How to ensure a lizard always gets in

As the Australian experience shows, so-called Alternative Voting obscures rather than expresses the democratic will.

Guy Rundle

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Topics Politics UK

‘They don’t want the wrong lizard to get in.’

With those words, taken from that redoubtable tome, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the Australian radical activist, Albert Langer, entered a Melbourne prison in 1996 to serve a 10-day sentence for what was deemed to be electoral sabotage. Langer was alluding to a famous passage in which the book’s main protagonist, Arthur Dent, lands on a planet where people are ruled by reptiles that are organised into two parties, both of which treat the human voters as a food source. Dent wondered why people continued to vote in such circumstances, and Langer posed a similar question to Australians after Bob Hawke’s Labor government had gone to the public for the sixth time in 13 years.

Amazingly, Langer was jailed not for urging disruption of the polls, or even for urging people to refuse to vote under Australia’s compulsory electoral system. Rather, he was jailed for urging people to vote ‘non-preferentially’, that is, in such a way that their vote wouldn’t count for either party. Langer may well have been the first person in the world to go to jail for crimes against Alternative Voting (AV).

As UK prime minister Gordon Brown reintroduces proposals for constitutional and electoral change in a desperate effort to achieve a bit of product differentiation for Labour, it is worth considering the real effect that his preferred option – single-member AV – has had over in Australia, where the system has been in operation for nearly a century. Known as ‘preferential voting’, and applying to the Lower House of Representatives, the system requires voters to rank all the candidates in their electorate/constituency in order of preference, with no omissions. If no single candidate gets more than 50 per cent of the total vote on the first counting of ballots, the ballots of the candidate with the lowest number of votes are distributed according to the second preferences. If that doesn’t push any one candidate over the line, the next lowest candidate’s votes are distributed, and so on until, if necessary, only two candidates remain. While some states allow optional preferential voting so that your vote can die before it reaches a major party, the federal system means that every valid vote must effectively choose one of the two major parties it prefers.

There is probably little need to go over the arguments made in favour of AV in too much detail. Politically, the system’s most trumpeted virtue is that no one can be elected to a seat with less than a majority of the vote. This is justified on the basis that the removal of the negative consequences of a split in a broad political formation will therefore encourage minor parties to form. But while compulsory AV facilitates this at one level, at another it depoliticises the process entirely, turning the major parties into quasi-state apparatuses, legally mandated ultimately to receive every vote.

Combined, as it is in Australia, with compulsory voting, the resulting situation is genuinely anti-democratic – and the effects of AV can be seen in Australia’s lower house, where two major formations – the Labor and the Liberal/National coalition – dominate all 150 seats, and have done so since the end of the Second World War. Not only are minor parties unrepresented, despite getting 10 to 15 per cent of the overall lower house vote, but independents are rare, too.

More importantly, backbench dissent and crossing the floor also become rare. When four out of 60 Coalition members crossed the floor recently to vote in favour of the Labor government’s slight relaxing of onerous conditions applied to refugees, it marked the largest revolt for two decades. With a major party guaranteed a flow of votes in any given seat, local members become far more interchangeable and replaceable than first-past-the-post electorates, where a popular individual candidate can hold a seat that would otherwise be lost to their opponents.

Consequently Australia has one of the most boring and regimented lower-house parliaments in the world (the upper-house Senate, where a state-based proportional system is in place, is a different matter) – a chamber more redolent of an old Eastern bloc country with an official opposition, rather than a genuine electoral system. Question time in Australia is a monumentally tedious affair, with the speaker drawn from the government’s ranks, endless, pointless points of order, and a stream of Dorothy Dixers (that is, planted questions) from the backbench. All of this can be attributed to the duolithic party form partly shaped by AV/preferential voting.

So why would anyone ostensibly interested in reviving a connection between the public and politics plump for such a system?

In Australia, AV was introduced at the end of the First World War by a fractured conservative movement facing a relatively unified Labor party. The conservative forces already had tenuous beginnings, in separate free-trade and protectionist parties, which were only unified in 1909 – their separate status allowing Labor to determine the character of early Australia, particularly the compulsory labour arbitration system. When the rural-based Country Party emerged in 1918, William Hughes’ Nationalist government introduced AV, effectively using the powers of the state to create a political unity which could not be guaranteed on interest or ideology alone. The move very much cut with the grain in depoliticising Australian government, as the arbitration system introduced in 1907 had established tribunal-based argument rather than strike action as the main forum for labour struggles.

Within this framework it was inevitable that AV would not be the last move in subordinating politics to the state. By the 1920s, faced with falling turnout, compulsory voting had been introduced. This included the provision that it was compulsory actually to take and deposit a ballot, rather than simply be marked off the electoral roll. Langer’s 1996 protest prompted further legislation, as it hinged on a possible loophole – numbering the last two choices (that is, the major parties) equally could be considered a valid vote, while also negating the preferential effect. The response of the government was to make it an offence to advocate doing such a thing, a stop-gap measure which allowed Langer to be jailed for handing out leaflets advocating voting in a certain way.

Langer, a Vietnam-era Maoist activist, played the situation for all its farcical worth, but the serious point was clear – single member AV is simply a form of manufactured consent for major and established parties, a procedural and juridical ‘solution’ to a political problem. Its presentation as a solution to the disengagement of politics and the public only makes sense when the public is seen as a necessary resource for the maintenance of the system within its current, contentless settings. It is the one electoral system which obscures rather than expresses any form of general will or political formation within a populace. It’s a wonder the UK’s very own Lizard King, Gordon Brown, took so long to get around to advocating it.

Guy Rundle is an Arena (Australia) Publications Editor. He is the author of Down to the Crossroads: On the Trail of the 2008 Presidential Election. (Buy this book from Amazon (UK).)

Previously on spiked

Brendan O’Neill launched spiked‘s fight to re-enfranchise the electorate. And in 2005, he talked to John Harris about his pro-Labour tactical voting campaign. Suzy Dean thought that extending voting rights to the young merely glossed over the problems of politics. Tim Black pointed out that posters imploring people to vote in the run-up to the London Mayoral election guilt-tripped the feckless electorate. As for voter turnout Jennie Bristow observed that size isn’t everything. Or read more at spiked issues British politics.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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