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March 17th 2014 print

James Allan

The Left’s Decency, Down For The Count

The Liberals appear to have won around 53% of the vote, yet will be hard-pressed to secure the government benches. This won't be the first time it has happened, nor will it be the first time normally voluble Labor supporters fail to protest an injustice that, coincidentally, just happens to benefit their side

south oz mapThis is about hypocrisy.  To see the point, though, I need to remind you about voting systems.  Any voting system in the world has strengths and weaknesses.   None is perfect.  Proportional ones give too much power, far too much, to small parties.  And they disenfranchise voters to the extent that the compromising and bargaining happens after elections, during coalition talks.

First-past-the-post (FPP) and Australian-style preferential voting systems overwhelmingly deliver majority governments, which I like.  The parties end up being broad church groupings of the centre left and centre right, where the compromising on each side takes place before elections and has to be put to the voters.  But these voting systems tend to hammer small parties.

And every once in a while they lead to a situation where the party (or in the US, the presidential candidate) wins the popular vote, or two-party preferred count, and yet loses the election. Now if such anomalous results are rare, then in my view one just sucks it up and takes the loss on the chin as part of an otherwise good voting system.

In the history of the United States there have been three instances where the FPP voting system (and the Electoral College) have produced a result where a candidate has won the popular vote – got more votes – but lost in the electoral college and thus failed to become President.

It happened in 1876, in 1888, and most memorably in 2000, when Mr. Bush defeated Mr. Gore.

You may remember that millennial US presidential election because so many commentators on the left went crazy, accusing Mr. Bush of stealing the election and denouncing the Electoral College system generally.  I am positive that if you look back you will see that those same sort of sentiments were echoed here in Australia, even (dare one think it) on ‘our’ ABC, the unbiased keeper of the middle way when it comes to who does its talking and how.   (Trust me, it’s easier to write that than to say it if your goal is to keep a straight face.)

But my point is that in the US winning the popular vote but losing the election has happened three times in 220-odd years (with the election of John Quincy Adams way back at the start being one where no one won in the Electoral College and the House of Representatives picked the winner).

Let me repeat: It has happened in the US three times in 220-odd years.

In South Australia, if  Labor hangs on after postal votes are counted and the two independents – seriously, who votes for independents after the debacle of the Gillard years, I mean really? – opt to go with Weatherill, then that will be  four elections in fewer than 25 years in which the Libs won the two-party popular vote but  lost the election.  Four elections out of the last seven, to be precise.

We can all take in our stride a thrice-every-two-centuries-plus anomaly.  But four times in a quarter century?  It starts to look like a gerrymander.  Certainly anyone like me who is attached to democratic decision-making and letting the numbers prevail starts to wonder what is going on. Who, precisely, is drawing up the district or constituency boundaries in South Australia.

But that’s not my main point, which is to ask: Where is the outrage on the left at this failure to respect the popular vote?’.  Where are the nasty allegations of ‘stolen’ elections?  Where is the embarrassment on the Labor benches?

I will be waiting with interest to hear all the complaints that soon will be coming.  I know it cannot be the case that the regular pontificators of the ABC left – oops, the wholly unbiased and completely down the middle ABC, which we know is unbiased now because some ex-ABC people were commissioned to do a study and they’ve told us so – only feel the system is a cheat, unfair, and worthy of abuse when their side loses.

Surely, their principles run deeper than that.

 

James Allan is Garrick Professor of Law at the University of Queensland