A short history of federal electoral reform in Australia

Updated: 8 October 2019

The history of federal electoral reform in Australia is a convoluted one, reflecting not only the influence of political factors, but also the massive changes in the nature of Australian society, technology and life which have taken place since Federation. Different historians place emphasis on different issues, and this article therefore represents a very personal view of what have been the high points.

The starting point of the process came in 1902, the first election having been held, pursuant to sections 10 and 31 of the Constitution, under the laws of the various States. The Commonwealth Parliament enacted the Commonwealth Franchise Act 1902 and the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1902, which taken together provided for a secret ballot, votes for men and women (but not for aboriginals), and plurality ("first-past-the-post") voting for both the Senate and the House of Representatives.

The Commonwealth Electoral Act

Changing political circumstances led within a relatively short time to a review of some of these initial features. The Commonwealth Electoral Act was comprehensively rewritten in 1918 (the last such rewrite until 1983), and the new Act among other things introduced alternative ("preferential") voting for the House of Representatives; this was in response to the rise of the Country Party in the aftermath of the First World War, and the consequent prospect of loss of seats to Labor through a split in the non-Labor vote. The three-party system which preferential voting helped to support has remained fundamentally unchanged to this day.

A reform with profound implications for the conduct of day-to-day political campaigning, but with a partisan impact difficult to measure, was the introduction of compulsory voting in 1924. As a consequence of compulsory voting, parties do not have to devote to "getting out the vote" the sorts of resources which are deployed by, for example, the main US political parties. Compulsory voting has long been accepted without much complaint within Australia, while being regarded by outside observers as somewhat eccentric. In recent years the debate, such as it is, has taken a new turn, with attention being focussed not so much on the question of individual rights – any voter can if he or she so chooses avoid making a choice of candidates by casting a deliberately informal vote – but on the effect which compulsory voting has had on the overall quality of political discourse and government in Australia.

Commonwealth voting arrangement

Almost a quarter of a century was to go by before another change of comparable significance was made to Commonwealth voting arrangements. In 1948 the representational basis of the Senate was changed, with the introduction of proportional representation using the single transferable vote. This was partly a response to the very lopsided political balances which had been produced in the Senate by the previous voting systems: from 1946 to 1949 for example, there were only three opposition Senators, a leader, a deputy leader and a Whip, facing 33 government Senators. The effect of proportional representation since its first use at the 1949 election has been dramatic, though predictable: the balance of power in the Senate lies in the hands of parties which would, but for the voting system, be denied parliamentary representation. Recently, for the first time since 1948, questions have started to be raised in some political circles as to whether such a state of affairs is an appropriate one.

The period from 1949 to 1983 was not marked by extensive electoral reforms. The coalition government in power from 1949 to 1972 was disinclined to change arrangements which were, as it saw them, working effectively; while the Labor government in power from 1972 to 1975 was unable to persuade a hostile Senate to accept the many initiatives it put forward, and unwilling to seek common ground with its opponents. Two enduring changes were however made to the franchise: in 1962 aboriginal voters were finally given, without exceptions, the right to enrol and vote, while in 1973, the voting age was lowered from 21 to 18.

Major electoral reform

In the mid 1970s the High Court, for the first time, became the catalyst for major electoral reforms. In the landmark McKinlay and McKellar cases, the Court altered the basis of the drawing of the boundaries of House of Representatives electorates by making it clear that the constitutional requirement that States be represented in the House by numbers of members "in proportion to the respective numbers of their people" was a binding one, which the Parliament could not avoid implementing. The long term effect of these rulings has been a much greater frequency of redrawing of electoral boundaries in those States which have been affected by population flows. Queensland, for example, which saw its federal electoral boundaries redrawn only once between 1955 and 1975, has had its boundaries redrawn five times between 1975 and 1998.

The most recent round of significant reforms came in 1983. The newly elected Labor government eschewed the confrontational style which had limited the success of its predecessor, and established a parliamentary committee, the Joint Select Committee on Electoral Reform (now the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters) which became the focal point for changes to the electoral system in the last decade. The Committee's work gave rise to such changes as the printing of party affiliations on ballot papers, the introduction of party financing laws, and the creation of the independent Australian Electoral Commission. The Commission has worked closely with the Committee to seek to maintain an effective implementation of the will of the Parliament in the electoral field.

Many reforms, of course, have not required legislative change. The development of computerised electoral rolls has massively changed the way elections are administered. The information revolution is touching electoral administration as it touches all aspects of modern life, and could well form the basis for the next major electoral reforms in Australia.