Australians head to the polls tomorrow to elect all 151 members of the Federal House of Representatives and 40 of their 76 Senators. Australian elections are world-renowned for their beloved ‘Democracy Sausages’ and the fact that voting is compulsory. What fewer people might know is that voters get to use two preferential systems to elect their representatives – the Alternative Vote (AV) for the House of Representatives and the Single Transferable Vote (STV) for the Senate.
Despite their political system being modelled on Westminster’s, Australians do not use First Past the Post for their elections, and their Senate is directly elected by the people – unlike our unelected House of Lords.
Australia was the first country to use AV (in 1892 in Queensland) and STV (in 1896 in Tasmania), and soon adopted these systems for their federal parliament as well. AV has been used to elect Federal MPs since 1918–19, while the Australian Senate has been directly elected using the Single Transferable Vote (STV) since 1948.
The Alternative Vote system is ‘quintessentially Australian’ as it is used in very few national elections internationally – one example being presidential elections in Ireland and Sri Lanka. Though it allows voter to rank candidates in order of preference to stop vote splitting or the spoiler effect as it is sometimes called, it is not a form of proportional representation.
The thinking behind AV is that, if an MP is going to represent an area, the winner should have the support of a majority of the people in that area. In the UK, MPs have won on as low as 24.5% of the vote, making a mockery of the idea of a strong constituency link. AV uses ‘preference voting’ to find a winner that a majority want – instead of marking an ‘X’ on the ballot paper, voters rank the candidates in order of preference (1, 2, 3…), ranking as many or as few as they like.
If a candidate has the support of more than half the voters, then they are elected. If no candidate receives 50% plus one of the vote, the candidate who came last is eliminated and their supporters’ votes transfer to those voter’s second choices. The process continues until a candidate with more than half of the votes emerges.
AV is only a minor improvement on First Past the Post – it removes some incentives for tactical voting and ensures that MPs have majority support.
But while MPs might be more representative of their constituencies, parliament can become less representative of the country and is not proportional overall, given that only one MP is elected per constituency (in some cases, AV can produce even worse results than First Past the Post). AV is also not a guarantee of a single party majority government, despite this being one of its key strengths. The 2010 election delivered Australia’s first hung parliament since 1940, and a similar situation was only narrowly averted in 2016.
Australians use the much fairer STV electoral system (which they call ‘Hare-Clark’) to elect their senators. British debates on electoral reform at the time – and the work of the Proportional Representation Society (as the ERS was known) – heavily influenced the design of the Australian electoral system, which explains their use of STV (often called ‘British proportional representation’).
Between 1919 and 1946, the Australian Senate was elected through AV in multi-member districts which produced highly disproportional results and almost certainly guaranteed a government majority, thus limiting the Senate’s ability to act as a check on the executive.
Australia switched to STV in 1948 – this has ensured that the government is much less likely to control the Senate; that the chamber more closely reflects the first voting preferences of the electorate as a whole; and that legislation has broad popular support before being passed.
STV is both preferential and proportional. Each elector has one vote and voters number candidates in order of preference. To get elected, a candidate needs to reach a set amount of votes. If a voter’s favourite candidate already has enough votes to win or stands no chance of winning, their vote is transferred to their next choice based on how they ranked candidates.
But the version of STV used for the Australian Senate has some unusual additions – Australian STV used to feature compulsory preferencing, where voters are required to rank all candidates or their vote will be considered spoilt. Instead of letting voters rank as many or as few candidates as they like, as is done in Ireland, in Australia you must now rank 12 candidates – Australian politicians introduced group ticket voting to make the process easier. Now voters can either rank candidates (‘below the line voting’) or rank 6 parties’ suggested ranking ( ‘above the line voting’). Reform of these aspects of the Australian Senate has been on the agenda for some time.
Australia remains the largest country to use the AV and STV electoral systems and preferential voting has become a core part of the Australian democratic experience. In 2017 The University of Melbourne Student Union even passed a motion to condemn Guardian Australia for its failure to provide a preferential voting system in their ‘bird of the year’ survey.
While no system is perfect, voters in Australia have much more of a say on who is going to represent them in parliament than we do in the UK. Just as Australia’s founding fathers looked to Britain for ideas on how to build their fledgling democracy, today we could do worse than learn from them in a few areas.