Is it time for first-past-the-post?

posted in: Life and things | 2

The Australian elections have been and gone and the Labor party has been sworn into Government. That’s fine. Our country is a democracy and the winner, as they say, takes all.

But I don’t think I’m the only one with serious doubts about our electoral system.

We have a preferential voting system which means the winner in a particular electorate is the person who is most preferred of the candidates. We have to number each candidate standing for election in order from 1 to however many candidates are on offer (let’s say 6).

Here’s an explanation from the ABC.

“Preferential votes are counted until one candidate gets more than half of all the votes.

On election day, the vote counters look at who everyone picked for their first choice.

They then add up all those votes and see if a candidate has more than 50 per cent of the votes.

If no-one has enough votes, the candidate with the least number of votes is eliminated.

The vote counters then go back to ballot papers that chose the eliminated candidate as the first choice and look at who they picked for their second choice.

Those votes are given to the remaining candidates. That process repeats until one candidate has more than 50 per cent of the votes.” [source]

For a more detailed explanation of how it works, see the Australian Electoral Commission’s document.

This system was introduced in 1918. Before that, it was the simple ‘first past the post’ which is used in most countries.

At face value, preferential voting is fine. It means the most preferred (or the least disliked) candidate wins. But, as with most systems, people have found ways to manipulate the result. Every party offers a ‘how to vote’ card which shows people how they would like them to number the ballot papers for the House of Representatives and the Senate so that their candidates have the best chance of being elected. Though an elector can number the candidates in any order, most follow the advice of their preferred party. I doubt that many electors know much about every candidate standing in their electorate, especially in the Senate.

Rorting is particularly present in elections for the senate where candidates for each state may number over 40 when only six can be elected in a normal election (it’s complicated). Some people stand for the senate espousing a single cause, such as the ‘legalise cannabis’ candidates. Preference deals are sometimes brokered so that candidates end up getting a seat in parliament with a tiny fraction of the primary vote. One elected senator for Queensland had only 77 primary votes, but that sort of outcome is not at all unusual.

We basically have a two party system, the Labor Party and the Liberal/National (LNP) Party coalition. These two parties have between them governed Australia since WWII, although on occasion they have required support from independents or minor parties. The Gillard Labor government is the most recent example. In the 2022 election there has been significant participation from the Greens, some minor parties, and a swathe of ‘independents’. As a result in the 2022 election the LNP had 36% of the primary vote and Labor had 32.7% [source]. And yet Labor formed government

I believe all these minor candidates simply muddy the waters. None of the smaller parties has a chance to govern the country in their own right, and the vast majority of independents do not have a comprehensive policy that covers all the issues of government. In fact, the so-called independent ‘teal’ candidates stood for election only in LNP-held seats with the rather transparent intention of lowering the LNP primary vote. They succeeded – or perhaps I should say their financial backer succeeded.

I think it’s time to go back to ‘first past the post’. It will make the electoral system much simpler and also much cheaper. If candidates for the minor parties and the independents can win a seat that way, then they deserve it.

2 Responses

  1. Greta

    It’s an interesting discussion and there are pros and cons, of course.

    “Candidates who are ahead on first preferences still generally win the election after preferences are distributed, however. According to Library calculations, in only around 1 in 10 divisions in recent federal elections did preferences result in the candidate leading on first preferences losing the election. Analysis by Antony Green on House of Representatives elections since 1949 found that generally less than 10 per cent of seats had the results changed by preferences. So while preferences are increasingly being counted, they do not generally make large differences to election results. ”

    This is a quote from an article in the Parliamentary Library (well worth a read) https://www.aph.gov.au/About_Parliament/Parliamentary_Departments/Parliamentary_Library/pubs/rp/rp2122/Quick_Guides/PreferencesAustralianFederalElection

  2. Michael Hayward

    Got to disagree with you on this one Greta
    We have first past the post and it brings about a couple of bad things
    We have a third party which can get around 25% of the public votes but less than 6% of the seats in our parliament. Thus the system ensures power remains in the hands of one of the two major parties with a small change in the public vote sufficient cause a change of power.
    Not to say your system is perfect but to my mind some form of proportional representation is much better than first past the post

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