YOUTH VOICE: Considering the Proportional Representation Voting System

Posted on June 28, 2011 by


In this paper I will be exploring whether or not Australia’s House of Representatives should adopt proportional representation as its system of election. I will cover the definition of proportional representation and look at the House of Representatives current system, then present arguments for and against proportional representation and proceed to argue that proportional representation should be adopted by the House of Representatives.

The Senate chamber in Parliament House, Canberra. Members of the Senate are elected through the proportional representation voting system.

Proportional representation (PR) is an electoral system where candidates win seats in proportion to the number of votes they receive. To be elected, a candidate must come equal to or exceed a quota. The quota is the number calculated using the Droop formula, which is the total number of formal votes divided by the number of candidates to be elected, plus one (Corcoran & Dickenson 2010, p. 170). All current PR electoral systems in Australia use the single transferable vote method. With this method, each elector’s vote is transferred between candidates in the order of the elector’s preference. Once a candidate has reached the quota of votes he or she is elected and any votes exceeding the quota are passed on to continuing candidates according to their preferences. Candidates with the fewest votes are excluded and their votes are passed on to continuing candidates until the required number of candidates has been elected. PR is the current electoral system for the Senate, the upper house of NSW, Victoria, South Australia, and Western Australia, the Lower House of Tasmania, the ACT Legislative Assembly and many Local Government Councils (Electoral Council of Australia 2009).
The House of Representatives currently uses an electoral system of preferential voting for its seats. In this system electors indicate the order in which they prefer various candidates. If no candidate receives more than half of the primary preferences then the one with the fewest votes is eliminated. The votes for that candidate are redistributed to the other candidates according the second preference. This process continues until one party receives the majority of votes (Corcoran & Dickenson 2010, p. 164).

The intention of adopting preferential voting for the House of Representatives was to overcome the problems associated with the ‘first-past-the-post’ method where the party with the most votes won. The issue was that a party could win with a small ‘majority’ of votes (Jaensch 1986, p. 66). In preferential voting it is still possible for a party to win a majority of the seats with a minority of the overall two-party preferred vote. This happens if a party wins the majority of seats by a narrow margin and the other party wins the rest by a large majority, the winning party therefore having less overall votes than the other. It is an issue when not all votes contribute to a party’s overall total and can thus be votes considered ‘wasted’ votes and the representation of the electorates can be disingenuous (Costar 2010, p. 202). PR attempts at least to avoid this problem by presenting a type of representation that doesn’t necessarily depend on a majority.

PR has not become the method of election in the House of Representatives because while it represents the party opinion of the electorate it is argued that it does not represent party opinion best. Critics of PR believe that it would increase the probability of dead-locked parliaments with no party able to form a unified stable government. A government formed under a PR election system would depend on “alliances, back room agreements and minor party coalitions” due to its nature of generally lacking a single majority party (Jaensch 1986, p. 68).

The voting system under PR is considered to be too complicated for the average voter and requires more ‘complex information’ to vote strategically, contributing to a higher number of invalid ballot papers or indifferent (donkey) voting contributing to a misrepresentation of the outcome (Cox, cited in Blais, Dobrzynska & Indridason 2005, p. 184; Newman 1992, p. 90). However in Tasmania, the Hare-Clark (PR) method has been in use since 1909 and a combination of voter experience and ballot rotation avoids these issues more successfully (Parliament of Tasmania website 2008; Wright 1980 p. 120).

A good government needs to be stable and unencumbered by the need to compromise extensively (Costar 2010, p. 204). Herr (cited in Newman 1992, p. 283) argues further that PR presents a problem of accountability between the elected Members of Parliament and their electors. He notes that neither elector nor the candidates can be certain of the effect of a vote under PR and therefore electoral accountability is ‘muted’. However, the goal of a PR government is to represent the broadest selection of political opinion. It is based on a mirror concept of representation (Jaensch 1986, p. 67). Proponents argue that there is in fact increased parliamentarian responsibility and accountability: there is greater support on a local level if there are multiple members representing their constituency rather than a single member representing only his or her voters (Wright 1980, p. 146-147).

Costar (2010, pp. 203-204) notes that extending PR to the House of Representatives would encourage an unstable government through the difficulty of a single party to win a majority. It would also increase the likelihood of minor political parties and/or independents holding the balance of power or a majority “controlled” by minorities. A fragmented party system is not necessarily caused by PR, in Tasmania’s case; their government has not had these problems. It has continued to exhibit a stable, effective government with the Labor and Liberal parties still maintaining a modest dominance in parliament. The nature of Australia’s parties suggest that the introduction of PR would not lead to a multi-party system. It would merely result in, as in Tasmania’s case, encouragement for the major parties to broaden their policies in order to adapt to greater choice – the failure to do so would mean that support for the two parties would go elsewhere (Mason 2001, p. 69; Wright 1980, p.141). PR merely reflects the sentiment of the electors (Lakeman 1970, p. 160).

Minor parties and political commentators have argued alternatively that it is the House of Representatives’ current electoral system that is unrepresentative. While the Senate provides representation for some minority political parties for electors, the House of Representatives only sees that major parties represented (Zappalà & Sawyer 2001, p. 275). An improvement that the PR system would have over the preferential method includes greater voter satisfaction through more electors receiving their first preference (Wright 1980, p. 118). Karp and Banducci’s (1999, p. 375) analysis on New Zealand’s adoption of PR suggests that PR was responsible for an “increase in efficacy about voting”. Voters were “more likely to be interested in politics and more likely to believe that their vote counted than … under FPP.”

PR more accurately represents the constituency. It does not necessarily create multiple political parties. The supposed threat of minor parties abusing any balancing position they may have would be rare under PR as it would hinder their results in the next election. Unpopular policy would be less likely to be forced through by dominating parties due to the wider representative nature of the parliament and electoral counting would be faster and consequently cheaper to carry out (Lakeman, 1970 p. 162).

There is importance in the current organisation and differences of the two houses of Parliament. The Senate’s almost equal constitutional powers to the House of Representatives and the introduction of  PR (as opposed to the House of Representatives preferential system), has meant that rarely could a government enjoy a majority in both houses at once. It has accordingly provided a permanent ‘check and balance’ on the executive branch of government (Summers 2010 p. 89; Mason 2001, p. 66). This dichotomy is crucial to the capability of the legislative branch as it determines the degree of negotiations, amendments and the overall success that the government faces. If the House of Representatives adopted PR the Senate would need to modify its electoral procedure to ensure that it remains fair and effective as a house of review.

An electoral system is not the only factor that can be attributed to a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ government. However, determining the best way to translate votes into an election outcome is a contentious exercise as it ultimately defines the type of government (Costar 2010, p. 195). PR does not require candidates to win a majority to win seats; it determines them in much better proportion to votes won (Costar 2010, p. 202). Australia’s current issues within parliament can be attributed to our two-party system. The lack of diverse representation, voter dissatisfaction and pointless debating would be remedied with the introduction of a PR electoral system for the House of Representatives. Australia needs to consider whether it wants a democracy for the benefit of its people of for the benefit of the major political parties. Elections in accordance with democracy, should be for the benefit of electors rather than the political parties. PR enables the broadest representation of views, strengthening legislative review and scrutiny, and ensuring that all legislation is reflective of more of the electorates’ wishes than a preferential system may ensure (Young, Sawyer & Miskin, cited in Zappalà & Sawyer 2001, p. 275).

Through the analysis of the weaknesses and strengths of proportional representation I am able to conclude that it is a fairer and more representative form of electoral system than the preferential system that our House of Representatives currently employs. However, caution must   be taken to ensure a government that can, as well as being as representative as possible, perform its duties effectively. Otherwise, no matter how widely representative it was it couldn’t be considered a ‘good’ government.






  • Blais, A, Dobrzynska, A & Indridason, I H 2005, “To Adopt or Not to Adopt Proportional Representation: The Politics of Choice”, British Journal of Political Science, vol. 35, no. 1, pp. 182-190.
  • Corcoran, R & Dickenson, J 2010, A Dictionary of Australian Politics, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest.
  • Costar, B 2010, “The Electoral System”, Government, Politics, Power and Policy in Australia, eds. Woodward, D, Parkin, A & Summers, J, Pearson Australia, Frenchs Forest.
  • Electoral Council of Australia 2009, Electoral systems: Proportional Representation in Australia, Canberra, accessed 31st June 2011, <;
  • Jaensch, D 1986 Getting Our Houses in Order, Penguin Books, Ringwood.
  • Karp, J A & Banducci, S A 1999, “The Impact of Proportional Representation on Turnout: Evidence from New Zealand”, Australian Journal of Political Science, vol. 34, no. 3, pp. 363-377.
  • Lakeman, E 1970, How Democracies Vote, Faber and Faber, London.
  • Mason, A 2001 “The Constitutional Principle of Representative Government”, Speaking for the People: Representation in Australian Politics, eds., Sawer, M, & Zappalà, G, Melbourne University Press, Carlton South, pp. 64-79.
  • Parliament of Tasmania 2008 House of Assembly Elections, accessed 1st June 2011, <;
  • Sawer, M 2001 “Representing Trees, Acres, Voters and Non-voters: concepts of parliamentary representation in Australia”, Speaking for the People: Representation in Australian Politics, eds., Sawer, M, & Zappalà, G, Melbourne University Press, Carlton South, pp. 36-63.
    Summers, J 2010, “Parliament and Responsible Government”, Government, Politics, Power and Policy in Australia, eds. Woodward, D, Parkin, A & Summers, J, Pearson Australia, Frenchs Forest.


Renae Schilg is a first year Bachelor of Arts student of La Trobe University who is interested about both local and international social and political issues. Undertaking a vegan lifestyle, she is also heavily concerned about the ethical treatment of animals. Renae is also a part-time creative artist and a skater in the local roller derby league, Murray River Derby Dames.