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.

Do Australians favour the constitutional status-quo?

What seems to be the immediately obvious answer to this question is “yes”; as most readers are likely aware, just 8 of the 44 (around 18%) referenda initiated to amend the constitution have succeeded in the history of the Australian federation. It also seems to be the answer favoured by James Allan, a Professor of Law at the University of Queensland, who is concerned that the Rudd Government has stacked the composition of the “Australian Governance” group at its 2020 Summit with potential constitutional vandals. Listing “bill of rights scepticism” as one of his primary research areas of interest, and asserting his delight at having moved to a country without a bill of rights (he was born in Canada), Allan notes has a few predictions about what the group is likely to come up with based on its composition:

There’ll be calls for a bill of rights. There’ll be calls for Australia to become a republic. And such authoritative calls could prove mighty useful down the road, especially if that was what you wanted before you started this little charade. Of course, when we play this game, we would have to concede, were we honest, that the group we had assembled was nowhere near being representative of the views of Australians as a whole.

Whenever Australians have been asked, they have recognised that the constitutional status quo is, as I noted above, comparatively excellent. But with any luck we can finesse that uncomfortable truth.

But do Australians really generally think that the constitutional status quo is excellent? Not to the extent that one would think based on the statistic I mentioned earlier, as it turns out. The infamous “double majority” provision that requires that a referendum be supported by a majority of the states (four of six) and a majority of voters in a majority of states acts as an arguably undemocratic obstacle preventing constitutional change. In actual fact, over the history of referenda, the average national “yes” vote is 50.28%, with the median “yes” vote sitting within reach of majority share at 48.84%. Five failed referenda, in particular, would have been passed on majority national vote if the double majority provision was not enforced. In another nine failed referenda, the supporting vote was over 49%, and three or more states voted in majority support.

With respect to a future Australian republic and a possible national bill of rights, there is also some reasonable evidence suggesting that a majority of Australians (or at least more than those in outright opposition) support constitutional change in each case. A deliberative poll was conducted as part of the process when the ACT enacted its bill of rights, with 47.3% of people polled in favour of the proposal prior to deliberation, and 58.6% after. Similarly, Newspoll [PDF] results over the last ten years point consistently to the fact that more Australians support the idea of Australia becoming a republic than oppose it.

In short, despite the nation’s sad history of failure to succeed in constitutional reform efforts, I don’t think it is fair to say that Australians prefer the constitutional status-quo to constitutional change. The bar for success has been set high; perhaps so high as to be occasionally impractical and in bottom-line terms, undemocratic. One thing is certain; it certainly does not hold that because something was a fantastic national document one-hundred years ago is a fantastic national document now. As a nation we should constantly be on the lookout for ways to improve the legislative infrastructure of the country. All things in human society gradually evolve – it is just a shame that this particular part of our society has been so protectively guarded from improving over the course of the last century.