When your electoral system gets egregiously misrepresented…

By skepticlawyer

… By a bunch of numpties who spend much of their time trying to copy Australia’s immigration policy, fiscal policy and welfare policy, then it starts to get a bit wearing. There are many things I don’t like about Australia (which is why I don’t live there), but there is no getting away from the fact that Australia is a very well-governed country: look at everything from the Human Development Index, the Economic Freedom Index, the Freedom from Corruption Index. Oh, and Australia is the only country in the world to turn immigration into an instant net benefit (everyone else has to wait a generation). If you’re going to trash the method by which Australians come to be governed, then you’d best get your facts straight.

For the uninitiated, the UK is holding a referendum on May 5th on its voting system. This poll will determine whether the country stays with First Past the Post, or whether it adopts the Alternative Vote. That, in case you’re wondering, is what Australians call ‘preferential voting’.

Tip, Britishers: it always helps if you use the simplest possible language to libel–whoops–label what you’re offering.

As is constantly pointed out, Australia is the only ‘major democracy’ that uses the alternative vote. The version they’re considering over here is the one used in Queensland and New South Wales state elections, where you don’t have to number all the boxes, as opposed to the ‘compulsory preferential voting’ familiar to Australians from Federal elections.

Seems simple enough, yes?

Apparently not. I’ve learned since the campaign started that Australia uses complex electronic voting machines. The person who runs third in a given constituency also routinely wins the seat, as well. Oh, and we also want to adopt First Past the Post, too, in a perverse bit of ‘the grass is always greener’ copy-cattery.

Those are just a few, by the way, of the misrepresentations getting around. I have done as much as I can to explain what really happens, and if the ABC took advertising, I’m sure I’d have ensured that Antony Green’s ABC election blog was a sure-fire money-spinner. Even so, here it is again: Antony Green deals with the lies and misrepresentations about the Australian electoral system.

I should also add that, yesterday, a friend of mine alerted me to this very clever (British) take on AV. Apart from being a boon to cat lovers everywhere, it also makes quite a few amusing points about the stunning levels of democratic deficit in the UK specifically and the EU more generally.

Enjoy.

[H/T: Luke]

37 Comments

  1. Posted May 1, 2011 at 12:52 am | Permalink

    Half a lifetime ago I was an APO at the declarations table and would sometimes have to explain how to vote to virgins with little English and Alzheimer’s starting to kick in, but clear they wanted to vote for Bob Hawke, and a bit confused Bob wasn’t on the ballot paper, but wanting to put just a tick, annoyed it was more complicated.

    OK, so we’d explain about preferences, (often illustrating with fruit rather then pollies). Quite often you’d see the light go on, and get the comment “So I get to put which {bleeps} I hate the most too?”, big smiles and chuckles.

    SL/DEM – have you used this as a chance to educate your Pommy friends about that other essential part of preferential voting, the charity sausage sizzle? If so, what’s the reaction to *that*?

  2. Posted May 1, 2011 at 12:59 am | Permalink

    SL/DEM – have you used this as a chance to educate your Pommy friends about that other essential part of preferential voting, the charity sausage sizzle? If so, what’s the reaction to *that*?

    I haven’t, Dave, because it’s largely to do with the fact that Australia has compulsory voting and the vote is always on a Saturday. Voting in the UK takes place on a Thursday, which is simply barking (hence the people unable to vote, queued outside polling stations, just as they shut in May 2010).

    Every libertarian is allowed their exception. Compulsory, Saturday voting is mine.

  3. Posted May 1, 2011 at 1:35 am | Permalink

    Voting in the UK takes place on a Thursday, which is simply barking

    That system must have been set up when the Monster Raving Looney Party was in power.

    Hmm. Have the Monty Python sketch parties been used as examples in discussions? A spoof of that sketch would be good infotainment.

  4. Movius
    Posted May 1, 2011 at 2:29 am | Permalink

    I once tried to make a satirical video game to explain how to vote in Australia. Despite only using grotesque stick figures I was unable to complete it due to many unavoidable issues. Namely my laziness and poor time management. Also, my parody senate paper was larger than Adventure Game Studio’s maximum allowed image size.

    I did manage a midi version of Advance Australia Fair that used random instruments. car horns and record scratch were my favourite.

  5. kvd
    Posted May 1, 2011 at 6:16 am | Permalink

    The first thing that’s wrong with the video is that it says that all second preference votes are counted, when in fact those going initially to the dog most probably would have flowed en masse to the distracted cat – that being the one displaying the highest level of intelligence (i.e. dog-like) behaviour. The second thing that’s wrong is that a cat got elected.

    I favour an elimination process, much as I understand is used on Britain’s Got Talent, whereby the lowest performer/candidate is eliminated, then we all get to vote again under the guidance of a group of no talent never weres, who would provide a mildly amusing commentary. An ancillary benefit of this model would be an increase in support for the arts, with candidates forced to brush up on their Nessun Dormas, or ukelele strumming. Aside: I’d have loved to watch Mrs Thatcher’s rendition of “Fever”.

    Also, how come the most basic right (voting) attaching to our most cherished possession (democracy) is always subject to caricature and ridicule?

  6. Posted May 1, 2011 at 8:31 am | Permalink

    Loved the video, except I thought adding in the plug for referenda distracted.

  7. Posted May 1, 2011 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

    Yep, Thursday voting is daft and the only reason they hang on to it is the reason the Brits hang on to lots of things: it’s just the way things have always been done. Frankly it’s little short of a miracle that voting isn’t still restricted to male property owners who can be trusted to choose between Whigs and Tories – and this is a Pom who’s still quite fond of the old place saying this. You think we whine a lot now? You just try making us get out and vote on a Saturday and making us have to write numbers against several candidates instead of using one X and fining us twenty or more of Her Majesty’s beer vouchers if we don’t. The moaning will be like a George Romero movie multiplied by about 45 million, a third of whom will be even more whiny and probably automatic donkey voters because they don’t vote at all at the moment. They may also look like they’re from a George Romero movie.

    That said the day isn’t so much of a big deal because the polling stations are open for much longer than they are here in Oz. A 7am start and a 10pm close should be enough to accommodate everyone who wants to cast a vote, and I don’t think the fact that the last one was a bit of a shambles indicates a problem with the day rather than piss poor organisation for that particular election – in particular not printing plenty of ballot papers for an election which was widely, and correctly, believed to achieve a higher turnout. Nothing else was different but they didn’t run out of ballot papers in 1997 when over 31 million votes were cast, or in 1992 when it was more than 33 million, but in 2010 they couldn’t cope with 29.7 million plus however many couldn’t vote. To me that doesn’t say anything more than simple cock up, which is Britain’s main industry these days. The Olympics could be hilarious.

    For what it’s worth, in the highly unlikely event they beg me to come back and put me in charge voting would be non-compulsory, take place on Saturdays and use OPV and the next referendum would be on whether to wind the House of Lords back to how it was when hereditary peers and bishops still outnumbered the party yes-men and cronies that have been stuffed in there lately, or whether to scrap it completely and replace it with a Senate unashamedly ripped off from either the Aussies or the Yanks. Leaving it the way it is would be madness, so naturally enough that’s what I expect people would actually vote for.

    Vote Distracted Cat for Melbourne Ports!

  8. Posted May 1, 2011 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

    The conflation with proportional representation and the like is either stupidity, or deliberate misiniformation … not uncommon in political debate.

    However, when you see “it’s too complicated and no-one will understand it” from the Brits, I smirk at the admission by those Brits that the average Brit must be cognitively challenged compared to the archetypal beer-swilling brain-dead bogan in Australia who *can*.

  9. Posted May 1, 2011 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

    Of course, “Moderate cat”, “Cool cat” don’t represent the major parties over there…

    It’s “Fat cat” and “Fat cat”

    As to the last bit of the clip…. I reckon someone was a Goodies fan.

    On a serious note, even at The Economist Debates, the FPTP advocate even raised the “our soldiers died for FPTP” furphy.

    Hmmm…. The squillions of pommy dead in WW1 trenches didn’t die for enfrachised women – I think votes for women came in after the war, and even then there were constraints.

    I wonder if the “Vote No to AV if you are dumber than an Australian”-type slogan would work over there.

  10. TerjeP
    Posted May 1, 2011 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

    Australia has Saturday voting that is compulsory. I’d copy the Saturday bit well before the compulsory. And given what happened with the poll tax I can understand why Brits might be more hostile than most to compulsory voting.

    In terms of naming our preferential system I think the Americans have got the best name. They call it “instant runoff voting”.

  11. Posted May 1, 2011 at 7:33 pm | Permalink

    I’m afraid that optional preferential voting is a bit of a Clayton’s voting system. In practice it devolves back into FPTP — “Just vote 1”.

  12. Posted May 1, 2011 at 7:48 pm | Permalink

    Amusingly, some of the blog posts Anthony Green linked to in refutation have … vanished. Down the memory hole, methinks.

    Astonishing how badly they misunderstand our system. I particularly like how AV leads to “more hung Parliaments” — what, you mean 2 per century? One of which formed a government within 2 weeks?

    As usual, the poms are annoyed that Australia has beat them to all the good policies. Women’s suffrage, secret ballots, now preferential voting. It’s the 19th century all over again!

  13. Posted May 1, 2011 at 7:50 pm | Permalink

    And I think you’d get the enthusiastic agreement of professional politicians that the average voter could certainly do with more brains….

    Aside: I’d have loved to watch Mrs Thatcher’s rendition of “Fever”.

    Okay – that just made me shiver.

  14. Posted May 1, 2011 at 7:56 pm | Permalink

    For what it’s worth, in the highly unlikely event they beg me to come back and put me in charge voting would be non-compulsory, take place on Saturdays and use OPV and the next referendum would be on whether to wind the House of Lords back to how it was when hereditary peers and bishops still outnumbered the party yes-men and cronies that have been stuffed in there lately, or whether to scrap it completely and replace it with a Senate unashamedly ripped off from either the Aussies or the Yanks. Leaving it the way it is would be madness, so naturally enough that’s what I expect people would actually vote for.

    One of the most disturbing things I’ve read in the last week (in preparation for my exams) was an article by Leopold, ‘Standards of Conduct in Public Life’ (from Jowell & Oliver, eds, The Changing Constitution). In it, she pointed out that while the Lords was hereditary, it was far less corrupt than the Commons (or the new look Lords), it regulated its own procedure appropriately, individual Lords (and the occasional Lady/Baroness etc) never fiddled the books or took kickbacks, and debate was a paragon of courtesy.

    I really didn’t want to know that, because like most Australians I have a strongly democratic temperament and like to think that Jack/ie can be as good as his or her master. It suggests that some of the old arguments in favour of privilege are actually true.

  15. Posted May 1, 2011 at 9:08 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] “It suggests that some of the old arguments in favour of privilege are actually true.”

    It depends, perhaps, on the education of the privileged. (I doubt many pollies in the UK today could write or think like Burke in Commons or Gibbon in the Lords).

    Then too, perhaps Political Parties could be considered as “Limited Responsibility Corporations”

  16. Posted May 1, 2011 at 9:20 pm | Permalink

    This was very recent, Dave — as in, up to Blair’s reforms in 1999, which removed the bulk of the hereditary peers. In other words, the system of privilege worked better than the system of democracy. As you know, I don’t set much store by formal (academic) education when it comes to making people decent — there were far too many clever Nazis and communists kicking around for far too long for that to hold.

    If the hereditary peers had a particular educational advantage, it was in being taught to take responsibility/have a sense of duty from a very young age.

  17. Posted May 1, 2011 at 9:29 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] said “If the hereditary peers had a particular educational advantage, it was in being taught to take responsibility/have a sense of duty from a very young age..”

    That’s the sense I meant – perhaps “I got here by accident of birth” means you are likely to be a different parliamentarian than “I got here because I’m fantastic compared to the people I climbed over”. (Some of my more rabid yet decent libertarian friends actually like the idea of MPs selected by a lottery – they may have a point)

    Has there been any discussion over there in the UK about moving to weekend voting?

  18. Posted May 1, 2011 at 9:42 pm | Permalink

    I’m a fan of sortition too, Dave — which has been discussed in relation to House of Lords reform over here, to be fair. I became convinced of its merits after reading Bernard Manin’s ‘Principles of Representative Government’ at Oxford. People forget that ‘democratic’ government and ‘representative’ government are very different things, and that the first society to go broadly representative (Rome) did so because it became technically impossible to run sortition in such a large polity. We no longer have that excuse.

    No discussion of weekend voting that I’ve seen.

  19. Posted May 2, 2011 at 9:02 am | Permalink

    One of the most disturbing things I’ve read in the last week (in preparation for my exams) was an article by Leopold, ‘Standards of Conduct in Public Life’ (from Jowell & Oliver, eds, The Changing Constitution). In it, she pointed out that while the Lords was hereditary, it was far less corrupt than the Commons (or the new look Lords), it regulated its own procedure appropriately, individual Lords (and the occasional Lady/Baroness etc) never fiddled the books or took kickbacks, and debate was a paragon of courtesy.

    I really didn’t want to know that, because like most Australians I have a strongly democratic temperament and like to think that Jack/ie can be as good as his or her master. It suggests that some of the old arguments in favour of privilege are actually true.

    Time horizons. Hereditary membership is not only for life, it is for the life of your heirs. If you have to live with rules and procedures (and reputations) for decades into the indefinite future, and are surrounded by others in that situation, it changes your perspectives and incentive structure.

  20. Posted May 2, 2011 at 9:04 am | Permalink

    [email protected] Apart from the elected executive/judicial officials, what part of the Roman system was representative?

  21. Posted May 2, 2011 at 9:48 am | Permalink

    All local councils, everywhere, with municipal or civil status, and for a very long time (ie, started in the Republic and became pervasive in the Empire). Indeed, once the old republican system tanked in Rome itself, the only democracy that remained was at the local government level. Still, they were big local government bodies, with very considerable power — much like the system in Britain. It’s a reason why there’s so much ‘roads, rates and rubbish’ stuff in even very distinguished Roman jurists. Reading someone like Ulpian go from talking about the correct ‘measure’ of justice to a long section on dog fouling, strict liability delicts for slop-tossing and ordinances on street cleaning is often very funny. Ah, he’s just been advising Woop Woop City Council on their by-laws, then.

    Voting was census suffrage (Roman citizen, property qualification, and appears to have included women who also met the census) and conducted (just like ours) at schools and temples. Pompeii was about to have its local council elections just before the volcano erupted; that’s one of the reasons why there’s so much political graffiti everywhere. Two Mayors were elected annually or sometimes biannually (duumviri) + a team of councillors/aldermen, who then coopted local religious leaders (this latter was the only way that women could finish up on the council; still, it was better than nothing).

    Mary Beard did a BBC doco on this; at one point she was trying to work out how they ‘rated’ the census, whether it was based on paying something like council or poll tax, or having a house worth more than a certain amount, but they don’t really know, and she and another scholar (can’t remember name) were guessing by the end.

  22. Posted May 2, 2011 at 11:13 am | Permalink

    SL: Thanks, a comprehensive answer to a question which has interested me for some time (but, in a ‘back of the head’ sense).

    One of the big changes from the Principate to the Dominate was the replacement of elected councillors by appointed bureaucrats. I have come to have some sympathy for Peter Turchin’s argument that the crisis of the C3rd century essentially created a new empire. It is congruent with Ramsay MacMullen’s argument about the shift from an Empire administered by cosmopolitan landowners (Principate) to a permanent imperial bureaucracy of c.300 to one with maybe 30,000 permanent officials (Dominate).

    It also means trying to trace modern representative institutions to classical forebears is very dubious. Classical writings provided examples and ideas to re-engaged with again and again, but the representative principle seems to have been a medieval re-emergence, though one largely urban based (Alfonso IX of Leon called for election of merchant representatives in 1188).

  23. Posted May 2, 2011 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

    Utterly off topic, (though some zombie metaphor can probably be found), a Nobel Peace Prize winner has announced that a mass murderer has been assassinated.

  24. Posted May 2, 2011 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

    Oh I agree, Lorenzo. While I do think some things are a genuine (if weird) survival from classical antiquity (how much sense does confession make in a guilt, rather than a shame culture, for example?), for lots of things we do like the Romans did only because we had to reinvent the wheel. The common law is a reinvention of the wheel: another, similar culture (in some respects) came up with a similar legal system, with very little copying, at a later date. Seriously, about the only stuff the common law copied off Roman law was the Sale of Goods Act, arbitration, doli incapax (you never have animals being tried in Roman courts; they were assumed to lack the capacity to form intent) and horror at consanguinity. That’s it. All the rest was independent invention, despite what some Romanists would like to believe.

    The reason Roman town councils look like English town councils is because, on some very basic level, the societies must have been similar. How similar, we don’t know, but council by-laws are revealing: the owner of a dog that bit someone had to pay damages (the liability was delictual) and the animal had to be surrendered (noxal liability, usually to a local lanista), but if the bitee had been teasing the dog (Gaius mentions going up and down the dog-owner’s fence with a stick and poking it at the animal), then the damages were reduced and the owner kept his dog. So, dog-owners and dog-lovers, then, with a tendency to be sentimental and to think that good fences make good neighbours.

    The darker side is similar, too: the bear-baiting and dog-fighting and fights-to-the death and public enjoyment of very cruel methods of execution, despite a developed and generally fair legal system and a sophisticated culture. The English laid on special trains for public hangings as late as the 1860s; the greatest 19th century tort case (full of subtle reasoning), Rylands v Fletcher, was decided in 1868. In one aside, Ulpian advises a client that he can’t see him today, as he and his concubine are enjoying a long-planned day at the ludi while his wife is away on business (she was a banker). That single sentence reveals a mass of detail: of different sexual morality between the two cultures, but also that one of Rome’s most distinguished and cultured public intellectuals had the common Roman taste for blood. The thousands who turned out for England’s last public execution would have understood:

    http://www.arthurlloyd.co.uk/Timeline/Execution.htm

    [The report is the original from The Times, May 27, 1868].

  25. Posted May 2, 2011 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

    Lorenzo, your talk of a huge public service suggests we need to re-instate, as a matter of course for all outgoing administrations, something akin to the Chalcedon Tribunal of Julian which cleared out a lot of nasties from the administration of Constantius.

  26. Posted May 2, 2011 at 7:23 pm | Permalink

    …like most Australians I have a strongly democratic temperament and like to think that Jack/ie can be as good as his or her master. It suggests that some of the old arguments in favour of privilege are actually true.

    SL, I feel the same way but I think to an extent the House of Lords did work back when its members were able to be above party politics. The question now is whether it can be put back that way or if a democratically elected second chamber (or none at all) is the way to go. Right now it’s the worst of both worlds: serial election losers can be made peers, as can former MPs who’ve been repeatedly caught doing things they shouldn’t and had to resign in disgrace. Worse, they can and have been given cabinet positions, e.g. the Mandelsnake. Personally I think it’s be easier to go forward than back and would like to see a British Senate or something like it. But one change from our version I’d suggest is to have no Senators in government positions – if they want ministerial jobs they should be fighting individual Commons seats, not sucking up for a good position on a party list.

  27. Tom R
    Posted May 6, 2011 at 7:55 am | Permalink

    Time horizons. Hereditary membership is not only for life, it is for the life of your heirs. If you have to live with rules and procedures (and reputations) for decades into the indefinite future, and are surrounded by others in that situation, it changes your perspectives and incentive structure.

    I dunno. Some of the most corrupt or incompetent politicians (ranging from Papa Doc and the Kims down to our own Mal Colston and Joh Bjelke-Petersen) seem to be very concerned about looking after their own kids. However this is often at the expense of the wider public good.

  28. Posted May 6, 2011 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] There is quite a difference between hereditary role within a system — particularly a whole series of them — and nepotistic perversion of a system — particularly for just one family.

  29. Posted May 6, 2011 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] The US does it by a whole mass of top executive jobs changing with the Administration.

    But large bureaucracy has inherent problems.

  30. Tom R
    Posted May 7, 2011 at 6:11 am | Permalink

    Lorenzo @30 – yes. I’d say the difference is a few centuries of operation so that people forget how it started off.

    Whenever right-wingers of the Hans-Hermann Hoppe school start rhapsodising about how much better hereditary monarchy is than democracy (if the state is one person’s private property, you don’t get a tragedy of the commons), I wonder why then Haiti, North Korea, Syria, and Iraq under Saddam are/ were not the world’s best-run countries. Remember, the test is not that the ruler himself got there by hereditary succession: it’s that he knows he can bequeath the whole government to his oldest or favoured son, without having to barter for votes from “rent-seeking” special interest groups. All of these sunny realms seem to meet the criterion the Hoppers hold up.

  31. Tom R
    Posted May 7, 2011 at 6:15 am | Permalink

    I myself tend to favour the view (most famously put forward by those trendy lefties James Madison and FA Hayek) that a much better guarantee of good governance is knowledge by the rulers that they, too, one day, will revert to the status of ordinary citizens and have to live under the same laws they imposed on everyone else.

    Mind you, the US with its semi-deified ex-Presidents, its Bush dynasty and its Kennedy Senators-for-life has compromised this ideal in practice. Republicanism de facto as well as de jure is a better cure for de jure hereditary aristocracy. It also avoids the problem of regression to the mean, which was not understood in past centuries when the hereditary principle was embraced (c/f the noticeable decline in the houses of Anthony and Downer over three generations in Parliament).

  32. Posted May 7, 2011 at 7:02 am | Permalink

    Tom R, I wasn’t defending privilege (since it was me that originally noted the research on this point), merely pointing out that the world is as it is, not as we would have it be. In this case (Britain), in this house (the Lords), democracy proved to be corrupt and pliant, while privilege proved clean and robust. Does that mean anything for countries other than the UK? Probably not. Does it mean something for the UK? Probably, yes.

    As it is, we are seeing further and better particulars of just how bad an administration Blair’s New Labour actually was. Soon, Labour’s relentless playing of identity politics and inability to grasp that Scots do not play by those rules may well lead to the break up of the Union:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/wintour-and-watt/2011/may/06/snp-alexsalmond

  33. Tom R
    Posted May 7, 2011 at 9:12 am | Permalink

    Okay, what SkepL said (parag #1).

  34. Posted May 7, 2011 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] One of the crucial elements in the British system is that only the holder of the title is noble: all the rest of their family are commoners and so the nobility cared about how the law treated commoners.

    You are quite right that a hereditary system takes a while to “settle in”: there is a learning process. Also, historically, having powerful hereditary nobles and gentry has an ameliorating effect on monarchical pretensions.

  35. Posted May 7, 2011 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

    Also, the longest lasting republic (by a long shot) was the Serene Republic of Venezia: a case of hereditary republicanism!

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