The Economist ran an article on Australia’s newest efforts to green their economy, this time by instituting a carbon tax.  The Economist has its own ideas about this, as do many other people.  Indeed, there are serious debates, even among those who think that climate change is real and human-caused, about whether market-based or carbon-tax-based solutions are best (or some other completely different alternative might be useful).  I’m not wading into all that here. Instead, I want to make an observation about politics, political structures and how we address climate change.

Australia is a democracy, but its elections work quite differently than ours do here in the US.  From the Australian Government’s Webpage:

Australia does not use the ‘first-past-the-post’ voting system (where a candidate can be elected with less than 50 per cent of the total vote). Preferential voting is used for elections to the House of Representatives. Australians must put a number against each candidate’s name in order of preference. First, all the number ‘1’ votes are counted for each candidate. If a candidate gets more than 50 per cent (an absolute majority, 50 per cent plus one) of the formal first preference votes, then they are immediately elected. If no candidate has an absolute majority, the candidate with the fewest votes is excluded. These votes are then transferred to the other candidates according to the second preferences shown by voters on the ballot papers. If still no candidate has an absolute majority, again the remaining candidate with the fewest votes is excluded and these votes are transferred. This process will continue until one candidate has more than half the total votes cast and is declared ‘elected’. This voting system has been used in Australian federal elections since 1918.

To help supporters order their preferences, political parties hand out ‘how-to-vote’ cards at polling booths. The preferences that flow from less popular candidates often decide who wins. Distributing preferences can take days or even weeks.

Proportional representation is used in the Senate. Candidates must receive a quota of the voters in state-wide, multiple-seat electorates. Preferences are also used in Senate voting. The Senate currently has 76 members, 12 from each state and two each from the two mainland territories. The House of Representatives currently has 150 members.

In a nutshell, what this all means is that Australia cannot be dominated by two parties – lots of parties end up getting people elected to both houses, which often forces the parties with large pluralities (but not majorities) to form coalitions with other parties to build a majority, and therefore the right to run the government.  So it is right now – where the Labor party was forced into a coalition with the Greens.  As a condition of their joining the coalition, the Greens extracted a promise to develop a climate plan . . . right after a failed climate plan brought down the previous prime minister.  If Labor was governing by itself, do you think they would be working on climate again?  Of course not – the new Prime Minister “promised not to introduce a carbon tax” during her campaign.

This is sort of a perverse mirror-image of the United States.  In Australia, you have a party that probably wants nothing to do with climate change legislation being forced into a serious effort by the structure of their government.  In the United States, the structure of our elections and government pretty much rewards nobody for working together and building coalitions, with the result a highly polarized government that can’t get easy, obvious things (like raising the debt ceiling) done, let alone address climate change.

Political structures matter, people – and there is nothing written in stone that says we can only have two parties, or that we should only have two parties.  However, most people don’t realize there are ways to make small changes that could bring about big shifts in how we do business.  Mickey Edwards (who spoke to my incoming class of AAAS Fellows back in September 2010, and was fantastic for his candor) has an interesting piece in the Atlantic on some of these changes.  The most interesting of these, to me, was:

In 2010, Californians voted to create an “open primary” system in which every candidate for a particular office, regardless of party, will appear on the same ballot, and every voter who wishes to participate, also regardless of party, will be able to choose among them. The top two will advance to the general election, even if they belong to the same party. Louisiana has long had a top-two, everybody-runs primary system, and Washington State adopted a similar one in 2004. Their voters have a much wider range of options—Republicans, Democrats, independents, third- or fourth-party candidates. If all candidates could get their messages out through free mailings or free television time, minor-party candidates would have a better chance of finishing in the top two in an open primary than on a general-election ballot that pits two major-party giants against each other and discourages supporters of other parties from voting for long-shot candidates.

Just the act of establishing an open primary would break the partisan and ideological chokehold on the general-election ballot and create a much truer system of democratic self-government. As a result, members of Congress would have greater freedom to base their legislative decisions on their constituents’ concerns and on their own independent evaluations of a proposal’s merits. They would be our representatives, not representatives of their political clubs.

This alone could create a serious set of alternatives to the two big (currently mostly useless) parties – and perhaps get us to a place where we need coalitions to govern . . . and can relearn the art of compromise at the heart of politics, and that we so desperately need to address the environmental and economic challenges ahead of us.