How people elect parliaments
Voters should maintain a direct and dynamic online relationship with professional parliamentarians, who would exercise weighted voting power in parliament according to how many supporters they maintain, according to a radical alternative proposed by Australian book publisher and media figure Richard Walsh.
In his recently released book Reboot: A Democracy Make-over to Empower Australia’s Voters, Walsh imagines that there would be two categories of members of parliament, which he terms open representatives and closed representatives.
Walsh is a well-known publisher of Australian magazines and books for over half a century. A long-term advocate of freedom of expression, he survived one of the last trials for obscene publication in the 1960s, before going on to a long career as a book and magazine publisher, editor, journalist and lecturer.
Under Walsh’s new electoral model, voters would also be allowed to self-classify as either open (or perhaps ‘engaged’) voters or closed voters.
The open representative MPs would be professional parliamentarians, supported by and linked to the online support expressed by the open voters. The number of open voters supporting each open-category MP would be mediated through official internet links made by the open voters themselves (giving a whole new meaning to the notion of the online ‘like’.)
In votes on the floor of parliament, the open representatives would all have different voting strengths, matching the number of open voters who have signed on as their supporters.
Open voters could only support one open representative at any time. Under this system, however, open voters could go online and switch to supporting a different representative at any time.
The system is designed to give parliament a highly diverse array of open representatives, each seeking to actively represent different niches of opinion in the electorate.
In Walsh’s vision, the open voter-representative relationship aims to provide democratic satisfaction to those voters who are more engaged with the political process. One aim is to encourage as many voters as possible to become actively engaged. Another is to give the MPs a more vigorous democratic motivation to remain close to their voters.
The remaining closed voters would not be disregarded, however. Closed voters would instead participate in elections of the ordinary kind, held every 3 or 4 years. Under Walsh’s model, such voting would be in large electorates, using a simplified version of the single transferable vote (STV) system, already in common use in Australia. The quota for seats would be based on the national population and the number of voters who do not choose to belong to the more politically engaged open category.
In electing the closed representatives, instead of using transfers of surplus votes under normal STV voting rules, Walsh proposes only to transfer votes ‘up’ from candidates that do not reach the set quota of votes. Above-quota vote tallies for more successful individual candidates could be allowed to stand, rather than be transferred ‘down’.
These final closed representatives would also be part of the Parliament, exercising vote values on the floor of parliament equal to either the STV quota or to the larger number of votes they won at their election.
Walsh anticipates that the elected closed category MPs would largely be political party nominees, as occurs in traditional elections. But he also anticipates that many leading members of political parties would also be supported in the open category.
Walsh sees benefits in his system for a change in the culture of political parties, making their MPs more concerned with key issues and less focused on internal factional concerns.
Including both the open and the closed category MPs, the result would be a diverse parliament representing a combination of political party nominees, representatives of special community movements or key issues, and local and regional independents.
Exactly how and when any individual voter would move between the open and closed categories would need to be clarified.
Under Walsh’s model, parliamentary representatives would not have ministerial careers, limiting them instead to parliamentary careers involving legislation, resolutions and inquiry into public issues. A prime minister and ministers would be chosen by parliament, but the ministry would not be made up of MPs.
Walsh’s system is a radical alternative to ordinary electoral systems, but is certainly intriguing. It would give voters not only a very high degree of choice of representatives, but a dynamic relationship with sitting parliamentarians in which their choices can be altered in vert short-term timeframes.
Transparent revelation of the MP supporter numbers, perhaps including demographic and geographic breakdowns, would give all observers a real-time look into how voters react to the actions of their representatives, and vice versa.
The system would also certainly grant all voters – open or closed – very close to equal influence in the voting power exercised on the floor of parliament.
In combination with Australia’s existing tradition of compulsory voting, it would also maintain a very high rate of actual representation.
Walsh’s main stated purpose is to generate a renewed sense of engagement of voters with the parliamentary process, and greater democratic control over parliamentary votes and outcomes.
Under Walsh’s system, social issues such as same-sex marriage could be addressed using stronger and more direct voter input.
If voters could really update their support online in real time, the potential practical implications might be very dynamic indeed.
While Walsh doesn’t go into the micro-detail, under his system parliament could debate bills during the week, but reserve all the key votes to be held each Friday. A Friday list of pending votes might include a diverse list of tax law adjustments, reforms on marriage or similar social issues, initiation of royal commissions or inquiries, disallowance motions relating to major mining approvals, as well as a crucial vote of confidence in the current government.
The millions of open voters might be required to log any MP support changes online by midnight Thursday. Among 150 or more standing parliamentary representatives, almost every voter is likely to find at least representative one who commits to voting on all the next day’s motions in the combination which each voter supports.
Under Walsh’s model, weeks or months of deliberation and debate on issues and legislation would necessarily be followed by conclusive votes. Procedures would be established to prevent parliamentary factions from hindering important issues from coming up for votes.
Exactly how and when the open representatives initiate a parliamentary career, and what threshold of support would be needed before they take a parliamentary place (and when and how they might lose one) are not clearly specified; Walsh leaves some details to be worked through.
Walsh proposes that his reformed system would require only one house of parliament – not two.
He also argues for the appointment of executive ministries from outside parliament itself, and for conflating the positions of departmental secretaries with those of ministers. The prime minister and ministry would remain responsible to Parliament through the need to secure and maintain confidence among the MPs, and pass budget appropriations, in the traditional manner.