Re-thinking electoral law

The Australian electoral system for the House of Representatives (HOR) uses preferential voting for single member electorates. The recent changes to the electoral laws for electing the Senate have sparked renewed interest in how the electoral system operates in Australia.

The ABC has investigated what the HOR might look like if we used proportional representation based on one national electorate or state-based electorates.

  1. The idea of a single national electorate is contrary to sections 24 and 29 of the Constitution. Section 24 provides for the creation of electoral divisions within states and section 29 says that 'A division shall not be formed out of parts of different States.' 
  2. State-based electorates present no problem constitutionally as section 29 also says 'In the absence of other provision, each State shall be one electorate.'

Single electorates at the state level would lead to the HOR looking more like the Senate. It would give voice to a wider range of views than the tweedledum - tweedledee of two-party system. It was precisely this reason that drove New Zealand to implement wide ranging electoral reform in 1986

The problem with the current electoral system for the HOR is that it drives a destructive form of majoritarian politics and stifles the voice of a substantial proportion of the population. More importantly, it works to prevent the representation of the majority of the population who are women. Early suffragists in the Australian colonies knew that an electoral system based on single member electorates would fail to deliver the promise of representation of women in parliament. 

The way in which the party system acts against female representation is shown by analysis of candidate lists undertaken by Shalailah Medhora.

This has lead to speculation the parties are pre-selecting men in seats they are likely to win, and women are having to run in seats they are more likely to lose.

Way back in 1861, Catherine Helen Spence wrote about the evils of single member electorates in A plea for pure democracy. Catherine said:

Reformers have applied themselves to endeavour to arrive at a true system of representation by cunning slits in ballot boxes, by equal electoral districts, and by extension of the suffrage, but all without success; for the principle itself being unjust, the fuller carrying out of it only leads to greater injustice. 
The more equally the electoral districts are divided, the more the suffrage is extended, the more people exercise their right of voting, the greater is the power of the numerical majority and the less chance minorities have of obtaining a hearing. 
The genius, the originality, the independence of the country find no majority anywhere to appreciate them, and political life is thronged with second and third rate men; who either have no opinions of their own, or have the art of concealing them.

As the article by Shalailah Medhora quotes Canada PM Justin Trudeau on why gender balance matters where he answers - 'because it is 2015'.

In 2016 - 155 years after Catherine Helen Spence identified the problem - isn't it time to implement a solution - such as democracy5050?