Democracy is predicated on the idea that all votes are equal. Unfortunately, in Australia, that isn’t true.
The problem is that we’ve built a system that ensures a small number of voters have a disproportionate sway over our politics, pushing both major parties in their direction. This Saturday, in the lower house, your vote will be weighted by where you live and how likely your vote is to swing. This election will effectively be decided by a small number of swinging voters in a small number of swinging seats.
This is caused by a unique combination of factors: compulsory voting, compulsory preferencing, closed parties, strict party discipline and single-member electorates.
Compulsory voting means that almost all legal voters show up at the polls, and it means that the parties don’t need to appeal to people to make the effort to get out and vote. Voters who aren’t particularly engaged, but generally vote in one direction or the other, don’t need to be spoken to at all. They can be safely counted for their party of choice, regardless of what that party does. By requiring all people to vote, parties no longer need to inspire or motivate their base. This helps keep certain seats safe, and means the members pre-selected in those seats need to do little to actually retain them.
In Federal elections, in order to cast a valid ballot, you have to number through to the end of your ballot. That means, in most seats, your vote will ultimately flow to either the Liberal Party or the Labor Party They don’t actually have to appeal to you enough to get your no. 1 preference, they just need to be better than the other guys. Again, this pushes the parties toward the small number of voters who will ultimately switch the two around.
As my dear friend Elizabeth puts it, what we call “branch stacking”, Americans call “building the party”. We have a remarkably closed system in which applications for party membership can be denied, and where pre-selection, in most instances, is done by a very small number of people. In safe seats, this has the effect of meaning that the Member only needs to keep a small number of preselectors happy in order to keep their seats. By contrast, other countries use open primary processes that make primary challenges a real concern to members in safe seats, and keeping them more closely engaged with their local community.
Strict party discipline
Strict party discipline, especially within the Labor party, means that members are required to vote along party lines (with the exception of conscience votes). While a Member can advocate for the interests of their constituents in the party room, ultimately, they are required to vote along party lines even if it is against the interest of their constituents. Note: the parties enforce this differently (the Labor party is much worse), but it’s an important element of our democracy for both major parties.
Single member electorates
The final nail in the undemocratic coffin is single member electorates. There is nothing inherently wrong with single-member electorates: in fact, in the United States, with its open primary system and voluntary voting, they work quite well. Unfortunately, when you combine the four elements above with single member electorates, the power of each vote is weirdly distorted. Single member electorates work best when the member has to maintain a close relationship with his/her district and advocates for them in parliament. When constrained by party discipline, the capacity to do this is significantly weakened- member are not able to caucus around issues, only parties.
All of that comes to this: in Australia, unless you are a voter who swings in a seat that swings, politicians don’t need to appeal to you at all. They don’t need to motivate you to get out and vote. They don’t need to worry about losing preselection. And because they’re constrained by party discipline, their capacity to advocate for your interests once they are elected is limited.
And so the policies of both major parties are unduly influenced by some of the least-informed voters in the country.
The way to address this is to get rid of some combination of the above. Personally, I’d do away with strict party discipline, mandatory voting and closed parties. But the party reform stuff needs to come from the parties themselves (and thus, from the people who have a vested interest in the system as it is). And Australians are weirdly devoted to mandatory voting, so that’s unlikely to go away anytime soon.
So, reluctantly, I have come to see multi-member electorates as the most likely way of addressing this imbalance.
Essentially, our existing system elects parties not representatives. Representatives in safe electorates have limited accountability to their constituents, and are far more closely connected to their party. So why not just cut out the middle man, and elect parties directly, but to do so in a way that ensures they are proportionally represented. This minimises the distorting effect of swinging seats, and ensures there is incentive to appeal to the base, as it makes other parties more viable and votes genuinely contestable again.
I love single-member electorates, I really do. I love the way a Member can actively advocate for their community in government. I love the fact Members with similar interests on opposing parties can band together to pass a bill that is in the interest of their constituents.
But that doesn’t happen in Australia. Effectively, we elect parties.
So we may as well just vote for them.