The most essential feature of a liberal democracy is a democratic electoral system.
A democratic electoral system can be said to be one where:
- elections are regular and fair
- votes are of equal value
- the will of the majority is achieved
- the interests of minorities are taken into consideration
- there is a high level of participation by the electorate
- there is the maximum possible franchise
- voting is accessible
In Australia, these qualities are achieved in a number of ways:
- The Constitution, in Section 28 and Section 7 guarantees 3-yearly elections for the House of Representatives and 6-yearly elections for the Senate.
- The establishment of the Australian Electoral Commission as a statutory authority ensures that elections are conducted fairly and independently. The political parties and politicians are kept at arms length from the electoral process.
- Reforms to the Commonwealth Electoral Act ensure that there is no malapportionment or gerrymandering in the distribution of electorates in the House of Representatives. The size of electorates is determined by population and may only vary by plus or minus 10%. Regular redistributions are required.
A defect in the Australian system of preferential voting arises because of the use of single-member electorates. Because the people voting for each party are not distributed evenly across all electorates, it is possible for a party to win a majority of seats in the House of Representatives without winning a majority of the overall two-party-preferred vote. This occurred in 1998, 1990, 1969, 1961 amd 1954.
- Minority interests are taken into consideration through the use of the preferential system. In the 1998 federal election, preferences had to be distributed in 99 of the 148 electorates.
- Minority interests are taken into consideration in the Senate through the use of the proportional voting system. This system allows candidates to win seats in proportion to the vote they achieve. In a normal half-Senate election, a quota of 14.3% of the vote is required to win a seat. Because of this, minor parties such as the Australian Democrats, Greens and One Nation are able to win Senate seats. Independent candidates, such as Tasmania’s Senator Brian Harradine and South Australia’s Nick Xenophon are also able to win because of this system.
- The franchise in Australia is known as full adult suffrage. All citizens over the age of 18 are entitled to vote and stand for election. Earlier discrimination against women and Aborigines has been removed.
- Australia’s system of compulsory voting ensures a high degree of participation, around 95% in all elections, although there are critics of this compulsion.
- Participation is also achieved through a variety of measures which promote access to voting. These include the use of mobile polling booths, postal and pre-poll voting, absentee voting, provisional voting, and electoral education programs
- The introduction of public funding of election campaigns and electoral donation disclosure laws goes some way towards ensuring that the major political parties are unable to dominate election campaigns.