President’s Report to the Annual General Meeting of Electoral Reform Australia

Stephen Lesslie

In Australia, there is general acceptance that proportional representation is worthwhile, at least for upper houses and local government, and we don’t normally have to debate the merits of PR versus such ridiculous voting systems as first past the post.

Our task is much more subtle and therefore probably more difficult. We have to persuade politicians and most of the self-styled psephologists that they are wrong: that all the add-ons and accretions imposed on a beautiful single transferable vote (STV) system have corrupted the results, and that only by a simplification of our electoral system shall the will of the people be respected.

The current electoral system has failed in many ways. Micro party candidates are regularly and increasingly being elected with only a tiny fraction of a quota. The Senate and Victorian and NSW Legislative Councils can provide examples.

Voters are asked to judge the relative merits of hundreds of candidates, the great majority of whom cannot be (and, in many cases, do not even want to be) elected. Parties and groups are forced to run many candidates when they would be happy and pleased if they could just get one candidate elected. These full but meaningless party groups also give a false impression to voters that their vote will count right through to the end.

Gaming of the system is rife. Unprincipled backroom deals are made between parties who should ostensibly be on opposite ends of the political spectrum. Excessive and pointless formality requirements force voters into supporting party tickets despite knowing that such deals may have been arranged.

One would think that as electoral results after electoral results, right across this country, show the failure of the current system, reform would be easy. But no! The latest ridiculous idea, from the Federal Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters (JSCEM), is to impose on the Senate the same system that has just failed in the latest NSW Legislative Council election, as indeed it did in previous elections.

The JSCEM proposal retains above-the-line voting, retains compulsory preferences below the line, and hopes that voters will give preferences to different groups in the above-the-line boxes.

It won’t work. Should they bother to look, they will see that four out of twenty one candidates in the NSW Legislative Council election were elected without obtaining a quota; that over 7% (one and a half quotas) of the vote exhausted; that one elected candidate could not even reach 2% of the formal vote; and just how close another group of political gamers came to winning a seat.

An examination of the results in the Victorian Legislative Council election will show equally disappointing results, this time aided by above-the-line voting and group voting tickets.

Reform in Australia can be very easy – trust the voters and keep it simple.

Abolish all forms of above-the-line voting and group voting tickets and allow fully optional preferential voting. It works in ACT elections: voter participation goes up as both informal voting and exhausted votes go down. Should they also rotate candidates within party groups and count the ballot using the Meek method of counting an STV ballot then Australia will have a world class electoral system.

Opportunities for electoral reform in Australia are very rare. The reforms of 1948 and 1983 produced unsatisfactory results. There is a mood for change but we need to persuade politicians that the rights of voters are paramount.

In the latter half of next year we will have both a Federal election and the NSW local government elections. They both badly need reform; in particular the Senate and Botany Bay Council which continues to laugh at everybody by maintaining its – unique for NSW – undemocratic, single member, winner take all council wards.

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