The Cambridge Handbook of the Social Sciences in Australia

By Ian McAllister; Steve Dowrick et al. | Go to book overview

Chapter 17
Electoral Systems
David M. Farrell and Ian McAllister

Australia has made a long and distinguished contribution to the development of electoral institutions. Australia was an international innovator in terms of the opening up of the electoral process; half a century ago Louise Overacker (1952) commented that 'no modern democracy has shown greater readiness to experiment with various electoral methods than Australia'. As early as 1859, all the Australian colonies had established systems of parliamentary government with adult male suffrage. In 1894, South Australia was second only to New Zealand in extending voting rights to women for its lower-house elections. The secret ballot (known to this day as the 'Australian ballot') was also an Australian invention, first used in South Australia and Victoria in the mid-1850s. By the criterion of adult suffrage, Australia was the first truly democratic state, achieving that status in 1903, with most of the other contemporary liberal democracies following in the years after World War I (Aitkin and Castles 1989:208).

Australia is also the home of preferential electoral systems, again demonstrating the imaginative steps taken by the country's electoral engineers in the early part of the century. It was the first country to use them (Queensland in 1892; Tasmania in 1896; the Australian Commonwealth in 1918–19), and today it is the largest of only three established democracies the others being Malta (since 1921) and Ireland (1922) to use these electoral systems widely for all levels of elections. Preferential voting is perhaps the most distinctive and innovative characteristic of the electoral systems of Australia.


The adoption of preferential voting

In 1918, when single-member plurality (SMP) was replaced with the majority preferential vote (MPV) for elections to the House of Representatives, Australia became the first country to adopt preferential voting at national level. Thirty years later, when the proportional preferential vote (PPV) was introduced for Senate elections, the process of moving towards preferential voting at federal level was completed. There has been just one major change to the Senate system since then, in 1983, when the PPV system was amended to incorporate ticket voting. There is a rich, if small, body of literature on the evolution of the preferential systems at federal level (Goot 1985; Graham 1968; Sawer

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