The truth about the Australian AV experience

The AV referendum is in exactly 3 months, yet sadly, over the last few months, we have become used to half-truths and innuendo being portrayed as fact by the No Campaign.

Peter Facey is the director of Unlock Democracy

In the run up to the referendum on the alternative vote (AV) it is vital that voters are given accurate information on which to base their vote. Sadly, over the last few months, we have become used to half-truths and innuendo being portrayed as fact by the No Campaign.

On the ConservativeHome website, NO2AV director Matthew Elliot celebrated Australia’s national day last week (26th January) by publishing eight so called facts about AV.

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‘Fact’ 1: Six out of ten Australians want to return to First Past the Post

Matthew highlights a single opinion poll in the Sydney Morning Herald from October of last year that showed dissatisfaction with AV. What Matthew failed to say is that this is the only published poll on the subject. In contrast the UK has had poll after poll over decades showing that people want to ditch First Past the Post.

Matthew and his friends have ignored this but they now hold up a single poll as beacon of light. If we were to use the same argument we could not only claim that Canada also wants to drop First Past the Post but also that the UK wants the Alternative Vote. Overall figures from the Australian Election Study show that Australians are happier with the state of their democracy than their British cousins.

‘Fact’ 2: In Australia turnout declined after the introduction of AV, leading to compulsory voting laws

Not true. AV was first used in a federal general election in 1919 when, as Matthew states, turnout was at a high point of 71 per cent. Compulsory voting had been debated in Australia since the turn of the century and was first introduced in Queensland in 1915. There is no evidence it had anything to do with AV.

‘Fact’ 3: Australia experiences levels of spoiled ballots five times higher than the UK, disenfranchising less affluent, less educated and older voters

Another half-truth. Yes, the number of spoilt papers are higher, but as Matthew knows this is because of compulsory voting not AV. Australians have to give a preference to every candidate standing in the election. This can lead to confusion but it is not the system that would be used in the UK. Also voters in the UK who are disillusioned with politics can choose not to vote; in Australia they spoil ballot papers so as not to be fined for not voting.

‘Fact’ 4: In the hands of an extremist party, AV becomes a weapon to punish or pressure mainstream parties

Not true. It was mainstream parties transferring their preferences to the Liberal candidate in 1998 which prevented One Nation from winning a seat in the House of Representatives. Under First Past the Post, Pauline Hanson would have been elected to the Federal Parliament.

‘Fact’ 5: Candidates who come in first can end up losing

Matthew raises the issue that a candidate who fails to get more than 50% of the vote can lose even if they are ahead on first preferences and quotes the example of Riverina in 1980 where Frederick Smith got 46.9% of the vote but still lost. This example actually comes to the crux of the matter.

The No campaign believe that a candidate should be elected even if the majority of their voters don’t actually want them, whereas we in the Yes campaign believe that if a MP is going to represent their constituency they should have the support of a majority of their voters.

In the UK, a constituency like Riverina would be a safe seat – ignored by the parties and the media. But in Australia no seat is secure until you have a majority, meaning that candidates and parties have to work harder to gain and keep their support.

‘Fact’ 6: Australian politicians use ‘How to Vote’ cards to tell people how to vote

More half-truths. Yes, Australian political parties hand out ‘How to Vote’ cards to voters and many voters use them. This has little to do with educating voters and everything to do with political parties trying to control the valuable transfers.

In addition, voters in Australia are forced to give a preference to all the candidates standing. In the UK this will not be the case – you will be free to vote for as many or as few candidates as you like. Matthew knows this, but why let the facts get in the way of an argument? No other country that uses AV for any of its elections uses ‘How to Vote’ cards. Ireland, which uses AV to elect its President, does not have this rule and the parties don’t issue such cards.

‘Fact’ 7: Australia’s last election took 17 days to be resolved

Here we go again; 84% of Australian ballots are counted within six hours and published on the Australian Electoral Commission’s website. In most federal elections it is clear at this point who will form the government. It is only absentee and postal ballots that take additional time to count and this is to do with compulsory voting not AV.

Australians are allowed to vote in any polling station in the country or in an embassy abroad on the day of the election. The ballot papers then have to be sent back to the constituency where they are registered and counted.

It is delivering the completed ballot papers that takes time, not the count itself. Like the UK, Australia had a very close election in 2010 that resulted in a hung parliament and the coalition negotiations took some time.

‘Fact’ 8. Australia introduced AV for crass political reasons

Australia introduced AV because it was recognised that FPTP could not cope with a multi-party democracy. Seats where voters were overwhelmingly voting for centre right candidates were ending up with left wing MPs because the vote was split. Similar to the UK today the number of MPs with a majority of the vote had declined and the two-party system had broken down.

AV in Australia has allowed different voices on the centre right and centre left to compete giving voters more choice but still ensuring that the person who wins has the support of the majority. So in last year’s election in the rural seat of O’Connor in Western Australia, a centre right politician from the mainly rural National Party defeated the sitting Liberal (Conservative) MP.

FPTP in Britain has forced parties to merge and lose their distinctiveness (Labour and Co-op Party for example). In contrast, AV has allowed different voices to compete while still delivering stable government.

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Ultimately, AV in Australia has allowed greater choice for voters and ensured that what would be safe seats in the UK are competitive and can’t be taken for granted. Maybe that’s why NO2AV does not want people to vote Yes in May.

The AV referendum takes place in exactly three months’ time, Thursday, May 5th; if you aren’t already registered to vote, click here

55 Responses to “The truth about the Australian AV experience”

  1. Tom Kaneko

    Peter, thanks for this article – it makes the point for a Yes vote very strongly. I think it would be apt to respond to the criticism that the other country, Fiji, that uses AV wants to get rid of it. I have heard William Hague bringing this point up in a throw-away sound-bite friendly fashion.

    Fiji does indeed have an issue with a form of AV that is unlike the system we would have in the UK. In Fiji, the voter can choose to leave the preference votes out, in which case the voter gives its preference votes to the candidate that they voted for. This inevitably led to parties making deals with each other before, and after the ballot. Several cases where this affected the result against the voter’s trend led to the contention we have now in Fiji over AV. I must reiterate that this is NOT the system we are voting for in the UK!

  2. Steve

    Both sides are guilty of overegging their pudding and treating the electorate as ill-informed ignorant plebs who cannot sift through the dross to get to the real arguments and then make their own judgement. This may well be the case but whingeing on about how the other side is exploiting one sided statistics or not telling the full story is a little pathetic, what did you expect? Look at who the wonderful ‘electorate’ put into power this time; chinless, pampered tories and weak-kneed lib dems.
    Just keep stating the details, warts and all and wait for the referendum (dum being the important part of this word. I’ll hold my breath in excited anticipation until then!

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