Paul Howes National Press Club Speech

How to get off the ideological See-Saw

A response to Paul Howes National Press Club Speech, 5th February 2014

In a recent Press Club speech, Paul Howes, the National Secretary of the Australian Workers Union, posed the question – how do we get off the industrial relations see-saw?  I think of pendulums, but whatever your analogy, the fact remains that we have two political blocs whose main differences revolve around the organization of Labour.  Paul Howes argued passionately that it was in no-ones interest, be it union, government or employers to see the pendulum shift backwards and forwards with the changing political moods.  He listed eight significant legislative changes since he joined the union movement in 1998, pointing out that if we had simply found the middle ground and stuck to it, we would be in a significantly better position in terms of productivity and certainty for business, and all the consequent factors revolving around investment and creation of jobs.  Howes said “We’re not being dragged down by the detail of any particular raft of industrial relations legislation.  Australia is being dragged down because we’ve had far too many of them”.  To me this was an “ah-ha” moment – someone is seeing this as a major impediment to the progress of the nation.  So to come back to his question – how do we get off this interminable see-saw?  In short, I propose that we simply remove the see-saw altogether.

Paul Howes at the National Press Club, 5th February, 2014 Source:

Paul Howes at the National Press Club, 5th February, 2014

The see-saw in Howes’ is a clear representation of the two-party state, as it is the two blocs that push the industrial relations legislation from one ideological extreme to the other as they shift in and out of government.  The inherent, and sad irony is that while the Labor Party strongly believes that it is representing union interests, and that the Liberal/National bloc represents the business and farming interests, ultimately from this we get no middle ground and no sensible policy outcome – only a policy that benefits one sector in society over another along with the inevitable shift back to the other extreme with a new government.  This is of course why the accords of the Hawke-Keating era were so ground breaking – there was an effort to bridge these interests in the common good.  Ultimately it is the job of the politicians, not unions or business, to enact a balanced set of policies and create the regulatory framework of relevant institutions, not only in the industrial relations area, but across the board.  After winning a double majority in the 2004 election, the Howard government’s introduction of Work Choices showed the results of raw ideology from one party being enacted, and marked a new low-point in policy outcomes.  The shift taken against Work Choices by Labor in 2009 was no doubt also taking things too far in the other direction, evidenced by Labor’s own Fair Work Amendment Act of 2012.  Howes was prepared to go further, conceding things were still not in the middle.  To bridge this gap and return to the sensible middle ground, he advocated a compact with business – in effect a return to the accord era.  This extending of an olive branch was flatly rejected by his Labor colleagues and was met with derision from the government and Prime Minister.  This is just further evidence that the two party state is doing us no favours when it comes to the determination of balanced public policy, with industrial relations being one amongst many of examples.

All political parties determine a unified position in their party rooms before presenting their ideas and policies to the public, media and parliament.  In the case of the Howard double majority era subsequent to the 2004 election, this was disastrous for public policy outcomes – we ended up with a vastly skewed industrial relations system obviously tilted in favour of the employer which was subsequently amended by the government of the day because they themselves (presumably after reading opinion polls) determined that the policy regime was in fact too extreme – echoed by Labor in government with amendments to the Fair Work Act.  The decisions determined behind the closed doors of the coalition parliamentary party room after the 2004 election were enacted as law with the parliament acting as a rubber stamp.  None of it determined, debated, examined in detail in public before being presented as a bill, and no amendments needed to secure passage.  Now, if there had not been the majority, there is no way that the Howard government could have acted in this extreme way – policies would have been debated in parliament, amended, re-debated and so-on until everyone reached a compromise – the way parliament was intended to operate.  A double majority or even a single majority severely undermines the parliamentary process as policy outcomes will be extreme and ideological – the parliament is simply used and abused as a rubber stamp at the whim of the party room – the result is the opposite of rational, clear, transparent and well thought through policies that we should expect from our well paid political classes.

John Howard introducing the fairness test amendment to work choices into the House of Representatives, 31st May, 2007

John Howard introducing the fairness test amendment to work choices into the House of Representatives, 31st May, 2007 Source:

 For the above reasons I rail against any one bloc that consorts behind closed doors to have a majority in either or both houses of parliament – it is a distortion of the political process and ultimately it is extremely undemocratic and unrepresentative.  I cite the Electoral act as my evidence.  In our compulsory preferential system, votes are given to the first and second candidates, with the votes from the losers transferred to the first and second candidates.  Great, “your vote isn’t wasted” we’re told by the AEC.  But what if I don’t want to vote for a major party – I don’t want my vote “transferred” – how can I do this without casting an informal ballot?  Going back to our thread of industrial relations reform, let’s analyse the 2004 election that gave the Howard government this double majority.

Table 1 – 2004 Federal Election – First Preferences by Party (for those above 100,000 vote threshold, except the CLP) Source: Australian Electoral Commission
Party Votes % Total Primary Vote
Number of Seats Allocated
% Seats Allocated
% Distortion (Seats-Primary)
Votes required to win a seat on av
Liberal 3,880,695 40.31 74 49.33 +9.02 (!!) 52442
Australian Labor Party 3,685,137 38.28 60 40 +1.72 61419
The Greens 671,692 6.98 0 0 -6.98 (!!)
The Nationals 559,861 5.82 12 8 +2.18 46655
Independent 231,107 2.4 3 2 -0.4 77036
Family First 192,837 2 0 0 -2.0
Democrats 113,101 1.17 0 0 -1.17
One Nation 110,602 1.15 0 0 -1.15
CLP – The Territory Party 32,196 0.33 1 0.67 +0.34 32196


If you take the Liberal/National as a coalition, that means they ended up with 46.5% of the vote but were allocated 58% of the seats in the HOR and managed to control both houses of parliament, aided by that 11.54% distortion of the vote.  If I bothered to look I could no doubt find thousands of claims they had a mandate – one of the most annoying and irrelevant words in use in politics today.  You simply cannot claim to have a mandate when you have a two party system with those kinds of distortions – there are many reasons why people vote or have their vote “transferred” one way or the other.  And anyway, probably due in part to the system in Australia, it seems it’s less about voting for the opposition of the day, but more voting against the government.  The Australian electoral system is clearly not representative and for anyone to claim a mandate in the present framework is most likely trying to push through a ridiculous ideological agenda with no compromise that will cause a see-saw backwards and forwards with a change of government.

The Australian Electoral System

Our electoral system is to blame – one written by the two major parties over the course of the 20th century that benefits their interests over that of the general community.  This circumstance may have been fine in that epoch, but it certainly isn’t today – the principal reason is the declining membership in the two major parties (not that you can get accurate figures), the splintering of votes to minor parties and the increasing disenfranchisement that is felt across the community at the some of the outrageous behaviour exhibited by our elected “representatives”.  As Cathy Alexander from Crikey pointed out on the 18th July 2013 – “There are more people on the waiting list to join the Melbourne Cricket Club than there are rank-and-file members in all Australian political parties put together.” But if again we take a look at table 1 – or pick any election to see this trend – there is a gross distortion in relation to the national vote and the number of seats apportioned.  Distortion in the apportionment of seats can be expressed in one word: disproportionality.  In table 1, you can see the number of votes required to win a seat for each party.  The variances are wildly out for in particular the Greens and the Nationals – despite the Greens having almost 112,000 more votes than the Nationals, the Greens have 0 seats, the Nationals 12.  Obviously this is because the Nationals vote is concentrated in particular areas of the country with the Greens spread nation-wide.  Given that the electoral system is skewing results like this, you have to ask the question as to why do we perpetuate a system that delivers these ridiculously distorted outcomes.

We can take stock that our neighbour across the Tasman acted on this very issue way back in 1992, albeit they were previously using an even less democratic first past the post (FPP) system, but nonetheless the cause for change was brought about when, in two consecutive elections (1978 and 1981), the National party won more seats despite Labour winning more votes.  This happened infamously in Australia in the 1990 federal election, where the coalition parties won 43.46% of the primary vote compared with the ALPs 39.44%, yet the seats were split 78/69 in favour of the ALP – clearly a gross distortion of the electoral process if ever there was one.  Faced with the same issue, New Zealand proposed to change to the German style Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) electoral system, which, given the community outrage at the time, passed in a referendum with overwhelming support.  The first question of the initial referenda resulted in 85% of people dismissing the FPP system, and in a second question MMP won the day (65%) against preferential voting (6%), supplementary member (5%) and single transferrable vote (16%).  Worth noting in there that the system we use in Australia attracted a mere 6% of the vote when put to a popular election.

Disproportionality - Australia vs New Zealand

Table 2 – Disproportionality – Australia vs New Zealand including trend lines. Note the dramatic drop when NZ changed to MMP. Note also Australia’s trend is increasing disproportionality.

The success of an electoral system or otherwise can be determined and ranked using the Gallagher index of disproportionality.  The index is determined by deriving the difference between the percentage of votes received and the percentage of seats a party obtains – a measure of how representative a parliament is.  Australia historically runs a disproportionality of between 8 and 15%, with an average a little over 9% over history.  The trend, however, is increasing disproportionality; from 1949-1974 the average was 7.5%, while the period 1975-2013 averaged 10.5%.   The 2004 example used above was the best result since 1993 at 8.6%, but in the other example of 1990 we had the figure at 12.48%, peaking at almost 15% in 1977.  New Zealand was outraged at 17.2% – what they termed a “winner takes all” system – and enacted change.  The 2010 election here in Australia produced a number of 11.29%.  The fledgling nation of Timor Leste did better than us in 2007 with 4.48%, Cambodia managed 5.38% in 2013 and Egypt 7.71% in 2011.  On average, Australia ranks 73rd out of 98 countries on disproportionality as shown in table 3. Consequently, we are hardly in a position to lecture other nations about their respective level of democratization.

Table 3 – Disproportionality in Australia and New Zealand using the Gallagher Index showing the huge decline as a consequence of the introduction of MMP in New Zealand – Source:
Year Disproportionality – Australia Disproportionality – New Zealand Electoral System in New Zealand
1983-4 10.31 15.40 FPP
1987 10.42 8.89 FPP
1990 12.48 17.24 FPP
1993 8.12 18.19 FPP
1996 10.97 3.43 MMP
1998-9 10.87 2.97 MMP
2001-2 9.37 2.37 MMP
2004-5 8.60 1.13 MMP
2007-8 10.27 3.84 MMP
2010-1 11.29 2.387 MMP
2013 9.54


As disproportionality rises, community anger about the misrepresentative nature of the electoral system rises.  As the table above indicates, as soon as New Zealand adopted the MMP electoral system, disproportionality dropped by over 80% – a huge success.  What I find curious about Australia is that this debate about the Australian electoral system has not really happened, ever.  No-one seems dare question the basis of how we determine the representatives we have.  There has been talk of Senate reform, which is a topic in itself, but here the discussions are about removing minor parties, not opening up the process to more rigour and less disproportionality.  The senate itself is a curious mix of proportionality in terms of the voting system, but extreme disproportionality in terms of the equal numbers of senators apportioned to each state.  Australia needs to start at the House of Representatives and then open up this debate more broadly – the minor parties who are adversely effected as a consequence of the current system should be shouting from the rooftops as to the inequity and injustice to their constituency of the system with which we find ourselves with presently.

Australia needs to take a look at itself and ask if we can move forward as a nation when we seem to perpetually have a public policy debate full of false dichotomies.  The language of public debate has been lowered to the point of arguments being made in this manner: “If you don’t repeal the carbon tax, then you don’t support Australian business”; or “This government is either for Australian jobs or for exporting Australian jobs”.  These are classic false dichotomies and are used liberally in press conferences to get the cut-through messages across.  While both major parties are highly adept at this tactic, Tony Abbott took it to the next level as opposition leader.  Instead of this, nuance needs to enter into the debate.  More than two dominant views would be handy – A black and white perspective is dangerously misleading and disingenuous to the public at large.  Perhaps the source of this political culture emanates from school debating teams – no doubt many of the politicians in Canberra presently would have been guilty of participating in these in their past, causing to perpetuate the style of adolescent politicking nurtured through university by the young *insert political party name here*, or worse, student politics.  After all, many of the arguments proffered by our representatives could have been lifted from the pages of a Year 7 debating captains’ notebook.  Well, I hate to break it to you, but a nuanced debate has more than just an affirmative and negative team.  The underlying cause for Australians distaste and apathy for the public debate stems from listening to the politicians engaging in what many regard as school-aged antics.  A political system that has two major parties plays into this false-dichotomy-masquerading-as-public-policy conundrum.  More voices in parliament would halt this, would introduce the nuanced debate that we all crave, and would undoubtedly get us off this interminable see-saw by finding the middle ground on policy determination every single time.

Australia clearly has a disproportionate electoral system that skews outcomes typically in favour of the two major parties.  It is a system that is all too convenient for the authors of legislation to perpetuate – it affords them power and funding to continue their tribe.  However, this crop of politicians need to recognise that change is inevitable, and their intransigence over accepting other parties must stop in the national interest.  The public should begin to think about the method used to appoint our representatives, and affect change in order to produce a parliament that is plural, will guarantee that no one party will obtain a majority, will remove the era of the false dichotomy and will allow all views of more Australians to be properly represented in policy outcomes.  In short, by removing the see-saw, the see-sawing of policies will abate. Taking these actions will allow Australia to prosper and face the vast policy challenges of the future in a considered, nuanced and more mature approach.  I think it is beholden upon us to demand change and demand better policy outcomes for Australia.  It’s time to grow up.  It’s time to look at the Australian electoral system.

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How does the Australian electoral system rank?


73rd of 98.

This table shows the most to least democratic nations.  Note the disproportionality is measured across all legislatures, not just the lower house/parliament.

Table 4 – Disproportionality by Country since 1996, ranked best to worst, excluding counties with less than 3 elections (1996-2013). Source
Rank Country Disproportionality (lower is better) Electoral System for Lower House/Parliament
1 South Africa 0.28 Droop quota (Closed lists)
2 Namibia 0.91 Largest remainder (Hare quota)
3 Uruguay 1.01 D’Hondt method
4 Netherlands 1.01 D’Hondt method
5 Guyana 1.04 Largest remainder (Hare quota)
6 Denmark 1.17 D’Hondt method
7 Malta 1.63 STV
8 Sweden 1.69 Sainte-Laguë method
9 Cyprus 1.90 Largest remainder (Hare quota)
10 Israel 2.27 D’Hondt method
11 Greenland 2.35
12 Faeroe Islands 2.47
13 San Marino 2.54 SMPR
14 Kosova 2.63
15 New Zealand 2.69 MMP
16 Germany 2.74 MMP
17 Austria 2.78 D’Hondt method
18 Brazil 2.94 D’Hondt method
19 Switzerland 2.99 D’Hondt method
20 Norway 3.00 Sainte-Laguë method
21 United States (HOR) 3.06 FPTP
22 Finland 3.14 D’Hondt method
23 Liechtenstein 3.40 Largest remainder (Hare quota)
24 Sri Lanka 3.41 Largest remainder (Hare quota)
25 Luxembourg 3.46 D’Hondt method
26 Slovenia 3.48 D’Hondt method
27 N Ireland 3.55 STV
28 Honduras 3.68 Largest remainder (Hare quota)
29 Iceland 3.69 D’Hondt method
30 Nicaragua 3.77 D’Hondt method
31 Belgium 3.82 D’Hondt method
32 Montenegro 3.88 D’Hondt method
33 Cabo Verde 3.88 D’Hondt method
34 El Salvador 3.96 D’Hondt method
35 Bolivia 4.06 Supplementary Member System
36 Estonia 4.15 Party list
37 Latvia 4.45 Sainte-Laguë method
38 Serbia 4.77 D’Hondt method
39 Mozambique 4.97 D’Hondt method
40 Portugal 5.32 D’Hondt method
41 Sao Tome e Principe 5.39 Party list
42 Bosnia and Herzegovina 5.40 Sainte-Laguë method
43 Spain 5.43 D’Hondt method
44 Turkish republic of Northern Cyprus 5.52
45 Romania 5.63 FPTP
46 Costa Rica 5.83 Largest remainder (Hare quota)
47 Russia 6.20 Largest remainder (Closed lists)
48 Czechia 6.26 D’Hondt method
49 Ireland 6.39 STV
50 Slovakia 6.53 Hagenbach-Bischoff (semi-open lists)
51 Ukraine 6.53 Parallel
52 Sierra Leone 6.59 FPTP
53 Bulgaria 6.72 D’Hondt method
54 Chile 6.80 Binomial System (open list)
55 Poland 6.91 D’Hondt method
56 Mexico 6.98 Parallel
57 Gibraltar 7.16
58 Bermuda 7.28 FPTP
59 Paraguay 7.32 D’Hondt method
60 Scotland 7.33 Additional Member System
61 Greece 7.67 SMPR
62 Korea 7.91
63 Trinidad and Tobago 8.03 FPTP
64 Moldova 8.50 D’Hondt method
65 Macedonia 8.53 D’Hondt method
66 Peru 8.63 Largest remainder (Hare quota)
67 Italy 8.76 Complex
68 Croatia 8.79 D’Hondt method
69 Hungary 8.97 MMP
70 Surinam 9.19 Party list
71 United States (President) 9.36 Electoral College
72 Dominica 9.52 FPTP




Instant Runoff Voting – IRV

74 Lithuania 10.17 Parallel
75 Wales 10.21 Additional Member System
76 Andorra 10.42 Parallel
77 Panama 11.26 Complex
78 Canada 11.29 FPTP
79 Zambia 12.25 FPTP
80 Fiji 12.57 IRV
81 Jamaica 12.76 FPTP
82 Albania 12.88 List-PR
83 France 12.95 Runoff
84 Japan 13.56 Parallel
85 Lesotho 13.86
86 Antigua and Barbuda 14.14 FPTP
87 St Vincent and the Grenadines 14.28 FPTP
88 Seychelles 14.52 Parallel
89 Barbados 16.00 FPTP
90 St Lucia 16.06 FPTP
91 United Kingdom 16.09 FPTP
92 Senegal 16.26 Parallel
93 Belize 19.52 FPTP
94 Bahamas 19.67 FPTP
95 St Kitts and Nevis 20.06 FPTP
96 Botswana 21.29 FPTP
97 Grenada 25.04 FPTP
98 Monaco 30.17 Parallel