For those who don’t know, Australia has a modified Westminster-style Parliament just like Canada, that is, a bicameral system with an upper chamber called the Senate and a lower chamber titled the House of Representatives (our Commons). The head of government is currently the Governor-General (though Aussies have strong Republican leanings and have often talked of replacing the office with a President) and the Prime Minister is the head of the government (usually majority) party in the lower house. The Senate, like in Canada, is not a confidence house and can’t defeat the government – though it can defeat government legislation. It also can’t initiate money bills (i.e. raise taxes or directly require the government to spend money). It can lower taxes and it can indirectly result in the government spending money to meet policy goals.
However, it is the method of election that makes Australia significantly different from both Canada and the United Kingdom. The two houses are elected with all of the HR seats and about half of the S but the method of election differs between them. In the lower House 150 members are elected by votes in constituencies. However, the Australian ballot uses a preferential system. That is, each voter marks their ballot by listing their order of preference for each candidate – 1st, 2nd, 3rd and so on. If a candidate gets over 50% when the first preferences are counted, he or she is elected. But if no one gets 50%, then the candidate with the fewest votes is dropped and their 2nd place votes are distributed. This continues until one candidate gets over 50%. (Interestingly this is the same way the Hugo and Aurora science fiction awards are determined.) That candidate can then say that more than half the voters prefer him or her to the loser. Preferential voting tends to favour big parties and prevent little ones from winning many or any seats. It generally produces small majorities for one side or the other. This year, for the first time in 70 years, they have a minority, but other than Labour and the Coalition members, there is only one from the Greens and 3 or 4 independents – all former National Party members who rejected the Coalition.
As an example, suppose you were voting in a three party race in Saskatchewan. You prefer the NDP candidate but could live with the Conservative. The Liberal gives you the creeps. You put a 1 beside the NDP candidate and a 2 beside the Conservative. On election night, the first place results are Liberal 40%, Conservative 36%, NDP 24%. In our current first-past-the-post system, the Liberal would win. But suppose ¾ of NDPers feel the way you do. Then, the final tally would be Conservatives 52%, Liberal 48%. The winning candidate would be the one who initially finished second. I use this example because this is pretty well what happened in Australia on a national level. The Coalition (Liberal and National party) got more first place votes than Labour but Labour got more votes than the Coalition preferentially. Hence both parties can (and are) claiming to be the people’s choice.
But what about the Senate you ask. The Australian Senate is elected on proportional representation so that the number of Senators elected (selected from party lists made public before the vote) pretty much reflects the number of first place votes the party got in the election. As a result, the Senate is a much more diverse house. There neither the Labour party nor the Coalition is even close to a majority. The Greens have 16 Senators and the balance of power. And that is the way it usually is with the Australian Senate. Governments may have a majority in the lower house but usually have to negotiate with other parties in the upper Chamber. It has certainly led to some wild political deals and several constitutional crises.
So what would such a system do to Canada? It’s not easy to predict with certainty but one can make some educated guesses. Canada is a very different country than Australia. Though there are certainly regional differences in our antipodal sister, they are not as marked as in Canada. Australia has no equivalent to Quebec – or Alberta for that matter. So over the short term, the impact on the House of Commons would be minor. In Canada, over half of MPs are elected with over 50% of the vote in their ridings – so initially at least those won’t change. Polls show that very few voters who don’t vote Conservative make them their second choice. In Quebec, people who don’t vote BQ in the first place aren’t likely to support them as their second choice.
So, for the first election or two, the Liberals would do considerably better, the Conservatives and BQ somewhat worse and the NDP and Greens would pick up a seat or two. But over the long term, we would tend towards the same system as in Australia. Generally the Liberals and Conservatives would dominate – taking up positions just to the left and right of centre. The other three second-tier parties would eventually be diminished in the House of Commons – though the Bloc might hang around longer that the other two. For a while both the major parties might be stuck having to negotiate with separatists to get their programs through but I think majorities would be the rule.
But the other parties would never go away – because they would all win seats in the Senate. In fact, there would be a proliferation of small regional or national parties all aiming for representation of their own views, not in the House of Commons but in the upper chamber. Based on the last election we would currently have about 39 Conservatives, 28 liberals, 20 NDP, 11 Bloc, 6 Green and maybe one “Other” in the Senate. That assumes the national vote applied – if PR was applied on a provincial or regional basis (reflecting the current purpose of the Senate) those numbers could be quite different. And in the future there might be even more diversity. Wouldn’t that be fun?
I wonder if that is what Steven Harper had in mind.
But, of course, these kinds of changes like any substantive Senate reform would require a constitutional amendment. Good luck with that.