The Australian federal elections on Saturday produced no clear winner and the country’s first hung Parliament in some seven decades. The results also show flaws in the Preferential Voting system used for electing the Australian House of Representatives, a system known as “Instant Run-off Voting” in other places.
The problem is that to govern, someone must control a majority of seats in the House: 76 of the 150 seats. The currently-ruling Australian Labor Party (ALP) is the largest single party in the new House, while the Liberal Party and the Nationals have an established coalition and combined have more seats, but neither has 76 seats. At the moment, the ALP is estimated to have 72 seats, the Lib/Nats 73 in their total coalition. There’s one Green Party MP and four independents. Since the Greens are unlikely to support the conservative Lib/Nats, the future of Parliament—and which party will lead Government—rests on those four independent MPs.
The flaw exposed by this election is that it still favours two political parties. Up to a million votes may have been “wasted” as people cast preferential votes that ultimately did no good. A larger flaw is that, just like the traditional First Past the Post system, the eventual make-up of Parliament may not match the actual percentage of the popular vote nationwide, and that means that a government can still form with minority support.
This is an inherent strength of New Zealand’s MMP system: Parliament will mirror the party preferences of the people. Also, a truly “hung Parliament” is highly improbably under MMP because it requires, practically by definition, coalition governments forged among several parties. It also makes multi-party democracy an almost certainty.
Some Australian pundits have been citing New Zealand as an example of the horrors ahead as the country waits to find out if it will have a government or goes back to the polls. Specifically, they point out the couple months it took New Zealand to form a government after the 1996 election. However, what the pundits always leave out is that 1996 was New Zealand’s first election under MMP. The country has since learned very well how it works, and governments are now formed quickly.
The Australian Senate uses STV, a version of IRV, combined with proportional representation. It’s a marked improvement over the IRV used for the Australian House election.
MMP isn’t a perfect system, and I’ll be talking about it in more detail soon. But the Australian election shows why both MMP (with all its faults) and the STV used for the Australian Senate are superior to the IRV system used by the Australian House: Both produce a more democratic result, more quickly (as of this writing, none of the seats are officially declared).
Some historical notes: The first Green MP was elected to the House in a general election (because the system favours the two main parties), a 20-year-old was elected as the youngest MP ever and Australia got its first aboriginal MP—in 2010. By contrast, New Zealand’s first Maori MPs were elected in 1868, though it wasn’t until 1893 that a Maori MP, James Carroll, was elected from a general seat. Carroll served as Acting Prime Minister twice (1909 and 1911), making him New Zealand’s first Maori Prime Minister.