Pulling the levers


While that whole “Don’t vote for Labor or Green we would rather have NSW run by the religious right and gun owners” thing is still fresh in your minds, let me just float an idea past you. In recent years Australians have got far too cutesy clever-by-half do-whatever-makes-you-feel-good let-it-all-hang-out with our voting system. If you don’t agree with me I have just two words for you – “Pauline Hanson” (see here). Not enough her getting so close? How about “Steve Fielding” then? Got your attention?

Look, usually given a choice between stuff-up and conspiracy you won’t make many mistakes if you think conspiracy, but I think we have found ourselves where we are (with Fielding about to leave the Australian Senate after 6 long years, and Hanson just missing eight year’s residence in the NSW upper house) more or less by accident, stuff-up if you like, unintended consequences, Murphy’s Law.

We used to have a system of voting that everyone understood – “number every square on your ballot papers”. No misunderstanding possible there. But there’s always someone who wants to spoil it for others, and we began getting the whingers. How awful it was to have to make far fewer marks on a voting paper once every four years as you would to send a tweet on Twitter, or a text message on your phone. How terrible to have to think about who some of these people were who were going to be numbered 20 or 30 in the upper house (or indeed 5 and 6 in the lower house). These whingers apparently were quite happy to let someone else make the onerous decision about who they wanted to have running the state for them. And so we gradually moved over to the apparently simpler, voting for dummies, procedure of “optional preferences” and “voting above the line”. The effects of this Heath Robinson (for my older readers) or Bruce Petty (for my slightly younger ones) ramshackle botched-together voting contraption are now almost totally unpredictable in each election. The backroom boys and girls in smoke-filled dark dusty rooms work out what the outcomes they want are, and design preferences accordingly, but have no more hope of doing so than a quantum physicist picking the final destination of an electron. Preferences bounce all over, here a vote, there a vote, everywhere a vote vote vote, and pretty soon a completely unexpected person, who no more than a small fraction of a percent of voters actually positively want, finishes up warming a comfortable chair for many years and deciding what an elected government will and will not be permitted to do.

Please, can we have our old ball game back? Numbers in every square, so that you decide who you actually prefer on the one hand and who you really really don’t on the other.

And let the boys and girls high stakes roller preference allocators go and play the pokies in the back rooms of casinos. Maybe they can pick winners there.

Note to US and UK readers (and those elsewhere) – Australia has avoided the distortions of your “first past the post” voting systems by always using a “transferable vote” or what Britain is about to vote on in the “alternative vote” (see here) and what the US refers to as “instant run off”. In lower house votes we use “preferential voting”, in upper houses various kinds of proportional representation – different mathematically but both have the effect of allowing voters who choose minor parties/losing candidates to also have an influence on which of the leading candidates wins (indeed to have minor parties/independent candidates even win on occasion). Major parties hate this, and, as this post suggests, there has been a gradual shift towards what is effectively becoming a first past the post system in some elections.

4 comments on “Pulling the levers

  1. Lorna H says:

    Canada just had an election where the first-past-the-post system allowed a Conservative government to get a majority win with about 40% of the vote. Mostly because the centrist Liberals and left-wing NDP split the non-Conservative vote.

    Every so often Canadians have a discussion about some sort of preferential voting system, but I think the current system must be too popular with the current politicians in power for the idea to get much traction.


    • David Horton says:

      Hi Lorna. Looks like Britain, with the encouragement of the Tories and the lukewarmness of Labor are about to massively reject preferential voting. This and the Canadian result, not to mention the twice elected George Bush, the elected Sarkozy and Berlusconi and Key, and the unaccountably popular Tony Abbott, makes you conclude that the people of every country get the governments they deserve. Not that this is a conclusion to help you sleep sound at night.


  2. Lyn says:

    Hi David

    Thankyou so much for these two pieces they are both superb.
    I appreciate you letting me know you had posted your pieces.

    If you have time, you can always email me, you have my email address on the comment . I did send you a tweet but can’t see it on your twitter page, wonder if I did something wrong.

    Yesterday I had a little explore of your tabs and every topic made me excited, I can’t wait to read them all. David your writing is such a pleasure.

    “(We used to have a system of voting that everyone understood – “number every square on your ballot papers)”.

    David did you see Pauline Hanson on the news? she is disputing the counting, I just wonder what goes on, they showed a copy of a very damming email, corruption in the air.

    Cheers David


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