Gerald Warner: Don't count on Alternative Vote to produce right result

LAST week witnessed two elegantly congruent political events. In the House of Commons, MPs voted in favour of a referendum on introducing the Alternative Vote (AV) electoral system into Britain.

In Australia, the Labor Party that suffered humiliating rejection at the recent election returned to government, courtesy of AV.

Who remembers a quaint old convention that, in parliamentary democracies, the party with the largest number of votes and parliamentary seats forms the government? Thanks to AV, that no longer obtains in Australia. In the first preference round of voting the conservative coalition led by Tony Abbott won 4.9 million votes, or 39.6 per cent, against Labor's 4.7m, or 38 per cent. The result of the subsequent national two-party preferred vote will not be known for weeks yet: it is purely academic, but the count is still continuing although the new government is in office.

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Small wonder AV is not a system that commands widespread support: apart from Australia's House of Representatives, it is otherwise confined to the parliament of Papua New Guinea, the Fijian House of Representatives, by-elections to the Irish Dil, student union elections and the Academy Award for Best Motion Picture. The bottom line, in Australia, is that Abbott's Coalition won 73 seats, Julia Gillard's Labor Party won 72 - but Gillard is the prime minister.

The media-sanctioned name for this process is the "new era" or "new dawn" in Australian politics. Unofficially, it is a system of barter that would strike a Wall Street trader as a bit sharp. Gillard set out to buy the support of three independent MPs (she already had the solitary Green safely on side). She offered a package of almost $10bn in regional funding and $100m for a hospital in Hobart (the bailiwick of independent Andrew Wilkie), several more esoteric concessions, such as reform of poker machines and the establishment of a committee of politicians and experts to work towards putting a price on carbon emissions. This was a pork barrel larger than anyone except Barack Obama had ever traded.

The two New South Wales independents, Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott, concluded that Christmas had come early and closed the deal. This was despite polling showing that in Windsor's constituency 55 per cent of voters wanted him to support the coalition, as against 35 per cent in favour of Labor, while in Oakeshott's constituency 52 per cent urged him to back the coalition and 38 per cent Labor. That affords a useful insight into how effectively AV empowers the electorate and makes MPs more accountable.

Windsor claimed he was swayed by Labor's pledge to roll out optic fibre broadband across the country. In a franker moment, he startled journalists by admitting he would back Labor because Tony Abbott would call an early election and "because I think he would win". Since the independents are only committed to support the government on supply bills and "unwarranted" no-confidence motions, Gillard will continue to walk a tightrope. She has promised to meet the independents every week when, no doubt, the latest blackmail demands will be presented.

Australia has never been a good advertisement for democracy because it has compulsory voting - a dictatorial imposition calculated to spare politicians the embarrassment of low turnouts. The AV system is a pathetic absurdity. The plea that it ensures all MPs have the support of a majority of their constituents is patent nonsense: second or third choice is hardly a democratic endorsement. In this instance it has shamelessly frustrated the will of the electorate.

Tony Abbott, the prime minister manqu, remains a formidable politician and a man to watch. A former Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, athlete, monarchist, promoter of Aboriginal rights and climate sceptic, he is the antithesis of PC consensual politics. His Catholicism has been used against him in the most crass way, as when he responded to a question from a women's magazine by saying he would tell his daughters that virginity was a gift not to be given away lightly. Julia Gillard, in a demonstration of knee-jerk feminist bigotry, promptly accused him of "lecturing" women. The notion that a father has no right to give responsible moral advice to his daughters typifies the air-head fatuity of this machine politician.

It is Abbott's climate scepticism that has provoked the opprobrium of the acolytes of the global warming superstition and the speculators of the carbon trading scam. This will be a central issue in Australian politics, focusing on mining taxes and carbon emissions trading, in which the establishment will be challenged by a highly articulate intellectual with popular appeal. The clever money is on Abbott eventually becoming prime minister. Whether by that time Britain has committed itself to a glorious future of AV voting remains to be seen.