AV – known as preferential voting in Australia – did the job for the conservatives for more than 50 years: it meant that Labor, though consistently polling more first-preference votes than any other party, was kept out of federal government by a conservative coalition for all but two years until 1941, formed the government between 1941 and 1949, and was then kept out again by a conservative coalition from 1949 until 1972.
Since then, however, governments in Australia have alternated between Labor and conservative coalitions – and Labor has found that the preferential voting system works to its advantage when support for alternative left and green parties is high. Labor has been in government 1972-75, 1983-96 and 2007-present.
The electoral system is not currently a major political issue, although opinion polls suggest that there is low-key majority support for a change back to FPTP.
The most important effect of AV on Australian politics has been its embedding a de facto two-party system, with Labor contesting national power with a permanent conservative coalition (currently of the Liberal and National parties). Preferential voting ensures that anyone outside these two blocs wins lower-house representation only in extraordinary circumstances. Australia's lower house is more closed to outsider parties than even the House of Commons, but the exclusion is mitigated by the quasi-proportional electoral system in operation for the upper house (see below).
Differences between here and there
The AV system used in Australia is different from that proposed for the UK in several respects.
- Voting is compulsory in Australia (and has been since 1924).
- Australian voters have to rank all candidates standing in a constituency for their ballot papers to be valid: they cannot simply place a “1” next to the name of one candidate as they would be able to under the version of AV proposed for UK general elections.
- In a general election Australians vote for both upper and lower houses of parliament. Only the lower house, the House of Representatives, is elected by AV. The upper house, the Senate, is elected by a complex quasi-proportional list system. In Britain, the upper house, the House of Lords, is not elected.
Upper and lower house
The last of these differences between the Australian system and the one proposed for the House of Commons is probably the most significant.
The fact that Australia has an elected second chamber – and one elected by a quasi-proportional system – means that the effects of AV are tempered. Small parties can and do win representation in the Australian Senate, and their representation there can act as an important check on the House of Representatives.
Nothing like this exists in the UK: the Lords is unelected. If introduction of AV in the UK for Commons elections had been incorporated in an overall reform to the political system, including democratic election of a second chamber to replace the Lords, perhaps on a proportional representation model, AV for the Commons would be a lot less controversial.
But that isn’t the deal: the plebiscite on 5 May is about AV for the Commons only, and Lords reform is a distant prospect that might as well not exist.
Otherwise, the differences between the UK government's AV proposals and the existing system in Australia are down to the rules about compulsory voting – but we won’t actually know what they would mean in pratice unless the UK votes “yes” on 5 May.
- There is a slim possibility that, in the absence of compulsory voting, voters could be put off voting in the proposed UK AV system by the perceived complexity of AV. Compulsion was introduced in Australia because of the low turnout in its second AV general election. No one knows whether British voters would abstain as enthusiastically.
- It’s quite likely that quite a lot of voters in the proposed UK AV system would not choose to list every candidate in order of preference. (I know I’d never put a number next to the names of candidates for the BNP or religious parties, for example, and only in exceptional circumstances would I not leave the spaces blank next to the names of the Tory and the Lib Dem.) Again, no one has a clue how widespread such practices would be or what would be their effects.
AV was introduced in Australia as a cynical conservative political fix to do over the Australian Labor Party as a national political force. It has nevertheless developed into a system that delivers, for the most part, an alternating two-party system of federal government very similar to those normal under first past the post systems. It cannot be described as a system of proportional repreresentation. Only the Labor Party and conservative coalitions have won lower-house seats in most general elections, and only Labor and conservative coalitions have ever formed governments. But the upper house of parliament, the Senate, provides a crucial check on lower-house elections – and unlke in the UK, it is elected.