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Off the Bench: Reforming SA's electoral laws


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In our new opinion series, Off the Bench, two of South Australia’s brightest backbench MPs – one Labor, one Liberal – trade arguments on key issues.

Today, Liberal Stephan Knoll makes a case for reforming South Australia’s electoral laws – tomorrow, read these pages for Labor MP Chris Picton’s response.

South Australia is in need of electoral reform to deliver a system that gives the best government possible to the people of this state.

From the outset I would like to say that as a Liberal Party member I am not in denial about the outcome of the 2014 election. On the current system, Labor was able to win more seats than the Liberal Party, and with the help of the independent Member for Frome, Geoff Brock, were able to form government.

The real question we need to ask is not “how do we help the Liberals win government?” Rather it is “what system would deliver the government that the people of South Australia want”. We could also add: “does the current system best serve the voters?”

On both of these counts we have to consider the current system “suboptimal”.

In South Australia we have 47 single member electorates, recognising that each member is elected to be their community’s voice in the parliament. This sentiment is as relevant today as it was when single member electorates were brought in at the 1938 election. What has changed since that time though is a style of election that focuses much more on party policies and party leaders.

When voters go to the ballot box, they are balancing their decision on who they want as their local member of parliament with which party they would like to see govern and who they would like to lead their state. This balance is not reflected accurately in our current electoral system. Currently it is only the aggregate of those individual seat contests that decides who forms government and this does not consider the will of the state as a whole.

Given that at three out of the past four elections the party that has won the majority of the vote has been unable to form government, there are serious flaws in the system that can’t be dealt with by the current fairness clause.

This fairness clause states “if candidates of a particular group attract more than 50 per cent of the popular vote … they will be elected in sufficient numbers to enable a government to be formed”.

The fairness clause was placed into the Constitution Act in 1992 in recognition that the system was broken and did not on every occasion deliver majoritarian government. Unfortunately the same flaw still remains today and there is ample and consistent evidence now to call for change.

A top up process gives us an electoral system that is much closer to one vote, one value – a phrase that Former Labor Premier Don Dunstan espoused in seeking change to the gerrymander in the 1960s. It’s still a worthy ideal today.

The government can say “we won the election” but they cannot say “we have a mandate for our policies”. Indeed the lack of a mandate is one of the reasons why the Liberal Party decided to break convention last year and vote against the government’s proposed car park tax.

The lack of a mandate creates issues in that it diminishes the elected government’s moral right to govern. At a time when South Australia faces serious challenges, this level of diminished authority should not exist. A change to the system of voting could guarantee an end to this situation.

A mandate is important in South Australia because we have a parliamentary convention where Oppositions do not oppose money bills. This convention does not exist federally and often the Senate does not pass government budget measures. At a state level, given that the upper house generally cedes that power to the government, we must ensure that the will of the majority, expressed at the ballot box, is taken into account.

A mandate is also more important at a state level as the constitution in South Australian gives the state parliament more powers than the federal constitution gives the federal parliament.

The current system does not fairly serve voters in that it incentivises marginal seat campaigning and marginal seat politicking. We cannot blame political parties for using the system as it stands to win – it is entirely rational behaviour.

Currently there are approximately 10 electorates which receive the majority of the attention and Labor is unashamed at focussing on these voters to the diminution of all others (indeed many marginal seat Labor members have gleefully reminded the parliament of that). In northern country areas the popular saying goes that the government thinks South Australia stops at Gepps Cross. This style of marginal seat politicking inevitably skews economic and infrastructure related decision-making which leads to poorer outcomes. It has also led to cynicism across the electorate.

One system that could deal with these issues is a hybrid system known as a top-up system.

A hybrid system would still include single member electorates but would also allow for a list of “top up” candidates elected on a proportional basis depending on the percentage of votes cast.

A top up system would help to improve decision-making within governments in that it as close as possible incentivises better decision-making. Such as system means that a vote in a safe Labor seat or a safe Liberal seat would contribute to winning government and have the same value as a marginal seat vote. Once the motivation to focus purely on marginal seats is removed we can better concentrate on good government for all South Australians.

A top up process gives us an electoral system that is much closer to one vote, one value – a phrase that Former Labor Premier Don Dunstan espoused in seeking change to the gerrymander in the 1960s. It’s still a worthy ideal today.

We politicians sometimes get a bad rap from a cynical electorate who question our underlying motivations on many things, from spending decisions, to election promises and much more.

As politicians we must be looking for ways to win back community trust and an improvement to the electoral system could do just that.

Stephan Knoll is the member for Schubert. Return to these pages tomorrow for a response from Member for Kaurna Chris Picton.

In the next instalment of Off the Bench, Picton will lead off on an issue of his choice, with Knoll responding.

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