That the Australian electoral system needs change is one of the few things politicians and experts agree on. Democracy works best when diversity among the population is reflected by a diversity of views and ideas in parliament. The electoral system does a poor job of bringing this about, imposing a simplistic two-party model which creates a poor standard of debate and widespread alienation among the unrepresented population.
A large part of the problem is the huge obstacles that keep out alternative ideas and new parties. Australia has one of the world's highest electoral quotas. In a normal half-Senate election a candidate requires 14.3% of the vote to get elected. Most democratic parliaments - including state parliaments within Australia - have a far lower threshold. Turkey imposes a quota of 10%, New Zealand and Germany require 5%, many other countries require only 2%, and some nations with proportional representation have no threshold at all. The electoral obstacles faced by minor parties also include huge red tape requirements, which major parties exempt themselves from. The administrative burden of the arcane registration auditing process for minor parties cannot be overstated.
Despite these obstacles, a string of minor parties have recently been elected in Australia through the use of group voting tickets. The group voting ticket system requires a full preference ordering in which voters either order preferences themselves for every party, or they vote for a single party which then preferences all other parties in a fixed order (which is determined by the parties themselves).1 This system is very complex and enables minor parties to concentrate votes, allowing them to occasionally be elected in a rather random fashion, sometimes from a very low primary vote. Preferences can transfer between parties with very different ideologies, and in a way which doesn't reflect the likely will of voters. Group voting tickets are thus a very poor way of accomplishing something very important - namely, providing a way for new voices and new perspectives to reach parliament through the maze of systemic barriers erected to keep them out.
The largest parties have proposed narrow electoral reforms which focus on stopping minor parties from being elected. This is despite the fact that minor party voters remain significantly under-represented in the current parliament. Proposals include a plan to prevent parties with a low primary vote from being able to pass on any preferences. This approach frames preferencing as a privilege to be limited to major party voters. Other proposals have included calls to expand the registration requirement for minor parties to 1500 members, hugely increasing the red tape involved in running a political party.2
The proposal which has gained the most coverage is that of shifting to optional preferential voting. This will stop minor parties from significantly concentrating preferences among themselves, particularly across ideological divides. However. making this change in isolation - while leaving all the existing electoral and administrative barriers intact - will lock minor parties out of Federal politics. In the 2013 Senate election 23.54%3 of the population voted for a party other than the ALP, Coalition and Greens. Under these reforms, minor party voters will trade the random representation which the system currently provides them for no representation at all4. The undersigned parties do not consider this desirable. It will create a system in which insiders are artificially protected from competition and able to permanently impose old politics and ways of operating on Australia.
There are real problems to solve in our electoral system. However, the proposals floated to date all too obviously reflect the interests of insiders, with a narrow focus on shutting out minor parties and no consideration of the need for broader, holistic change. The explosion of minor parties in Australia is, in part, a result of widespread disillusionment with the practice of politics-as-usual. Perpetually locking in the biggest major parties and protecting them from competition will only make this disillusionment worse. We believe changes must be considered at arms length from those who directly stand to benefit or lose out. With this in mind, we are calling for a Royal Commission into electoral reform.
Such a move would be far from unprecedented. New Zealand has implemented voting reforms following recommendations from its own Royal Commission5. Only a Royal Commission can craft recommendations with enough authority to prevent established players from simply side-lining them in favour of purely self-interested changes. A Royal Commission will provide the necessary mix of independence and authority needed to cut through in an increasingly divisive debate and create a real opportunity for genuine systems-thinking reforms. We believe this is critical to create an outcome which reflects voter will and the national interest.
The call for an electoral royal commission was an initiative of Pirate Party Australia. We hereby invite all other interested parties to join this call.
This issue is bigger than us and we seek partnership with other parties on this issue from the full spectrum of Australian politics.
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