November 1

Election systems: a clarification

In the recent column on electoral fraud (15/10) I described the electoral system in the Senate until 1948 as first-past-the-post.  It was until 1917, but the result was still “winner-take-all” rather than proportional representation.

I am indebted to Mr. Geoffrey Goode, who is the President of the Proportional Representation Society of Australia (Victoria-Tasmania) Inc.  The following comes from the Society’s very informative website,  

From 1903 to 1917, multiple, or bloc, first past the post (also known as plurality or relative majority) vote, was the Senate system, as the Senate in 1902 had, as stated at the end of the previous section, rejected the Barton Government’s proposal for proportional representation for the Senate, and had provided instead for a multiple first-past-the post system with plumping prohibited.(Continued below)


In 1919, the Senate’s multiple first-past-the-post system gave way to a multiple, or bloc, majority-preferential system after William Hughes’s Nationalist Government had introduced, in 1918, preferential voting for the House of Representatives, to avoid splitting of the conservative vote by the newly-formed Country Party, which supported the Nationalists in a Coalition government.

Since then, the Coalition, in its various forms, has been the only governing group, other than the Australian Labor Party, in the Federal Parliament, and it has been the Government for most of that time.

By 1948, the decades of operation of those two systems showed that they filled Senate seats so grossly disproportionately to votes that Parliament in that year replaced the Senate’s multiple preferential system with the present quota-preferential proportional representation (PR) system. The Opposition supported the change.

The site gives this explanation of winner-take-all :

At the Winner-take-all end of the spectrum are those systems, mostly like the two different majoritorian systems above used for Australian Senate elections from 1902-46 where, like the multiple plurality system (1902-17), the candidates that gained the largest single group of votes filled all the available positions, or the multiple majority-preferential system (1919-47), where the candidates that gained a bare absolute majority of votes filled all the available positions.

At five separate periodic Senate elections, a single party won all available seats Australia-wide!

Mr. Goode adds:

While our Society obviously does not support first-past-the-post counting, we do, as shown at share your stated opposition to above-the-line voting.

My argument in that column was that the constitutional intention was that the House and the Senate not mirror one another.  I suggested the retention of proportional preferential voting in the Senate, but that we move to first-past- the- post in the House. 

If that is thought to be too unpalatable, the voter should not be compelled to fill every square. This is the optional preference system used in some state elections.


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