New research: Australia’s political system a model for others

June 6, 2018

Prof Reilly: Australia's more moderate style of politics builds a more stable ethnically diverse society.

Australia’s political system has much to teach the world according to new research at Murdoch University.

Dean of the Sir Walter Murdoch Graduate School, Professor Ben Reilly, investigated the effects of electoral systems in ethnically-divided societies around the world.

He argues that a mainstay of Australian politics – our preferential voting system – has some unexpected benefits.

“Preferential voting tends to elect more centrist and moderate candidates than other comparable electoral systems,” he said.

Preferential voting is a key part of a package of political reforms called “centripetalism” which aims to push politics towards the moderate middle, especially in polarized or divided societies.

“The key idea is to make politicians dependent on the electoral support of groups outside of their own base,” Professor Reilly said.

In so doing, it is possible to use institutional reforms to bring about positive changes in the way electoral politics is conducted and the kinds of appeals politicians make to gain election.”

Professor Reilly drew together insights from the United States, Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom, to understand how societies could remain ethnically diverse but not divided.

“Australia represents a distinctive and potentially influential model of democratic institutional design,” Professor Reilly said.

“All major preferential rank order electoral systems were developed or refined in Australia, making it the world’s longest running use of such systems.”

“The major parties in Australia have an incentive to pursue not just first-preference votes, but also the preferences of minor party voters – incentives lacking in other cases such as the UK or the USA”.

“However the experiences of Australia, which encourage electoral moderation and centrist politics through preferential voting, have until recently been overlooked.”

Professor Reilly said that in recent years, more examples of centripetal electoral reforms had been introduced in the United States in the attempt to moderate political polarisation.

“Fixing American democracy requires electoral rules that reward consensus building and broad based appeals rather than narrow targeting and negative partisanship,” he said.

“Several ethnically-diverse cities including San Francisco, Oakland and Minneapolis, have introduced preferential voting reforms in mayoral and council elections with promising results.

“We have also seen a form of instant run off voting currently taking place in the Washington State and California primaries, which use a 'Top Two' system to choose which candidates go on to a general election.

“As an ethnically diverse but not divided society, Australia offers an important example of how ethnically diverse communities can co-exist in a more moderate model of politics than in many other cases. Our institutions are one reason for this.”

Professor Reilly’s research was published in Nationalism and Ethnic Politics.

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