House of Reps: Voting Made Easy
The House of Representatives (HoR), or the Lower House as it is commonly known, holds elections every 3 years using a system known more commonly as full preferential voting. As the name implies, for a vote to be considered formal (accepted) preferences must be given to every candidate listed; an easy task given the relatively small size of the ballot papers, unlike the "unelected swill", as Paul Keating once referred to, the Senate.
See here for the Senate voting system, its contrast and intentions in more detail.
Electoral System: Structure, Preferences and Background
This system breaks the nation into a mass of electorates with approximately the same number of voters, in line with the fundamental democratic rule of one person one vote. To win the seat of an electorate a candidate must reach 51% - a majority - of the vote. Rarely, if ever, does a party reach 51% on the first count.
This is where preferences kick in. The candidate with the least number of votes is eliminated and their preferences distributed according to the intention of their voters. Importantly, and more on this when we reach the Senate, each preference is distributed at its full value and carries the same weight as the original vote. With 151 seats on offer, and one of those reserved for the Speaker of the House, a Party must win 76 seats to form a majority a government. Hung parliament occurs when a party fails to secure this number of seats and are required to obtain the support of minor parties in order to govern.
When it comes to polling day, voters are required (all voting in Australia is compulsory regardless of state/federal divides) to complete the entire ballot paper with preferences from first to last. These ballot papers are typically small with only a handful of choices, making this a logistically simple task for the voter.
Once the votes have been cast and the polls close, counting begins. Following the first round of counting - the primary vote - the party with the least amount of votes is eliminated and the preferences of the voters who listed them first are redistributed. This process continues until a candidate reaches 51%.
Institutional Role & Political Philosophy of the HoR
The House of Reps, as an institution, is often described as being comprised of elements from both the United Kingdom (Westminster) and the United States of America (Washington) political systems, acquiring the name "Washminster" frequently in academic literature. This is due to Australia taking institutional features from both, such as allowing the existence of semi-autonomous states with a similar check on executive power found in the Senate, similar to the USA, while also maintaining a Prime Minister as the Head of Government and Governor General - the symbolic representative of the Queen of England - as Head of State and formally endorsing British ideals of responsible government to supposedly entrench ministerial accountability. The Governor General's role is typically symbolic and their actions ceremonial in nature, yet the dismissal of the Whitlam Government in 1973 is an example of the potential perils or positive aspects, depending on your viewpoint, this design contains.
Greater differences exist, but an exhaustive list is unnecessary. The result for the House of Representatives is an emphasis on democracy and producing clear, unambiguous outcomes with regard to who governs, who is responsible and who to hold accountable. The counter-weight occurs in the Senate where a different system, used to produce different results for precisely this reason, is in play.
Federal Lower House: Pros and Cons
The benefit and drawbacks of such any electoral system are multifaceted and, as always with politics, debatable depending on your values. Below we by no means purport to note every benefit and hindrance of such a system, just those touted commonly by advocates and opponents:
- Systems of this sort strongly encourage voters in a period tinged by apathy and cynicism towards democratic and political institutions to at least engage, however minutely, every three years if only for a few weeks or days; it forces people to participate and become genuine political agents who have, if nothing else, a self-interest in voting to avoid being fined. A simple example of why this system is argued superior to some others is that, in America for instance, Trump lost the popular vote by a substantial number, suggesting a majority of Americans would have preferred an alternative president. Had compulsory voting been in place, or even a full preferential system, Trump would likely never have been elected. Similarly, had the United Kingdom voted on Brexit as a whole it is unlikely the resolution would have passed. Whether you think this is good or bad is beside the point, which is simply to provide an example of the power electoral systems have in shaping political outcomes. It is a coercive system, but one that coerces individuals into democratic participation, which is arguably a benefit in modern democracies given the current state of the world and the wanna-be demagogues lurking in any political niche they can find.
- Another simple example of how full preferential systems prevent distorted electoral outcomes can be explained with a basic hypothetical scenario: if there are three main candidates, with two classed as progressive and one as conservative, the progressive vote is immediately split and provides the conservative with an advantage from the primary vote (the first round of counting). However, if the conservative wins 35% of the vote with the two progressive candidates achieving 32% split between, it is likely that as preferences begin to flow that a progressive candidate would win, reflecting the clear preference of the electorate had they been given greater input into the electoral process. In contrast, other systems, such as First Past The Post common to America, do a single round of counting and award the seat based on that count alone. There are no preferences and, in the above scenario, this would lead to roughly 68% of the electorate - far more than a majority - preferring an alternative representative.
- Common criticism of this system is that it has lead to an entrenched state of two-party politics which, while declining in power, remains dominant. That being said, preferential systems are designed precisely so individuals can vote for their first party of choice without fear of wasting their vote. For this reason it must be acknowledged the notion that full-preferential voting leads to an entrenched two-party system is confused at best as it creates an environment precisely in which minor parties can flourish. Accordingly, it is not so much the system that is to blame but the voting patterns of the electorate; or that the ALP and LNP genuinely do reflect two distinct, broad groups that comprise a firm majority of the voting population. With this in mind, such an argument is arguably becoming more difficult to sustain as society continues to pluralise and fragment into even more distinct social groups. In contrast, First Past The Post systems provide little to no incentive to vote for minor parties as they have little chance of winning and their vote therefore counts for very little. On this basis it can be argued that our two-party system is, historically at least, reflective of the electorate's views and not merely an intractable power structure of Orwellian disposition. The system is designed so any party with enough support can rise through the ranks of Parliament.