Lessons from down under on electoral reform

In all the excitement about the “Hung Parliament” outcome to the Australian general election one important lesson for voters in the UK is in danger of getting lost. The results of the election demonstrate very clearly that the Australian Alternative Vote system – seen as the model for the proposed change to the voting system here favoured by the Cameron/Clegg coalition - is a million miles from producing a fair, democratic outcome which values all votes cast equally.

With all the votes counted in Australia there is no mistaking the dramatic increase in support for the Australian Green Party. For the first time ever a Green member has been elected to the lower house while there will be nine Green members of the Senate (the upper house). Moreover the new Green MP together with an new independent MP who has had close links with the Greens are playing a crucial role in deciding which party - Labour or the conservative Liberal/National coalition - will now form the next government in Canberra.

So far, so good: the Greens can look forward to shifting the Australian political agenda away from the climate sceptic, anti-immigrant  bigotry of the right if the Labour leader, Julia Gillard holds on to the prime minister’s job. But even if a conservative coalition, led by Tony Abbot – popularly known as “the Mad Monk” – were to become the next government, the Greens together with Labour can use their power in the Senate to block the more radical right wing instincts of the coalition.

So what is the problem? Well according to the latest figures the Green party has won just short of 12 per cent of the nationwide vote. It should be remembered that with voting obligatory in Australia, this is a remarkable score for a hitherto very small third party. Indeed in some constituencies the Green vote was just shy of 20 per cent. But the result in terms of seats under the Alternative Vote system will be to give the Green Party precisely one MP out of the 150 members of the new Parliament.

The truth is that the influence the Greens can now bring to bear on Australian politics is really a function of a remarkable statistical near dead heat and owes very little to the AV voting system. No truly democratic electoral system should be premised on such an exotic and atypical dead heat election result as that produced in Australia.

The leader of the Australian Greens, Senator Bob Brown, from Tasmania, has summed it up when he said that the time had come for all the votes cast by Australians to be given equal value. Indeed this may be a price the Greens will insist on for supporting Labour in Canberra. There was a time when members of the Liberal Democrats would have insisted on the same thing. But submerged as they are in a Tory dominated coalition it seems that they are content to pick up any electoral reform scraps thrown from the table.

Meanwhile none of the front running candidates for the leadership of New Labour (or as some would have it - Post New Labour) are ready to insist on a 21st century democratic electoral system. Indeed some regard even the pathetic Alternative Vote as a dangerous democratic experiment.

No other country in the European Union – certainly no other “Labour” party in the EU would tolerate the distorted and discredited first past the post British system for a moment.

The irony is that even the Con/Lib deal on the Alternative Vote itself looks increasingly precarious. Sensing this, Nick Clegg has already insisted that even if the AV vote referendum is defeated by his Tory partners the coalition will continue its uncertain venture into a new world of massive public spending cuts and possible renewed recession. Perhaps only then will genuine reformers be able to refocus on a campaign for a seriously proportional voting system.  

Read more about the AV referendum in OurKingdom's Referendum Plus section.

About the author

John Palmer was formerly European editor of the Guardian and then Political Director of the European Policy Centre.He is a visiting practitioner fellow at the Sussex European Institute, and a member of the advisory council of the Federal Trust