AV in Australia
Former Labour MP Martin Linton has been in Australia and sent the following to supporters of the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform, which I thought was worth republishing:
"The leader of the Australian answer to the BNP, Pauline Hanson, campaigned this month (April) for election to the New South Wales parliament and won 36% of the vote – and would have been declared elected under our British first-past-the-post system. Fortunately it was held under the Australian preferential voting system – and she lost. The seat went to the Greens instead.
Millions of Australians heaved a sigh of relief and thanked the heavens for the preferential voting system which has done such a good job keeping racists out. Sadly, it occasionally happens in Australia as well as in Britain that racist parties win more than a third of the vote in a local election, but in Australia they rarely progress beyond that because they win so few second preferences. Racist parties tend to come either first or last in voters’ preferences. As the Liberal Democrat President Tim Farron said at a Yes campaign press conference, there are very few lukewarm fascists.
This is one of several reasons why the Australians like their voting system and are watching with interest to see if British voters decide to adopt a similar system in the referendum on 5 May.
Discussing the issues with a random selection of Australian voters, it’s clear that they like the fact that they can express more than one preference on their ballot papers. They think that is fairer. They (or at least most of them) like the fact that it makes it more difficult for racist parties to get in. They like the fact that candidates have to be more open and honest about their attitude to other parties during the election campaign, rather than just attacking them all. They don’t mind the fact that it takes slightly longer to count the votes in some constituencies, because it can add to the drama of election night to see how the fortunes of the leading candidates in close contests can swing one way and the other as minor candidates are eliminated. Above all, they like the system because their vote is more likely to make a difference.
Admittedly, it is difficult for Australians to compare their voting system with any other system, because they have had preferential voting since 1919. If there is any Australian alive who has voted in a first-past-the-post election, she would have to be 115 years old. But ask any Australian whether they want to change their voting system and they are very unlikely to say yes. They are so used to expressing their preferences on a ballot paper that it is actually quite difficult to explain why one would have a rule that the voter can only express one preference. It’s even more difficult to explain why anyone would want to go back to a system that denies them that basic right.
After every election the Australian National University carries out a survey into the attitudes of voters. It does not even ask them whether they like Australia’s preferential voting system, as it is not remotely a live issue. But it does ask Australians whether they are satisfied with their democracy and 72% say yes. It also asks if they think voting can make a big difference. 64% say yes and only 14% say voting won’t make any difference. Compare those figures with any poll taken in the UK in the last 30 years and it will be clear that Australians are far happier with their voting system than we are with ours.If you suggest to them that AV is more likely to lead to hung parliaments, they will point out to you that they have had only one hung parliament since the War and that is the current parliament where the Australian Labor Party holds power with the support of one Green MP and three independents. In the six decades between the War and the last Australian election there have been no hung parliaments in Australia but at least three in the UK.
If you suggest to them that their voting system is too complicated, they will point out that it is extremely simple to fill in a ballot paper in an election to their House of Commons - House of Representatives. On average there are four names on the ballot paper and voters just have to number them one to four in order of preference. Sometimes there are just three names. The highest number of candidates to appear on a ballot paper in the last election was 11.
It’s true that voting in Senate elections can be more complicated, but that’s because they have a different voting system for the Senate. In that election voters have a choice between two ways of filling in the ballot paper. Over 90% of voters opt for the simpler system which just involves ticking one box for the party they support.
It’s also true that there are more spoilt papers in Australian elections – over five per cent at the last election – but that’s because of two features of the Australian voting system that it has never been suggested we should copy. One is compulsory preferences – where you have to put all the candidates in order of preference. In the system proposed in the UK it will be entirely optional to mark preferences. You can still vote with an X. The other is compulsory voting, which the Australians have had since 1924 and is still supported by 69 % of Australians.Ian McAllister, the Belfast-born professor of politics at the Australian National University, believes there are good arguments for the UK to adopt the alternative vote, but fears the innate conservatism of the British will see its defeat. The Australians, he says, have always been more willing to act as a democratic laboratory, adopting the secret ballot, manhood suffrage and women’s suffrage long before the UK and then adopting preferential voting for their lower house, proportional representation in their upper house and compulsory balloting.
What would happen to British politics if AV is adopted? Not a lot, he says. Preferential voting was introduced by a National (ie Conservative) government in Australia but it has not noticeably helped the right. After a long period of post-war dominance (as in Britain), power has been split evenly between the National/Liberals and the Australian Labor Party in the last 40 years.
At the last two elections it has been the Australian Labor Party that has benefited more from the second preferences of minor party candidates. In 2010 Labor took 47% of these second preferences and the National/Liberals took only 35%. Labor would never have held on to power without preferential voting. In 2007 the minor party vote split in a similar way – 47% to Labour and 34% to the National/Liberals, helping Labor to take back power after 11 years. But in 2004 it was the National/Liberals that benefited marginally (by 41-38%) from second preferences.
Labor benefits particularly from the second preferences of the Greens, who are seen as to the left of Labor. Some 80% of Green voters make Labor their second preference which means that some Labor MPs owe their election to Green support. At the moment the Labor government relies on the support on one Green MP in the House of Representatives and nine Green senators in the upper house.
Despite this, there is broad consensus in Australian politics in favour of preferential voting. Indeed Australians find it difficult to understand why British people would vote against such an obviously useful reform that helps the voter without giving an unfair advantage to any party. The only Australian who is vocally opposed to the system is ‘One Nation’ leader Pauline Hanson and she has just been rejected, thanks to the second preferences of Australian voters, for the seventh consecutive time