How to get rid of the two party system

It’s quite common to see people complain about the two party system in Australian politics and wish we could get rid of it. The good news is that we can, and that is because our voting system is not actually a two party voting system at all, the two-party aspect is just an artifact of the way most people choose to vote. The way to get rid of then is easy – vote for somebody else.

What follows is all about why you don’t have to vote for Labor or Liberal, but it isn’t intended to tell you who to vote for. You’ll see my opinions on this on other posts on this blog, but I like to keep posts about the electoral system as neutral as possible. As this is specifically directed to the people who complain about having to vote for the two main parties, then it is mostly explaining why you don’t have to. If you are not one of these people and you like one of the two main parties, then you can go on voting for them.

The reason why many people think that there is a two party system is that election counts are often given in terms of a two-party preferred count. This is not part of the system which determines who wins though, this is just a useful way of viewing the outcome given that the overwhelming majority of voters have voted for two parties (including the coalition as a single party for these purposes). If people voted differently this would be less useful to the point where it might not be used.

It is also commonly thought that preferences somehow inevitably funnel votes to the major parties, but once again this is not true. The result of preferences is to redistribute votes from candidates with a very low vote to their voters next preferences until a candidate has the support of over half the electorate. In almost every electorate the largest primary votes by far are for the Coalition and Labor, so if preferences are distributed, those candidates are likely to survive until later stages of the count and receive preferences – it’s just because of their high primary vote. In fact, in many electorates preferences are not all distributed, or sometimes not even at all if someone already has a majority, thought a distribution is shown for the two-party count. Again, this is just recognising that these two parties are the only ones with enough support to be in the contest for government so this is just a way of measuring their relative support, it is not part of the count which determines the outcome.

One aspect of our election system which does favor dominance by two parties is the use of single member electorates in the lower house. This means that parties with a significant level of support but spread evenly across the country can easily have no representation there as you need to get over 50% after preferences in any individual electorate to win a seat. So this tends to hand most of the seats to the most popular parties, though also it does allow for candidates with a large amount of localised support to do well. This is balanced to some degree by the proportional representation of the Senate. Importantly though, it is still not built into the system that lower house seats must go to the Coalition or Labor, and we see this in practice with Adam Bandt in Melbourne, Andrew Wilkie in Denison, Cathy McGowan in Indi and Bob Katter in Kennedy.

Of course to vote for someone else you need to feel that there is someone else worth voting for. During an election campaign most sources of information will be talking only about the Coalition vs Labor, and quite a bit on the relative personalities of the leaders. To an extent this is fair, the media of course should look at the most likely contenders for the prospective Government, however also it can turn into “horse race” journalism, where it is covered purely as a competition involving points scoring and who is winning, and devoid of any analysis of the merits of the parties’ respective policies. The other main source of information will be info form candidates in your letterbox, once again this is most likely to come from the big parties since they have lots of money from corporate donations, plus incumbents have extra resources available to them as well. All this means you may have to go further to find information on other candidates.

The good news is that if you do like any other candidates, then it is perfectly safe to vote for them without any risk of wasting your vote, because you still get to express preferences for all of the other candidates, so for example if your favoured candidate gets eliminated because not enough other people voted for them,  and it comes down to Labor vs Liberal, you still get a say in it.

If you see no way anyone other than the big parties will win your electorate, but there is someone you prefer, it is still worth voting for them. Firstly because your number one vote determines allocation of public funding, so if you have a favourite candidate this is who you want that money to go to. Secondly, a lot of people feel like this until there is a third candidate that looks like winning. You can see this in the Greens vote in Melbourne, as the vote increased from election to election and it looked more like a winnable seat, many more people decided to vote Green, but it took a bunch of people voting Green before it was obviously winnable to get to this point. Once again, given preferential voting it is a perfectly sensible strategy to vote for who you like, even if only boosting their vote to put them in a winnable position and a later election, since you still express a preference between those likely to win this time. But also – who knows, maybe you’re electorate will be one which elects a different candidate this time.