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How representative is representative democracy?

How representative is representative democracy?

In my last post about models of democracy, I said that I would evolve representative democracy rather than replace it. So, where might we start?

Representative democracy is a system built on principles and values that, when practised, become culture. To evolve representative democracy, we must examine key elements of the system and how representation might be measured and refined.

This post is designed to serve as an easy-to-read guide to the fundamentals of representative democracy in Australia. I hope that it is helpful for anyone wishing to understand our system and participate in it more effectively. My next post examines representation as a practice. Together they highlight a range of challenges and opportunities to evolve representative democracy. 

Representative systems are different

The term western democracy is misleading. There are significant differences between types of representative systems and how representation works in practice around the world. For example, representative democracy is different in the United Kingdom (UK), United States of America (USA), Canada, New Zealand, and Australia. 

For starters, Australia is the only representative democracy on this list that has compulsory voting. 

We elect our leaders differently. For example, the USA elect their president in a separate election to the rest of their parliament. In contrast, our Prime Minister is elected then selected by the party that forms The Government. 

Everyone in our parliament is elected, but this is not the case in all representative democracies. For example, the UK has a House of Lords, an additional level of parliament, whose members are appointed into positions or inherit their title. Members of the Canadian Senate are also appointed by the Prime Minister and Governor-General, not elected. 

Even within Australia, there are different representative systems. For example, Queensland has only one level of Parliament, while the other states have two; and some states and territories within Australia have different preferential voting systems. 

Maybe we could learn from these differences and how they affect representation? 

The Australian representative system

Structural elements

The Australian Constitution established the structural elements of our representative system. 

Australia is a Federation of States and Territories. We elect officials to represent us in the Federal Parliament, Parliaments in each of the six States and two Territories, and over 500 Local Councils in Australia. Learn more about their roles and responsibilities on the Parliamentary Education Office website here. 

The Australian Federal Government has two houses of Parliament, a House of Representatives and a Senate. We elect Members of Parliament (MPs) to represent us in the House of Representatives and Senators to represent us in the Senate. I will now use the term elected officials when referring to MPs and Senators throughout this post. 

Australia has a Monarch

Australia is a constitutional monarchy modelled on the Westminster System of parliamentary government. Our Head of State is technically the Queen, who is represented in Australia by the Governor-General. Each State of Australia also has a governor. 

In 1999, The Australian Government held a referendum to ask Australian’s whether The Government should change the constitution to establish the Commonwealth of Australia as a republic. The referendum proposed two questions, including a President as Head of State instead of the Queen and Governor-General if it has passed. A referendum needs a majority yes vote; however, only 45.13 per cent of voters said yes to the proposed change.

The Westminster System

The Westminster System of Parliament means that we have: 

  • A Government – the party or coalition with the most MPs in Parliament. 
  • Opposition parties – parties that did not become The Government. 
  • A ‘Legislature’ – all elected officials (both houses of Parliament) and The Queen (Governor-General). 
  • An Executive – the Prime Minister, Queen (Governor-General), and a selection of MP’s nominated as Ministers by the Government. 

The judiciary

We also have a Judiciary: a court system with judges who interpret and enforce our laws. The Government are responsible for appointing judges, and citizens are selected randomly to participate in juries in some trials. 

The separation of powers

The constitution defines the roles and responsibilities of the Executive, Legislature, and Judiciary, distributing and separating power among them. 

This image by the Parliamentary Education Office illustrates the separation of powers in the Australian system of government.  

Image by Parliamentary Education Office (peo.gov.au)

The Government

The party, or coalition, with the most seats in Parliament, forms The Government. Then, they nominate a selection of elected officials (MPs) as Ministers to become part of the Executive. 

A Minister will then become responsible for one, sometimes two Government Departments, or portfolios, e.g., Infrastructure, Health, Environment, Transport, Foreign Affairs. 

The bureaucracy

The bureaucracy refers to the public service, the people and Departments who work for The Government but are not elected. The Government establishes Departments based on portfolios allocated to Ministers. These Departments then receive administrative orders from The Government to develop and deliver public policy, programs, and services. 

Each Department regularly briefs and reports to their Minister who makes decisions and, when necessary, briefs and proposes changes to laws or new laws in Cabinet and Parliament. 


Every new law, or change to a law, must go through both houses of Parliament. First, the House of Representatives, then the Senate. 

When presented to the Parliament, a draft law is called a Bill. Then, if it successfully passes through both houses of Parliament, it becomes an Act.  

The Senate will not consider a Bill without it first having the support of the majority in the House of Representatives. Therefore, if the Senate does not pass a Bill, it must go back through the House of Representatives before it is tabled in the Senate a second time. 

Judges also contribute to the law. When they interpret the law and how it applies to a case, they can set a precedent that becomes a common law.


The Cabinet is a selection of Ministers nominated by The Government. Cabinet meets regularly to discuss issues and make decisions. 

Cabinet is the main arena for Government decision making, but technically it has no legal status. Cabinet is not a structural element of the Westminster system of representative democracy. 

The Executive is responsible to the whole Legislature. Therefore, The Government cannot implement some of the decisions made in Cabinet without consulting and gaining the support of the Parliament. 

If the Government do not agree with the Legislature, they ask the Governor-General for an exemption (via the Federal Executive Council), who can approve decisions without the Legislature’s agreement. 

Electing representatives

Most representative democracies have a system of proportional representation. Each electorate has a seat in Parliament, and people vote for candidates running within their electorate.


Any citizen of Australia over the age of 18 can run as a candidate for election in Australia. 

Compulsory voting

In Australia, compulsory voting means that every citizen over 18 years old must enrol to vote, and you can be fined if you don’t. 

As a result, the people who vote in Australia generally represent all citizens over 18 – not just those interested in voting. However, a voter may choose to leave their ballot blank, or deliberately cast a ‘donkey vote’ by ranking candidates in their order on the ballot paper, or vote informally if they do not want their vote to be counted.

Majority rules

The voting systems in representative democracies vary. For example, the USA, UK, India, and some parts of Canada have a first-past-the-post system, so the candidate with the most votes in a single count is elected, regardless of whether they have a majority. 

In Australia, we have preferential voting, so we rank candidates and count preferences until someone gets a majority. To win, a candidate must have an absolute majority of greater than 50% of primary (first preference votes). If no single candidate wins a majority in the first count, the votes are recounted according to preferences.  

Allocating preferences

We have three different preferential voting systems in Australia: 

  1. Full preferential – voters must show a preference for all candidates on the ballot paper. This is the system used in the Australian House of Representatives. 
  2. Optional preferential – voters must show a number 1 preference and choose to indicate other preferences. This is the system used to elect members of the New South Wales and Queensland State Legislative Assemblies.  
  3. Partial Preferential – voters must show a minimum number of preferences on their ballot paper. This is the system used to elect Senators in the Australian Senate. 

In Tasmania and the Australian Capital Territory, the votes are counted using The Hare-Clarke method, a version of partial preferential voting. 

How preferences are counted 

This section is going to focus on the federal election only. It will cover how we elect MPs in the Australian House of Representatives and Senate. 

During the count, preferences are counted:

  • As specified by the voter. If your first choice is eliminated, your vote goes to your second choice. This process continues until the most preferred or least disliked candidate wins.
  • According to candidates’ preferences. Before running in an election, a candidate may agree to exchange preferences with another candidate, group, or party. Then if they have your primary vote and are eliminated during a count, it will be passed onto their preferred candidate. 

Candidates in the House of Representatives inform voters about these preferences on how-to-vote cards, which they offer to voters at the polling station. Candidates running for the Australian Senate can also register as a group with the Australian Electoral Commission to be listed at the top of the ballot paper, “above the line”.  

Regardless of all these differences, ultimately, the person voting decides how their preferences are counted. You can number your preferences below the line if you want to specify your preferences. Or you can vote above the line in the Senate and use candidates how-to-vote cards in the House of Representatives if you would like your preferences counted according to your candidate’s preference. 

Effect on representation 

It is easier to vote above the line. So, a candidate who runs below the line has less chance of being elected. 

The major parties, and candidates that make deals with them, are more likely to get votes and preferences. Independents and minor parties have fewer associates and are more likely to be listed below the line. Not being part of a group or being part of smaller groups also reduces candidates’ preferences. Parties are also more recognisable, have funding for campaigns, and are more likely to form a government, and these factors may also influence the way people vote.  

However, both minor and large political parties have been accused of forming groups and running candidates in electorates just to have someone listed above the line so that they can harvest preferences. 

A candidate’s position on the ballot paper also affects votes. The Electoral Commission accounts for this by allocating placement through a ballot draw

These risks, and their impact on representation, increase with more people running in an electorate. For example, during the 2013 Australian Federal Government election, 110 candidates ran for the Senate, making the ballot paper very large and overwhelming. 

The Electoral Commission introduced partial preferential voting for the Senate before the 2016 Federal elections to address some of these issues. Voters must now allocate six preferences above the line and twelve preferences below the line. According to the Electoral Commission, this substantially increased the number of votes below the line.  

Knowing what you are voting for

It can be challenging for an Australian voter to determine what a candidate in their electorate stands for. There are no requirements for candidates or parties to articulate their positions on public policy matters in Australia. Voters must seek out information by looking at candidates’ websites, flyers, or letters, but this information can be limited. 

Candidates can also campaign. They might send mailouts, place adverts and travel across electorates, but this type of marketing is expensive. Moreover, not every candidate and party can afford it or may only afford cheaper forms of less effective marketing. As a result, voters might only hear from a small selection of candidates and parties. Further, most political campaigns in Australia often focus on a single issue or critique other candidates’ positions. 

There are two ways for a candidate to raise funds for their political campaign in Australia: 

  • Public funding- candidates who get more than 4 per cent of the vote get funding from the electoral commission after the election results are determined.  
  • Candidates can raise funds. 

The Government can also run adverts about public policy issues and their initiatives before an election. 

The following tools have been developed to inform Australia voters and help them to: 

Representation in Parliament

Demographic representation

In Australia, candidates must be over 18 years old, a citizen and meet the electorate commission requirements for the jurisdiction they are running in. 

The people currently sitting in Australia’s parliament do not demographically represent Australia’s voting population. Several people I interviewed on the streets of Sydney in early 2021 raised this as something they would change about representative democracy.

If we want our parliaments to represent our population demographically, we need to: 

  • increase the diversity of candidates. 
  • vote for candidates representing different demographics. Here is some more information about the demography of Australia.  

Some key demographic indicators are highlighted below. These are not exhaustive. There are many other types of people and groups who are unrepresented proportionally in Australia’s parliament.

Gender diversity

Women have been able to vote and run as a candidate in the Federal elections since 1902, and in all states by 1908. Julia Gillard became Australia’s first Prime Minister in 2010. Now, 38 per cent of all federal MPs are women, and women have been elected into more than 50 per cent of seats in the Senate.  

For more information about representation of women in Australian parliaments, see this article in the Parliament House library. 

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representation

Aboriginal people have only been allowed to vote in all elections in Australia since 1965, and it wasn’t until 1984 that they were required to enrol and vote. Neville Bonner, AO. was the first Aboriginal elected to the Australian Parliament in 1971. 

Australia does not have seats allocated for Aboriginal representation. However, in New Zealand, seven seats are allocated to Māori electorates, ensuring their representation in parliament.

Since the 1970s, Australia Governments have set up multiple organisations to increase the representation of Aboriginal people in Australian government and politics. The most recent is a Referendum Council on constitutional recognition of Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander Peoples. This group was established in 2015 to advise the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition on options for constitutional reform. The Council submitted its report in 2017

This timeline by the National Museum highlights some of the key events affecting Aboriginal representation in the Australian Government and parliaments. 

Cultural diversity

Fewer than 20 of the 226 parliamentarians currently serving in the Federal Parliament have a non-English speaking background.

Young people

The youngest person elected into Australian parliament was Wyatt Roy, at just over 20 years old, in the 2010 election

Geographic representation

Geographical representation is fundamental to representative democracy. Voters elect a candidate to represent their electorate in Parliament. The Electoral Commission reviews and redraws electorates to ensure geographical representation in the Australian Parliament based on the size and population of Australian States and Territories. 

In theory, this means that each electorate has an advocate who can propose, discuss, and vote on legislation put to the Parliament according to their constitutes interest. 

There are two limitations with this form of geographical representation in practice: 

  • Candidates can run in an electorate, even if they do not reside in it. 
  • If an elected official is part of a political party, they must represent the parties’ position when proposing, discussing, and voting on Parliament.  

Party representation

Most elected representatives in Australia are now members of political parties, and some parties form a coalition with other parties. If a candidate is a member of a political party or group, they must inform the electoral commission before running for election. 

When a piece of legislation goes through Parliament, elected officials vote on legislation based on their parties’ position on the Bill. However, this was not always the case. ‘Crossing the floor’ was common practice in Australian parliaments before 1950, despite the party system. Elected officials would ‘cross the floor to vote in Parliament according to their conscience or electorates interest.

You can see how elected officials vote on legislation passed through the Australian House of Representative and Senate on They Vote For You

Branch stacking is also an issue in Australian political parties, affecting which party members run as candidates and which elected officials are nominated as ministers (and Prime Minister) if a party wins the election. Branch stacking can affect party policy and how elected representatives vote in parliament. 

Seeking representation

There are a few ways to seek representation between elections. Still, it is up to the elected official to determine who they will meet with, listen to, and how they will respond to the people and organisations who approach them.  

Contacting your representative

The contact details of all Senators and Members of Parliament in Australia are published here. Anyone can request a meeting or write to a Minister, Department or elected official to express their opinion, needs and interests between them elections. 

Joining a political party

Anyone can apply to join a political party in Australia. However, each party has an application, criteria, and assessment process. 


Anyone can pay a lobbyist to communicate with elected representatives on their behalf. However, Australian Government representatives can only meet with lobbyists listed on the Register of Lobbyists. A code of conduct governs the way lobbyists operate and the requirements they must meet when engaging with elected officials.  

Lobbying activities do not need to be publicly disclosed by elected officials in Australia. However, in some countries, like New Zealand, the onus of responsibility to diarise and declare these activities is on the elected officials. Learn more about codes and guides for different Australian elected officials here

Political donations

The requirements around political donations and disclosure are different around Australia. Donations, loans, or gifts, to a political party or candidate over $1000 need to be disclosed in all States except Tasmania, which does not have a threshold for disclosure. This article by Damon Muller in the Parliament House Library includes more information about the election funding and disclosure. 

Political parties and candidates running in the Federal election can accept donations under $13 800 without disclosing them. In this guide to undisclosed funding sources, or ‘dark money’, by Damon Muller, states that political parties raised $484.8 million in 2018 – 2019 and almost $115M – a quarter of which were undisclosed. The major parties in Australia received nearly 70 per cent of these donations. 

These funds are used to campaign and organise. Donations and funding of political campaigning are apparent areas for improvement if we don’t want our system to become elitist or co-opted by people and organisations who can afford to make donations. 


A petition is a document that requests action by the Parliament. In some representative democracies, like the UK, if a petition gets a certain number of votes, it will be discussed in Parliament, and The Government must respond. Unfortunately, this is not the case in Australia, but anyone can start a petition and invite others to sign it. 

Then if a petition meets the house rules, it can be presented to the Parliament. The rules and requirements for petitions are different in the two houses. For example, petitions need to be introduced in the Senate by Senator, while the House Standing Committee on Petitions receives and processes petitions on behalf of the House of Representatives. The committee also offers guidance about format, content, and signature requirements to people starting petitions. This page on the Australian Parliament House website contains more information about the rules. 


Anyone can make a submission to The Government for consideration during public consultation. A submission is a letter, email, or document outlining a response to a draft policy or plan published by a government department.

The Government refers to four types of consultation in this guide for the Australian public service. Not all of them are public. 

Some groups have more capacity than others to make submissions. For example, some organisations pay people to write submissions on their behalf. This person may be an employee, a contractor, a consultant with specialist skills, or a lobbyist to make a submission on their behalf. Some groups also develop templates or proformas for submissions to make it easy for their members to make submissions during public consultations. 

Protest and freedom of opinion

Australia is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which protects the right to:   

These rights are defined in common law in Australia and recognised by both the NSW Supreme Court and the High Court of Australia. 

In NSW, The Summary Offences Act facilitates the exercise of the common law right to assembly, encouraging mutual co-operation between protesters and the police. The NSW Commissioner of Police and the courts then exercise discretion based on the Act and common law. 

In Queensland, the Peaceful Assembly Act 1992 outlines have the right to assemble peacefully with others in a public place; however public assembly must be authorised by the police and other relevant local authorities.

Influence and corruption

It is currently impossible to precisely determine and track the influence of seeking representation on elected officials and how they vote in Australia’s Federal parliament. But one thing is sure: if you have funding to hire a lobbyist or make a political donation, you are more likely to gain access to an elected official. 

This 2018 Report on the Political Influence of Donations by the select committee set up by the Senate is the best source of information about whether donations lead to corruption. The Report makes 14 recommendations and states: 

“In a properly functioning democracy, citizens can expect their elected representatives to be transparent and accountable in carrying out their public duties. Moreover, citizens can expect elected officials to act in the public interest and not to partake in corrupt behaviours.”

The Australian Government does not have an independent body to investigate these issues and determine corruption; however, some states do.

For example, NSW has the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC), which is currently investigating allegations that The Government made grants to the groups and electorates favoured for political reasons. A NSW Premier recently resigned because of this inquiry. Allocating or spending government funds on a preferred group, candidate, or electorate with a political connection to The Government is a form of corruption referred to as pork barrelling in Australia. 

At present, if you want to investigate corruption or reform laws to protect Australia’s representative democracy at the Federal level, you must put your proposal to the Australian Parliament. The Parliament can then refer these proposals to a committee for investigation. These committees are bipartisan, which means that committee members include elected officials from the Government and the opposition party. 

For example, last week, the opposition moved to refer the matter of a $1M donation made to the Former Attorney-General to The Standing Committee on Privileges and Member Interest. The Government’s majority rejected the movement when put to the vote. However, they did ask the committee to consider clarifying the rules around disclosure of donations and funding for legal cases. 

Another example is the amendment to the Electoral Act to ban dirty donations proposed in the Senate in 2020. The Bill was read twice before being moved – referred to two committees: to scrutinise its merits; and look at the financial and administrative aspects. Both Committees have now reported to the Senate. 

Authority and representation

When elected, MPs and Senators obtain positional authority to make and change laws in Australia. The Government also receives the power to govern, lead and serve. This authority comes with the responsibility of developing and delivering public policy, programs and services and allocating public funds. 

Some argue that being elected is enough of the mandate for The Government’s and elected officials to represent the people they serve. Others think that elected officials and Governments should ask, listen to, and consider constituents’ input between elections. As you have probably guessed by now, I am in the latter camp. 

I will refer to the process of asking and considering input as ‘practising representation’ from now on. Practising representation will be the subject of my next post. I will share how elected representatives and governments can invite input in their decisions; and how we might measure whether these practices enrich representation. 

What can you do now?

Participate! Find out who your elected representatives are and what they stand for. Then, contact them if you have a question or issue you would like to raise. 

Share your thoughts. How would you increase representation within our system? 

Stay in touch. This blog is the second in my 2021 evolve democracy series. Over the next few weeks, I will share more about how representative democracy is being disrupted and evolving, why I think participation is essential, and how you can participate. You can subscribe to this blog and my newsletter here

Thank you and acknowledgments

I would like to recognise the work of the following organisations who are instrumental in upholding and helping people understand Australia’s representative democracy:

I hope that this post contributes to civic education in Australia. Please let me know if I have not referenced you appropriately.

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