David Cameron hearts archaic voting systems

Over here in the United Kingdom, the creaking FPTP (First-Past-The-Post) system of voting still operates; voters in general elections are forced to nominate only their most-preferred candidate, a solitary smudge in a box. It’s easy to see how such a system can result in fairly undemocratic results in tussles between more than two serious candidates: as the number of serious candidates in a ballot increases, FPTP forces a serious division of the vote, ultimately delivering victory to candidates with potentially only a minority proportion of overall electoral support. It is a system that decisively favours larger, more-established parties at the expense of smaller ones, and it is not surprising in this context that the Liberal Democrats made electoral reform one of the cornerstones of their campaign in the May 2010 UK general election.

The begrudging promise of a referendum on the alternative vote or “AV” system of preferential voting reportedly sealed the Coalition deal for David Cameron’s Conservatives with Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats in the election aftermath. The referendum, which is to be held on Thursday 5th May 2011 as a kind of royal wedding after-party for psephologists, will cast the two Coalition partners decisively against each other in what looks set to be an intriguing political tussle. From an Australian perspective it is particularly intriguing, because as the anointed international standard-bearers for preferential voting, Westminster-style, it looks like we will be stuck in the crossfire for the duration of the debate!

The first serious volleys were fired late last week, when Nick Clegg and David Cameron set out their opening arguments for voting for and against AV, respectively. David Cameron made special mention of the Australian example several times in his speech launching the “No” campaign. His approach? Never let a good argument get in the way of a good slur:

When it comes to our democracy, Britain shouldn’t have to settle for anyone’s second choice.

And this argument that no one really wants it, it’s as true abroad as it is at home.

Only three countries use AV for national elections: Fiji, Australia and Papua New Guinea.

In Australia, six in ten voters want to return to the system we have – first past the post.

This is both sleight of hand and an egregious slight; playing on the relative size and remoteness of all three countries mentioned, and slimily “hiding” Australia in passing between Fiji and PNG. What really are you saying about Fiji and Papua New Guinea, Prime Minister, by being so careful to mention them first, and last? They are the countries you want people to remember and associate with AV, aren’t they? I’d also be interested in hearing the basis for the “six in ten” figure mentioned. Does anybody seriously believe that there is any realistic popular support whatsoever for a regression back to FPTP in Australia?

The British Prime Minister also takes the time to explain why preferential voting is the reason for the relatively high number of safe seats in Australia (?) and furthermore, why it is to blame for “obliterating minor parties” down under. Evidently nobody told him about the rise and rise of the Greens, or the notable success of independents and minor parties in recent years, in both the House of Representatives and the Senate.

He goes on to trash Australia’s electoral system, calling out the fact that it took seventeen days for a government to be formed at the last federal poll, and noting that on voting day ”voters are lectured at polling stations by party apparatchiks with ‘How to Vote’ cards.”. I’m not necessarily a fan of “how-to-vote” shenanigans outside polling booths, but it is a nonsense to describe the process as “lecturing”; in practice, it is little more than froth and colour. It is also disingenuous of Cameron to spin the speed of confirming the last federal election result as indicative of what happens in preferential voting systems generally. September 2010 was hardly exemplary of recent federal election results in Australia – practically all of which were decided with brutal speed and on the night (indeed, called by Antony Green a few hours after the close of polls, quite frequently).

I’d like to think that the Prime Minister isn’t going to take this rubbishing of Australia’s electoral system lying down. She might start by making gentle mention of that most thoroughly democratic of British institutions, the House of Lords.

Cross-posted at Larvatus Prodeo.

“Pavaresine” for Kosovo

All folks with an appreciation for modern European political history will no doubt be looking with a touch of nervousness towards the Balkans tonight, as Kosovo unilaterally declares independence from Serbia. Despite this declaration being made in apparent contravention of international law, and being opposed firmly by both Serbia and Russia, the continent is somewhat relaxed about the move thanks to the weight that United States and the majority of EU states bring to the struggle forwards for the Kosovars. To the international stage, we should all extend a warm welcome to Kosovar Prime Minister Hashim Thaci, a formal rebel leader in the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA):

“The world’s map is changing,” Prime Minister Hashim Thaci declared in a televised broadcast to what would soon be the seventh nation to emerge from the ashes of the old Yugoslavia. “We are getting our independence. Everything is a done deal.”

Although this one appears like all the world to be a step in the right direction, it is disappointing that we once again have a situation whereby the United Nations has been sidelined by realpolitik. Problem: it is virtually impossible to get anything remotely contentious or seen to favour one particular council member over another through the UN Security Council. Solution: ignore the council and proceed through other avenues, safe in the knowledge that there will be no real significant repercussions. There is not really any point in international law if its mechanisms are wantonly abused whenever it is politically convenient to do so (with for the strong nations, is just about always).

One of these days we are going to have a situation where the UN Security Council is flagrantly bypassed, and a state like Russia or China is going to take arguably justified retaliatory action. For the sake of the long-suffering Kosovars, let us hope that it doesn’t happen this time around, but maybe it will take such an event to once again remind the world of the importance of strong and binding international governance mechanisms.

ELSEWHERE: You can gawk at the new Kosovar national flag here.