No excuses: the electoral system is dumb, undemocratic and needs to change

Tinkering with electoral boundaries continues to yield grossly unfair results, writes former Liberal leader Iain Evans. He argues a top-up system that hands power to the party with a statewide majority would give voters the government they want – and leave his own party with no excuses.

Feb 04, 2016, updated Feb 04, 2016
Weatherill's 2014 victory was "illegitimate". Photo: David Mariuz / AAP

Weatherill's 2014 victory was "illegitimate". Photo: David Mariuz / AAP

The Electoral Districts Boundary Commission has started the task of taking submissions about how the State electoral boundaries should be redrawn.

In doing so, they must meet the state’s constitutional requirement to draw boundaries to ensure that the group of candidates (ie the party) that get a majority of the statewide two-party preferred vote at the next election “will be elected in sufficient numbers to enable a government to be formed”.

So the theory is that the commission will draw boundaries that give the party that wins more that 50 per cent of the two-party preferred statewide vote enough seats to win government .

There’s only one problem with this – it does not work and the South Australian voters are being ripped off by an outdated electoral system.

As history shows, since the introduction of the “fairness clause” in the State’s Constitution in 1991, the party that has won the statewide two-party preferred vote has won government just three times in six elections. That’s right – the fairness clause that is meant to be there to protect the voter from unfair results has failed the voters of SA in 50 per cent of state elections since its introduction.

The South Australian voters have only got the government that the majority voted for half the time! HALF.

I don’t argue this from a Liberal or Labor point of view. The electoral system should be unbiased in its operation. My critics will say that I write this as a former Liberal MP who was a member of a party that lost elections they shouldn’t have, including the three where my party won the statewide vote, and that this is just sour grapes. It is not. That is not my motivation. My motivation is fairness to the voter.

The same unfairness happened to Labor federally when Kim Beazley won the nationwide two-party preferred vote in the 1998 “GST” election but Howard won government.

Now can anyone explain how it is fair to the voter to have an election predicated on deciding a huge question like the introduction of the GST – and to have the majority of Australians voters reject the policy by voting against it, but get the policy anyway? Surely the voting system should not allow the majority to vote one way and then get the exact opposite? How is that fair?

Australians voted against the GST and got it anyway. The electoral system is not being fair to voters.

Frankly it is dumb, anti-voter and has proven not to work

Surely in modern Australia, the democratic electoral system should guarantee that if the majority of the voters in a state or federal election vote for a party, that party should form government. It should not rely in a large part on the appropriate drawing of boundaries in the hope they may be right. Why leave the election of government to the chance that the boundaries are drawn correctly?

Frankly it is dumb, anti-voter and has proven not to work in half the elections. If parachutes only worked half the time, would you still use them?

The people of SA, through a referendum, have already stated that they want an electoral system that guarantees that the party that wins the statewide two-party preferred vote wins government. The State Parliament voted to change the Constitution to guarantee that principle.

But it is failing half the time.

So why don’t the politicians change the voting system so that it gives voters the government they voted for?

SA should adopt a top-up system of voting to guarantee exactly that.

It would work like this. We keep the 47 single member electorates in the Lower House where government is formed. On election day, the votes are cast and counted the same way as now. What changes is the question asked at the end of the count. Instead of asking which party has won the majority of seats to form government, the question asked is which party has won the statewide two-party preferred vote? And that party wins government.

Then we ask: has that party won enough seats (at least 24 in our 47 seat Parliament) to control parliament?

If yes, they form government. If no, we need a mechanism to guarantee they can control the parliament. So we introduce a system of top up MPs that are brought in off a list that is detailed on the Lower House ballot paper.

There would still be only two ballot papers: the Lower House ballot paper would simply be expanded to allow for top-up lists to be on it.

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The top-up lists are nominated by the parties and voted on by the voters. But the top-up MPs are only used if the party that wins government has less than a majority of seats. They have no electorate. This guarantees the voters pick their local MP and top up MPs but importantly they get the government they vote for at every election.

By having the statewide vote determine government, it means the only boundary that matters is the state boundary – and it never changes – so there is no possible error to be made in boundary determination. Using the state boundary takes all the guesswork out of where the boundaries should be. There can be no accusation of bias in drawing the boundaries.

There are other advantages to this system. All of a sudden there are no marginal seats. A vote for Labor in a safe Liberal seat or a vote for Liberal in a safe Labor seat can determine government.

This means all voters are seriously engaged in the election campaign, not just marginal seat voters, as under the current system.

Parties would have to campaign statewide – not just in the marginal seats.

It would totally change campaign techniques. All of the voters residing in safe Liberal seats and safe Labor seats (which represents the majority of the state) will suddenly become engaged in the electoral process.

It will also change government spending away from pork-barreling in marginal seats to spending on a statewide basis, on the basis of social and economic benefit, not political benefit.

The State Opposition’s silence is deafening and bewildering

It’s time for all parties to take up the challenge of Lower House electoral reform. The voters want a system that guarantees them the government that the majority voted for.

A policy to this effect would be immensely popular and hard to argue against.

Just what is the argument against the majority of voters getting the government they voted for? What is the argument that the minority should out-vote the majority?

I don’t understand the silence from the State Opposition as, like the voter, they have been dudded three times in six elections – yet their silence is deafening and bewildering.

The voting system is so fundamental to democracy, it is worth the Opposition blocking a Budget, and going to the polls on the issue if the government doesn’t agree to a change that guarantees the party with the majority of the statewide vote wins.

Labor think they are better campaigners than the Liberals. If that is true, they have nothing to be afraid of as they will out-campaign the Liberals and win anyway.

The Liberals think the boundaries played a role in their losses. Well, a statewide boundary-based election would expose the Liberals on the campaign front – is it the boundaries or structural campaign weaknesses that see them lose?

In a democracy, the party with the majority of votes has to win. In SA, that is not happening. The voters are getting governments they didn’t vote for. Voting systems have to serve the voters, not parties – but it is the South Australian voter that is getting dudded.

Surely, the majority should win.

Iain Evans is a former state Liberal leader and was MP for Davenport from 1993 until 2014.

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