Newsletter of the Proportional Representation Society of Australia
September 1996, QN1996C

Proposition H: San Francisco to Vote on PR vs. Single-member

(This article uses information from www.igc.apc.org/cvd)

On 5th November 1996 the citizens of San Francisco will vote on Proposition H. It could replace the current staggered winner take all, plurality, at-large system with quota-preferential proportional representation that its proponents are calling preference voting.

As five or six vacancies arise every two years, any constituency that can win some 15% of the vote will be likely to have two seats out of eleven. This compares with the 35 to 50% needed for a plurality victory. The lower quota will open representation to groups that have had a difficult time in this most liberal of cities, notably coloured candidates, progressives, labour representatives, and with the exception of 1994, the homosexual community.

San Francisco has alternated between the current at-large winner-take-all system and single-member district elections since the late 1970s, when anti-reformers exploited the assassinations of homosexual Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone by another supervisor to repeal single-member district elections. Left-of-centre elements emotionally attached to those district elections have since made several unsuccessful attempts to reinstate them.

That Proposition H is on the ballot has puzzled many locals. In 1994 voters passed Proposition L to establish a citizens' task force to study electoral reform. When the Elections Task Force began in 1995, it was widely expected that it would choose single-member districts. However, demographics had shifted a lot since the late 1970s. The City's great diversity, including four major racial groups, a plethora of ethnic sub-groups, homosexuals, conservatives, progressives, liberals, and moderates made it very difficult to draw any set of single-member district lines for adequate representation. For instance, the best single-member district that could be drawn for African-Americans only gave 39% in Bayview and Hunter's Point.

Compounding the Task Force's work, the U.S. Supreme Court was moving from Shaw versus Reno in 1993 to Shaw versus Hunt in 1996, threatening to toss out districts drawn for explicit racial representation. The Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, which has endorsed Proposition H, said:

"The U.S. Supreme Court has recently increased the legal vulnerability of district voting ... Indeed, the proposed 11-district plan would offer the City risk without benefit, as it does not appear to significantly increase minority access to the electoral system."

Stymied, the Task Force turned to the cumulative and preference voting ideas of rejected Clinton Justice Department nominee Lani Guinier. The lower quotas of these systems offer race-neutral prospects for geographically-dispersed minorities to win a fairer share of seats without gerrymandering. After a community education process that proceeded in fits and starts for nearly a year, the Board of Supervisors, on 22nd July, put two choices before the voters: Propositions G (district elections) and H (preference voting).

Preference voting picked up early support in the minority communities of San Francisco, leaders quickly recognizing that their supporters' voting power would be diluted by single-member district elections. Certain Democratic Clubs, the minor leagues in San Francisco where future leaders cut their political teeth, recognized the ability of preference voting to lessen the wallop of the Democratic Party machine, and also gave early support. Women's groups became interested in PR systems, which tend to facilitate the election of much higher proportions of women candidates than winner-take-all systems. There is also support by conservatives, as Republicans are an under-represented minority in San Francisco.

Key endorsements have been obtained from the San Francisco Democratic Party Central Committee, Jesse Jackson, Lani Guinier, Congressman James Clyburn and other civil rights activists. Mayor Willie Brown has indicated his quiet acceptance of preference voting.

The PRSA National President, Bogey Musidlak, (address on Page 4) will pass on any Australian donations to the San Francisco group that is organizing this campaign. A victory this year could be very influential in advancing the PR cause in the United States.

The First New Zealand MMP Election: 12th October 1996

New Zealand's first General Election under its new Mixed Member Proportional electoral system will be held on Saturday 12th October. Voters have both an individual constituency vote and also tick a national party list.

Sadly, 44 North Island, 16 South Island and 5 Maori constituencies are being filled by first-past-the-post methods. Parties that win an ordinary single-member constituency seat are eligible to participate in the carve-up of nation-wide entitlements by a highest average method. Others must exceed a 5% threshold of party-list votes in order to achieve representation.

The remaining 55 seats are being filled to give overall party PR. In other words, all 120 seats are allocated on the basis of the party-list votes, and the top-up from each party's national list is normally the difference between this entitlement and the number of constituency seats already won (as regularly happens in Germany, it is possible for a party to win more constituency seats than its d'Hondt entitlement, in which case additional seats are created during the next Parliament). Voters have no influence over the order of names on individual party lists.

Casual vacancies occurring among list-based members are filled by the same party. However, by-elections are held in the single-member constituency seats, creating a source of instability and potentially undermining the efforts at trying to achieve some proportionality in the first instance.

No party in New Zealand has obtained an absolute majority of votes since 1951. However, because the aggregate wasted votes for parties failing to obtain 5% or win an individual constituency seat can be quite numerous, in practice the target for a parliamentary majority is somewhat less. For instance, when the National Party was polling as high as 48% in late 1995, it had strong prospects of securing a majority in its own right. Indeed, even with support in the low 40s, majority presence in the next Parliament might not be out of the question.

However, when National Party stocks dipped into the 30s, while support for three other parties, New Zealand First, Labour, and the Alliance, fluctuated in the teens and twenties, speculation moved to how the next government might be formed from a post-election coalition. Party leaders have squabbled about whether talks should occur before or after the election.

There has been much guessing about whether various smaller parties among the 27 registering for electoral funding will cross the 5% threshold, or have a senior member elected in a single-member constituency seat. In particular, the constituency fate of ex-Labour Ministers, Richard Prebble, who is now in Sir Roger Douglas's Association of Consumers and Taxpayers Party; and Peter Dunne, who is now in the United Party, and is not being opposed by the National Party; has been seen as critical to the National Party's fortunes. A former National Minister jointly heads the Christian Coalition.

A few hundred votes can determine six or more seats, depending on whether the party in question ends slightly above or below the 5% threshold. This potential instability is even more pronounced than the Australian Capital Territory's was under the 5.56% threshold provisions of the despised former d'Hondt scheme. In the 1989 ACT elections a swing of two seats occurred, because the Fair Elections Coalition finished 117 votes below the threshold, and also occurred in 1992 because the Moore Independents scraped in 73 votes above it.

Quite predictably, parties split several times during the course of the last Parliament as various politicians positioned themselves for possibly significant balance-of-power influence. In 32 months there were six Government combinations encompassing four distinct types as divergent as single-party majority and coalition minority. Further, once party list orders were determined, disgruntled aspirants that had expected a higher place walked away voicing complaints about how their parties are being run.

Independent political commentator Colin James has drawn attention to the tactical voting predicament facing National Party voters that believe that potential coalition allies in the Association of Consumers and Taxpayers and the Christian Coalition may fall short of the qualifying threshold without their assistance. If they switch their vote but these parties still fall short, the National Party's own representation can be significantly diminished in the process.

The arbitrary threshold and the absence of preferential voting are two fatal sources of instability within the MMP system, making it vastly inferior to quota-preferential methods.

As more New Zealanders become aware that the single transferable vote avoids the pre-election antics described above, we can expect more discussion about effective reform in their country.

The New Zealand Government has provided a good account of the system on the Web site: http://www.govt.nz/elections/mmpfpp.html.

The Citizens' Convention of 1997?
PRSA Submission to Senator Minchin

Senator Nick Minchin, Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister, has addressed a number of meetings around the nation, outlining Coalition policy on the conduct of the proposed Citizens' Convention, and the options about which decisions were originally expected to be made by August.

For instance, speaking to an ACT Constitutional Centenary Foundation gathering in June, the Senator indicated that half the delegates would be appointed and the remainder elected. Of those appointed, at least 10% would be aged between 18 and 25. Local government and aboriginal communities would also have representatives, and it was intended that senior politicians from the States and Territories also be guaranteed attendance.

Questions involving the Head of State would be dealt with first. A number of other matters involving State and Federal functions, the recognition of new States and of local government, the use of the external affairs power and four-year terms for the House of Representatives would also be specifically referred to the Convention. However, its manner of meeting and operation were still to be determined.

Similarly many options relating to the election of delegates were under consideration. A separate election was likely to cost around $50 million, whereas cheaper alternatives such as postal voting raised concerns about security. The extent of representation of States and Territories, levels of financial assistance for candidates and the quantum of nomination fees, the roles of political parties, and the manner of voting and counting were among the issues to be resolved. A number of groups had already demanded that a 50% presence for women be guaranteed.

Senator Minchin appeared interested in a comment from the PRSA President that odd numbers be elected in the States and Territories, so that majority support would lead to majority representation, but ruled out the use of Robson Rotation. Mr Malcolm Mackerras suggested that New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland all have more delegates elected by quota-preferential proportional representation than each of the other States, whose number in turn should be greater than for each of the Territories. Another cost-saving suggestion was that delegates be drawn at random from the electoral roll to reflect a national age, gender and ethnicity profile.

As Senator Minchin invited submissions while matters of principle and detail were still being examined, in July the PRSA finalized and despatched a paper (available from

the President) focussing on the need for both the process and the outcome being seen as fair. Quota-preferential methods would therefore have to be used because they alone guarantee accurate reflection of the people's will.

States and Territories should remain undivided and return an odd number of delegates so that majorities of voters would always achieve majority representation. Three delegates should be elected from each Territory. The best balance between seeking high levels of effective voting and having manageable ballot-papers was obtained by electing either nine or eleven delegates if each State were to have equal representation, or using a mixture of sevens and elevens if some regard was had to population differentials.

The PRSA submission pointed out the superiority of various aspects of the Hare-Clark system used in Tasmania and the ACT. Countback allowed vacancies to be filled without anomaly while thwarting any attempt at mass resignation as a political manoeuvre. Group voting tickets were undesirable because last-moment wheeler-dealing over preferences by handfuls of individuals was not helpful to any process of charting the way ahead for the nation. Robson Rotation would put all candidates within a group on the same footing and prevent groups with little support from cobbling together a fluke quota.

Casting a formal vote should be made as easy as possible, with voters being encouraged to mark preferences, but not punished for failing to do so. If return of deposits were based on individual rather than team performance, the likelihood of large teams nominating to create embarrassment would be minimized. Transfer values should of course be defined to avoid the possibility of their increasing in the course of the scrutiny, as can occur in Senate elections.

A mailout of candidate materials to voters would allow a fair capping of public funding while facilitating roll-cleansing operations. If security concerns about postal voting could be overcome, the PRSA would support a trial use without penalty for those choosing not to participate.

Senator Minchin replied within a fortnight, thanking the Society for the effort put into its submission.

Joint Sitting to Re-elect a Senator of 11 Days

The previous issue of Quota Notes, QN1996B, reported that South Australian Liberal Senator Jeannie Ferris might have been vulnerable to a High Court challenge to her right to sit as a senator on the grounds that she had been disqualified under Section 44 of the Commonwealth Constitution by holding an office of profit under the Crown, and that flaws in Section 15 might allow her to circumvent Section 44, by resigning and being re-elected. Tasmanian countback would be different!

During the first fortnight of her six-year term as a senator elected by the people of South Australia, which began on 1st July 1996, Senator Ferris tendered her resignation from the Senate to the Governor-General, Sir William Deane, AC, KBE, QC. The SA Hansard of 24th July 1996 records the proceedings at a 70-minute Joint Sitting of the South Australian Parliament, which ended with only one nomination for the vacant position, after critical and defending MPs had spoken. The Premier's motion that the President forthwith inform Her Excellency the Governor that Ms Jeannie Ferris has been chosen by both Houses of Parliament to hold the place now vacant in the representation of South Australia in the Senate of the Commonwealth was carried. A detailed account is available from Mr Deane Crabb, whose address is below.

It is unsatisfactory that so much doubt and controversy continues over the qualifications of Members of Parliament. Section 15 of the Constitution needs countback instead of party appointment, and Section 44 needs to be brought plainly into line with modern realities.

Whistleblowing: The Need for a Non-Silent Minority

by Dr Kim R. Sawyer, Former Chairperson, Whistleblowers Australia (Vic)

At a recent meeting of the Victorian Branch of the Proportional Representation Society, I indicated that whistleblowers require an electoral system where minority views are given a legitimate and proportionate voice. In the present system, neither major political party will implement effective whistleblower legislation presumably because of the downside risk.

A whistleblower is a person who makes a public interest disclosure relating to illegality, gross or substantial waste of public funds, or conduct endangering public health and safety. Anecdotal evidence suggests the incidence of whistleblowing is increasing, in part because of a deregulated economy, but also due to a decline in public accountability and probity.

In Australia, whistleblowing is integral to many inquiries currently being conducted, inter alia:

  • The NSW Police Royal Commission
  • The inquiry into paedophilia allegations in the foreign service
  • The parliamentary inquiry into allegations at the University of WA
  • The ASC investigation of Coles-Myer Ltd.
  • Price-fixing inquiries conducted by the ACCC

For exposing such issues in the public interest, the whistleblower typically suffers acute harassment. Many whistleblowers are sacked, and the majority never return to their previous career path. Individual state legislation is generally regarded as ineffective.

In 1994 and 1995, there were two Senate inquiries into protective legislation for whistleblowers, to which many of our members presented submissions. The most important of 39 recommendations in 1994 were:

a.       Commonwealth legislation to facilitate making of disclosures in the public interest, and to ensure protection for those choosing to do so,

b.      establishment of an independent agency to receive public interest disclosures and arrange for their investigation by an appropriate authority, to ensure the protection of people making disclosures, to provide a national education program, and to maintain files, statistics and records of cases,

c.       widest coverage constitutionally possible, both in the public and private sector, and

d.      provision for a tort of victimization.

The previous Federal Government rejected nearly two-thirds of the 39 recommendations. The new Government has not indicated its intentions, despite vigorous lobbying by Whistleblowers Australia.

ACT Electorate Boundaries Unchanged

Currently, Australian Capital Territory electoral legislation requires a redistribution process to begin one year after the general election held on the third Saturday in February every third year.

Forwarding referendum campaign statements about how Hare-Clark would bring boundary stability, in June the PRSA's ACT Branch submitted that boundaries for the 3 electorates not be altered, as the present enrolments are comfortably within statutory 10% maximum tolerances, and the projected enrolments for early 1998 continue to fall within the tighter 5% envelope set down as highly desirable for that time. It asked the Redistribution Committee to state that

"boundaries should remain undisturbed if prevailing arrangements meet both sets of statutory quota requirements without any qualification".

Three of the other five submissions, including those from the Labor and Liberal Parties also recommended that no changes occur, the Liberals suggesting that the legislation be amended so that redistributions occur fewer than six years apart only if enrolments somewhere are more than 10% out of kilter. Alone in making written comments on submissions within the statutory period, the Society's ACT Branch endorsed this Liberal proposal, commended the statement that

"ACT Labor believes that if there is no numerical need for a change in the electorates, the boundaries should not change",

and outlined flaws in two submissions arguing for boundary changes.

On 11th September 1996, the augmented Australian Capital Territory Electoral Commission gazetted its determination that the boundaries remain unchanged. This low-key process contrasts with the acrimonious controversy and extensive changes that are often part and parcel of a redistribution of single-member electorates.

As another sign of further acceptance of the Hare-Clark system, early in her inaugural speech, Labor MLA Marion Reilly, elected by countback in place of Terry Connolly (QN 1996A), praised the process and the manner of its conduct by ACT Electoral Commission staff, saying

"I am sure that the community also appreciates the system as it did not require the expense of a by-election but they still get a representative whom they voted for in February 1995".

National President:  Bogey Musidlak
14 Strzelecki Crescent  NARRABUNDAH ACT 2604
National Secretary:  Deane Crabb
11 Yapinga Street PLYMPTON SA 5038
Telephone:     (08) 8297 6441, (06) 295 8137
Facsimile:     (03) 9589 1802
Internet: www.cs.mu.oz.au/~lee/prsa
97 Pirie Street ADELAIDE SA 5000