in there being responsible for coalitions and real decision-making like the Democrats, the sooner they’ll be sorted out on the national stage. At present the Greens are hiding behind Senate skirts burning up real national oxygen. Come out and get your thumbs out of your mouths watermelons.

observa
observa
11 years ago

Basically come out and cop your national Copenhagen watermelons!

Ricardo
Ricardo
11 years ago

I prefer two party personally.

Governing requires assembling coalitions of interests. In a two party system, these coalitions are established prior to the election and people know roughly what they are voting for.

PR has two main defects:

1. The dealing happens after the election and the results can be very unpredictable. In this case we’ll probably end up with a bunch of policies favouring regional Australi that no one originally voted for. How democratic is that?

2. Parties can happily survive by appealing to a significant minority (Depending on thresholds). This can result in very narrowly focused parties who are reluctant to change or compromise. this can lead to stasis and an inability to get rid of bad governments or, where the party won’t participate in governments (like the Italin communists) then a chunk of the population is disenfranchised and forming viable governments is difficult.

Australia’s systme of government has delivered more substantial reforms with stability than most. Don’t fix what isn’t broken.

observa
observa
11 years ago

Ricardo says
“Governing requires assembling coalitions of interests. In a two party system, these coalitions are established prior to the election and people know roughly what they are voting for.”
and then shoots down his argument by noting that under our seat based system-
“The dealing happens after the election and the results can be very unpredictable. In this case we’ll probably end up with a bunch of policies favouring regional Australi that no one originally voted for. How democratic is that?”
Well apart from PR meaning one vote one value democracy without branch stacking, marginal seat pork barrelling and over-importance of back-room boys like the NSW right in our democracy, neither system can guarantee absolute integrity, with thoughts of the outcome of the current state of affairs being a poignant reminder of that. However I’m supremely confident that speaking to truth will win out in the long haul, particularly with having to appeal to national interest, but true, it is dependant on the overall national character and I’m ever the optimist. So what would I advise in speaking to truth right now under the current system?

The last thing I’d do if I were Tony is sell my soul to the devil for very short term political gain and be mindful of old Lazarus on that score. Tony could promise NBN Broadband rollout to these independents ONLY on the condition that a full and open cost/benefit analysis shows it stacks up for all Australians and not just a select few in their electorates. After all YOU all want fair and open politics now don’t WE chaps? That’s the best political gun to these talking heads he can put right at the outset.

Next is to categorically state his party’s opposition to phantom carbon credit creation, giveaways and trading and if they can’t live with that then no deal boys and as for ‘reshiftable’ energy and the like, we need to pause while the heavyweight statisticians argue over the latest straight yellow line through the climatologists’ hockey stick.

Thirdly, what’s their view on the need to rein in grossly wasteful spending and the deficit before rolling out fast trains and the like in specific electorates?

Swim with me openly and honestly with that boys and I’m your man, or else go sink with Labor and the Greens on more of the same over the life of the last parliament. You choose right here and now, openly and publicly.

observa
observa
11 years ago

Disclaimer: The author does sit at the end of the MDB drain, in a safe Labor seat enduring much global cooling, without the steam off any politician’s manure recently to warm his coffee, supposedly fortified with the belief that one local native Penny Wong might sooner or later demonstrate her Govt’s professed global cap and trade credentials on a river basin in our own back-yard, just as soon as other great moral imperatives are out of the way and stimulating finances permit. Still the 2.1Kw solar feed-in system poking out 66 Watts of power at 4 pm might provide some light comic relief from the 0.25% Westpac mortgage interest rise and nearly 25% rise in the Truenergy peak summer power tarriff announced by letter last Monday. Any similar amusing anecdotes by the 51 publicly paid economists are naturally most welcome.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
11 years ago

obs

I’m still struggling to work out which of the two major parties you handed out “how to vote” cards for on Saturday… Have you considered changing your pseudonym to “Mr Inscrutable”?

Mike Pepperday
Mike Pepperday
11 years ago

Observa at #16
“We elect the houses the wrong way round …”

Compared with other federations I think this is right. In unitary (non-federal) polities, apart from Tasmania, I don’t think there are any bicameral systems with PR in the lower house. If you have PR in the lower house, you do not need another house unless it is a federal system where states have to be represented. If you have a single-member lower house, then you do need an upper house or your polity may collapse.

It is true that PR is statistically less stable than single-member electoral systems (as measured by cabinet longevity) but the difference is not huge. The virtues of stability can be exaggerated: single-member electorates kept Northern Ireland extremely stable for 50 years. There PR was essential and there were three attempts since it blew up to introduce PR. The last one seems to be sticking.

Australia is unique: the only parliamentary (not presidential) country where both houses are directly elected. And we’ve got six of them.

In Australasia the upper houses (except the Senate) were designed as a curb on democracy. Their direct election has effectively forced the introduction of PR to them and this has made them the bastions of democracy.

As legislatures, the supposedly democratic lower houses have become irrelevant: they rubber stamp the executive’s proposal which the upper house debates and amends, and then the lower house obediently passes the amended upper house version. Sittings of the lower houses could cease and it would have no effect except on the evening news theatricals. (It would also allow those MPs who are not ministers to do what they prefer, namely play social worker in their electorate.)

Greens and many others are much taken with the idea of the lower houses becoming PR and Observa says it is “the only democratic way to go.” Even if its happening were not fantasy, it is not necessarily such a bright idea. It is hard enough for the executive to negotiate legislation through the upper house. To have to negotiate it through two houses is well nigh impossible. In Tasmania around 1990 this situation actually arose when the Greens won the balance of power in the lower house. The government would do a deal with the Greens in the Assembly but then have to start again to negotiate with the Council. Ultimately this gave both major parties the tomtits so they colluded to change the electoral system to keep the Greens out of the Assembly.

The Northern Territory should be PR and so should Queensland, but where there is an upper house which is PR, practicality would seem to preclude PR in the lower.