April 09, 2010
BRITAIN is almost certain to adopt Australian-style voting reforms following promises of major change by Gordon Brown and private plans by Conservative rivals to copy some aspects of our electoral system.
The British Prime Minister said yesterday that the May 6 general election should be the last held under the traditional voting system, vowing to adopt Australia's "alternative vote" or preferential ballot system for the House of Commons and to replace the unelected House of Lords with a fully elected upper house that is expected to be called a senate.
Mr Brown unveiled his proposal on the second day of the four-week election campaign in a bid to woo supporters of the third party, the Liberal Democrats, which has long advocated more radical electoral reform such as proportional representation to boost the number of MPs from minor parties.
Mr Brown also backed four-year fixed-term parliaments and lowering the voting age to 16 in the hope of building common ground with the Lib Dems and positioning himself for power-sharing negotiations with them if the election results in a hung parliament.
Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg denounced Mr Brown's promise of electoral reform as a "deathbed conversion" by a leader clinging to power. "Don't believe it; they are trying to treat you like fools," Mr Clegg told voters.
The Conservative Party opposes such reforms and wants to stick with Britain's simpler "first past the post" voting system, which ignores voters' second and third preferences and makes it hard for minor-party candidates to win seats in parliament. But The Australian has learned that the Conservatives plan to modernise aspects of that system with ideas from recent discussions with the Australian Electoral Commission.
David Cameron's Conservatives, or Tories, will use elements of the Australian system to draw up legislation aimed at removing some of the more archaic aspects of the centuries-old system of running Westminster's "mother of all parliaments", such as its outdated rules for trying to maintain fair constituency boundaries.
The Tories hope that by using Australian methods for designing more evenly sized constituencies and reviewing them more often they would be able to reduce bias in the electoral system, which now gives the Labour Party a "head start" over the Tories that is estimated to be worth at least 5 per cent of the total vote.
The latest YouGov poll, published in The Sun yesterday, gave the Tories a 37-32 percentage point lead over Labour, with the Lib Dems on 19 points.
That five-point lead was three points smaller than the previous day and, if it was repeated at the election, Labour would probably emerge as the largest party in a hung parliament.
Britain's system now allows only slow and unwieldy boundary reviews, leading to discrepancies such as one seat in Scotland's Western Isles having only 21,908 registered voters while another on the Isle of Wight in southern England has 110,228 voters.
Seats on the mainland range from 40,889 voters in Arfon, Wales, to 87,809 in London's East Ham, and British mechanisms for redressing such imbalances are nowhere near as modern or efficient as Australia's.
Rob Hayward, a former Tory MP who advises Conservative Party chairman Eric Pickles on electoral reform, said he had received detailed advice from officials at the Australian high commission in London and the AEC in Canberra, including electoral commissioner Ed Killesteyn.
"We have been looking very closely at the Australian experience to help draft the legislation that the Conservatives would introduce after the election," Mr Hayward said. "What is going to come from a Conservative government will be highly recognisable to anybody familiar with the Australian system."
A Tory government would legislate to move towards Australia's system of setting a 3.5 per cent maximum divergence from the average number of voters in electorates in each state, with new boundaries drawn every seven years instead of the current UK average of only once a decade.
The Conservatives have presented the cut from 650 to 585 house seats as mainly being aimed at reducing the cost of politics but it would also allow them to get rid of many small non-Tory seats in Wales and other areas, reducing the anti-Tory bias in the design of the electoral system and increasing the Tories' chances.
In the current system, the average seat in England, where the Tories are the strongest party, has 73,212 voters while the average seat in Labour-dominated Wales has just 56,531 voters, making it easier for Labour to win more seats.