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Tuesday, 14 October 1975
Page: 2060

Mr HOWARD (Bennelong) - I wish to make a short contribution to the debate on Electoral Bill (No. 3) which, as honourable members will be aware, proposes the introduction of optional preferential voting for House of Representatives elections. I think all honourable members will agree that the aim of any system of voting in single member constituencies should be to ensure that the victorious candidate receives the support of at least 50 per cent of the formal votes cast either by first or subsequent preference. I invite any subsequent speakers from the Government side in this debate to challenge that approach as being other than a reasonable approach to a democratic system of election in a single member constituency. Inevitably, in a discussion on optional preferential voting we get into an argument as to whether it is some kind of disguised first past the post voting. I agree with the Leader of the House (Mr Daly), with the honourable member for Shortland (Mr Morris) and with other honourable members who have participated in this debate that it would not be correct to say that optional preferential voting simply equals first past the post voting. I agree with that.

What I put to the House- this is where I disagree with members on the Government side- is that it is quite possible and not, as the Leader of the House said when introducing this Bill, purely hypothetical, for optional preferential voting to have precisely the same result as first past the post voting. I shall trouble the House with an example. If the honourable member for Curtin (Mr Garland) and the Minister for Housing and Construction (Mr Riordan) will not mind my using their names in this example I shall give the House a simple illustration of how this can occur. Let us say that we have a constituency of 100 people and that 100 valid votes are cast at a poll. Candidate Garland, as I shall call him, receives 41 of those votes by way of first preference, candidate Riordan receives 39 and- I will be modest- candidate Howard received only 20 votes. Of the 20 people who voted for Howard, the problem is that only ten decided to express a preference. They are given an option of whether to express a preference. Half, that is ten, declined to exercise their preference. Of the ten who express a preference, six of them decide to give their second preference to Garland and four of them decide to give their second preference to Riordan. So Garland ends up with 47 votes and Riordan with 43 votes. Garland is declared the winner. Of course, by way of first or subsequent preference, Garland has received only 47 per cent of the vote. In other words, 53 per cent of the people who voted in that poll did not want Garland although he is declared elected.

Mr Riordan - They might not have cared, either.

Mr HOWARD - The Minister had interjected but he cannot gainsay the fact that if we have an optional preferential system, if we have 3 candidates, and if only half of the number of persons who voted for the third candidate express a preference, it is possible for the victorious candidate to be elected with less than 50 per cent of the primary or subsequent preference votes of the people taking part in the poll. That was precisely the same effect as a first past the post system. The objection held to first past the post voting in this country is that it leads to the election of minority governments. It leads to the election of candidates, in single member seats, in respect of whom more than 50 per cent of people have cast adverse votes. That, in essence, is the basis of our objection to this system of voting. The Leader of the House in his remarks when introducing this legislation stated:

It is true that if all voters deliberately refrained from expressing any preferences beyond the first preference, the result under optional preferential voting . . . would be the same as in a first past the post system.

I put it to the House that the Leader of the House should have further qualified those remarks by saying that if a sufficient number of voters in an optional preferential system refrained from expressing a preference, the result would be the same because the example I have given to the House shows precisely the same effect in that it leads to the election of a person who has received less than 50 per cent of the formal vote. The Leader of the House in his remarks went on to say that the proposition he put was purely hypothetical because it has not eventuated in elections under the optional preferential system in Australia in the past and that it was not likely to eventuate in the future. I very seriously challenge that proposition of the Leader of the House. Experience with optional preferential voting in Australia is extremely limited. To suggest that the sort of occurrence which I have outlined will not eventuate in the future is an extremely bold proposition.

The other remark I make is that the introduction of optional preferential voting reduces the influences of minority parties. That may be a desirable political objective but it is not necessarily consonant with a democratic voting system to reduce the influence of minority parties. The final question I ask the Government is: If it is wrong to compel people to exercise a preference beyond their first preference, why is it not wrong to compel people to vote? I find a logical inconsistency in saying that we cannot compel people to exercise a second or subsequent preference but that we can compel people to vote. If this Government is really consistent and if it really believes that we ought not to compel people to vote beyond a certain preference, it ought to examine its fundamental commitment to compulsory voting because there is a very strong and logical inconsistency in the approach which it takes.

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