How people elect parliaments
The system of government of nations (and internal states and provinces) with constitutional systems based on the 19th century Westminster tradition is traditionally described as one of representative and responsible government.
Such systems exists in the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and many other nations, as well as in state and provincial systems within these nations.
This system of government can be contrasted with the elected executive presidency systems such as are used in the United States and the bulk of nations with origins outside of the British tradition.
At the core of this idea is that this form of democratic government is present when two key institutions exist in circumstances where two key relationships apply:
What implications do these principles have for the design of the voting system by which that parliamentary assembly is elected?
Fundamental to the representative responsible government form of parliamentary government constitutional system is the existence of a democratic legislature, charged with functions including the creation and amendment of legislation, the scrutiny of the operations of government, and the conduct of open debate on public controversies.
All these functions are premised on the assumption that this legislature is representative of the people.
But crucially, this form of constitutional regime also provides that executive government exists in a relationship of responsibility to a specified legislative chamber (often termed the lower house or popular house, hereafter simple “House”) that must once again be representative of the people.
It follows that the relevant institutional and legislative arrangements for such a House should be designed so as to support – or at minimum, not to contradict – the operation of the relationship of responsibility that must exist between the Executive and the House.
Any institutional arrangement – including the details of the electoral and voting systems – that prevents the character of the House from being representative of the people should therefore be constitutionally unacceptable.
In many of the Westminster-derived jurisdictions the system of government is implied in the constitutional structure, without much specific description other than the obvious fact of the creation of the relevant institutions.
However some national or state constitutions do have specific constitutional statements relevant to this detailed design of voting systems to elect the House. For example the Canadian Charter of Rights (section 3) states that every citizen has the right to vote, while the Australian Constitution (section 24) specifically states that the individual members of the House must be ‘directly chosen’.
In any case, case law in the superior constitutional courts must also be considered. For example, a series of Australian High Court decisions in the past few decades has clearly decided that the implied system of representative and responsible government can be relied upon to discern implied limitations on the legislative power of the Australian Parliament, with the effect that certain forms of legislation that would undermine the electoral process required to elect a representative legislature are not valid laws.
These issues specifically mitigate against the argument of supporters of the plurality voting system and its supposed role – most obviously visible in the UK but also in Canada – in generating party-political majorities on the floor of the relevant Houses.
But in none of these jurisdictions is majority governments actually a constitutional necessity. While the UK constitutional remains unwritten, nothing in the written constitutions of Canada or Australia (or their many provinces and states) or other similar nations specifically requires the existence of a guaranteed party majority in the relevant parliamentary chamber.
Indeed, all these systems are premised on the possibility of these Houses voting a lack of confidence in the executive governments in office, and most institutions set out procedures for this to happen.
All that is required in these constitutional systems is that the governments that seek to continue to hold office are not the subject of an expressed lack the confidence of the House.
Indeed, the obligatory constitutional order is actually the opposite of an artificially secure majority government. For the executive be responsible to the House, it logically should never be acceptable that legislation establishing the electoral systems which control the composition of the House be designed in such a way as to enhance the convenience and security of the executive.
Seen in that light the artificial establishment of ‘strong’ majorities through the design of the electoral system is in fact an assault on the constitutionally required relationship of responsibility.
This is not to say that in a well-designed regime of electoral laws which is adapted to generate representative Houses the electorate may not at some elections vote in a way that gives a majority of the House to a single governing party or coalition. Of course the mood of the electorate may support such a clear outcome. But it ought be inadmissible for electoral laws to operate to generate party majorities when they are not in fact representative of the public mood.
That being so, legislative frameworks creating electoral systems that artificially create parliamentary majorities should be regarded as constitutionally invalid, rather than as necessary or desirable.
The supporters of ‘secure government’ voting systems do not hide their intentions. It is not disputed that one of the core claims of supporters of plurality voting (first-past-the-post) and of single-member electoral divisions is precisely that these electoral design devices generate secure government – or at least that they do so in the majority of cases.
These systems are specifically intended to have the effect of creating parliamentary majorities even in cases where voters fail to line up in support of a single party majority, as is in recent decades the predominant position in the UK and Canada.
The UK effectively had a two-party political landscape between the early 1920s and the late 1970s, but now clearly a more multi-party scenario, while Canada ceased to be a two-party system in around the 1960s and is now a clear three-party system with other regional variety at provincial level.
Minor party and independent roles in parliamentary elections are also fully accepted in these and indeed all Westminster-origin parliamentary systems.
The claims of the secure majority government school of thought, that what would otherwise be appropriate representation of the electorate in the relevant Houses should be overwritten by a single-party majority, is brazenly anti-democratic, and should be understood as clearly in contradiction to the principles of representative and responsible government.
The related claims that secure majority governments are needed to provide stable government and effective economic management is also clearly rebutted in the history of democratic governance in many nations.
Specifically the evidence across comparable OECD nations, to be found in the work of Arend Lijphart and others, shows clearly that governments not composed of a single dominant party can produce equal or even superior results to SMP-based governments in terms of good government, economic growth, social cohesion and many other desirable outcomes.