Australia’s ranked ballot holds grim lesson for electoral reform

Is anyone in Canada really ready for the Motoring Enthusiast Party?

PERTH, AUSTRALIA - AUGUST 25: A ballot paper is scrutinised as the counting of absentee and postal votes for the marginal seat of Hasluck in Western Australia begins on August 25, 2010 in Perth, Australia. The 4,500 postal votes are considered key for the WA seat as Liberal Party candidate Ken Wyatt currently leads incumbent Australian Labor Party candidate Sharryn Jackson by less than 400 votes as Australia waits for a result in the hung Parliament situation following the Federal Election on August 21.  (Paul Kane/Getty Images)

An Australian ranked ballot. (Paul Kane/Getty Images)

Canada may have beaten Australia out of the starting gate with Confederation in 1867; it wasn’t until 1901 that our colonial cousin managed the same feat. But there’s still much we can learn from our younger Antipodean relation—particularly when it comes to electoral reform. There’s no reason for us to make the same mistakes they’ve made.

The 76 members of the Australian Senate are elected using a preferential, or ranked, ballot. Such a system is much in fashion. Here in Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has famously vowed that 2015’s federal election will be the last carried out using our traditional first-past-the-post method. Of the many possible replacement options, it’s widely speculated Trudeau favours ranked ballots because it ensures every vote counts. The Liberals have also said they don’t believe this sort of change requires public approval via referendum, arguing a political agreement should be sufficient.

So are we ready for MPs from the Canadian Motoring Enthusiast Party?

Electing the Australian Senate—an upper house with considerably more prestige and power than in Canada—is a time-consuming and complex task. Every three years, voters must choose six senators per state using a ballot the size of a dinner placemat. In New South Wales, for example, the most recent Senate election included 110 individual candidates. Voters are required to express their preferences on all of them. This can be done by either labouriously ranking each candidate from No. 1 to No. 110, or by voting once for a preferred party. In this latter option, used by more than 95 per cent of all voters because of its simplicity, the party itself takes care of the ranking procedure through what’s called a “group ticket,” with its own candidates at the top. Once the votes are cast, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and the group ticket dictates how those votes are to be distributed among the remaining candidates (through a mysterious and complicated process that space precludes us from explaining here). This process continues until six winners per state are declared.

In recent elections, a legion of micro-parties, often with provocative names and platforms such as the Sex Party, Sports Party or No Carbon Tax Climate Skeptics Party, have turned group tickets into a political lottery. By carefully allocating their preferences amongst themselves for maximum effect, it is possible for these micro-parties to send at least one of their kind to the upper house. This is what happened in the 2013 election, when the Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party elected its first senator, Ricky Muir. He received just 0.5 per cent of the popular vote, but thanks to the combined preferences of 22 other obscure parties, he now has a seat in Canberra.

Given the Byzantine nature of preferential ballots and group tickets, many Australian voters have no idea how their preferences are allocated. Many votes ultimately go to parties entirely contrary to the original voter’s political beliefs. For example, among the parties that threw their weight behind Muir were the Animal Justice Party and the Bullet Train for Australia Party, neither of which seems aligned with the “motoring enthusiasts lifestyle” advocated by Muir. In this way, ranked ballots represent a complete perversion of the democratic process.

The absurdity of Australia’s preferential ballot system has the government of Malcolm Turnbull pushing for reform. This week the conservative-minded prime minister proposed an end to the group ticket, plus other changes designed to make elections tougher on micro-parties. And he has the support of the opposition Australian Greens. “You know the system is broken when someone polls 0.5 per cent at an election and returns one candidate,” said Green Leader Richard di Natale. “It’s been gamed by these backroom preference dealers.” The larger opposition Labor Party is split on the proposal.

The final implications of Turnbull’s reform package are uncertain, as it could trigger a snap election and an entirely new Senate. For Canadians, the mess created by preference brokers and micro-parties should be considered a cautionary tale on electoral reform at home. Crass manipulation of ranked ballots through group tickets was never an objective of Australia’s “progressive” electoral system. But it became the logical outcome, given the presence of opportunistic politicians. Why should such a scenario hold any attraction for Canada? The Trudeau government’s plan to cobble together a backroom political deal on electoral reform could unleash similar unpleasant and unintended consequences. And with voter turnout rising dramatically in the last federal election—including a surprising 12 percentage point boost among young voters—there’s no evidence our voting system is broken, or in need of wholesale replacement.

Finally and most important, it remains essential that Canadian voters themselves have the final say on any plan to recast the foundation of Canada’s democracy. A referendum is a necessary defence against political manipulation of our electoral system.


Australia’s ranked ballot holds grim lesson for electoral reform

  1. Australian here.

    The key factor that everyone needs to understand is that while yes, we have some problems with our Senate voting system, those problems do not carry across to our House of Representatives, which is also a preferential system.

    As Trudeau wishes to introduce preferential voting to your House of Commons, our Senate’s problems are basically irrelevant to that debate.

    In our lower house, as in yours, there is only one representative for any given seat; typically about five candidates stand. There are no nasty group voting tickets, the demerits of which are the focus of this article. Every lower house voter has complete control of their preferences. The benefits over first-past-the-post – principally, the elimination of the spoiler effect – have already been well stated in this publication and elsewhere.

    • Despite the manipulations, though group tickets, of the proportional STV ballot used to elect the Australian Senate, it seems that the main political parties have been unable to stop the Senate from providing an valuable override to the AV-majorities in the House of Representatives. The Senate often blocks legislation from the House of Reps, and thereby, imposes the will of a broader segment of society than is ever possible under a winner-take-all voting system such as AV (ranked ballots in single-mbr ridings).

      AV would be a disaster for Canada. We have no elected, proportional Senate to override the endless, contrived majorities that AV would generate. Canada has few protections against 1-party rule, as was so clearly demonstrated by our last government. We have seen the abyss of potential fascism and have no desire to make FPTP even worse by allowing AV to create the effective duopoly in the House of Commons that has resulted in OZ.

      Majority governments may look much more efficient than proportional majority coalitions but they are just about as effective as dictatorships in making government representative of, and accountable to, citizens.

      STV, as it is practiced in Australian Senate races, is a far cry from what was proposed in BC in recent referendums and what is used in Ireland. Nonetheless, it has achieved what AV can never hope to do – providing accountable and representative government. It’s just too bad that STV is used as a brake to stop bad legislation in Australia instead of STV, or another well-designed proportional voting system, being employed in the House of Reps to generate better legislation. That is the lesson that Canada should take from the Australian experience.

      Aldonius, be thankful for your STV Senate. Surely, it could work better, but I think that Aussies are better off for having an elected, proportional Senate to stop the worst excesses of AV majorities in the House of Reps below.

      • If FPTP has historically gifted Canada relatively many minority governments, I can only imagine that you must be highly unique in that regard.

        After the changes have gone through, our Senate will still be proportional (and it will still be STV). I have no fears on that front.

        The fact is that in our lower house, not many minor-party or independent candidates run and people rarely vote for them when they do.

        There are four main factors for the Australian duopoly in my mind, and the use of preferential voting is a distant fifth.

        First, compulsory voting. Our two main parties approximately straddle the centre of political opinion and the centrist voters periodically swing from one to another. It’s really quite stable.

        Second, regionalism is not currently a strong factor here; differences in party support between states are rarely more than 5 percentage points. More accurately, there is a city-country divide, but the country seats are almost all safe National party, who are in a permanent Coalition with the (our) Liberal party. Hence the divide is held together.

        The third factor is our electorate sizes – approximately 100,000 voters each – which precludes much of the UK Lib Dem strategy of campaigning hyper-locally.

        Fourth, single-winner districts tend to make things a two-horse race and (at the risk of repetition) Australia doesn’t have strong regionalisms to vary which horses run where.

        On the current primary voteshare figures, those majorities would occur just the same under first-past-the-post.

        Some supplementary figures: Eleven of the 150 lower house seats were not Labor vs Coalition in the final two. Five of those were won by a non-major candidate: two from ‘first’ and three from ‘second’. Another three were won by the major candidate, all from ‘first’. The remaining three were Liberal vs National infighting and barely count.

        • Thanks for your thoughtful reply. Your very supplementary figures support a significant duopoly. Third parties are contenders in only a few seats.

          Unfortunately, we have far too many majority govt’s here under FPTP which is why we are working very hard to replace it with a proportional voting system. But with the vote split between 3 main parties,we would have fewer majorities than in OZ. Elimination of the third party would greatly increase the # majorities.

          In a duopoly, it is to be expected that AV would not result in many more majority govts than FPTP. But add a third major party and the situation changes.

          You may not realize that, on the whole, proportional voting systems tend to be more stable than winner-take-all voting systems. Strangely, it seems that Australia has had many more elections than most countries. During the period 1945-1998, OZ had 22 elections, Canada had 17 elections and most western PR countries had 14 or 15 elections.

          I agree that FPTP generally leads to a duopoly. But that is not currently true in either Canada nor the UK. I understand that AV came about in OZ to prevent vote-splitting on the right which led to domination of the Labour Party. We had the same situation here about 10 years ago which was resolved when the right-wing parties merged. That allowed the Conservatives to dominate for 10 years as votes then split between the two remaining parties. This of course led to interest in AV by the Liberals.

          As far as I can see, AV really offers little to voters except to reduce vote-splitting. But that is of little use if smaller parties are eliminated – as has happened in OZ

          I agree with you that single-member ridings contribute to the duopoly as it difficult for smaller parties to get any traction when votes get locked up inside ridings and elect no-one. In our last election, 51% of votes cast elected no-one. It does not appear that AV would reduce that greatly, especially if optional preferences are allowed, as would likely be the case here. We have some history using both STV and AV in the western provinces.

          Regionalism is a big factor in Canada as FPTP is outrageously disproportionate in regions that have concentrated groups of like voters. Large blocks of the country may be represented by only one party for years even when they get less than 50% of the vote. Some think that could make AV quite volatile here.

          I understand that compulsory voting also favours the largest parties who are the only ones with deep pocket to advertise endlessly to the unengaged.

          Our ridings tend to be larger than 100K voters although rural ridings are less. Interesting that you think that leads to a 2-party system. Winner-take-all requires parties to hyper-focus on small pockets in swing ridings and largely ignore the many safe ridings. In 2011, the difference between a majority & minority govt was only 6200 votes spread across 14 ridings.

          AV generally has about the same results as FPTP but can occasionally have widely unpredictable swings. AV projections for our last election indicate a much greater swing than under FPTP. h$ttp://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/grenier-preferential-ballot-1.3332566

          Dennis Pilon wrote a good article on the possible impact of AV in Canada. h$ttp://www.academia.edu/12999490/Electoral_Reform_Here_s_Your_Evidence_Mr._Trudeau

          Both Pilon and Antony Green of OZ’ ABC said that AV results in more majorities, based on OZ’ experience, when they did a presentation together in Toronto last fall.

          In his article Pilon notes “AV, like SMP but unlike PR systems, tends to produce legislative majority governments. Since 1919 Australia has had only two minority federal
          governments (1940 and 2010) while the western Canadian use of AV led to the election of three minority governments (two in Manitoba and one in B.C) out of a possible 17.”

          Meanwhile, federally, Canada has had 12 minority governments since 1919 out of a possible 29.

  2. Australia forces voters to rank every candidate on the ballot. That would not happen here. (They also force people to vote. Also not on the menu.)

    Nice hack job though. The author of this nonsense would appear to know absolutely nothing about electoral reform. Fact is of all 181 democratic nations around the world, 74% of them have reformed their voting systems. That puts Canada deep in third world territory.

    What are you going to write next? Canadians are too dumb to understand electoral reform? FOAD.

  3. Another Australian here. It is surprising that the author does not mention the New South Wales legislative council. (5 states have upper houses, 4 are elected by STV) Like the senate, the NSW upper house had a preference harvesting election in 1999. The system was reformed. The preference harvesting collapsed.

    The debate on the electoral reform bill now before our federal parliament has frequently mentioned the NSW legislative council as an example of how to deal with preference harvesting. It really is strange to see this author completely ignoring the NSW reforms.

    It is also wrong to say that these changes may trigger a snap election. The government may well call a double dissolution (the Australian constitution allows both houses to be dissolved simultaneously to resolve legislative deadlocks) but the electoral reform bill will not be one of the constitutional triggers and is unlikely to be a major campaign issue.

    Still, if you are looking for Big Scary Problems I suppose you have to work with what you can find.

    • Our third-world fourth estate is exceptional at conjuring up Big Scary Problems: if the price is right. Here journalists believe their job is to manipulate public opinion with rhetoric and lies. It’s no wonder they are so fiercely opposed to Canada becoming a democracy.

      Every time I read of liars in public places getting their pink slips, I get all warm and fuzzy inside. My bet is that this particular rag will be gone and forgotten within a decade.

      (But I shudder at the thought of these unemployable ersatz journalists get jobs teaching young journalism students. What do they have to teach them? How to safely acquire cash-stuffed envelopes via subtle applications of corporate culture? How to maximize the value from monetizing your soul? How to wind up on the wrong side of history?)

      • yes- absolutely gutted by this “editorial” – no respect for journalism standards of fairness and objectivity. Embarrassing! Regretting my recent renewal of my subscription!

  4. ” A referendum is a necessary defence against political manipulation of our electoral system.”

    I concur.

    If the quality of journalism displayed within the confines of this article is representative of Canadians, then does this demonstrate a lack of intelligence on the part of Canadians?

    Preferential voting, including both the Single-Transferable Vote and Proportional Voting systems, achieve at some point the approval of a required quota of the electorate; whereas a Most Votes Wins System (which more accurately describes First Past The Post, does not).
    Every voter in Australia can cast their preferences how they decide should they choose to do so.

    Besides which, the inclusion of micro parties in the Senate, has provided far more different views speaking into the parliament than otherwise – that’s ultimately good for democracy.

  5. This article is rife with factual inaccuracies, and unfortunately this is typical of Canada’s corporate media coverage of the electoral reform debate. The Australian Senate uses proportional representation by the single transferable vote (also known as PR-STV or just STV) to elect its Senate, they use Instant Runoff Voting (also called the Alternative Vote, or “ranked ballot”) to elect their House of Representatives. Justin Trudeau is believed to prefer Instant Runoff Voting from his past, rather uninformed, criticisms of proportional representation and references to a “ranked ballot”.

    This is why I take issue with the Canadian media’s use of the term “ranked ballot,” as a synonym for Instant Runoff Voting A. it presents a false dichotomous choice between party-list proportional representation and a winner-take-all preferential voting system and B. it muddies the water by conflating a winner-take-all system with a proportional system. It would be like conflating First Past the Post with Mixed Member Proportional because they both use single member ridings.

    It is bad that Australians have a mandatory ranked ballot for both their Senatorial and House of Representatives elections, in which voters have to rank every single candidate on their ballot. What’s ironic about this editorial, however, is that it completely ignores the use of PR-STV in the Republic of Ireland, a country which just had an election yesterday, where stable governments between moderate parties are the rule rather than the exception. In Ireland, the ranked ballot is optional, not mandatory.

    I’m not sure why the Canadian media is reporting on electoral reform in such an inaccurate way; is it well-intentioned ignorance or a malicious intention to mislead the Canadian public and sow fear, or both?

    • No one ever said ranked ballot voting is proportional. What I find rife with factual inaccuracies is the PR zealot’s rhetoric about ranked ballots — a system they attempt to conflate with “winner-take-all” FPTP. It’s a lame political tactic also used by FPTP supporters looking to kill electoral reform by polarizing the debate.

      If FPTP supporters, like the author of this article, are attacking ranked ballots to ensure the status quo; and PR supporters are attacking ranked ballots to ensure PR; clearly both can’t be right. One option will blow up electoral reform; the other enact it. Only one side knows what it’s doing. And it’s pretty obvious which side knows how to play political chess and which side does not.

      • Actually, by calling the system used to elect the Australian Senate, which is Proportional Representation by the Single Transferable Vote (PR-STV), “the ranked ballot,” a term which is often used as a synonym for Instant Run-off Voting (IRV), they sort of did insinuate that the two are the same. It would be like calling both First Past the Post and Mixed Member Proportional, the “single member system,” because they both use single member ridings. It’s misleading and dumb.

        There is no one particular system called “the ranked ballot”. “Proportional representation” also does not refer to a particular voting system. They are both FEATURES of many different voting systems. Electoral reform without proportional representation, ranked ballots or not, misses the point entirely and could be even worse in practice.

        I’m not a zealot, but I don’t want to adopt a system that will mean LESS pluralism in the House of Commons, and IRV would mean just that.

        • Look at how IRV works in Australia (the only OECD country to use it), and look at how it worked in the Canadian provinces of British Columbia, Alberta and Manitoba. The results were terrible – the over-exaggeration of landslide wins, the arbitrary under-representation of opposition parties, a disconnect between party results and the popular vote, no change in voter participation, a hyper-competitive partisan culture. IRV addresses ZERO of the concerns most people have with FPTP; it IS a winner-take-all voting system.

          I’m not against ranked ballots, but electoral reform without proportional representation is a waste of everyone’s time.

      • Actually Ron, a ranked ballot is a ballot. It can be used in a majoritarian system, technically called Alternative Vote, also known as Ranked Choice Voting, Instant Runoff Voting, and a few other names–or it can be used in most proportional systems and is a required feature of the proportional system known as Single Transferable Vote.

  6. With an important and time-critical debate needed on electoral reform in Canada, it would be helpful if Maclean’s published some real information on the problems with the current system and the available alternatives, instead of this sort of sensationalist twaddle. If you know anything about voting systems, you know that there is no perfect voting system. So yes, there are issues with Australia’s system. In particular, the requirement to rank all candidates is bonkers. But the election of the occasional Ozzie dingbat does not change the fact that Australia’s Senate elections are vastly more democratic than anything we do in Canada. As for “no evidence that our system is broken”, what cave were you living in for the last decade? We live under a system where most of us vote for people who do not get elected, so most of us are “represented” by people we voted against, and we have a government that most of us voted against. You’re cool with that?

Sign in to comment.