OPINION | Should we change how people are elected to the House of Representatives?

Associate Professor David Lee | 14 Jun 2022

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With voter behaviour changing, the Albanese government could consider a historic shift in the lower house, says UNSW Canberra's David Lee.

A voting paper is placed in a ballot box
In the proportional representation system, parties can expect to receive about the same percentage of seats as they get in votes. Photo: Shutterstock.

The result of the 2022 election is now clear. The Labor Party has won 77 seats, the Greens four and progressive independents five of the Liberal Party’s heartland seats. The crossbench has swelled to a record 16.

The vote is an outcome of the preferential system of voting for single-member districts that replaced the first-past-the-post system in the House of Representatives in 1918. In a first-past-the-post electoral system the winner only needs the greatest number of votes rather than 50%-plus-one under the preferential system.

Had the 2022 election been conducted according to the pre-1918 system, maintained psephologist Peter Brent on 31 May, the result would have been quite different. The Coalition would have won 73 seats to Labor’s 71, the Greens only two with a smaller number of independents exercising the balance of power. This result would have reflected that Coalition candidates received the greatest number of first preference votes in 73 seats.

The origins of preferential voting

The preferential system of voting was introduced by the non-Labor side of politics for its benefit. In the latter stages of the First World War, farmers’ representatives were challenging liberal MPs (called Nationalists from 1917). In the 1918 by-election for the semi-rural seat of Flinders, the Nationalist government made a deal. In return for agreeing to introduce preferential voting, the farmers’ candidate withdrew in favour of the Nationalist, Stanley Melbourne Bruce.

At the federal election in 1922, a century ago, the Country Party won enough seats to hold the balance of power between the Nationalists and the Labor Party. In 1923 the new Nationalist Prime Minister, Bruce, and the Country Party leader, Earle Page, established the federal Coalition between the Nationalists (the Liberal Party from 1944) and the Country Party (the modern National Party).

The electoral consequences of preferential voting

The Coalition became the most successful governing entity in Australia. Preferential voting helped the Coalition because Liberal and Country Party voters could give their second preferences to each other thus maximising the chances of victory for a non-Labor candidate.  

While they would likely have won many elections even if first-past-the-post had operated, the preferential voting system did help Coalition governments to hold office for long periods: 1923-29, 1949-72, 1975-83, 1996-2007 and 2013-2022. From the mid-1950s, too, the breakaway Democratic Labor Party (DLP) allocated its second preferences to Coalition candidates. DLP preferences saved Coalition governments from possible defeat in close elections in 1961 and again in 1969.

Proportional representation is used by roughly half the world’s democracies and operates in elections for the Australian Senate, several state Legislative Councils and for the Tasmanian Parliament.

During the time of the Hawke and Keating governments, the Labor Party benefited from Greens, and to a lesser extent Australian Democrats, preferences, particularly in the 1990 election, when Labor received less of the two-party preferred votes but won the election anyway.

The period since 1996, however, was a dismal one for the Labor Party at the national level. Between 1950 and 1975, Labor formed majority governments for only three years. Similarly, in the quarter-century from 1996 to 2021, Labor held majority government for only three years (2007-10) and governed in minority for another three (2010-13). For the rest of the time, the Liberals governed in coalition with the Nationals. At the national level since 1996 Labor has been among the worst-performing centre-left parties.

It might be more successful in the future with electoral arrangements that are more favourable to Greens and progressive independents.

What are single-member districts and what effect do they have?

As it is now, in addition to preferential voting for the House of Representatives, we also have single-member districts (SMDs). A single-member district is an electoral district represented by a single officeholder. For example, the electorate of Wentworth elects one member to represent it in the House of Representatives. Labor and Greens voters preference each other’s candidates for these single-member districts. But the Greens have been markedly less successful, at least before 2022, in winning lower house seats than the Nationals. This is because SMDs have magnified National Party representation while understating the representation of the Greens.

Read more: Australia has more women in cabinet than ever before: what difference will diversity make?

For example, in the 2019 election the Greens, with just over 10 per cent of the primary vote, received less than 1 per cent of the House of Representatives seats. By contrast, the Nationals, who received a primary vote of 4.5 per cent, won 10 times as many seats as the Greens, or 6.6 of the total seats.

One reason for this disparity is that Green voters are scattered across many different lower house electorates whereas National Party voters are concentrated in a smaller number of regional electorates. While Greens and Labor compete with each other, when we consider that Labor has spent more time out of office than in government, it is not in Labor’s long-term political interest to have the Greens under-represented in the House of Representatives.

Ensuring representation matches the vote

If the progressives elected in 2022, including Labor, Greens and independents, want to ensure that the 2022 election is a generally realigning election (that is, one producing a long period of centre-left government), they might consider changing the system of voting in the lower house away from the one established in 1918.

The Australian Constitution states that the number of members chosen for the House of Representatives in the states should be in proportion to the respective numbers of their people except that five members, at least, should be chosen in each original state. This is the justification for Tasmania’s five seats in the House of Representatives notwithstanding its population of 541,965 in March 2021. By comparison, the ACT with 430,469 persons in September 2021 has three lower house seats. The precise method of election for the House of Representatives was left to be determined by the parliament.

The parliament introduced first-past-the-post voting in 1902 but changed the electoral act to introduce preferential voting for the House of Representatives in 1918. Later the Chifley Labor government amended the electoral act to introduce proportional representation for elections to the Senate. In both cases there was no referendum and no legal challenge was mounted against it. The parliament could replace the SMD system with proportional representation based on multi-member districts by amending the Electoral Act. It might, however, be prudent to hold a referendum on this question before legislating, as New Zealand did in 1993 before introducing its version of proportional representation.

Proportional representation is used by roughly half the world’s democracies and operates in elections for the Australian Senate, several state Legislative Councils and for the Tasmanian Parliament. In the proportional representation system, parties can expect to receive about the same percentage of seats as they get in votes. Under a proportional representation system in 2019, the Greens would have won as many seats as the entire crossbench in 2022 because, under proportional representation, parties, groups and independent candidates are elected to the parliament in proportion to the number of votes they receive.

A proportional representation system would be more in tune with the reality that our major political parties are in decline and that the electorate is increasingly favouring multiple parties and independents. This is evidenced by the low primary vote of the major parties in 2022. This is no bad thing and is actually contributing to a revival of Australian democracy.

To align the electoral system with modern political developments and to standardise voting for both houses of parliament, the Albanese government could consider introducing a form of proportional representation for the elections to the House of Representatives based on multi-member divisions and representation in proportion to the support of groups, parties and independents in each division.

Dr David Lee is an Associate Professor with the School of Humanities & Social Sciences at UNSW Canberra at the Australian Defence Force Academy. He joined UNSW in 2019 after a 24-year career with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. He has published widely on Australian history.

This article was originally published by the UNSW Newsroom.

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