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.
Yesterday, Liberal Stephan Knoll made his case for reforming South Australia’s electoral laws – today, Labor’s Chris Picton responds.
Roads, parks, taxes, schools and jobs. They’re the issues most raised with me in the community. Unsurprisingly the Electoral Act is not at the top of the list. But having a strong democracy is the precursor for every other issue.
Step by step our South Australian democracy has improved over the past 160 years. We led the way on women’s suffrage and the secret ballot. We eventually caught up to ensuring that every vote has the same value and that our political donation laws are transparent.
There’s still more to do – however adopting thought-bubbles might actually make things worse.
Our current system passes the fairness test. Today all South Australians have an equal vote in both houses of parliament. That’s a contrast to the 1960s when country votes were worth up to ten times more than city votes and only people who could afford property were able to vote for Legislative Councillors.
Before their shocking defeat at the Fisher by-election, the Liberals complained the electoral system was unfair. Stephan Knoll in InDaily yesterday continued this claim. It is worth noting they weren’t saying this when John Howard won the 1998 election with 49 per cent of the two-party vote.
This paragraph sums up what happened last year:
A Labor Government went to the election and a hung parliament was the result. Neither party won a majority of seats. Independents held the balance of power. Labor continued in government with the support of independents.
In a case of déjà vu that same paragraph applies equally to the 2014 and 1989 elections.
Following the Liberal Party’s complaints in 1989, SA adopted their preferred system – the “fairness clause” – in our constitution. It is unique in that it uses political votes to devise electorate boundaries. We are still the only place to have it and it benefits the Liberal Party who traditionally have a strong vote in the bush.
As has been said by experts before, the clause was applied properly by the Electoral Commission – it is just that in 2014 two usually Liberal areas elected independents.
Two days after the last election I saw analyst Antony Green interviewed on ABC News 24. Given the surprise election outcome he was asked, “Why can’t they just draw the SA boundaries like they do in other states?” (is not use the fairness clause.)
Green’s apt response was: “That would just make it worse for the Liberal Party”.
No shock therefore that the Liberals don’t want to do that! They’d rather scrap the system they invented and invent something new again.
Stephan proposes a “top-up system” where major parties would bring in a list of party-picked new MPs to help ensure they had a majority.
“Surprise! We know you didn’t vote for these people – but here they are voting in your Parliament, being paid by your tax dollars.”
It is a departure from the Westminster system and in my view dangerous. It should make a true conservative weak at the knees.
Our constitution is designed to last for centuries. Changes should be difficult to pick apart. Unfortunately this is more ragged than Bronwyn Bishop’s travel agent.
Here are a few reasons why:
- It’s undemocratic. The list would deliver faceless-party-hacks into Parliament, voted for by no one, accountable to no one but their party bosses. The public wouldn’t vote these people in and couldn’t vote them out.
- Local communities would lose. It removes the incentive for Premiers to listen to their MPs about local issues – because winning individual seats wouldn’t matter. Only the state-wide Presidential contest would count.
- These faceless-top-ups would have a bizarre incentive for their own party’s MPs to lose. Because if their party did win a majority of seats, the party wouldn’t need the top-up seats and the top-up MP would be out of a job. A recipe for instability.
- It would mean the votes of independents in parliament wouldn’t matter. That would be good for major party politicians like Stephan and me, but is undemocratic for over 10% of the state who have elected independent MPs in recent years.
- It presumes there will only ever be two major parties. That may be true for the next 20 years – but what about the next 50 or 100 years?
Let’s have reforms. But let’s not have short-sighted reforms to suit one political party.
On our side we have sought to start a bipartisan parliamentary committee to review elections and recommend reforms. The Liberals have blocked this in the upper house.
Speaking of the upper house – why not look there for electoral reform?
School children who tour Parliament House are staggered when they learn Legislative Councillors can get eight years on the ‘red leather’ with just a few per cent of the vote. Plus the preference system is so complicated that it’s easy for your vote to help elect someone with views you personally detest.
There’s also more we can do to make sure everyone gets a chance to vote. Too many young or marginalised people aren’t registered to vote at all, denying them a voice on decisions that affect their lives.
I welcome Stephan’s enthusiasm for reform but question his advocacy for just one untested model.
I hate sounding like a conservative but we need a system that will last for decades, and that can only happen if we work in a bipartisan way together.
Chris Picton is the Member for Kaurna. Stephan Knoll is the member for Schubert.
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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