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Proportional Representation and its Importance


Why do we want Representation?


Making decisions for large groups is very difficult. Should all the taxpayers in the country collectively decide how the money is to be spent? Could they collectively decide? Should all members of the PR Society collectively decide that the Secretary's most recent postal expenses be reimbursed? Would they want to? Or would the members prefer to delegate this responsibility to their representatives?


Making decisions in small groups is easier. Most people prefer to delegate some decisions.


Why do we want Proportional Representation?


There are many ways representatives can be chosen: members of rich and powerful families, military leaders, etc. The underlying principle of democracy is that decisions that affect the people should largely accord with the will of the people. One way to improve the prospects of that is for representatives to be elected. The basis of representative democracy is that the collective and varied views of the elected representatives reflect the collective and varied views of the people that elect them. Proportional Representation (PR) is simply a more accurate statement of that ideal: the percentage of representatives that hold a particular view should correspond closely to the percentage of the people that hold that view. Note that if there is only a single representative that is impossible. Proportional Representation must be based on a corporate body of representatives.


How can we achieve it?


Many systems that look democratic on the surface do not result in fair representation. See “Categories of Electoral Systems”. The video by John Cleese viewable here gives a very watchable account of why we should achieve PR.


Voting is not sufficient.


The late, ruthless Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein, won an overwhelming percentage of the votes in an election. Was this a triumph of democracy? Was Italy’s 1923 Acerbo Law much better? As well as voting we need an environment free of harassment, a reasonable range of candidates with access to the media, and universal adult suffrage. In the 1995 Queensland State election the Australian Labor Party won government though it received significantly fewer votes than the Coalition. As well as voting, we need a good electoral system.


Marking X is not enough – a preferential vote is essential for voters to be effective and in control.


If voters only indicate their first preference – which is all they are allowed to do in a first-past-the-post system there is simply not enough information for a good selection of representatives. Votes may be split across several candidates with similar views, leading to all those candidates losing while another candidate with opposing views wins with fewer votes in total. Votes for candidates that are not successful must be wasted since there is no indication of the voter's second and subsequent preferences. Systems that lead to votes being wasted encourage insincere voting: rather than waste a vote on the genuine first preference that may be unlikely to be elected, the vote is cast for a lower preference that has a chance of getting elected. Often this results in people voting for the "lesser of two evils" and makes it very difficult for smaller parties to gain ground. Systems based on marking multiple X's do not solve the problem and sometimes make things even worse.


Proportional Representation should rely on the order of preferences being specified. There are two forms of Proportional Representation corresponding to two ways in which ballots are marked. One form is the "party list" form – which has been successfully opposed by the Proportional Representation Society in the four instances where it was introduced in Australia – where voters vote for a party and it is assumed that their preferences are identical to the preferences of the party, but voters have no facility or an inadequate facility to determine which individual candidates will be elected, as the system retains that as the choice of the party organization, and not the voter.


The other, much better, form of PR is the Single Transferable Vote (STV) or quota-preferential PR, which is the form of PR advocated by the Proportional Representation Society of Australia, allowing voters to indicate, and satisfactorily implement, their preferences for individual candidates explicitly. That allows voters to fine tune a party’s composition and also to allow their votes to be transferred to other candidates outside their preferred party if their preferred candidates receive too few votes to be elected, rather than having their vote wasted, as occurs with party list systems. Furthermore, if a candidate receives more than a quota of votes (a surplus), but not enough to elect another candidate of that party, the vote is not wasted, but passes on to the next candidate preferred by the voter. Unlike the party list form of PR, quota-preferential PR conforms with the letter and spirit of the direct election provisions in the Commonwealth and WA constitutions.


Single-member electorates are not sufficient.


If each electorate returns a single member, and there is an even distribution of voters, a group with the support of 50.5% of voters would win 100% of the seats and 49.5% of the votes would be wasted. The collective views of the representatives clearly do not reflect the views of the people. With a different distribution of voters (or electoral boundaries) the group with 49.5% of the votes can win 99% of the seats! For example, assume there are 100 electorates, each with 10,000 voters. One electorate has only voters from the 50.5% group, the other 99 electorates all have 5,001 "49.5%" voters and 4,999 "50.5%" voters. Deliberate adjusting of the size and shape of electorates to achieve a desired outcome is called Gerrymandering. Unfair results can also occur quite by chance, as happened in Queensland in 1995.


Where a single position is to be filled, however, preferential voting ensures that the decision on who fills it is made by an absolute majority of those voting rather than by the largest block of votes for a single candidate as in a plurality (first-past-the-post) system, which may be well below 50%. The system of exclusion of the lowest ranking candidate at successive stages of the count that is involved eventually results in only two candidates remaining in the count, one of whom must have more votes than the other, unless there is a tie. A tie is usually resolved by lot.


The Quota-Preferential system


The quota-preferential system (also called Single Transferable Vote or STV) is a method of counting votes designed to result in proportional representation.


  • The quota-preferential system allows voters to indicate their preferences in order.

  • Each electorate elects a number of members, preferably an odd number such as 7 or 9. Using an odd number ensures that in a close election a group that wins more than 50% of the votes can win more than (not just equal to) 50% of the seats. The number of members is the district magnitude.

  • In order to be elected, a candidate needs a percentage of the vote greater than 100 divided by one more than the number of vacancies. For example, with 9 members to be elected a candidate needs greater than 100/(9+1) = 10% of the votes. The quota is the minimum number of votes needed (10%+1 in this case).

In a single-member system (which will not result in PR) a candidate would need greater than 100/2 = 50% of the votes.

  • Assuming enough preferences are marked by the voters, less than one quota of votes is wasted.

  • Candidates that get at least a quota of votes get elected.

  • Votes for candidates that get more than a quota are redistributed to later preferences at a reduced value. For example, if a candidate has two quotas of first preference votes, they are distributed to the second preferences with a value of 1/2.

  • Votes for candidates with too few votes are redistributed to preferences at their full value rather than being wasted.

Enhancements of proportional representation


The Australian Capital Territory has adopted three enhancements that complement the quota-preferential vote counting system. The first two have been used successfully for many years in Tasmania, where the system is known as Hare-Clark.


Rotation of ballot papers

Instead of all ballot papers being the same, different ballot papers have the candidates' names and affiliations listed in different orders. Each candidate will appear near the top of some ballot papers and near the bottom of others. This virtually eliminates the effect of the "donkey vote".


Filling casual vacancies

Casual vacancies are filled by re-counting the ballots that were used to elect the vacating candidate. This preserves the wishes of the voters and avoids costly by-elections and divisive undemocratic party appointments.



The major electoral provisions of the ACT have been entrenched by requiring a referendum or 2/3 majority in parliament. A government can no longer tinker with the electoral system to further its own dubious motives.


Advantages of proportional representation


There are a great number of advantages of proportional representation. Here we list a few of them.


There are no safe seats

With single member electorates safe seats are common. Political parties generally put most of their efforts into trying to please the minority of voters that are in marginal seats. With multi-member electorates every seat is marginal and the parties must take more interest in the views of all voters. Voters also tend to take more interest in politics if their vote is more likely to actually change something.


Voters have more choice

Major parties endorse several candidates for each multi-member electorate. Voters can choose between parties and between different candidates from within the same party. This contrasts with single member electorates (and party list PR) where the parties and the factions within parties have much more control over who is elected, and the voters have correspondingly less.


The elected body is far more representative

This is a good thing for democracy, whether the elected body is the parliament of a large country, or the executive of a small organization. Unless proportional representation applies, there is a mismatch between the level of voters' support for a particular school of thought and the representation it receives.


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