Friday, 28 June 2013

Tweaking Australia's Electoral System

Australia's political and electoral systems are quite brilliant: they're designed to deliver and protect the will of the people. But I often wonder whether the system really delivered what the people desired in the 2010 Federal election. We got the Representatives we desired - but did we get the Government we desired?

The Coalition and Labor both won 72 seats. That didn't show convincingly that the people desired a Labor government. So how did we end up with a Labor government?

Both parties fell four seats short of the requirement to form a Majority government in the 150-seat Parliament. It was the first Hung Parliament since 1940. Six crossbenchers held the balance of power.

Two of the six crossbenchers declared their support for the Coalition (National Party of Western Australia MP Tony Crook; and Independent MP Bob Katter). They both represented Divisions with stronger support for the Coalition than for Labor (the Seats of O'Connor, and Kennedy): the Coalition won more votes than Labor in both of those Seats. So you could say the two crossbenchers chose what their electorate desired.

Two other crossbenchers declared their support for Labor (Greens MP Adam Brandt, and Independent MP Andrew Wilkie). They both represented fairly strong Labor Divisions (the Divisions of Melbourne, and Denison): Labor won more votes than the Coalition in both those Divisions. You could therefore say that they also chose what their Division desired.

None of that was too unexpected. So we eagerly waited while the remaining two cross benchers took their time before announcing their decisions.  For seventeen gruelling days we waited until finally the two remaining members were ready.

The member for the Division of New England (Independent MP Tony Windsor) spoke first.  He was going to support Labor. But was that what his electorate desired? The Seat of New England hadn't been held by Labor since 1913; and in 2010 there was a 2.77% swing against Labor. Labor won only 8.13% of the vote compared with the Nationals winning 25.22%. The figures seem to indicate that the people in Windsor's Division might have been more in favour of the Coalition than Labor.

So we again waited with baited breath while the member for Lyne followed. For seventeen long minutes Independent MP Rob Oakeshott presented his justification for his verdict and finally mentioned it: he also would support Labor. But was that really what his electorate desired? His electorate had been represented by the National Party for nearly 60 years. It was only fairly recently that the people swung towards an Independent.

And did that swing mean they were becoming more favourable towards Labor than towards the Coaltion? There was actually an 18.49% swing away from Labor. In fact Labor won only 13.49% of the votes while the Nationals still won 34.39% despite the swing towards the Independent.

So the figures in Lyne seemed to indicate that the swing away from the Nationals towards the Independent was not because the people were favouring Labor over the Coaltion - the figures show quite the opposite. The swing away from the Nationals was also a swing even further away from Labor - not a swing closer to Labor. Even the Coalition had not been performing conservatively enough for the people of Lyne - and they were seemingly hoping the Independent would restore that. The figures didn't seem to indicate increased favour for Labor. Many of the people of Lyne were so angry with their elected Independent's choice that it was deemed not even to be safe for the Member for Lyne to meet his constituents in their public hall.

Unlike the first four crossbenchers, the last two crossbenchers went against the figures (the electoral results) of their own electorates. Even the media seemed disappointed. Nevertheless that was their decision. And so the Governor-General then invited Labor to form Government. And we all ended-up with a Labor government. That's how it happened.

Furthermore, the Labor party changed its leader during its term in government. So not only did we end up with a Government we didn't convincingly choose, but we also ended up with a different Prime Minister than we were led to expect during the electoral campaign.

Even though hung parliaments are rare, I sometimes wonder whether the electoral system couldn't be tweaked just a little bit to prevent a reoccurrence of this - to better ensure that the will of the people is delivered.

Perhaps a new rule could be made that would allow the actual figures in an electorate and not a cross-bencher's personal whim to be the determining factor in the event of a hung parliament.

Both Windsor and Oakeshott have announced the intention not to contest their seats at the next election. Windsor claims the polls indicate an Independent would again win the seat; and Oakeshott claims most of those who voted for him are happy with the way he's handled the 43rd Parliament of Australia.

Perhaps some method could also be considered to allow the people and not a party to choose our Prime Minister.

Any advantages, disadvantages and limitations of any changes would have to be weighed wisely and discerningly though.

What would deliver best to the Australian people their will, and protect it?

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