Governments are formed in the Lower Houses of our Parliaments. These are elected, but in most of Australia they actually don’t represent the range of views in the community. For example in the 2017 Queensland election a party with 35.4% support (ALP) won a majority of the seats in the Parliament. In the 2018 South Australian election, a party with 38.0% support (Liberal) won a majority of seats in the Parliament. In both cases, most people voted for parties other than the eventual winning party, but the party they didn’t vote for nevertheless became the Government. In most of Australia, our Upper Houses are elected by Proportional Representation (PR-STV) and are a much truer mirror of the mind of the voters.
In the National (Commonwealth) Parliament, and in the State Parliaments of NSW, Victoria, WA and SA, the Upper Houses are elected by Proportional Representation. This means that the Upper Houses, whose role is to review legislation, are in general more truly representative of the will of the population than the lower houses elected from single member districts.
The problem with single member districts is clearly shown by comparing two recent elections. In the 2017 Queensland election, a party with 35.4% support (ALP) won a majority of the seats in the Parliament. In the 2018 South Australian election, a party with 38.0% support (Liberal) won a majority of seats in the Parliament. In both cases, a big majority of people did not vote for the party that now controls the Lower House of Parliament and forms the Government. Contrast that with Tasmania, where PR-STV applies in the Lower House, and where in the 2018 election a party with 50.3% support (Liberal) won a a majority and formed a Government. That is a much truer representation of the wishes of the voters.
Our National Parliament is representative, but the two Houses are different in the extent of representing the diversity of opinion. In the Australian Senate election in 2016, 35.3% of people voted for a range of non-major parties and elected 20 Senators, which is 27.3% of the Senate membership.
In the House of Representatives on the other hand, 76.8% of people voted for major parties but those parties won a massive 96.7% of the seats. The diverse opinions of Australians are thus much less represented in the House of Representatives. The Senate is a truer mirror of the nation’s mind, a much more accurate representation of our diversity.
Why is this so? In single member electorates in Australia, 50% of the votes plus one elects a member, after preferences are counted. That means that up to 49.9% of the votes in each electorate – and therefore in the whole nation – do not elect anyone. In the Senate on the other hand, each of the 6 Senators elected in a State has to receive a quota, which is one-seventh of the votes (plus one). That means that at least six-sevenths of the votes cast help to elect someone. And those elected will come from a range of parties that properly reflects the range of opinions in our diverse community.
The proportional representation system that we operate in the Australian Senate, and the Upper Houses of NSW, Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia is called ‘Single Transferable Vote’ or PR-STV, and has three world’s best practice features:
- The election results are proportional; the make up of the representative body (Parliament) reflects the views of the voters,
- The elections are preferential; if your first preference doesn’t count, your second or third can, and
- The elections are direct. Only individual candidates that we vote for can be elected.
Above-the-line voting in the Senate has eroded the second and third of these best practices, by handing control of preferences to the party machines that create the lists of candidates. Below-the-line voting, on the other hand, gives complete control of your vote to you, from your first preference for as far as you wish to express preferences.
To use the power of your vote most effectively, mark as many preferences as you can; but the final choice is yours.