Criticism of Proportional Representation

Janet Albrechtsen

On the 4th July 2012 popular columnist with The Australian newspaper, Janet Albrechtsen, had the below article published. A response to this essay is posted following.

The proportional pathway to policy paralysis Sturt Krygsman

 by Janet Albrechtsen

IT is difficult to think of a more disgraceful week in politics than the past one. We saw a reprehensible failure of our government to govern while boats continued to arrive and people continued to die. Plenty have called it a week of shame where politics trumped compassion. Plenty have attacked both major parties for this failure.
Unfortunately, too few have delved into the real reason for last week's policy paralysis and the concomitant disgraceful antics. This is what minority government delivers - hopeless policy compromise. Not just in the past week but every week. Endless back room deals shrouded in secrecy; a handful of people holding policy making to ransom. The result this time: complete policy paralysis and the country left without any border protection policy.
We ought to etch the events of the week in our memory. Why? There are plenty of opportunistic people who like the idea of minority governments because it empowers their fringe politics. Hence, one day soon enough we will once again hear the dangerous call for proportional representation, which effectively entrenches minority government. When talk of PR comes, just remember this past week. This is a tiny morsel of what that misguided voting system delivers by the bucket load.
Yet, even as the appalling reality of minority government was sinking in, an academic, Klaas Woldring, wrote last year in The Sydney Morning Herald (of course) that "in most other representative democracies a number of parties seek co-operation to form a majority government". This was "a better way" he promised. While Europe was lurching from one crisis to the next, with genuine economic reform stymied by politics, the deluded associate professor was espousing "the European model of proportional representation".
This kind of talk emerges with depressing regularity. Proportional representation sits in the Greens manifesto (of course) where they promise "participatory democracy". It sounds so friendly and inclusive.
Here's Woldring, executive member of something called the Progressive Labor Party, again: "Apart from being co-operative, (proportional representation) also ensures diverse and democratic representation. There are no by-elections, pork-barrelling or horse-trading on preferences behind closed doors."
This is beyond laughable. Julia Gillard has been forced into backroom deals, pork-barrelling independents and horse-trading to keep her messy coalition in place so she can stay in The Lodge. Proportional representation will only entrench these chaotic coalitions.
The truth is that PR is a complete con. Remember when we waited days for the formation of a government after the 2010 election? After the 2010 election in The Netherlands, which follows a proportional voting system, there were 10 parties in parliament and it took months of horse-trading and backroom deals to form a new government. You won't hear this from the Greens and deluded associate professors who read the Green Left Weekly.
Even worse, under PR, voters can't know, when they vote, what the future governing coalition will look like. If you hated the Greens dictating Gillard's broken carbon tax promise, PR institutionalises promise-breaking. No promises are certain when you don't know who will join you in government.
If you think the Gillard government's record on sound policy is thin, PR produces even lower-quality policy and politics as odd coalitions end up agreeing on lowest common denominator policies.
The critical flaw of PR is that mainstream views in the electorate are held to ransom by these balance of power parties on the extremes of Left and Right. These small parties end up exerting influence out of proportion to their voting base. In fact, Woldring admits that the purpose of PR is to do away with pesky centrist politics. If you vote for mainstream parties, your vote will often count for less than those of supporters of extremist parties, Left or Right.
And that is exactly what the Greens - and this left-wing academic - want. While no system is perfect, by ensuring parties on the extremities get representation, PR actually widens the gap between the voters and those who govern them - a backward step for democracy.
It is bad enough that in the Australian Senate, past and present fringe parties and independents - from the DLP to Brian Harradine to the Greens - have been and are more powerful than their voting base warrants. In "co-operative" Europe, extremist parties prosper.
Look at Greece. The most recent elections galvanised the rise of the neo-Nazi party, Golden Dawn. According to The Australian's European correspondent, Peter Wilson, this party uses a swastika-like symbol, talks about the fatherland and sells books about Aryan supremacy. At the last election, Golden Dawn attracted 6.97 per cent of the vote (more than 440,000 votes) securing 18 seats in the Greek parliament. While they lost two seats, the party that attracted only 0.29 per cent of the vote (less than 20,000 votes) at the 2009 election first entered parliament at the May 6 2012 election with 21 seats. The party's success means it will attract $4.3 million in public funds. Again, from Wilson: members of Golden Dawn give Nazi salutes, chant the Hitler Youth motto of "Blood and Honour"and one of their election policies is to plant landmines along the Turkish border to keep out the "scum".
This, remember, is the result of a voting system favoured by the Greens and their left-wing supporters. This is "participatory democracy". It is frightening enough that PR will boost the power of the far Left. That it can also advance the power of the far Right is truly terrifying.
Yet, that reality is happening all over Europe. Far-right parties have emerged from obscurity to wield enormous power and influence. Anti-immigration parties from the True Finns in Finland to Geert Wilders' far-right Freedom Party in The Netherlands gain legitimacy from PR that allows them to thrive.
A few years ago, Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, best summed up the mess of PR pointing out that in the "50 years since the war there were 103 elections in Germany, Italy, Japan, Switzerland, Belgium, The Netherlands and Sweden - all countries that favour PR and its endless stream of buggins-turn coalitions. And how often, in those 103 elections, did voters actually succeed in producing a change of government? Six times!" Not one to mince words, Johnson revealed PR as a fraud upon voters "because it will always tend to erode the sovereign right of the people to kick the rascals out."
Oliver Hartwich, who heads The New Zealand Initiative, a free-market think tank in Wellington, has called PR workable only in "fair-weather" democracies. Hartwich says a form of PR was introduced into Germany after World War II to ensure a weak government. "They didn't want another Hitler-like figure," he says. But under the old West Germany, it was easy to govern with consensual politics when the economy was constantly growing. No hard decisions needed to be made. Germany has an electoral model that best suits a "fair-weather" democracy.
When economic clouds gather, consensual politics make it near impossible to reform an economy. But once PR is introduced, it is difficult to remove. Just look to New Zealand as evidence of that.
This is why we should remember last week. It has been bad enough enduring the policy failures of this shambolic minority government while the Australian economy is booming. But consider a different scenario. Buoyed by complacency, we - or a complacent next generation - adopt the Greens model of PR. Economic clouds severely darken over Australia. Real reform is needed. PR will deliver us a truly awful outcome - constant reform paralysis, poor policy and a wretched economy. Again, if in any doubt about this, go looking for the naive academic's "co-operative" Europe. When you find it, please report back.

Janet Albrechtsen

a response to Ms Albrechtsen

Proportion blame where it is due

Last week in an article titled The Proportional Pathway to Policy Paralysis Janet Albrechtsen gave a coherent argument  describing how the wrong type of electoral systems can lead to all facets of dysfunctional government -  where instability, pork barrelling and minor parties’ disproportionate influence to their voting base can shame what should be the pride of democratic governance.
Whereas she was accurate in identifying many of the problems that exist, not only here but also in democracies overseas, her pinning the blame on proportional representation (PR) may have been rather unfair to the only system that gives minorities a political voice.
Under existing so called ‘responsible government’ political frameworks here and overseas, where PR voting is utilised, governments are often unstable because they can only be formed by a coalition of sometimes disparate political parties. But why blame PR? Why not go to the root of the highly questionably constitutional system instead? Where government, meaning the Prime Minister and cabinet, is ‘responsible’  to parliament, is it really too much to ask that it should be responsible to the people instead? Democracies such as France, Indonesia, the Philippines, South Korea, Nicaragua and the United States, in abiding fully to the separation of powers concept,  allow their people to directly elect their executive government. Here, a preferential public vote for the chief executive and team, occurring at the same time as the vote for the House of Representatives, would guarantee stability.

It is true that PR would not prevent paralysis in the legislative branch of government (as currently seen in the quest for a solution to the boat people dilemma). Ms Albrechtsen is warning us that this one-off situation, due to the fluke of an election result with no clear winner, would be the norm if PR was entrenched in Australia for the lower house.
For all its paralysis however, the current Australian House of Representatives is probably more democratic  than it has been in the last 50 years. This is simply because, due to the closeness of the last election,  many parties and independents, representing a broad range of the political spectrum,  now have a seat at the table. The fact that the majority of us may abhor the policies of the Greens, should not blind us to the fact that a party representing many tens of thousands of Australians  finally does have an input in policy making. In fact they, plus Labor, the Coalition, as well as a handful of independents, all currently have an input in legislation. Despite what is often said, it is not “…a handful of people holding policy making to ransom”. It is in fact, 51% of the parliamentarians, in whatever temporary coalition they may happen to find themselves in, that is holding policy to ransom.

True, our current system is not that democratic because of our less-than-liberal weighting system where, for example,  a Senator from New South Wales represents thirteen times as many constituents as his or her Tasmanian counterpart. However the current example of this problem, as seen by Ms Albrechtsen, is that there is paralysis and “…the country [is] left without any border protection policy.” Unfortunately her promotion of the status quo does make one wonder if the cure is really better than the disease. The implication from her criticism being that any policy is better than no policy. What Ms Albrechtsen would prefer is that the legislative houses of parliament should always be dominated by one party. That way, solutions to problems can always be easily and quickly found and good government flourishes.
Really? In fact Australia does currently have a border protection policy, even though it does not seem to be working too well. Is any policy change always better?  The fact that no coalition of parties or independents forming a majority has come together with a proposed solution only means that, as judged by the majority of our elected representatives, the existing system, bad as it may be, is still better than anything on offer.
And how can you have a dominant party in parliament when the simple fact is that Australia is, politically, very much a heterogeneous  society where no single set of beliefs and values gains a majority? Apparently that is not a problem. Just choose a system, any system, that gives you unequivocal partisan rule. That system being single member voting, where one elected member of the House of Representatives gets to represent up to 80,000 differing political viewpoints from his or her electorate; where in elections winners can be losers, such as in the 1998 federal election when the Coalition won after garnering fewer preferential votes than Labor, and where pork-barrelling is more feasible because there are definable geographical electorates to spend the bribes on infrastructure spending or community grants.

Where Ms Albrechtsen is unequivocal in attacking proportional representation in itself, rather than for what it appears to deliver, is where she blames it for the rise of political influence of extremist political parties. normal, ordinary and decentGreece’s neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party as well as

“anti-immigration parties from the True Finns in Finland to Geert Wilders' far-right Freedom Party in The Netherlands gain legitimacy from PR that allows them to thrive… The party's success means it will attract $4.3 million in public funds.”  (emphasis added) 

How dare they gain legitimacy merely because sections of the community wish to be represented by them? Don’t they know that only the larger ‘middle of the road’ parties are the arbiter of correct beliefs and values? And then having the temerity to take millions in matching public funds which was obviously only originally intended for the established parties.
It’s scary that Ms Albrechtsen should suggest electoral systems should be designed to only allow mainstream white bread people political representation while marginalising the rest.
Ms Albrechtsen speaks disparagingly of “consensual politics” in that it makes law making very difficult, but how can ‘consensual  politics’ be anything other than a synonym  for democracy? It is disconcerting that someone who has been prepared to stand up and oppose ‘offensive speech’ legislation (even before the Andrew Bolt case), and who attacks judicial activism for the sake of the rule of law, should now be taking such an illiberal point of view.

Proportional Representation is exactly what it says. It grants political power proportionally to the popularity of all the viewpoints and beliefs that exist throughout the land, not just the largest of the collection of minority parties who then gets the prize of total power for coming first. Legislation gets passed if parliamentarians representing a majority of the voters support it, but in no other situation. And what can be wrong with that?

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