It's Always a Minority Government

Last Updated Sep 7, 2010 7:52 PM EDT

Shock horror, the government we get is invariably one most people didn't vote for. The process of preferences helps push one party over the line, and that gives a minority government the power of a majority. Is there a better alternative? Well, yes, I think there is.
Over the last six elections the closest we came to an outright majority was when the Coalition managed 47 percent of the primary vote in 1996, but let's remember that's really an alliance of several parties. The best a single party managed was when Kevin Rudd achieved 43 percent of the primary vote in 2007. The irony that he became one of our shortest serving Prime Ministers is profound, but perhaps there's a lesson that wielding too much power means you don't listen, don't negotiate and abuse the privilege of the office --- perhaps he forgot that most people didn't vote for him.

In my mind, preferences distort the outcome of an election. A hung parliament could be a lesson here. If we like the outcome of the latest election --- if it really does engender deeper discussion on issues -- then maybe we should see that an outright majority in the Lower House becomes more of a rarity by assigning seats on the basis of primary votes only.

The effects will be largely beneficial for democracy. For a start, Prime Ministers would have to stop using that worn out claim of a mandate. That would hopefully encourage a more collegiate atmosphere in Parliament.

It would also remove the tedious game-playing of preference allocation, which often sees a highest first preference candidate lose out in the final count. The seat of Denison is an excellent case in point. It was won by Independent Andrew Wilkie, one of the cross benchers who will hold the balance of power in the next government. Yet he scored only 21 percent of the vote in his electorate, against 36 percent for the Labor candidate. He only won because the Liberal party, not wanting to give preferences to Labor, gave them to Wilkie instead. Is that really a sign of democracy in action?

With a first past the post vote Labor would also have picked up Melbourne, taking away the Greens-only seat in the Lower House, but I reckon that's fair enough when the Greens scored 36 percent of the vote there and Labor 38 percent.

If we follow this logic through Labor would have gained these two seats, but lost four. In Banks the Liberal party gained 45 percent of the vote, slightly ahead of Labor, but Labor won based on preferences from the Greens. The same applied in Deakin, La Trobe, Reid and Robertson. Shouldn't these really be Liberal wins?

By my reckoning, the result in this election, based on first past the post voting, would be 68 for Labor, 50 for Liberal, 22 for the Liberal National Party of Queensland, six for the National Party, one for the Country Liberal Party and just three independents. Add the various elements of the Coalition together and they've got 79 seats, more than enough for a stable government.

Towards Proportional Representation
The idea of proportional representation --- which we have to an extent in the Senate --- is often discussed for the Lower House. It's difficult to apply, of course, when we want MPs to represent the interests of their electorates. The allocation of seats has to be geographically based.

A valid alternative is that discussed by Ian Marsh in the latest episode of BTalk. He suggests that the Senate is the House where issues are raised and discussed, then passed to the Lower House for final debate and ratification. I love this idea.

Debate starts in a house that reflects the diversity of national opinion, then gets passed to the Lower House, where party politics has been turned down a little by the removal of preferences, leaving MPs to focus more on how the proposal meets the needs of their electorate.

Admittedly, applying the first past the post principle to this election would seem to provide less diversity in the Lower House (with less Independents and the removal of one Green MP), but I think that can be solved with one simple electoral reform --- a coalition party must front only one candidate in any given seat.

Does the National Party really stand for the same as the Liberal party? Are these marriages of convenience fair? If they are so wedded in their ideals, why do they stand against each other in certain seats? Allowing parties to form coalitions, so long as they provide one representative for each seat, would be imperative in a first past the post system. Not only would it stop parties from having two bites at the cherry in those seats, it would also stop the distortion of people lodging protest votes by supporting a minor party, knowing they will see their preferences flow elsewhere.

The result, I'd envisage, is for emerging parties to win control of more seats. The National party might break away from the Coalition to more closely represent the needs of their country voters, for example. If that happened then, more often than not, there would be no outright winner in Parliament --- and with the addition of Ian Marsh's idea of strengthening the senate, that could be a good thing. A minority Prime Minister would be forced to discuss and debate to arrive at a consensus. Now, wouldn't that be novel?

See also:

A Better Democracy | BTalk
Fixing Up Democracy | BTalk
Informal Votes Tell of a Doubly Disillusioned Electorate
The Dumbed Down Economics Debate | BTalk
Population Populism, Not Policy | BTalk