What is wrong, and why we can’t seem to fix it

Throughout most of my life I have been living under conservative governments, and the nicest way I can find to describe political conservatism is to say that it embodies the popular phrase ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’. However, as we all know there are many things wrong at present, and they need fixing. No amount of ignoring them will make them go away. This blog is about those awkward facts of world that won’t go away and which political conservatism won’t make go away either.

What I’m going to aim to do is post a blog once a week, on a Friday, so you can digest it over the weekend. The next week’s blog will either be the next in my series, or a discussion of issues that have arisen from the comments.

I’m going to have a very strict comments policy, comment will only be accepted if they are intelligent and polite contributions to discussion around the topic of the post. Everything else will be moderated.

If you find a blog here sympathetic, you might consider reading the blogs from the beginning, as they are supposed to be a more or less continuous argument.

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Government 2: Proportional Representation

In my last post I described how much better I though Australia would be if the states were done away with.

However, another reform that needs to be undertaken to reform government, in a wider sense, is proportional representation (PR). This is the method of choosing representatives for parliaments by the proportion of votes that a particular party wins in an election, not by the number of ‘seats’ won. In other words Party X gains 28% of the vote, there are 150 representatives in the parliament, therefore Party X gets 42 representatives in the parliament.

In the 2007 Federal Election in Australia the Nationals got 5.49% of the national vote and won 10 seats in the House of Representatives, the Greens won 7.79% of the national vote and won no seats in the House of Representatives. Under PR these two parties would have had 8 and 12 representatives, respectively. (These figures are more difficult to calculate for the 2010 election as at that election a hybrid monster called the Liberal National Party represented both the Nationals and Liberals in Queensland and it is difficult to disentangle what proportion of the conservative vote in Queensland went to which party—however at this election the Greens increased their vote to 11.76% of the national vote, and so they should have had 18 HoR seats instead of just 1).

I have chosen these two parties as they are the extremes in Australian politics of geographically concentrated and geographically dispersed voters. The National Party is very strong in certain areas of the country (as opposed to the cities), whereas Green voters are thinly spread across the whole country. This raises a very important issue, local representation.

I think local representation is generally seen seen as a good, and an indispensable part of the Westminster system. However I see it as a curse. The origin of local representation in England was the representatives of the burgess class sent to Westminster to sit in the House of Commons. The burgesses were the rich (non-noble) landowners and merchants and they chose representatives from amongst themselves to go to London to do business with the House of Lords and the Court. All the peers and all the bishops sat in the Lords, and so there was an attempt to make sure that all the burgesses were represented in the Commons (there were too many of them for them all to come). These MPs were representatives of their class, not of the towns they came from. Later the franchise widened and more people in each town got a say in who should be their representative.

It was only at this point that the idea that the MPs were representing their towns (rather than their class) emerged and it became entrenched when reformers tried to reform voting and made much of the numerous ‘rotten boroughs’ in England (towns where there were only a few voters, or places where burgesses located around a mediaeval town had sent an MP, but a shift in population meant that there was no town there any longer). Eventually with the Reform Act of 1832 (and subsequent ones) the idea of parliamentary seats with a wider franchise electing a ‘local member’ became cemented in political thought.

I believe that local representation is a bad idea in modern democracies for several reasons:

  1. As we have already seen, parties whose members are concentrated in certain areas are over-represented, and parties whose members are widely spread are underrepresented.
  2. Local MPs are in danger of being corrupted by local interests and what is good for their constituencies may not be good for the nation as whole. For example, currently Tasmanian MPs are beholden to timber company interests, whereas these interests are not in the national interest.
  3. Parliamentary seats disenfranchise. I personally I have never had a vote that counted in my entire life. When I lived in Britain I lived in a safe Tory seat, and however I voted a Tory would be elected. Now in Australia I live in a safe Labor seat, and however I vote a Labor MP will be returned. Effectively only voters in marginal seats have votes that count.
  4. How can an MP represent an area when they know that possibly as many as 49.9% of the electorate don’t want them to represent them?

What is required I believe is for Australia to have a House of Representatives of 150 members (or whatever number), chosen by all Australians to represent Australia as a whole, not individual areas of it.

The function of MPs of dealing with administrative errors or oversights on behalf of their ‘constituents’ can much more efficiently be carried out by ombudsmen.

However, there is one major problem with PR. Where PR is practised, such a Germany and New Zealand (though not in its pure form, but mixed with local representation), political parties devise a ‘party-list’ which ranks their candidates in the order the party would like them selected. If the party receives a certain percentage of the vote, a certain number of MPs are elected down the list. This, it seems to me, continues the tyranny of political parties that is a feature of current politics.

Here is a PR model that I think gets around this problem:

Four political colours are established to cover the spectrum of political opinion. Let’s say greens, social democrats, liberals and conservatives (or Green, Red, Light Blue, Dark Blue). When an election comes round anyone can nominate to become an MP, selecting a colour to belong to. For each house there are two streams, up to 75% of the eventual list is reserved for previous MPs and the remainder for new prospective members. A large number of citizen electoral selectors are selected at random from the population—(next week I will be detailing how I think society can be revitalised in all departments by the use of citizens’ panels chosen at random, this is an example)—and these selectors nominate which colour they wish to select for.

Every potential MP fills in a form detailing their thoughts on the political issues of the day, how they voted in the last parliament (or how they would have voted) and listing their achievements. They must also answer personal questions about, for example, their financial interests, their religious affiliations &c. The selectors then read these applications in either the new or continuing streams and rate the applications. All these ratings are compiled for a colour, the two streams combined, and a list is generated. At the election each political colour has a list selected this way.

At the election voters either vote for a political colour, or an individual. There is a clever weighting system so that if an individual gets many individual votes he or she moves up the colour list without the individual vote counting more than a colour vote. When the results are counted the MPs are selected down the lists. After this the new MPs meet in their colour caucuses and elect a leadership team (the policies they will follow have been laid down by the outgoing colour caucus from the previous parliament as the election platform). The leaders then begin to talk to the other colours to work out a coalition government.

At the end of this process the President asks the leaders of a coalition which has a majority to form government. During the life of the parliament MPs vote on issues without any coercion (a whip-system), however, if they persistently vote against their colour’s programme a two-thirds majority of the colour caucus can vote to expel them and they then have to join another colour, or sit as an independent, for the rest of the parliament.

Elections in this system are held every four years on a fixed date. The President functions much as Governor-General now, and can either be elected directly (by a form of the above process) or by Parliament, every four years, out of step with the parliament, ie a presidential election/selection at the end of the second year of every parliament.

As there are no states or territories (see last week) there is no need for a Senate. New Zealand does perfectly well without a second chamber.

For regional government assemblies (see last week) much the same system can be used for elections. However, at the regional government level I believe some form of local representation is appropriate, and so after the RG elections MRGAs from different colours would be assigned to local representative teams who would have to get to know a local area and represent its interests at the assembly. However, if reelected they would be rotated so as never to represent the same local area in successive parliaments.

This form of PR is of course very laborious and dependent on much rating and voting and calculations, at the national and regional level, and so all of it would be conducted on secure computer systems.

Next Week: Government 3, Citizens’ Panels

1 comment:

  1. I think there's a simpler system that also avoids lists, allows for local independents and relfects PR. It's also single member. Personally, I'd prefer a combination of sortition and direct democracy, but let's do this as a mental exercise.

    The parties nominate candidates for each electoral division. All votes are optional preferential. Primaries are counted first. Each primary winner in each division is decalred "the provisional winner". These winners are ranked in order of support. Someone who gets 70% above someone who only gets 69% etc. Each of the proportions of the vote for each party above a 3% threshhold entitles that party to the nearest number of seats to that floating point number, rounding down. Each of the provisional winners is awarded their division until each of the parties fills its quota. Thus, if the ALP gets 38% it gets 150 * 0.38 rounded down. Ditto all others. If a party with at least 3% wins no divisions, its gets awarded the divisions where it scored highest on primaries that have not been allocated until its quota is filled. Any remaining unallocated seats go to the winner of the seat on preferences.

    This way, there are few wasted votes. Provided your party gets 3%, your vote will count towards an MP. You might also get to elect a local "independent" -- so someone running as a local would find it worthwhile to campaign locally with likeminded persons in neighbouring seats.

    Undistributed seats