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The Australian electoral system from a Singaporean’s perspective

Leon Saw

Wed Sep 18 2013

Australian Elections and how this affects international students

WITH a newly elected government in power, have you wondered how Australians elect their leaders? Leon Saw explains how preferential voting works and offers a look at another system.

Australian Electoral System vs the Singaporean electoral system

A fortnight ago, Australians voted into power the Coalition, an alliance of centre-right Australian political parties which include the Liberal Party and the National Party.  Through gaining a strong majority in the Australian House of Representatives, the Coalition effectively seized the reins of power from the centre-left Australian Labor Party (ALP). That election marked a watershed moment in a particularly stormy period in Australian politics.

The events of that tumultous time have been analysed endlessly in the local media, so instead I would like to present a brief look at Australia’s federal electoral system and how it compares with Singapore’s.

How the preferential voting system works

Every three years, Australians go to the polls to elect political candidates to represent their electorates in the Australian House of Representatives or the Lower House. There are 150 electorates in Australia and 150 corresponding seats in the Lower House. The party or group of parties that has at least 76 candidates, or the majority forms government.

Australia uses a preferential voting system, which means that if there are more than two candidates contesting an electorate and no candidate has won the outright majority, the candidate that is ultimately selected is the one that is the most preferred by voters.

To use an example, an electorate has 20 voters and three candidates, Candidates A, B and C, vying to represent it in the lower house. After the polls have closed, Candidates A, B and C garnered eight, seven and five primary votes respectively. No candidate has received the 11 votes to win the election.

The ‘preferences’ of voters who chose Candidate C are examined to determine the winner. Let’s say, that of the five voters who gave Candidate C their primary vote, one listed Candidate A as their second choice while the other four selected Candidate B as their second choice. The ‘preferences’ are then added to the eight and seven votes that Candidate A and B received. In our example, that means a victory for Candidate B, with 11 votes altogether.

In other words, although Candidate B received one less primary vote than Candidate A, the former won because most of the voters who preferred Candidate C, thought Candidate B was a better runner-up than Candidate A. The result better reflects the electorate’s sentiment than Candidate A winning.

If you are still confused, this comic strip should better explain the preferential voting system.

The Singaporean electoral system

Singapore uses a first-past-the-post system, in which the candidate with the most votes wins. This seems reasonable enough, but fails to address the possibility that the majority of the voters did not prefer the winning candidate.

If the above election was held in Singapore, Candidate A would win. However, 12 out of 20 voters would not have voted for him or her, which challenges the traditional notion of majority wins.

This scenario was realised at the 2011 Singaporean presidential elections, which saw the current President of Singapore Dr. Tony Tan Keng Yam winning, despite having only received 35.80% of votes. The remaining 64.20% was split between three other candidates.

Why the difference?

So if the Australian electoral system seems to better represents voters’ wishes than Singapore’s, why hasn’t Singapore adopted it yet?

Two possible reasons spring to mind.

The first is Singapore has no need of such a system. Except the 2011 Singapore presidential elections, almost all electorate battles in Singapore have been played out between two candidates or groups of candidates, so one of them is certain to receive the majority of votes.

The second is that the extra counting of ‘preferences’ makes the preferential voting system more costly and time-consuming than the first-past-the-post one.

Still, as the political environment in Singapore matures and more candidates step forward to run for public office, it will be harder to see how the current system can adequately reflect the wishes of the voters.

Leon Saw is a Singaporean currently undertaking a Master’s degree in Professional Accounting at Swinburne University of Technology. He has a Bachelor’s degree in Arts, majoring in International Relations and Peace & Conflict Studies from the University of Queensland, and a Diploma in Mass Communication from Ngee Ann Polytechnic.