To many of us in the antipodes and beyond, the current political environment in the United Kingdom is something of an enigma.
On my recent trip to the UK, I met with politicians, staffers, hacks and general hangers-on from across the political spectrum. We discussed multiple issues affecting the lives of UK citizens today: Brexit negotiations, minority government, anti-Semitism and homelessness; but a prevailing issue was the system of government itself. While there was a broad consensus that something was broken, no such consensus was reached on how to fix it.
In such a diverse electorate, with vibrant backgrounds and traditions across the UK, it’s important that the people are properly represented. It is a truth frequently acknowledged and often contradicted that, ‘the electorate is always right’. In the Australian system of government this is largely true, yet the same cannot be said for the UK: the electorate may still get it right, but their attitudes are rarely reflected in the result. Why?
During my visit, I reached the conclusion that, while the Westminster System was invented in the UK, Australia has largely improved it to closer represent the views and attitudes of the people. Here are a few examples:
A Democratic Upper House
The first and most glaringly obvious difference is the UK’s antiquated House of Lords. In a system of government based on checks and balances, it should be inconceivable to have a House of unelected officials able to scrutinise, delay or amend Government policy.
The House of Lords has no defined number of seats, but 26 set aside for representatives a single religion and 92 for hereditary peerage, a system from which women are largely excluded.
By contrast, the Australian Senate has 76 seats, half of which are re-elected every 3 years. Representation is proportional and divided by state or territory. Results are calculated under the single transferrable vote system.
On Election Day, a voter can vote ‘above the line’ for the party of their choice or ‘below the line’ to specifically outline their choices from most preferred to least, sometimes numbering into the hundreds.
Australian voters understand that a democratic upper house is the best place for their protest vote. They can choose a minor party which adequately represents their views, while voting for a major party in the House of Representatives. This system ensures the ongoing stability of government and prevents reactionary votes from causing rapid swings in election results term to term. This is also demonstrated in the low number of minority governments we have had compared to the UK.
Senators sit for 6 years, or two terms of government, further ensuring this stability. They certainly don’t sit for life and they aren’t elected to their seats by other members of the Senate.
In Australia, eligible voters who do not show up on Election Day can be fined.
While it’s often argued that a true democracy recognises the right to abstain from voting, the Australian system allows that too! It is compulsory to attend on Election Day, but it is not compulsory to cast a valid vote.
Informal voting is the return of a ballot paper that is blank, not filled in correctly or identifies the voter. At the last Federal Election in 2016, the rate of informal votes was 5%, and it has hovered around this mark for the last 30 years. This result is minimal compared to the number of voters in UK elections who simply don’t bother to show up, like in the 2017 General Election, when over 30% of eligible voters stayed home. This was considered a good turnout!
Under the Australian system, voters are far more educated politically because they have to be. They know what’s going on in politics because it informs their choices at each election.
The system also forces political parties to appeal to the majority and discourages extremism to the fringes. The sensible centre remains engaged and can’t simply ‘sit this one out,’ they must choose their preference, even if it’s merely the lesser of two evils.
And you’ll never find anyone arguing that an election result was affected by a storm…
This one seems obvious, and yet here we are!
Most people work Thursdays. Holding elections on a traditional work day means entire groups of people for whom weekdays are busy, cannot vote.
Australian elections must be held on Saturdays, and provisions are made for those with religious observances, the elderly or disabled who cannot physically get to a booth or those who cannot attend on the day due to holidays or work. Postal Voting and ‘Pre-Poll’ are available in the weeks prior to the prescribed Saturday, and everyone has equal opportunity to participate, as it should be.
Namely, the UK doesn’t have one. There are several relevant laws in various forms, all of which can be amended by Members of Parliament at any given time.
By contrast, the rights and freedoms of Australian Citizens are enshrined in a single document which can be called upon at any time. Changes can only be made with a nation-wide referendum, which are notoriously difficult to win.
It’s a great irony that the Australian Constitution was based on the principles of Magna Carta (which we thank you for), but the UK has no such formal document.
Preferential Voting (Alternative Vote)
Preferential voting is essential to best represent the will of the people.
Under this system, the candidate who polled the lowest is eliminated first, preferences are re-calculated and on it goes, until a winner emerges in the count between the final two candidates.
This means that if a voter’s primary candidate is eliminated, the vote proceeds to their next choice, and so on until the ballot is ‘exhausted’. With this system of preferencing, a vote is never wasted and, most importantly, it allows voters to put their least liked choice last. This system is far more representative than the ‘first past the post’ system, and it eliminates the need for ‘strategic voting’, which can often skew the result.
The systems of government in Australia do vary on this. In Commonwealth elections, preferencing is compulsory and voters must number every box, but here in New South Wales, the system is optional preferencing.
The Australian system of government is far from perfect but it more closely represents the will of the people, and isn’t that the ultimate aim of every democracy?
Amy Cook is a classical liberal and constitutional monarchist. She looks forward to watching Australia finally take back the Ashes this summer. She does not tweet, but she has a terrible habit of reading the comments section.