There are a number of facets of Australian political life which outsiders fail to understand, which I intend to explain in the following articles. The first is the voting system. As a background, understand that we operate under the Westminster system, which means that the executive is not separate from the legislative branch. The Constitution requires a House of Representatives, and a Senate. It makes no mention of voting methods, but over the decades we have developed a system which, in my opinion, is superior to all others. It is compulsory, manually counted, preferential and, in the case of the Senate, both preferential and proportional. Let us see how this works in practice.
Compulsory. Contrary to what most Australians believe, ours is not the only country with compulsory voting. I am not going to push this method as desirable; it has both advantages and disadvantages. In any case, the fine is not severe, and voting itself is not compulsory, just attendance at a voting booth. You can always "vote informal" by turning in a blank voting slip, or write on it, "A pox on all your candidates!" Between 3% and 5% of votes are informal, but many of them are presumably unintentional.
A case can be made both for and against it. There is no significant campaign against it, and the main reason politicians like it is probably that they don't have the added task of going around drumming up their traditional supporters to get out and vote.
Another advantage, of course, is that it minimises voter fraud. Fraud can never be completely elimined, of course; there are rumours of phantom voters registered in vacant allotments and cemeteries. However, it does make it more difficult. When you go to the polling booth, you present yourself to an official, who crosses you off the electoral roll. When the separate rolls in the same electorate are cross-referenced, they will not only know whether you have failed to vote, they will also discover whether you have voted at two polling booths, or if someone has gone to another booth under your name. These days, of course, they tick you off a computer list rather than a paper roll, so even that opportunity for fraud is gone - all this, even without any voter identification.
But, of course, in most cases, identification is required. I haven't heard of any complaints that this is onerous. (American readers, please note!) In the last Queensland election, everybody on the roll was mailed a slip bearing his or her name, to be handed in at the polling booth.
The downside of compulsory voting, of course, is that it forces the indifferent to make a choice. I suspect that most of these develop a party loyalty, and never change. Of the other hand, this is probably the case of many voters under voluntary schemes. The last US and UK elections saw voter turnout of 58% and 66% respectively. I refuse to believe that 34% to 42% of Australians couldn't care less about politics, and choose their member by the toss of a coin. In is more likely that compulsion has made most people at least do a minimal amount of thinking about the political process. A really couldn't-care-less voter will simply vote straight down the page - the so-called "donkey vote". It is estimated that only one or two percent of votes fall into that category.
Manual. What can be said about that? It is slow; in close seats it can often take a long time to determine a winner. (But what's the rush? Parliament doesn't sit the week after an election.) However, it is transparent. If you make a mistake on your ballot paper, you take it back to electoral officer, who immediately bins it and gives you a new one. Counting is performed manually, with scrutineers from the major parties. There are no disputes about "chads", or any suspicions (mostly unwarranted, admittedly) that your vote is not completely anonymous, or that the computer algorithm has been doctored.
Preferential. The first-past-the-post system which most jurisdictions adopt suffers from two major defects: it throws the election to a candidate most people don't want if the opposition is divided, and it solidifies the two party system. Under the preferential system, you list the candidates in order of your preference, and if no candidate achieves an absolute majority, the second preferences of the least successful candidate are distributed. Thus, if Peter gets 45% of the vote, Paul 40%, and Mary 15%, Mary's preferences will be distributed. If there were a fourth candidate with even fewer votes, his preferences will be distributed first. This is rather similar to the French system whereby, if no presidential candidate wins an absolute majority, the top two face it off in a runner-up election, the major difference being that in Australia the need for a second round is eliminated. Parties tend to "exchange preferences", and hand out how-to-vote cards advising their supporters how to direct their preferences, but the voters are not obliged to follow them.
As an example of how this works, we might examine the outcome of the Labor Party splits in both Australia and the UK. To understand this, a quick rundown of the Australian politic system is necessary. The Liberal Party is the major conservative party, but it operates in coalition with the smaller National Party. The latter used to be called the Country Party until it merged with the DLP. As its former name implies, its major base is the rural areas, and it tends to be more socially conservative than the Liberals. The major left wing party is the Australian Labor Party (ALP), with its links to the unions. The Greens are a newer party which is further left than the ALP.
In 1955 the ALP expelled its anti-communist wing, which then formed the Democratic Labor Party (DLP). The DLP then directed its preferences to the Coalition, and most of its supporters followed course, thus keeping the ALP out of power for the next 17 years. In 1981 members of the British Labor Party broke away, for very similar reasons, and went into alliance with the Liberals, eventually merging with them in 1988 to form the Liberal Democratic Party (LibDems). This effectively kept Margaret Thatcher in power until 1990. Those who voted for the LibDems presumably considered Thatcher too right wing, and Labor too left wing, but there is no way of knowing which one they preferred. In Australia, we did know.
In Britain's case, first-past-the-post played into the hands of the right, but it could just as easily support the left if the right is divided. For example, in North Queensland the National Party is in competition with the Katter Australia Party (KAP), founded by a National Party maverick who thought the far north was being neglected. Now, if you live up there, and consider that the Labor Party would be the worst thing for the country, under first-past-the-post you would have to second guess how other conservatives would vote, otherwise you would split the the vote and throw the election to Labor. Likewise, in many seats Labor is in competition with the Greens, so anybody who didn't want the hated Coalition to win would have to guess what other like-minded voters would do.
In practice, since voters understand the system, probably neither the KAP nor the Greens would get established, because potential supporters would be afraid to vote for them in the first place. Thus, as explained before, first-past-the-post essentially forces the electorate into a two party system. This is undemocratic because it means that the ultimate decision makers are the party hierarchy who choose which policies and which candidates will be presented to the electorate.
Proportional. In the lower house, votes for minor parties tend to resolve back to the two major parties. Not so in the Senate, because voting is proportional, and the people know they can choose something different. Minor parties rise and fall over periods of several decades. Some of them are very sensible, and some are crazy, but it is up to the electorate to sort them out.
The Senate consists of an equal number of seats per state. Senators serve a term twice as long as their lower house, and only half of them - currently six per state - stand for election each time. Thus, it serves as a balance against the tyranny of the temporary champion. In many European countries proportional representation means that a party with (say) 10% of the vote will win 10% of the seats. Not so in Australia. Voting is preferential as well as proportional, and it is the second preferences of the candidates with the most votes which are distributed on a proportional basis.
An example might make it clearer. Each candidate is allotted a quota of votes determined by the total number of votes counted divided by the number of seats, plus one. Thus, if there are six seats to be filled, and 60,000 votes cast, the quota will be 10,001. Let's assume that Peter, the top candidate, receives 30,000 votes. This is realistic, because the top candidate on the major party's list will normally get half the votes, more or less. Peter's quota of 10,001 wins him the seat, so he has 19,999 votes to spare. This is approximately 2/3 of his total vote. His second preferences will then be distributed, but each preference will be counted as only 2/3 of a vote.
Whatever for? you might ask. Simple. It's saying to Peter's supporters: all right, you've got your man in, so who's your second choice? There were 19,999 votes to spare, but since they don't know which ones to distribute, the simple solution is to distribute them all and divide them by a third so that they come down to 19,999. And remember: the same thing is happening at the other end of the political spectrum. If Peter is Labor, Paul the Liberal probably got 25,000 primary votes, and Mary the National 5,000. In every Senate election, it can be taken for granted that the first two candidates on both the Liberal and Labor team will be elected, while the fifth and sixth seats are up for grabs.
What about the Nationals? Remember: they are somewhat more conservative than the Liberals. This might be a reason for some people to give them their primary vote. Most Liberal preferences will go to the Nationals, but Labor voters have to decide whether, if they must have a right wing Senator, they would prefer him to be Liberal or National. In other words, who gets elected is determined not only by whom people think is the best of a good bunch, but whom others think is the worst of a bad bunch.
This is something many Australian commentators don't understand. You will hear them say: It is outrageous that such-and-such a candidate got elected with just 2% of the primary vote, not 16.6% (one sixth). That's beside the point. The aim is not to get six people whom a sixth of the population think should run the country, but the proper mix of views which the people as a whole consider appropriate.
This is easier to understand if we take an example of a party which failed to win a seat: the Fishing Party. It can be taken for granted that nobody, not even its own members, want it to run the country. However, perhaps you are a mad keen fisherman who thinks the major parties aren't giving your career or recreation the emphasis it deserves, and you would like someone to Parliament to speak up for you. You can do this in two ways: (1) give the Fishing Party your primary vote, and a major party your preferences, or (2) give your primary vote to a major party and your preferences to the Fishing Party. If enough people do either, you'll get your man to Canberra. Note that the desired result can be obtained even if the party receives no primary votes at all. And so it should.
Thus, by trial and error we have developed a system whereby one party can dominate the lower house and provide effective government, without unpopular parties winning by default, while still permitting a full range of opinions to be represented. Of course, that doesn't mean that the people who actually get elected are the best. Don't get me started on that! But at least we have a better opportunity for changing them. As someone once said: in a democracy the votes of the stupid and the wicked count, because in any other system they may be running the whole show.