The Case for 3 Member Electorates

Queensland’s parliamentary system is based on single member electorates. All you can really say in praise of this system is that it reliably provides all Qld voters with a local member. There is no guarantee that the winner of the two part preferred (2PP) vote will form government nor that the parliament will function as a check and balance against government excesses.

This post looks at how a parliamentary system based on 3 member electorates could overcome most of the shortcomings of the current system.


Table 1.1 lists desirable features of a good electoral system:


  1. All voters who live in Qld have at least one local member.

  1. Government is awarded to the winner of the two party* preferred (2PP) vote.

  1. Who forms government is decided by the voters, not post election negotiations.

  1. The opposition is not reduced to a point where they will struggle to provide a viable alternative or effective opposition.

  1. All voters are important, not just the voters in marginal seats.

  1. Results do not depend on the location of electorate boundaries or differences in the percentage of voters for particular parties from electorate to electorate.

  1. Does not make it too difficult for independents or small parties to win some seats.

  1. Provides no incentive to vote strategically.

  1. One of the members in every electorate is a member of the government.

  1. Provides some check and balance on government decisions.

  1. The government cannot be blocked from raising the money needed to do its job properly.

  1. There are mechanisms for dealing with deadlocks.

  1. It is difficult for a vote of no confidence to force an early election.

(*NOTE: In this post the term “party” will include coalitions registered before the election.)


Qld currently has a single house of government made up of 89 single member electorates. This system reliably provides all voters with a local member and usually satisfies items 2 to 4. The rest are rarely or never satisfied.

(In Appendix A the results of the 2012 Qld election are used to highlight some of the problems with Qld’s current one member electorate system.)


A number of alternatives were looked during the preparation of this post but it was concluded that a single house system based on 3 member electorates had the best chance of meeting most of the desirable features mentioned in Table 1.1.

The following details a specific proposal for 3 member electorates.


  1. All electorates will have three members.

  1. The party (or registered coalition) that wins the 2PP vote becomes the government

  1. All electorates will have one government MP and two non-government MP’s.

  1. MP’s will not all have the same number of votes in parliament.

  1. The parliament will not be able to prevent the government getting the money it needs to do its job.

  1. The government would be able to put blocked legislation to a referendum (or some other mechanism for consulting the people.)

  1. An early election in response to a successful no confidence vote can only be called if the governor is convinced that this action is justified.

Table 3.2 sets out the details for one option. Some of items in this list assume that there will be times when the government does not have a working majority.






93 single member electorates will be replaced by 31 three member electorates.

NOTE: Qld has 30 federal electorates.


Registered coalitions will be treated as registered parties where relevant.


Registered parties can have no more than one registered candidate for each electorate.

Unregistered candidates will be treated as independents for the purpose of the 2PP vote.


Voters will be able to allocate preferences.

Compulsory, optional or part compulsory?


The first stage of the count will be a state-wide count to determine which party wins the 2PP vote.

The winner will form government. (Basic requirement.)


The second stage will be a count for each electorate to determine who the MP’s will be for this electorate and how many votes each member takes to parliament:


The government candidate cannot be eliminated during this count.

Ensues each electorate has one government member.


The count will follow normal preference voting procedures until only three candidates remain.

These candidates become the 3 members for the electorate.


The member with the most votes will take 45% of the electorates votes to parliament with the second and third highest getting 30% and 25% respectively.

This system will always provide a check and balance. No party will end up having enough votes on its own to pass or block legislation.


By-elections will be replaced by something similar to what is used in the Senate. (Party selects the replacement.)

By-elections are not practical for 3 member electorates.

(Independents may be required to nominate a political heir.)


Members will be able to nominate a proxy to cover when they are absent.

Simple swaps won’t work because the number of votes a member has will vary.

The above election procedures mean that no government will end up with a working majority in it’s own right. The following will help deal with this issue:


The parliament would not be able to block the action required to provide the money needed for the government to do its job. This includes raising loans as well as changing taxes and charges.

The relevant legislation would have to be presented to parliament and voted on before the government could decide to overrule the parliamentary vote.


The government would have the option of putting legislation voted down by parliament to a referendum (or some other mechanism for consulting the people.)

  1. The relevant legislation would have to presented to parliament and voted onbefore the government could put the legislation to a referendum.

  2. Legislation passed by referendum could not be changed by parliament until after the following election.


The speaker will have the option of voting if this vote will affect an outcome.


An early election in response to a successful no confidence vote can only be called if the governor is convinced that this action is justified

The combined non-government parties will usually have a majority that, in theory, could be used to pass trivial votes of no confidence.


Unless there is a major change in voting patterns the proposed system would be expected to produce a Qld parliament that had about 31 LNP and 31 Labor members with the remaining 31 places going to a mix of independents and minor party members.

In terms of who forms government what is proposed in Table 3.2 meets all the relevant requirements listed in Table 1.1 except that an incentive to vote strategically for the 2PP vote might become relevant if the top three parties become closer in size. (NOTE: The potential incentive for strategic voting could be removed by allowing the party that came 3rd during the 2PP count to challenge the winner of the initial 2PP count and to form government if it can beat both the parties that came ahead of it in a 2PP count. )

In terms of who the non-government members are most of the relevant requirements will be met. However:

  1. The result will be influenced by the location of boundaries and the distribution of party supporters. (Both how many members non-government parties get and the votes members take to parliament.)

  2. In some cases there will be an incentive to vote strategically.

In terms of the workability of the parliament what is proposed will allow the parliament to provide a check and balance without making it too hard for the government to go about its business. Keep in mind:

  1. The government cannot be denied the money it needs to do its job.

  2. No party on its own will have enough votes to pass or block legislation.

  3. The referendum option could be used as a last resort to pass or modify legislation when the public supports the government’s position.

Hopefully, both sides of parliament may have enough sense to back down and avoid a referendum when the polls clearly show that they would lose the referendum.)

There are a number of changes to this proposal that might be considered including:

  1. Change item 3 in table 3.2 to allow parties to have more than one registered candidate. This would be OK if the first stage of the vote count was used to bring the number of registered candidates down to one for each registered party. (Only voters who gave their first preference to the relevant party would take part in this count. The preferences of losers would be distributed and the losing candidate would take no further part in the election.)

  2. Change item 6.3 so that the votes that the three members for an electorate will take to parliament will the votes they have when all except the last three candidates have been eliminated. This change will make the number of votes members take to the parliament to reflect more closely the support they received. This change means that there will be times when a government will have a working majority in it own right. (For example, the LNP would have had a working majority in its own right if this change had applied for the 2012 election.) (It might be argued that a party that gets strong support should be able to govern in its own right. Alternatively, the checks and balance could be maintained by capping the percentage of votes a party has in parliament to something under 50%. (All members of the affected party would have their vote reduced by enough to avoid exceeding the cap.)

  3. Votes of no confidence could be eliminated altogether or the current no=confidence rules remain the same as they are now.

  4. Numbers in clauses like 6.3, table 3.2 could be changed.


The Queensland state 2012 election results highlight some of the problems associated with single member electorates. Table A1.1 provides the key results:






(@ 2 April 2012)



































(Details of the Qld electoral system and the 2012 election results can be found at the Wikapedia and Qld electoral commision websites.)


A good result in the sense that the party that won the 2PP vote was able to form government with a workable majority. A bad result in the sense that the main opposition party (ALP) was expected to struggle to provide an effective opposition or to be seen as a credible alternative at the next election because it only won 8% of the seats. Bad too in that the minor parties only won 2% of the seats despite winning 20% of the primary vote between them.


The disturbing thing is that the outcome could have been quite different even if every voter had voted exactly the same. Consider an extreme example: If the ALP had been able to locate all of its supporters in electorates where the ALP vote was slightly above 50%, the ALP would have won 48 seats and formed government without needing any preferences.

At the other extreme, if the distribution of votes had been identical for all electorates, the LNP would have won all the seats after distribution of preferences. Other changes in the geographical distribution of supporters could have seen minor parties and/or independents holding the balance of power.

Table A1.1 and these examples demonstrate why systems based on single member electorates:

  1. Provide no guarantee that the party that wins the 2PP vote will form government. (There are numerous examples in Australia where the 2PP loser has won government.)
  2. Can result in a hung parliament. In this case, who forms government will be decided by post election negotiations, not the voters.
  3. Can have results distorted by the location of electoral boundaries or geographical distribution of supporters.

  4. Tend to give the parties with high primary votes a disproportionate share of the members.

There are a number of other problems with single member electorates including:

  1. Voters in marginal electorates have far more influence than those in safe electorates.

  2. Not all voters will be represented by a member of the government. This can make it harder for these voters to influence government decisions.

  3. Incumbent members have an advantage over challengers.

  4. Single house systems like the Qld system only act as a check and balance in the event that the government fails to get enough seats to have a majority in its own right.

The only real attraction of single member electorates is that each voter shares “their” member with fewer other voters.

8 thoughts on “The Case for 3 Member Electorates”

  1. John, thoughtful with lots of lateral thinking as usual.

    I must say I like the notion that I could have a local member in both the government and the main opposition.

    Clearly it is revolutionary to have a situation where:

    No party will end up having enough votes on its own to pass or block legislation.

    It would make cooperation and consensus building mandatory, but it would be nigh impossible to get a referendum through to make the change.

    However it’s better to imagine solutions rather than just grumble about the status quo.

  2. John, talking to Mark when he was here about the typical elections you see in Europe, which end up being mostly a centrist coalition, he thinks this is stimulating extremism on the right and the left, mostly on the right. I wonder what effect your system would have.

  3. Jumpy: Governments survive by getting the right balance between the things people want governments to do and the taxes and charges the people will tolerate in order get these things done. I don’t see what I am proposing makes much difference to that apart from stopping oppositions from doing things like blocking supply in an attempt to force an election.

  4. Brian: I think what has been happening in many European countries is that the voters don’t decide who will form government. All the voters decide is who will be involved in the negotiations re who will form government. My guess is that the resulting alliance won’t look much different from a voter’s point of view. Makes parties that don’t fit into this comfortable arrangement look more and more attractive, particularly when the average voter sees things getting worse under the good old comfortable arrangement. (“Who forms government is decided by the voters, not post election negotiations.” was one of my core requirements for a good electoral system.)
    The second problem with the comfortable arrangement is that there seems to be a consensus on things like free trade and free borders at a time when many voters, and parties of the left and right are questioning the value of both these things.
    Then there was the Eurozone currency stuff-up. Might have worked better if it had been thought through more thoroughly and it had been realized that it had to come with things like Euro taxes and Euro welfare if it was going to work properly.
    Then there is the problem that it is some time since Europeans have seen the problems created by the far right Nazis and the far left Communists.
    By contrast the Australian federal system usually has a government that was selected by the voters and usually ends up with a senate that acts as a check and balance. However, many would argue that there is not enough difference between the LNP and Labor to prevent the rise of more extreme parties of the left and right.
    The 3 member electorate system would mean that Qld would always have a government selected by the voters and always provide some check and balance. However, it also makes it easier for minor parties to have members elected and become more visible to the voters.

  5. Keep in mind that some of the things suggested here could be applied to other systems of government. Weighting of votes and using referendums to sort out deadlocks for example.

  6. The late David Lange hated the list system introduced in NZ decades ago. He hated the compromises and coalition-cobbling needed afterwards.

    3 member sounds better to me than statewide proportional, in that local issues and strong local candidates (from local govt, local associations, etc.) can be elected in their own region.

    I disagree with Mr Lange on parliamentary reform..

  7. Ambiguous: I see local members as being an important part of our democratic system for the sorts of reasons you mentioned. Having 3 local members serving an electorate about the same size as the federal electorates would be even better because each member would be competing for my support and the usual fob off response would no longer be real smart.
    On the other hand, I think upper houses should be elected as a single electorate. This means that numbers parties get in the upper house reflects state wide support, more opportunities are provided for minor parties/interest groups and, unlike upper houses with a number of multi member seats, the result cannot be distorted by boundary locations and where the supporters of various parties live.

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