In the debates of the Federal Convention I was naturally much interested. Many times I regretted my failure to win a seat when I saw how, in spite of warnings against, and years of lamentable experience of, a vicious system of voting, the members of the Convention went calmly on their way, accepting as a matter of course the crude and haphazard methods known to them, the unscientific system of voting so dear to the heart of the "middling" politician and the party intriguer. I believe Mr. Glynn alone raised his voice in favour of proportional representation, in the Convention, as he has done consistently in every representative assembly of which he has been a member. Instead of seeing to it that the foundations of the Commonwealth were "broad based upon the people's will" by the adoption of effective voting, and thus maintaining the necessary connection between the representative and the represented, these thinkers for the people at the very outset of federation sowed the seeds of future discontent and Federal apathy. Faced with disfranchisement for three or six years, possibly for ever--so long as the present system of voting remains--it is unreasonable to expect from the people as a whole that interest in the national well-being which alone can lead to the safety of a progressive nation.
Proportional representation was for long talked of as a device for representing minorities. It is only in recent years that the real scope of the reform has been recognised. By no other means than the adoption of the single transferable vote can the rule of the majority obtain. The fundamental principle of proportional representation is that majorities must rule, but that minorities shall be adequately represented. An intelligent minority of representatives has great weight and influence. Its voice can be heard. It can fully and truly express the views of the voters it represents. It can watch the majority and keep it straight. These clear rights of the minority are denied by the use of the multiple vote. It has also been asked--Can a Government be as strong as it needs to be when--besides the organized Ministerial party and the recogonised Opposition--there may be a larger number of independent members than at present who may vote either way? It is quite possible for a Government to be too strong, and this is especially dangerous in Australia, where there are so many of what are known as optional functions of government undertaken and administered by the Ministry of the day, resting on a majority in the Legislature. To maintain this ascendancy concessions are made to the personal interests of members or to local or class interests of their constituencies at the cost of the whole country.
When introducing proportional representation into the Belgian Chamber the Prime Minister (M. Bernhaert) spoke well and forcibly on the subject of a strong Government:--
I, who have the honour of speaking to you to-day in the name of the Government and who have at my back the strongest majority that was ever known in Belgium, owe it to truth to say that our opinions have not a corresponding preponderance in the country; and I believe that, if that majority were always correctly expressed, we should gain in stability what we might lose in apparent strength. Gentlemen, in the actual state of things, to whom belongs the Government of the country? It belongs to some two or three thousand electors, who assuredly are neither the best nor the most intelligent, who turn the scale at each of our scrutin de liste elections. I see to the right and to the left two large armies--Catholics and Liberals--of force almost equal, whom nothing would tempt to desert their standard, who serve it with devotion and from conviction. Well, these great armies do not count, or scarcely count. On the day of battle it is as if they do not exist. What counts, what decides, what triumphs, is another body of electors altogether--a floating body too often swayed by their passions, by their prejudices; or, worse still, by their interests. These are our masters, and according as they veer from right to left, or from left to right, the Government of the country changes, and its history takes a new direction. Gentlemen, is it well that it should be so? Is it well that this country should be at the mercy of such contemptible elements as these?
How often have I longed to see a Premier in this, my adopted country, rise to such fervid heights of patriotism as this?
An Autobiography -by- Catherine Helen Spence