Jane Garrett

Proportional Representation – why we should support it and why the Greens need to defend it

Ireland uses proportional representation to elect members to Dáil Éireann, the national parliament and has done so for decades without the catastrophe predicted by opponents of PR like The Australian columnist Jenet Albrechtsen (article here) and without complaints like those of my local federal MP Kelvin Thompson who writes in his most recent electorate newsletter about the number of candidates contesting the 2012 Moreland Council elections as “confusing for voters” (you can read the Summer 2012 Wills Report here).

Proportional Representation gives parts of our community unlikely to gain political representation in single-member electorates the chance to play a formal role in our democracy. It means political interests that are single-issue, a little outside the mainstream or have struggled to gain voice within the big political parties can still aspire to be elected to local councils or Parliament.

PR’s opponents have tended to be critical of how this system reduces the threshold of votes required to elect a candidate and it has undoubtedly been good for smaller or newer parties like the Greens to have a chance of election to public office. Without PR it is likely Australia’s political system would more closely resemble that of the US where it is virtually impossible for new political movements to break into the elected political system.

Similarly, PR gives the community the chance to assess the qualities of new parties without the requirement of electing them in single-member electorates. Voters get to make judgements about whether to give them a greater say in future elections as they have with the Greens who now have a Deputy Leader representing a single-member electorate in Melbourne or consign them to the political waste basket as they did with Family First.

PR is an important safety value within our democracy making sure significantly sized and supported minority groups are not alienated from representative politics – it gives them a stake in the system and it removes the temptation to join existing political parties to internally pursue their single-issue agenda.

As MPs go, I have found Kelvin Thomson to be a pretty good local representative and have been delighted with his involvement with issues like the campaign against live animal exports, his interest in environment issues and the positive community role he played following the tragic death of Jill Meagher (giving credit where its deserved – Thomson’s work here was in cooperation with the local State MP Jane Garrett). But I disagree with his views about PR in Moreland Council.

Moreland Council is a fast changing part of Melbourne including the suburbs of Brunswick and Coburg and should actively encourage as many voices as possible to participate in elections. This doesn’t mean sitting Councillors will (or should) be changed but rather it allows more people to seriously participate in the council’s democratic process.

And if there’s anything Moreland Council has needed lately its new and different ideas. True, Moreland does some things very well, its Libraries for instance are excellent as are local parks, but the lengthy closure of the Brunswick swimming pool (it was closed when I moved here last summer and is still a building site) and regular news reports about failures of the Council to reliably separate recycling from other garbage doesn’t convince me the solution lies in limiting the number of candidates who think they might have a chance to be elected to Moreland Council.

And that’s what this change would be about – limiting the numbers of candidates contesting future council elections who believe they have a genuine chance of election and who consequently make a campaigning effort to match. There’s a huge difference for candidates between contesting council wards with four Councillors to be elected and wards who will elect just one – and this can be seen early in such campaigns where many candidates simply realise they have no chance to winning the single position up for grabs and curtail their campaigning, often leaving their issues to similarly quickly recede into the background.

From a party political perspective removing PR from Moreland Council is likely to have a sudden and dramatic influence on the Greens’ ability to gain local council representation. So for that reason at least I would expect the Greens to strongly oppose any such change, just as Labor could be expected to support it.

I’ve written before about Labor’s electoral strategy of chasing the support of Greens voters but this suggestion to change an electoral system goes a step further. It removes political structures that give the Greens a beach-head to build their party. Its smart but tough politics by Labor and could cripple the Greens in the longer-term by denying them local representation and all that comes with that including resources, profile and importantly the ability to train future state and federal candidates. It would also make it more difficult for the Greens to recover from any future electoral downturns which could turn a temporary electoral setback into a more permanent situation.

The Greens, from a party perspective, should be worried about attempts to remove proportional representation from Victoria’s councils but the broader community should be worried about the impact such changes could have on the vibrancy of Victorian local government elections – I see large council electoral fields as a positive sign for our democracy rather than a bothersome confusion.

The electoral commission is considering these matters so you can make comments about this or other aspects of Moreland Council’s elections by visiting the Victorian Electoral commission website here.