The Australian House of Representatives has 150 members for a resident population of 21,268,746 (10 April 2008), or almost 142,000 people per representative. The US House of Representatives has 435 members for a resident population of 303,817,103 (10 April 2008), or almost 670,000 people per representative. The UK House of Commons has 646 members for a resident population of 60,587,000 (mid-2006), or almost 94,000 people per representative. The Canadian House of Commons has 308 members for a resident population of 33,231,725 (10 April 2008), or almost 108,000 people per representative.
Traditionally, which is to say always, the constituency of each representative or member of parliament has been defined geographically. That’s simple enough, but now that communication and identification technology has advanced to where it is today, they no longer need to be.
Members of the various lower houses of parliament/congress are meant to be representatives of their constituents, speaking on their behalf and seeking to act in their best interest. Before anybody mentions it, the Edmund Burke argument, that members of parliament ought to focus on the well-being of the nation as a whole, carries more strength in a unicameral parliament than it does in the constitutional arrangements of Australia, Canada and the USA where an upper-house exists with members sitting for longer terms so as – in principal, at least – to focus more on the issues more than the politics. It also seems to me that within her role as a member of parliament thinking of the good of the nation, a representative has a duty to pass on to the parliament the democratically valid views of her constituents, even if she ultimately votes in another direction.
By having electoral districts be geographically defined, we remove from the people the right to self-organise and they instead become passive receivers of groupings that are set down upon them. Unless you have an independent body to determine electoral boundaries, you therefore run the risk of gerrymandering (although whether that necessary causes polarisation is apparently debatable). Even if gerrymandering does not cause polarisation, the relevance of a geographically-defined groups is becoming less relevant as communication and transportation technologies improve. In a more globalised world where the economic fortunes of people are less tied to those of their neighbours, the issues of concern that people share will be less likely to be spatially concentrated.
My question, then, is this: What if 150,000 Australians were to voluntarily opt out of their resident electoral districts and form a non-geographically defined constituency with their own seat in the House of Representatives?
- Individuals would only be permitted to be a member of one electoral constituency.
- Everyone would be a part of a geographic district by default, but could change to a non-geographic grouping if they chose.
- Even then, people would retain a geographical link to the legislature through the Senate.
- The election of representatives from non-geographic constituencies would proceed just like any other seat in a general election; all of the various political parties would be free to offer candidates and to campaign in whatever way they saw fit.
- By coming together around a common topic of concern, constituents guarantee that candidates will need to address that concern in their campaigns and that the winner will truly be their representative in parliament.
The idea isn’t entirely novel. Several countries allow for an expatriate electoral role so that non-resident citizens can still vote. These are usually tied back to a geographic district within the home country, but there’s no reason they have to be.
At a first glance, this might seem like a finely grained version of proportional representation. I guess that to a point it is, but since each constituency would still have elections, all parties would be able to put forward candidates and the decision process within each constituency would still be the same as within geographic districts (preferential voting in Australia, first-past-the-post in the UK and USA), it’s not.
It might also seem like this would just be formalised lobbying. To that I can only say: “Yes. So?” People are entitled to their views and in a democracy those views ought to be granted equal rights to be heard. Lobbyists are treated with such scorn today because they seek to obtain political influence beyond their individual vote. They exist, in part, because people do not have any real connection to their representatives.