Improving Democracy: Lessons from Australia

18 Feb

OK, before I begin, I’d like to say that I am not one of those annoying expatriates who think everything about their new adopted country is superior to the country they left.  When I lived in Britain (where I’m from originally), I knew some expats who – on trips back home – would witter on about how everything in Britain was shit and everything in their new country was wonderful (I’m exaggerating, but you get the idea).  I am not like that.  I have lived in Australia as an expat for a few years now and there are positive and negative aspects of each country, of Britain and of Australia.

OK, now that’s clear, on with the post.  One aspect of Australia that I think is better than Britain (in my opinion and I’m open to other views) is the system of parliament and government; a system which (minus a couple of negative aspects which I’ll detail at the end) I think should be adopted in the UK.

There are two key aspects of the Australian system that I think improve democracy: firstly preference voting; and secondly, the existence of two different forms of voting (although each one is a form of preference voting) for the the two House of Parliament.

Preference Voting would take away the situation in the UK whereby if a party has a very low share of the vote in a particular constituency, that party’s chances remain low partly because of their initial low share of the vote.  In democracy, people should vote for the party and/or candidate whose policies they personally approve of; they should not be discouraged from voting for a particular party because that party appears to have little hope in their constituency.  But the simple UK voting system (just one cross for one chosen candidate) makes it pragmatic to avoid voting for someone with no chance.

When I lived in Sutton in southern England, just before the 2010 election, I researched the share of votes from the previous election in my constituency: the share among the 3 main parties was roughly 47%, 46%, 7% to Liberal Democrats, Conservative and Labour respectively. One reason I didn’t vote Labour, I must admit, was that Labour didn’t have a chance.  In a democracy, that shouldn’t be an influencing factor but it is, because without a huge shift in public opinion away from one of those two leading parties, there would be very little chance that a vote for Labour would have any meaningful impact.  It also meant that the Labour Party probably had little concern about the issues that concerned me: when I wrote to a Labour Government minister about such an issue, my letter was ignored.

In Australia, voting for the House of Representatives (equates to the UK House of Commons and determines the Government) works as follows: if no candidate has more than 50% of votes, then the candidate with the fewest is excluded and this candidate’s votes are transferred to the other candidates according to the second preferences of voters on the ballot papers for the excluded candidate. And so on, until a candidate has more than 50% of votes. So if that had been applied in the UK in 2010, if I had wanted to vote Labour I could have done so, knowing that if that candidate lost, my second choice would still count. So plenty more people might vote for the candidate who was least popular previously and therefore it wouldn’t take a massive shift in public opinion to win an ‘unwinnable’ seat. There would be more fluid changes in seats; more fluid responses to the policies and actions of political parties and candidates.

The Australian Senate system is another form of preference voting, based on multi-member voting areas (the states). So each state has 12 Senators who ‘share’ the state (rather than each person representing one division as in the House of Representatives).  To be elected to the Senate, a candidate needs a quota of votes; then anything above that is a surplus which is then distributed among the next preferences on the ballot papers.  And so the process continues until all 12 Senate seats are filled for that state. 


This difference of voting systems is another benefit.  Any voting system is likely to have some disadvantages, but as both Australian Houses of Parliament have nearly equal power, any disadvantages of each voting system are, to some extent, balanced out by the other system.

Finally, just a few negative aspects I would change about the system.  Firstly, as each state has 12 Senators, why does each territory (Northern Territory and the ACT) have only 2?  This seems a major inequality.  (For that matter, why is the Northern Territory only a territory and not a state?).

Secondly, I would scrap the compulsory voting that we have here in Australia.  While I personally think voting is important, I don’t want the result distorted by people who really don’t care and are only voting to avoid a fine.  Yes, I have spoken to such people; as disappointing as it is that they feel imposed upon by having to do something that many people in other countries would only wish they could do, I still would prefer that such people don’t vote if they haven’t even thought about the issues.  I’d say to such people: “Fine, don’t vote, but then don’t complain about the Government and Parliament you’ve got”.

As always, feel free to disagree or express another opinion. 


6 Responses to “Improving Democracy: Lessons from Australia”

  1. Hairyloon February 19, 2017 at 10:36 #

    It is not fair to withhold the right to complain from the non-voter when voting is as futile as it is in this country.

    • Jenkins1974 February 19, 2017 at 11:20 #

      OK, fair point. It is still fair for non-voters to complain. I’ve just been a little shocked to hear a few people talk about voting as though it’s just an imposition on them rather than an opportunity (though I accept it’s a limited opportunity though it’s better than not voting at all). Someone else suggested including an option “none of the above” which, if it were the majority result for a particular electoral division, could force a selection of all new candidates.

      • Hairyloon February 19, 2017 at 18:10 #

        Imposition is not the word I would use; it is an entirely voluntary opportunity to add fake legitimacy to an intellectually bankrupt system: the only way I can get my vote to carry any weight is to wrap it around a brick…
        The None of The Above option was one that I advocated firmly for a while, but after discussions with one of the leading campaigners I changed my opinion. is worth a look, if only for comedy value.
        NoTa is clearly an essential option where voting is compulsory, and no bad thing in any case, but what does a No Ta win signify?
        It says that the electorate cannot be bothered to field a candidate worth voting for…
        Actually, that is not entirely true: NoTa could be a means to break the two party deadlock, or to limit the safety of a safe seat.

  2. Christine Jenkins February 20, 2017 at 17:34 #

    Well argued. I agree entirely but sadly cannot see preference voting being adopted in UK any time soon. Which government would risk it?

    • Jenkins1974 February 20, 2017 at 17:38 #

      Thank you! And yes you’re probably right from what I’ve heard. I don’t think it’s high on the agenda for any party.

    • Hairyloon February 20, 2017 at 19:50 #

      The only reasonable way forward that I can see is for a public vote of no confidence in the administration, and take that decision out of their hands.

      Alternatively we need to find a way to stage a non-violent civil war…

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