Comment: Our votes aren't equal

How are you represented in the House of Representatives if your local MP is the Speaker? asks Tom Burns

Despite our democratic values, we haven't exactly got equal representation in parliament, writes Tom Burns.

For voters such as myself who cast their ballot in the seat of Chisholm in Melbourne's east, a vote for Labor is a vote for Anna Burke.

By union birthright, Ms Burke belongs to the party's right faction but she is typically outspoken. Most recently, she has been a vocal critic of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's Papua New Guinea Solution. This is an admirable trait in a political world that brooks no dissent and urges its MPs to "stay on message".

It's all very good and well, except for the fact that Ms Burke doesn't get a vote in parliament because she's the Speaker - not unless it's a tie.

Ms Burke also can't participate in debate or present bills. She can only facilitate it. So how am I being directly represented if my representative doesn't have the same powers as yours? In fact, my representative is just there to make sure yours has a fair go.

If the Coalition forms government this election, but Ms Burke retains her seat, only then will I have gained direct representation in the House of Representatives. But someone else who voted for a Coalition candidate will have lost it. The only other way I could gain representation would be to vote for a candidate from a different party who wouldn't stand for the Speakership. But then I am left choosing between no say and, likely, the Coalition.

So my vote isn't quite the same as yours.

Though having less say isn't a unique problem to the seat held by the Speaker. At least I'm lucky enough to be voting in a seat with a near-marginal status. For anyone voting in a safe seat, their vote is less likely to turn the tide - and politicians take advantage of that fact.

Why else would there be so much campaigning and policies directed at these marginal seats if it weren't the case?

If you want to get really picky, though, you can even say some Tasmanians and Northern Territorians have almost  twice the voting power as some Victorians and South Australians. That's because of something called malapportionment, where one electorate has fewer voters than another but both get equal representation in the form of an individual Member of Parliament. For example, the Northern Territory's electorate of Solomon has a voting population of 63,094 whereas in the former Prime Minister's Victorian seat of Lalor there are 107,280 eligible voters.

But this isn't a new problem. An infamous example of malapportionment was in the South Australian state parliament between 1936 and 1968. Premier Sir Thomas Playford, arguably the system's main benefactor, became and remains still the longest serving leader of any government in Australian history. The system favoured rural voters by the fact that for every metropolitan electorate there were at least two in rural areas. This was despite these rural areas consisting of less than half of the state's total voting-age population.

A primary vote of 51% to your main rival's 36% sounds like a landslide victory, doesn't it? But in 1953 South Australia it meant a five seat victory for Playford to continue what would become his 26 years in power.

I'm not expecting  that anything that drastic will happen this federal election. But it just goes to show that despite our democratic values, we still can't say we've all got an equal say.

Stay up to date with SBS NEWS

  • App
  • Subscribe
  • Follow
  • Listen
  • Watch