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"From Secret Ballot to Democracy Sausage: How Australia got Compulsory Voting" - Passages of the book that relate the long story of the death of First Past the Post in Australia
WARNING: LONG POST
Chapter 3 THREE SOUTH AUSTRALIAN INNOVATORS
South Australia became self-governing in 1856, and began the establishment of the institutions of responsible parliament. Like other colonies, it had a Legislative Assembly elected on manhood suffrage and a Legislative Council with a more restricted franchise. The votes were counted by the tried and true British method of first-past-the-post. This was the method used when electors told a returning officer their preferred candidate, and it was simply transferred to the secret paper ballot. It was also transferred to multi-member electorates in a system called the block vote, in which voters have as many votes as there are representatives to be elected, and those with the most votes win. If there are five positions to be filled, a voter has five votes, although they may or may not be obliged to use them all.
First-past-the-post is a winner-takes-all system. To be sure, victory goes to the candidate with the most votes, but not necessarily with the support of the majority of the electorate. Say the vote falls like this: A, 15 per cent; B, 15 per cent; C, 20 per cent; D, 35 per cent; and E, 15 per cent. D is clearly the winner, with the majority of votes, but 65 per cent of the electorate voted for someone else. The views of substantial minorities are excluded, especially in the block-voting system for multi-member electorates. A well-organised minority which runs a solid ticket against a scattered field can win all the available seats, leaving not only the majority unrepresented but also the views of other sizeable minorities. The challenge for mid-nineteenth-century electoral reformers was how to balance the desirability of majority support for governments with the representation of minority interests. It was a challenge taken up by Catherine Spence.
Spence arrived in South Australia aged fourteen with her parents in 1839, just three years after the new colony’s official proclamation. This Scottish lass grew into a remarkable Australian woman who well deserves her portrait on our five-dollar note. Confident, whip-smart and brimming with energy, she threw herself into many causes in her long life: the care of destitute children, kindergartens, girls’ education, votes for women and electoral reform. In 1854 she became the first woman to publish a novel about Australia—a Jane Austen-style love story entitled Clara Morison: A Tale of South Australia During the Gold Fever. She published more novels, but her true metier was journalism and public debate, and she was already writing for her brother-in-law’s newspaper when Clara Morison was published.
The Spence family were omnivorous readers with a keen interest in the development of the new colony. ‘We took hold of the growth and development of South Australia, and identified ourselves with it. Nothing is insignificant in the development of a young community, and—above all—nothing seems impossible,’ she wrote in her autobiography many years later. In 1859 she read a review by John Stuart Mill in Fraser’s Magazine of three recent publications on parliamentary reform. One was by Thomas Hare: ‘A Treatise on the Election of Representatives, Parliamentary and Municipal’. Its ideas electrified her. A lawyer committed to political reform who moved in the same circles as Mill, Hare had devised a system of voting which would give some representation to minorities. It showed Spence ‘how democratic government could be made real, safe and progressive’, and ‘the reform of the electoral system became the foremost object of my life.’
Thomas Hare’s system used the single transferable vote to elect a chamber where the parties’ seats correspond to the number of votes cast for them: hence the term ‘proportional representation’. Voters each have a single vote that is initially given to their most preferred candidate. Successful candidates must get a quota, with excess votes transferred to the next preferred candidate, and so on, until all votes are allocated. Many European elections also aim for proportional representation, but they achieve it differently, by a simple matching of the proportion of votes in the electorate with the proportion of elected representatives in the legislature, without the chance for voters to express their individual preferences.
Hare initially treated the whole of Great Britain as one electorate returning 645 candidates, proposing to discard the local single-member electorates which were the basis of its parliamentary representation. This severed the links between members of parliament and their constituents. Which of the 645 MPs would an aggrieved elector complain to about the route of a new road? And who would open the local fete? Hare’s proposal never got off the ground, but the idea of proportional representation appealed to reformers as a way to loosen the grip of the aristocracy and landed gentry on parliament, and to give a chance to men from the industrial towns. John Stuart Mill promoted it, and societies formed for its propagation.
When Spence first read of Hare’s scheme, the block-voting system had just delivered a labour political association victory in five of six seats in the Assembly for the multi-member electorate of Adelaide without obtaining a majority of votes, as well as all three seats in the electorates of Burra and Clare. Hare’s system was addressing just this type of outcome. Spence was the Adelaide correspondent for the Melbourne Argus, writing under her brother’s name. The night after she read Mill’s review she wrote an article on Hare’s system and sent it off: ‘I knew that the Argus was dissatisfied with the elections,’ and ‘fancied that the editor would hail with joy the new idea’. But the editor replied that the Argus was committed to the representation of majorities and would not even print her piece as a letter.
In 1861 Spence wrote ‘A Plea for Pure Democracy’, a pamphlet urging that Hare’s method be used for elections to the South Australian Legislative Assembly to ensure that the views of minorities were represented. Her ideas were largely ignored and she moved on to other causes, but in the early 1890s, with labour organising and federation in the offing, her passion for electoral reform rekindled. ‘Proportional representation,’ she believed, ‘was the hope of the world.’
Now in her late sixties, Spence took to the public platform to argue for it. She modified Hare’s scheme to apply to multi-member electorates of nine to ten members and called it effective voting, and would hold mock elections at her lectures to show people how it worked. It would ensure that all groups, including labour, would have some representation, but she also believed that it would counter the development of powerful party organisations in which independent thought would be disciplined out of existence and co-operative reform become harder to achieve.
Never having married or borne children, Spence was in better health than most women of her age, but it took courage to face the hecklers and risk scorn and insult from the assembled men. Arguing that proportional representation should be adopted for the new federation, she stood for the 1897 federal convention. She was Australia’s first woman political candidate, and like those who followed in the Commonwealth’s early years she was unsuccessful. But her campaign put electoral methods on the agenda for the new Commonwealth.
In Tasmania, another political reformer of Scottish descent, Andrew Inglis Clark, was also persuaded by Hare’s ideas. Born in Hobart, Clark became a barrister and politician with a deep interest in constitutional history. Unlike Spence, Clark was a man with power, so he wasn’t limited to platform persuasion. As the colony’s attorney-general he could act on his beliefs, and he took up Spence’s idea of applying Hare’s scheme to multi-member electorates for Tasmania’s 1896 Legislative Assembly elections. He argued that, with the block system currently in place, a majority of voters would select all the parliamentarians and a very large minority would be totally unrepresented. Under his scheme, however, ‘every section of political opinion which can command the requisite quota of votes’ could be represented. He slightly modified the way the quota was calculated and preferences distributed, and his scheme became known as the Clark-Hare and then as the Hare-Clark system. It was used for Tasmanian elections until the end of the century, dropped for a short return to first-past-the-post, then reintroduced in 1907, where it has stayed for state elections.
Colonial Queensland also experimented with a different voting system. In 1892 Queensland introduced what was then called the Contingent Vote for elections to the lower house. By the end of the nineteenth century second ballots, or runoffs between the two top candidates, were used in the United States and some European countries, and this is what the Queensland government had in mind, but it was expensive and administratively difficult to hold a second election, especially in the large outback electorates. With ballot papers it was possible to compress the runoff system into a single shot. Voters only had to turn up once to the polling place but were given the option of expressing a preference should their number-one candidate not win. A runoff was then held between the top two candidates by the distribution of preferences from the other candidates.
This is a simplified version of the preferential system Australia uses in contemporary elections for the House of Representatives and all the state lower houses, except in Tasmania. If no candidate receives an absolute majority on first count, the preferences of the other candidates are distributed until one candidate has more than 50 per cent of the vote. Whether or not preferences are optional or compulsory and the way preferences are distributed vary. The details get very technical, but the aim of the system is majoritarian. It produces the candidate who is least disliked, the one the majority is most prepared to live with. This is how the Sydney independent Kerryn Phelps defeated the Liberal Party candidate, Dave Sharma, at the Wentworth by-election in 2018. Phelps had only 29.19 per cent of the first-preference vote to Sharma’s 43.08, but after the preferences of the fourteen other candidates were distributed she had 51.22 per cent of the two-party-preferred vote.
... As we will see, it [preferential voting] was resisted fiercely when included in the first Commonwealth Electoral Bill, in 1902. The government had to drop it, but the idea did not go away.
Chapter 4 DIRECTLY CHOSEN BY THE PEOPLE
The first election for the new nation’s parliament was held at the end of March 1901, after a short campaign. All states shared the secret Australian ballot and there would be no plural voting, but otherwise their electoral systems differed markedly, creating a patchwork quilt of laws and regulations. Only in South and Western Australia could women vote. Aborigines could vote on the same basis as other citizens in South Australia and Tasmania, and with restrictions in the other states. South Australia, Western Australia and Victoria allowed postal voting. South Australia and Tasmania were treated as one electorate for elections to both houses, but in the other states members of the lower house were elected from single-member districts, as they are today. In South Australia voters put a cross in the square box next to the name of their preferred candidate; in the other states they employed the old, slow method of crossing out the ones they did not want. Most used first-past-the-post, but Queensland had optional preferential voting, and Tasmania had its complicated preferential Hare-Clark system which few non-Tasmanians have ever fully understood.
Chapter 7 COUNTING THE VOTE
THE 1902 COMMONWEALTH Electoral Act also established how votes would be counted in federal elections. Catherine Spence and other supporters of proportional representation had made sure that methods of counting the vote were on the political agenda, criticising first-past-the-post both for its failure to represent minorities and for creating the possibility that a candidate with minority support might win. The government’s first Electoral Bill included preferential voting for the House of Representatives. It was a modified version of the optional preferential vote already used in Queensland and would, Richard O’Connor told the Senate, ‘bring out in the most certain way possible the choice of the majority of the electorate’. For the Senate, the government proposed a single transferable vote, similar to Tasmania’s Hare-Clark system, then still sometimes called the Hare-Spence system.
But, as with its Franchise Bill, the government could not get this bill through the parliament and the act which eventuated included neither. Instead the 1902 Electoral Act established a first-past-the-post voting system for the House of Representatives and block voting for the Senate, which is effectively first-past-the-post for multi-member electorates.
Introducing the bill, O’Connor argued passionately for proportional representation in the Senate. It was, he said, ‘the true and only principle of real representation’. Like Spence, he was attracted to the pluralism promised by proportional representation. Every shade of opinion which can command a quota would be represented, he said, whereas ‘throughout the British Empire for years and years phases of thought in social and political movements have had absolutely no representation whatever in the Legislatures.’ It would be a credit to the Commonwealth if it could carry out ‘this experiment in democracy on the largest scale’, bringing into effect what has been for years ‘the wishes of the most advanced political thinkers’.
The government had based the bill on advice from Edward Nanson, the Cambridge-educated professor of mathematics at the University of Melbourne. Nanson too was a convert to the ideas of Thomas Hare and a frequent public advocate of proportional representation, in the newspaper, on the lecture platform and in pamphlets. In 1900 he had persuaded three leading Victorian Liberals, George Turner, Alfred Deakin and Robert Best, to incorporate his ideas into the bill which would govern Victoria’s election of its first federal representatives. Although this was far too radical for Victoria’s parliament, it provided the basis for the Commonwealth bill. A description by Nanson of the Victorian bill shows the similarities, down to the eight-page appendix with complicated examples of how the votes would be counted. With so many new bills to draft, it seems the new federal attorney-general, Deakin, simply repurposed the Victorian bill.
These ‘perfectly bewildering’ eight pages of mathematical schedules and explanation were seized on by the government’s opponents in the Senate. It would be quite impossible to explain to constituents, complained the South Australian Josiah Symons. Others described it as a ‘mathematical maze’, calculus instead of arithmetic. The system Nanson devised was far too complicated as he sought to give every vote equal weight in determining the results. He had modified the Hare-Clark scheme by including the ‘Droop quota’, devised in 1868 by another English mathematician, Henry Droop, and the ‘Gregory method’ of transferring surpluses, invented in 1880 by a Tasmanian mathematician, J. B. Gregory. This Hare-Clark-Droop-Gregory-Nanson system for the election of senators was almost impossible to follow and ripe for ridicule.
In trying to provide space for minority views within a basically majoritarian system, advocates of proportional representation paid little attention to the problems of governing. As a South Australian, Symons had been lobbied by Spence for years on the benefits of ‘effective voting’ and had counter-arguments at the ready. Perhaps if parliament were only a consultative body it would be acceptable to overturn six hundred years of British practice that the majority of voices should elect the representatives, he said, but proportional representation threatened the possibility of workable government. It would encourage every body of ‘faddists’ to secure just the quota they needed to get a representative into parliament, and the big parties would be split up. Somewhat forlornly, and displaying considerable political naivety, O’Connor remarked that ‘the faddists of today are the reformers of tomorrow’. But faddists can come from both sides of politics, and can block reforms as much as enable them.
When the Senate sent the Electoral Bill down to the House of Representatives, preferential voting was still in place for the House, but the method for Senate elections had been amended to a block vote, much to the relief of William Lyne, whose job it was to shepherd the legislation through the House. He was glad, he said, not to have to explain the Hare-Spence system of voting, because he found it difficult to understand himself. The requirement for electors to vote for the full number of candidates in Senate elections did come in for some opposition. Why should one be forced to vote for a man one opposes? However, it narrowly survived.
Initially Labor did not have a fixed position on voting methods and gave its senators a free vote, but by the time the bill reached the House it had decided to oppose preferential voting. This ‘fancy method of voting’ was too confusing, said Chris Watson, compared with the ‘simple and easily understood’ system of placing a cross against the name of the desired candidate. Labor was no doubt worried that its less literate supporters might unwittingly vote informal, but Lyne was in no mind to defend the clause. He had just done some experimenting with preference flows and found that it was possible for the third-ranked candidate to leapfrog to victory via preferences. He amended the clause to require just a simple cross on the ballot paper.
Those arguing in 1902 for preferential- and proportional-voting methods wanted to counter the increasing power of party organisation and give some room to voters to express their individual views. Those supporting simple majority-vote rules feared the disintegration of the established parties of Protectionists and Free Traders into factions, and wanted to maintain a firm two-party structure for election contests. But neither foresaw the disruption coming with the rise of Labor, which emerged as a political force in the 1890s. According to the political scientist Bruce Graham, ‘Had the Barton government correctly estimated Labor’s potential strength and realised that the Protectionists would definitely remain a centre party, they might not have abandoned the preferential voting proposal so lightly.’
At the first federal election in 1901, Labor polled only 18.7 per cent of the House of Representatives vote. It won fourteen seats in the House and was the smallest party after the Liberal Protectionists, which formed government with thirty-one seats, and the Free Traders, with twenty-eight. But Labor’s electoral support was rising rapidly. At the 1903 election it polled 30.67 per cent of the vote and won twenty-three seats, taking five from the Liberal Protectionists, three from the Free Traders and one from an independent. The House was divided into three almost equal teams: Labor, twenty-three; the Liberal Protectionists, twenty-six; and the Free Traders, twenty-five. Alfred Deakin was prime minister and leader of the Liberal Protectionists when the election was held, and Labor agreed to support his government on confidence.
What kind of game of cricket could they play, Deakin famously asked, if they had three elevens instead of two? One would have to give way. The question was which. Although Labor had supported Deakin’s government after the 1903 election, it did not support all its legislation and in April 1904, much to Labor’s surprise, Deakin took one withholding of support as a matter of confidence and resigned. Labor formed a government which lasted four months, which was then followed by a government led by the Free Trader George Reid, which lasted eleven, after which Deakin was back as prime minister.
In this complex dance of shifting alliances, Deakin’s Liberal Protectionists were the centre party. Between Labor on the left and the conservative Free Traders on the right, they had most to gain from preferential voting as voters on both left and right would prefer them to each other. As it was, they were being squeezed from both sides, especially by Labor in inner-city seats. Deakin pleaded with Labor to grant electoral immunity to sitting Liberal Protectionists, but Labor was having none of it. These were the very seats it had most chance of winning. So he changed his approach. In May 1906, with an election due at the end of the year, Deakin sounded out Chris Watson. Compulsory preferential voting, he wrote to him, would prevent our candidates doing so much harm to each other—and one of them would win in several Reidite Free Trade constituencies. ‘It would be a great safety valve for us both? What do you think?’
Again Labor was not interested. Better organised than its rivals, it had most to gain from first-past-the-post. Its tight preselections ensured only one official Labor candidate on the ballot, whereas the non-Labor vote was not only split between two parties, but non-Labor independents were a constant hazard. Labor could win seats with a minority of the vote as the non-Labor vote spread out across a field of rivals.
Nevertheless, and without Labor’s support, in August 1906 Deakin’s Minister for Home Affairs, Littleton Groom, introduced a Preferential Ballot Bill, which would, he said, ensure that the laws enacted by the parliament would ‘truly reflect the views of the majority of the electors’. As George Reid pointed out, it was very similar to the proposal the parliament had rejected in 1902, and it was being introduced far too close to an election for voters to be educated about a new method. It could only lead to confusion and error. Supported by neither left nor right, the government let the bill lapse.
At the election held in December, Labor again increased its share of the vote, to 36.34 per cent, and won three more seats. The Liberal Protectionists lost ten, including four to Independent Protectionists, who thought Deakin was far too close to Labor. It is not fanciful to argue that if the first federal government had succeeded in introducing preferential voting for the House of Representatives in either 1902 or 1906, the course of Australia’s political history might well have been different. Labor’s electoral rise might have been slowed, and the Liberal Protectionists might have consolidated their position as a centrist governing party. The method of voting is only one of the factors determining the formation and survival of political parties, but it is a powerful one.
It was not to be. In 1909 the Liberal Protectionists and the old Free Trader Party, now calling itself Anti-Socialist, joined together to form the first federal Liberal Party and present a united anti-Labor front at the 1910 election. Much to their shock, instead of the Liberals winning comfortably as they’d expected, Labor won 49.97 per cent of the vote and formed Australia’s first majority federal government.
Chapter 12 THE FARMERS GET A PARTY
GIVEN THEIR BELIEF in the freedom of the individual, Liberals were ambivalent about disciplined party organisation; it was, after all, one of their major lines of difference from Labor, with its pledge and caucus control. But the splitting of the vote in the first-past-the-post system was a real electoral problem for them. All the party could do to protect its official candidates was to ask intending rivals to refrain from standing.
By 1911 New South Wales, Tasmania, Victoria and Western Australia had adopted some form of preferential voting, and at the 1914 federal election Liberal Prime Minister Joseph Cook promised to introduce it for federal elections if his government was returned. But Cook’s Liberals lost to Labor, which had no interest in changing a system which so clearly worked to its advantage. Preferential voting did not come back onto the federal political agenda until 1918, when the Labor renegade Billy Hughes was prime minister of a Nationalist government. The Nationalists’ electoral organisation was weak, and rural pressure groups, precursors of the Country Party, were impatient at the neglect of primary producers by the city-based parties. They wanted to run their own candidates.
John Hall, a founder of the Victorian Farmers’ Union, issued Hughes a blunt warning: ‘it is with difficulty that organisations such as ours were prevented from running candidates at the last election, when, with three candidates in the field your cause would inevitably have suffered with the split vote.’ The Farmers’ Union would no longer guarantee electoral immunity to the Nationalists, and had decided to run candidates at all future elections. It had seen Labor’s success in getting working men into parliament; it would do the same for farmers. This threat was made good at a by-election in Flinders in May 1918. John Hall stood, risking the defeat of the Nationalists’ star recruit, Captain Stanley Melbourne Bruce, a wounded Gallipoli hero who had returned to Australia after years in England to manage his family’s substantial importing business. Two days before the poll, Hall withdrew as a candidate after the government promised that it would introduce a bill for preferential voting. Six months went by but there was no bill.
Another by-election, this time in the West Australian seat of Swan in October 1918, showed the urgency. There were four candidates: one Labor and three others, including one from the Farmers’ and Settlers’ Association. Despite frantic cables from Nationalist leaders in the east, urging two to withdraw, none did and Labor won the seat with 34.36 per cent of the vote.
When this seemed about to repeat itself in a by-election two months later for the Victorian seat of Corangamite, the government finally acted on its promise. A bill introducing preferential voting, already in process, was rushed through in time to apply to the by-election.
The South Australian Patrick Glyn introduced the bill for the government. He claimed that the purpose of preferential voting was to secure majority representation in single-seat electorates. It would also, he said, weaken the effectiveness of party preselection, as rival candidates of the same political persuasion could stand without risking a Labor victory. This would provide a remedy for party splits, as well as giving expression to wider electoral opinion.
Labor members put up a few half-hearted objections: voters would get confused between crosses for the Senate and numbers for the House, they said. And why was it necessary when there were only two candidates in most contests?
The bill, yet another overhaul of the Electoral Act, also reintroduced postal voting. Predictably, Labor complained of abuses, but its new leader, Frank Tudor, lacked intellectual and oratorical firepower; and, anyway, Labor didn’t have the numbers. With preferential voting in place for the by-election, Corangamite became the first federal seat to be decided by preferences. Labor’s Jim Scullin, a future prime minister, topped the poll with 42.5 per cent of the vote, but the Farmers’ Union Party candidate, William Gibson, won the seat with preferences from the other two non-Labor candidates to become the first farmers’ representative in the federal parliament.
The government then moved quickly to introduce preferential voting for Senate elections as well, to be in place for the election due at the end of 1919. Again the main argument was majority rule. Labor complained that the change was being drive by party considerations but it mounted no cogent argument against the principle of majority rule. How could it? It was the basis of its own organisation.
A small number of senators were ardent advocates of proportional representation for the Senate. Why wasn’t it being introduced instead of this ‘clumsy, cumbersome, complicated Bill’, asked Senator Herbert Pratten, a Nationalist from New South Wales. The proposed change to a preferential system was not in fact likely to prevent the massive majorities produced by the simple block system currently in place, he pointed out, and minorities would still be unrepresented. Proportional representation, on the other hand, would increase voters’ choice and loosen the major parties’ stranglehold on parliamentary numbers.
Pratten believed proportional representation would ‘revivify’ the Senate, and make it a real house of review ‘with independence of thought and action’. Another supporter of proportional representation, the Tasmanian Nationalist senator Thomas Bakhap, predicted, ‘If the people of Australia find themselves face to face with a Chamber in which only one party is represented, something will break.’ He knew that there was little chance of achieving proportional representation with the current government, but he believed it the duty of its advocates to keep it alive as a possibility. The government, though, pressed ahead and introduced a preferential system for the Senate.
Bakhap is an interesting figure. Born to a young Irish girl in the Ballarat Benevolent Asylum, he grew up in Tasmania’s Chinese community, after his mother married a Cantonese man who gave him his name and taught him Cantonese. This may have made him more sensitive to the need for minorities to be represented. Although he supported White Australia, a necessary position for anyone seeking elected office, he publicly, though erroneously, identified as being of mixed blood and championed the interests of Australian Chinese. Also important was his Tasmanian experience of the Hare-Clark system, which showed that proportional representation was ‘a fair and equitable system’.
At the 1919 election the government’s introduction of preferential voting was well and truly vindicated by the results. The Nationalists won thirty-seven seats, the farmers’ candidates eleven and a demoralised Labor Party only twenty-six. The result in the Senate confirmed Pratten’s claim that little would change with the introduction of preferences and that massive unrepresentative majorities would continue. With 43 per cent of the vote, Labor won only one seat. The Nationalists, with 46 per cent, won eighteen. At the previous election, in 1917, the Nationalists had won a clean sweep and now had thirty-five out of thirty-six Senate seats.
Preferential voting led to another of Australia’s distinctive electoral practices: party volunteers handing out how-to-vote cards to advise people on the order of their preferences. The most dramatic change, however, was the entry of a third major party into Australian politics. In 1919 candidates from five farmers’ parties had won eleven seats. These subsequently merged to form the Country Party which, in 1922, won a further three and the balance of power. It was only then that the Nationalists realised what a militant political operator they had allowed to emerge. The new Country Party would not be an easily placated rural faction within the broad Nationalist church, but a politically savvy sectional party driving hardnosed bargains.
The first was its conditions for entering into a coalition government: Hughes to be replaced as prime minister by Stanley Melbourne Bruce; and five ministers in an eleven-member cabinet, including the roles of treasurer and deputy prime minister for the party’s leader, Earle Page, a country doctor and newspaperman from New England. Rather than take the country to another election, Bruce agreed and the government became known as the Bruce–Page government.
Bruce was tall, with the fashionable good looks and smooth, brushed-back hair of a silent-movie star: a wealthy man who dressed in spats and plus-fours, played golf, and drove the latest-model motorcar. With the reserve and good manners of the well-bred, he could be relied on to spring no surprises, and was as different from Hughes as Fisher had been before him. Believing in the unified national interest he had served as a soldier, Bruce did everything he could to make the coalition work and resisted moves in his own party to take on their country cousins. He brought aggrieved rural interests into the centre of government. With a more combative leader, the coalition may not have survived.
As it was, the coalition agreement was outrageous. The Country Party got almost half the ministries with 12.6 per cent of the first-preference vote (the Nationalists had polled 35 per cent). But in 1922 Australia was a grieving and divided nation: sixty thousand dead, many more mentally and physically wounded, sectarianism rampant after the conscription referenda, a killer epidemic of Spanish influenza, a Labor Party struggling after its first great split. The nation-building optimism of the years after federation were like another age.
Chapter 14 THE RISE OF MINOR PARTIES AND THE SENATE
OVER THE HUNDRED years since it was adopted by the federal parliament, the system of preferential voting for the House of Representatives has had only minor tweaks. In 1984 the alphabetical listing of candidates was replaced with allocation of places by lot. Some enterprising candidates were changing their names by deed poll to surnames beginning with ‘A’ and ‘Aa’. Also in 1984 the names of registered political parties were printed on the ballot papers, so that voters could more easily identify their preferred candidates. The effects of preferential voting, however, have changed over the last half-century or so.
Until the 1950s preferential voting for the House of Representatives fulfilled the purpose of its introduction: to allow non-Labor candidates to compete with each other without giving the seat to Labor. It created one new party, the Country Party. Since then, in conjunction with proportional representation in the Senate, it has enabled other political players to enter the electoral contest. The first was the Democratic Labor Party (DLP), formed in 1955 when the Labor Party split over communism, followed by a parade of minor parties trying to gain political traction through the allocation of preferences: the Australia Party, the Australian Democrats, the Greens, One Nation, and a host of micro- and single-issue parties and independents. It has remained very difficult for candidates outside the major parties to win seats in the House of Representatives, although this is changing. After the 2016 election there were five representatives on the crossbench.
Since the 1990s the number of seats decided by preferences has increased markedly. Thirty-one seats went to preferences in 1983, sixty-three in 1993, eighty-seven in 2001, and in 2016 an astonishing 102 out of 150 seats. These were no longer the traditional two-horse race between Labor and the Coalition. And where preferences once helped the Coalition win seats, they now more often help Labor.
By contrast, preferential block voting in the Senate was not a success. As Thomas Bakhap and others had predicted when it was introduced, in what was sometimes described as the ‘windscreen-wiper effect’ it produced massive, unrepresentative majorities for one side or the other, just as the simple block-voting system had done. Labor had won all contested eighteen seats in 1910 before it was introduced and won them all again in 1943 under the preferential system; non-Labor won them all in 1919, 1925 and 1934.
Preferential block voting for the Senate continued until 1948, when the Labor government of Ben Chifley replaced it with proportional representation using the single transferable vote. The trigger was the government’s decision to increase the size of the House of Representatives from seventy-five to 121 seats. As the constitution required there to be approximately half the number of senators as MPs, the Senate was enlarged to sixty. The expanded Senate would make the imbalance in the parties’ representation there even more obvious. Echoing Bakhap thirty years earlier, John Edwards, the clerk of the Senate, said that ‘a Senate of 60 members all belonging to one party would make a farce of Parliamentary government.’
So, finally, the Labor government introduced the proportional representation that had been in the Commonwealth’s first Electoral Bill. The government’s electoral fortunes were on the slide and Opposition Leader Robert Menzies accused Labor of trying to prevent an expected wipe-out in the Senate at the next election. This was clearly a strong motivation, but the belief that proportional representation was fairer had never gone away; nor had the argument that it restored to voters some autonomy from the major parties. The Proportional Representation Society, of which Catherine Spence was a founding member, had continued to advocate for it, as had parliamentarians like Bakhap and Senator Herbert Pratten. Almost half a century after federation, the two houses would now be elected as Australia’s first government had intended.
Way back in 1919 Pratten had hoped that proportional representation would create a more representative and effective Senate. The block-voting system only ever delivered unrepresentative Senates that were more often than not rubber stamps for the government of the day. When Chifley’s Labor government introduced proportional representation in 1949, however, nothing could have been further from its mind than to encourage new parties or to hand control of the Senate to independents. Yet this is what happened. Sometimes this is described as a revival of the Senate, but in fact it was a transformation.
Since 1948 the government of the day has controlled the Senate in only three periods: 1959–62, 1976–81 and 2005–07. The rest of the time the government has had to depend on the support of one or more independents or minor-party senators to pass its legislation. Sometimes, as when the DLP held the balance of power, this has been largely automatic, but since the formation of the Australian Democrats in 1977 crossbench senators have become more independent. The Australian Democrats’ vote collapsed in 2004, but other minor parties have taken their place (and, in some cases, already seen their own vote collapse): the Greens, Family First, One Nation, Palmer United, Nick Xenophon’s team, the Liberal Democrats, and more.
After the 2016 election—a double dissolution, which has a lower quota—the government had only thirty-one senators and the Opposition twenty-six, with a whopping nineteen on the crossbench, including nine Greens. The major parties complain that proportional representation makes it hard for governments to govern, but Australian voters have embraced the chance it gives them to balance a majoritarian party-controlled House of Representatives with a broader representation in the Senate of contemporary political positions.