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Proportional representation: open party list system

By Klaas Woldring - posted Monday, 4 April 2016

The current furore about Senate Electoral Reform should make two things clear: 1. Electoral Reform should not be driven by committees comprising politicians only. 2. The Single Transferable Vote System (STV - Hare-Clark) should be replaced.


1. Electoral reform in Australia is extremely important. The self-interest of the parties should not dominate it. I believe an entirely Independent Inquiry should be held about Australia's electoral systems altogether, similar to the Royal Commission in NZ in the 1980s. There are also very major problems with the single-member-electoral district system, problems that have much wider ramifications than the voting system alone. The resulting two-party system has become an absolute negative in itself. Consequences for other governance systems are particularly disturbing and wasteful, e.g. amending the archaic Constitution has become almost impossible and is clearly avoided by the major parties for fear of failure or being "just too difficult". Replacing the expensive, dysfunctional Federation, where the major parties are frequently in double adversarial contests, has equally become virtually impossible. Economic development frequently follows the path of development in marginal seats to boost electoral outcomes. If there is to be innovation in Australia it should first be in governance systems.


2. The current Senate reform will fix the gaming fraud, a positive feature of it, a major step in the right direction. But clearly this gaming fraud is a direct consequence of the Hare Clark system of proportional representation, which originated in the mid-19th century UK prior to the emergence of mass parties. It is definitely NOT suitable for large, complex societies in which mass political parties are principal operators. Australia's obsession with preferencing is a hindrance to reforms. It is clearly not desired by the voters.

3. Since 1984 voters have consistently avoided using it. In the Senate voters regularly voted over 95% above the line leaving the possibility of gaming the system through the Group Voting Tickets. In the NSW Legislative Council a reform of this kind was introduced in 1999. The federal Joint Standing Committee for Electoral Matters (JSCEM) used it as a model in the May 2014 proposal for the Senate. However, the Optional Preferential Above The Line system in NSW still resulted in voters mostly voting above the line (about 80%) and still voting just for one party (also 80%) in one study by Green of the 2003 election. We should realise that the quota required in the NSW is about 4.5% (21 MLAs to be elected). In the Senate the quota is 14.3% (six to be elected). The Greens' claim that the Senate Reform is similar is therefore incorrect. Minor parties and Independents in the Senate are clearly at a disadvantage now even though there could be much voter sympathy for the eight Cross Bench Senators. In a Double Dissolution several of them could actually be re-elected on account of voter sympathy and the half quota as 12 have to be re-elected, not six.

4. Those who argue that the current Constitution (Clause 7) requires Senate candidates to be directly elected, rather than by parties, will have to admit, again, that the Constitution is still a 19th century document that should be tested. However, a PR Open Party List System clearly favours the public choice for preferred candidates of their preferred PARTY. One could easily argue that this does not really offend the spirit of Clause 7!

Proportional Representation System –

Open Party List

European P. R. systems are much simpler than STV - Hare-Clark as they are based on Open Party Lists. The task of the voter there is easy and effective: to mark his/her preferred party and, at the same time, a preferred candidate on its list of candidates, with just ONE mark. Candidates need to achieve a quota to be elected. Parties usually require achieving an entry threshold to counter too great a diversity. The system results in multiple party parliaments and, often but not always, coalition government. This is mostly a good thing! Flexible majorities are the result. The proportional system is cooperative in nature instead of adversarial, and ensures diverse and democratic representation. There are no by-elections, no pork barreling and no horse-trading on preferencing that the voters would know very little about. Counting votes is fast. Its simplicity is the very opposite of what is experienced here often with the Senate: a very strong rejection of preferential voting on account of complexity. Sadly one has to say that the persistent advocacy of P. R. (Hareâ€Clark system) in Australia, instead of the Party List systems, has actually done the P. R. cause harm. Surprisingly, the Proportional Representation Society of Australia was found unwilling to broaden their range of P. R. systems to include Party List. Hare-Clark is simply not suitable for any society that aims to operate an indirect democratic system through political parties – common in most Western countries for at least a century. In Europe, 21 of 28 countries use proportional representation (party list), including Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Italy and Switzerland. Altogether 90 countries in the world use a proportional system based on parties, either as the main system or in some provinces or for upper houses. Only Italy has abolished it once only to reintroduce it five years later.


Where new constitutions were introduced in the past few decades proportional representation was mostly adopted and often enshrined in the constitutions such as in Portugal (1974), South Africa (1996), almost all of Eastern Europe (1991), and our neighbours New Zealand with over 80 per cent of these systems being ''party list''.

Introducing proportional representation can simply be done by changing the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918. No constitutional amendment is required.

Lower Houses

As for the House of Representatives and most state legislatures Proportional representation – Open Party List equally has much to offer as a replacement. The prevailing Single-Member-electoral District System, combined with compulsory voting and compulsory preferencing, has resulted in what could best be described as a two-party tyranny that is thoroughly distrusted by the voters. I will follow up with an explanation.

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About the Author

Dr Klaas Woldring is a former Associate Professor of Southern Cross University.

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