In 2017, the Liberals killed electoral reform when it became clear that the only system Justin Trudeau would permit — the “ranked ballot” – wasn’t going to fly.
By “ranked ballot”, Trudeau means the Alternative Vote (AV), the winner-take-all voting system used in Australia. Proportional systems can also use a ranked ballot — but that wasn’t what he meant.
This was not an evidence-based decision. It was a partisan one.
Of the hundreds of experts who testified to the federal Electoral Reform Committee, only 4% supported the Alternative Vote. 88% support proportional representation.
There was no lineup of citizens waiting to testify for AV, either. Fair Vote Canada has made the case against AV for a long time.
But among some politicians, federal and provincial, the allure of AV sticks like a sweet smelling glue.
What You Need to Know About Alternative Vote in Australia
Only two countries in the world use AV to elect their lower houses — Australia and Papua New Guinea.
By contrast, over 90 nations use proportional representation — including over 80% of countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which represents 80% of world trade and investment.
Let’s focus on Australia – a country with much in common with Canada.
Australia adopted AV 100 years ago — a political maneuver by the conservative parties to stop “vote splitting” that was allowing Labour candidates to win.
What is the result of the Alternative Vote in Australia today?
A Two Party System
The Alternative Vote in Australia has produced an intractable two party system: Labour and the Liberal-National Coalition.
The conservative Liberal-National “coalition” is a permanent one. Formed in 1923, this is not the kind of “coalition” referred to in proportional systems, where distinct parties may work with different partners in government.
No other party has ever been part of a government.
Voters for Third Parties and Smaller Parties Are Almost Shut Out
Although voters are free to rank their preferences any way they want, voters for third parties are almost entirely shut out. For example, the Australian Green Party has never won more than one seat, even though it obtained 11.8% of the vote in 2010 and 10.5% of the vote in 2019.
Overall in 2019, parties other than the big two got 25.3% of first preference votes but only 3.3% of the seats.
As John and Hargreaves (2011) note: “Alternative Vote is also unique in its tendency to direct ordinal votes into seats for the two established major parties and prevent the success of new movements and parties, especially moderate parties”, producing “a rigid, adversarial, two-party system.”
Alternative Vote Produces False Majorities and Wrong Winner Elections
The result of such distortions is that false majority governments of the kind we have in Canada are even more common in Australia than they are here. Since 1975, Australia has had a majority government after every election but one (in 2010) and all of these were false majorities based on 39% to 48% of the popular vote, depending on the election.
Winner-take-all voting in Australia has produced right-wing governments in 32 of the last 50 years (64%). Three of those governments were wrong-winner outcomes, resulting in the opposite of voters’ intent (when the right-wing parties formed government despite winning less of the popular vote than the left-wing parties).
The current government received 41.44% of first preference votes, yet is not required to compromise with any other party.
Alternative Vote Exaggerates the Landslides of the “Winners” Even More than First-Past-the-Post
Even worse, expert testimony to the Canadian federal Electoral Reform Committee and the report of Jenkins Commission (the Independent Commission on the Voting System) in the UK showed that Alternative Vote can produce election results more distorted than those under first-past-the-post – giving even bigger seat bonuses and inflated majorities to the winning party. As Towns (2021) notes, “This propensity to exaggerate the victory of the winners also leads reformers to oppose AV.”
This propensity was clearly on display in Australia in 2021 when a single party in Western Australia got 60% of the vote but picked up 90% of the seats with AV.
Power of the Party Bosses
Alternative Vote does nothing to mitigate the concentration of power with party bosses and strategists. As John and Hargreaves (2011) note, the research is clear:
“Farrell and McAllister hypothesized that AV would lead to greater voter influence over the system, but instead find that AV when in concert with other aspects of the electoral system (compulsory voting, party control over pre-selections and the use of How to Vote cards) results in a system heavily focused on the party not on the voter. Indeed, they conclude that the Australian electoral system gives parties a great deal of control over politics and that that control is on the rise (Farrell and McAllister 2006). Orr and Ewing (2011) come to a similar conclusion with regards to AV‘s propensity to increase the power of political parties relative to voters.”
Alternative Vote works to “manufacture a majority and ensure that voter choices do not interfere with the two sectional parties control over the system.”
As expert Mark Rodrigues explains in a report on the Parliament of Australia website, power is concentrated at the top:
“Strict party discipline over the behavior of MPs has challenged conventions of responsible government and aided the ascendency of the executive over the agenda of parliament.”
“This tendency to power concentration and one-person government has proceeded further in Australia than in its sister countries in the so-called Westminster world. Again, the reasons are complex, but the symptoms are not difficult to discern. There is the concentration of political discussion on leadership and leaders; the question of who occupies the throne has achieved supreme if not exclusive importance. Parliament and cabinet are seldom mentioned as part of the decision-making process; all major decisions are seen as the personal decisions of prime ministers. This perception is basically accurate: parliament and cabinet have minimal roles. The enormous growth in the size of the prime minister’s office has occurred precisely because that office now virtually is the government.”
In any two-party winner-take-all system, voters will always be faced with the dilemma of how to help their preferred party while trying to avoid handing power to the party they most despise.
In Australia, with Alternative Vote, strategic voting campaigns aren’t eliminated — they’re institutionalized. Parties push “How to Vote” cards, displayed at polling stations, telling voters how to mark their preferences. The BBC bluntly describes these cards as “a method of tactical voting decided by party leaders.”
The How to Vote cards are often the result of backroom deals between parties.
As one commentator notes:
“Voters who follow the card are not thinking about their reasons for ordering candidates on the ballot but are willingly deferring that right to parties intent on manipulating them to shore up power.”
John and Hargreaves (2011) conclude:
“Alternative Vote encourages a strategic major party voter to preference the other major party last, which it gives voice to and normalizes hostile partisan feelings and a tendency to view the other major party as the enemy, thus enabling a highly corrosive party dialogue.”
Politics is Extremely Adversarial
“Blood sports” is how Professor Mark Evans of the University of Canberra Institute for Governance and Public Analysis describes Australia’s politics.
John and Hargreaves conclude: “Alternative Vote is unique amongst ordinal voting systems in that it supports and perhaps encourages hostility between the largest parties thus contributing to Australia‘s harsh political culture.”
The scale of the dishonest attack ads by parties has reached a feverish pitch, with 84% of Australians now supporting legislation for truth in political advertising.
After the election, winner-take-all politics produces a Parliament characterized by grueling partisanship. According to a report by Dr. Marc Rodrigues, Question Period in Australia amounts to a war of scripted talking points:
Question Time in the House of Representatives is often criticised for declining parliamentary standards and accountability. Oppositions are inclined to use partisan attacks disguised as questions to embarrass the government to which Ministers respond with lengthy answers of marginal relevance. Ministers often use Question Time to attack the opposition with pre-prepared statements in response to ‘Dorothy Dix’ questions from their own side. Much of the theatre of Question Time is characterised by disorder contrived to make the evening news.
Policy Lurch has had a Devastating Effect on Climate Policy
Researchers have long identified “policy lurch” as a side effect of winner-take-all voting systems. This refers to drastic shifts in policy, a pattern where one government reverses the policies of the previous government.
Policy lurch was on full display in Australia when a carbon tax brought in by the Labour government in 2012 — which resulted in the biggest annual reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in 24 years — was reversed by the Liberal-National government in 2014.
Carbon pricing has never been reintroduced in Australia. On the 2020 Climate Performance Index, the US ranks dead last. Canada ranks seventh from last, Australia sixth from last, among 57 Countries plus the EU..
Voter Trust in Politics Has Hit an All-Time Low in Australia — With Serious Implications
According to new research by Democracy 2025, an initiative of the Museum of Australian Democracy and the Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis at the University of Canberra, trust in political institutions in Australia has been in a nose-dive for a decade. In 2019, trust hit the lowest level since data has been available.
If the trend continues, the researchers concluded that by 2025, fewer than 10% of Australians will trust their politicians and political institutions.
They mince no words about the consequences.
“Weakening political trust erodes civic engagement, reduces support for evidence based public policies, promotes risk aversion in government, and creates the space for the rise of authoritarian-populist forces.
Trust is the glue that facilitates collective action for mutual benefit. Without trust we don’t have the ability to address complex, long-term challenges.”
Does much of this sound frighteningly familiar? It should. Winner-take-all systems deliver more of what we don’t want in politics.