Tuesday, February 04, 2003

Iain Murray has some comments on the prospect of reform of the House of Lords in the UK. He argues that for the Lords to be a genuine house of review, it needs actual power, and to have this it needs to be elected. Of course, the existing Lords do not want this, and neither does the government, as both these groups would have their power reduced, and it is one of the golden rules of government that no government will ever vote for a reduction of its own powers.

The proposal for an elected House of Lords that Iain describes is essentially what we have in Australia. We have a House of Representatives based on constituencies as in Britain and a Senate, in which the states are equally represented (with 12 senators each) and who have terms twice the length of members of the HoR (six years instead of three years, with half the senate up for re-election every three years). The senate is elected proportionally, using what is called Single Transferrable Vote in the UK, but is known as Hare-Clarke (after its inventors) or simply the "senate system" in Australia. The House of Representatives has the prerogatives of initiating financial legislation (granted in the constitution) and of forming the Executive Government (by convention).

All these things put together mean that the governing party very seldom has majorities in both houses - the last time it happened was in the 1970s. Governments have to negotiate with the opposition or minor parties in order to enact their legislation. We often end up with the same sort of horsetrading that goes on in the US: governments offer pork in return for votes.

The first comment to make on this is that as a general rule governments absolutely hate this system. Prime Ministers are constantly complaining that they have been given a "mandate" to govern by the people of Australia, and that it is somehow undemocratic that they cannot then enact their entire legislative program without obstacle. Spending a year watching a Prime Minister discover after being elected that he is not all powerful after all is something that we do every time a new one comes to power. (To change the system would require a referendum, and Australians are incredibly cynical about constitutional changes and almost always vote against them, so the politicians are stuck with it).

In actual practice, governments do tend to be able to enact most of their legislative programs after a bit of horsetrading. Legislation tends to be moderated a little (for instance, Australian VAT exempts basic foodstuffs, whereas the government's original plan was that they would be taxed) and once in a while something genuinely gets obstructed (the Australian government still owns 51% of the former telecommunications monopoly, because it hasn't got the votes to get the sale legislation through the senate). However, legislation gets a lot more parliamentary and public scrutiny before coming into force than it does in Britain. Whereas in Britain it is possible for really dumb legislation to get enacted merely by the force of the PM's will, a PM in Australia at least has to argue his case at length first, and if legislation contains something really dumb, there is a better chance that this will be pointed out before it becomes law.

It is possible for the government to control both houses, but only after an absolutely overwhelming popular vote in the government's favour. I think it can be argued that this is not necessarily a bad thing either. In exceptional circumstances, the level of checks and balances can be reduced by the voters, but the normal state of affairs is for them to be present. Even in this case, however, we have slightly less of an elected dictatorship than is the case in the UK, because the federal government's powers are enumerated in the constitution, and the High Court can declare laws unconstitutional if the government exceeds its powers (although it does not do this very often).

(There are provisions in the constitution for breaking deadlocks between the houses that involve calling early elections. However, for the sake of simplicity I haven't discussed, but the above is the gist of it).

Update: There has been some confusion over what I meant by "Single Transferrable Vote". (This is what election buffs in the UK tend to call it, and it is kind of misleading). This is a form of proportional representation, used for electing candidates to multi-member constituencies. In the Australian senate, the whole state is one constituency, and six senators are elected at the same time.

Each voter is asked to number all the candidates in order of preference. If the party you support has five candidates, then you would typically number them from 1 to 5, and then give lower numbers to the candidates from other parties.

A quota is established as the number of votes a candidate requires to be elected. Once a candidate has this many votes, his surplus votes (that is, the number of votes received above what he needed to be elected) are then allocated to the people who received the second preference on his votes until someone else gets a quota. Then his surpluses are reallocated, and this goes on until n candidates are elected. In practice this means that the number of elected candidates received by parties is approximately proportional to the numbers of votes received by the parties.

This system is proportional, but also allows voters to choose between different candidates that have been put forward by the same party. It is a very fair system, but it is a little complicated.

Again I have simplified the issue. I could describe it in more detail, but I think this would only create further confusion. There are some details here.

Just as a piece of trivia, this same system is used by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to select the Oscar nominees (in which five nominees are elected from a large number of eligible candidates). Simple plurality voting is then used to select the winner from these five nominees.

Further Update: I have a response to Jacob Levy's comments here .

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