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Newsletter of the Proportional Representation Society of Australia

 

 

QN1997B         June 1997       www.prsa.org.au

 


The Late Dr George Howatt

Dr George Howatt, a distinguished political scientist, who was the world's major authority on Tasmania's Hare-Clark electoral system, died in Hobart on 12th June 1997, after a short stay in hospital. A Memorial Service was held by the Society of Friends on 5th July.

Dr Howatt was a champion of Hare-Clark whose insight into it was of extraordinary value not only to Tasmania and the PRSA, but also the wider Australian and world audience. Because of his intimate knowledge of the system's development over 40 years, he was sought out by people of all political persuasions for electoral advice or comment on ideas or proposals they were formulating.

Tasmania's former Chief Electoral Officer, Mr Colin Ball, and his wife Helena, made the following public tribute in marking Dr Howatt's passing:


A true and much valued friend and confidante for 39 years. A truly great gentleman and one of a very small and select group deserving of the title 'political scientist'. A specialist without peer in his chosen field of the machinery of government, and gifted with an encyclopaedic mind, he sought and devised practical solutions in a lifetime devoted to the establishment of real participatory and representative democracy. He had a true humility, admired by all, but attained by very few. For all those who sincerely value the concepts of a people's democracy, George has left an indelible imprint in the sands of time. ..."

In an obituary, The Mercury (p.9, 18th June 1997), which had frequently published Dr Howatt's articles, summarized this tribute, and conveyed the sadness of the Premier, Hon Tony Rundle, at George's death.

Dr Howatt was highly regarded for his timely, crystal clear, and thoroughly effective 1958 report DEMOCRATIC REPRESENTATION UNDER THE HARE-CLARK SYSTEM - The Need for Seven-Member Electorates. His report, which resulted in the defect of having an even number of MHAs per electorate (it had been 6 until the change to 7 was made) being remedied, so that majorities of voters elect a majority of representatives in each electorate, was commissioned in 1957 and officially presented to Tasmania's House of Assembly by order of the Governor. The Report's Foreword by Professor W.A. Townley, Political Science, University of Tasmania concludes

"... Mr Howatt was a lecturer in political science at Lehigh University, U.S.A., before coming to Australia on a Fulbright scholarship to study election systems here. He is a specialist in this field and has written an M.A. thesis on proportional representation in American city elections and many articles on electoral subjects. I commend this study to all members of Parliament, not only in Tasmania, but in Mainland States, and to students of Political Science everywhere."

A Constitutional Convention: To be or not to be?

The Constitutional Convention (Electoral) Bill 1997 (See QN1997A) sought departures from previous electoral practice, including a voluntary postal vote for 76 delegates elected at large in Territory groups and States (numbers in each based on federal representation), optional preferential voting, and quota-preferential computer counting.

The prospect of very large numbers of candidates in the three most populous States, which had proposed vacancies of 13 to 20, led to a proposed non-refundable $500 deposit for candidates, and a ballot-paper designed to avoid the unwieldiness of all candidates' names being on it. Part A of the proposed ballot-paper shows only the names of the groups nominating and their first candidate, as well as names of independents registering a voting ticket. A "1" in any box is treated as a vote above the line as for the Senate, but parties are not obliged to mark preferences past their column. Part B, has one line per vacancy, and to facilitate scanning of ballot-papers, voters write in numbers corresponding to candidates' names, starting with their first preference at the top.


The PRSA's April submission to the Senate Legal and Constitutional Legislation Committee, - Improving the Voter's Lot - (available from the President upon request) stated that Hare-Clark constituted best practice, but the PRSA recognized difficulties that could stem from nomination of large numbers of candidates. The PRSA supported the Bill as being in accord with election policies, giving voters a fair counting system, and containing some refreshing innovations such as optional preferential voting. However, a number of important amendments were necessary, to improve the choices before voters:

  • voters should be allowed to mark more preferences than originally proposed - a uniform 30 or 40 nationally was suggested wherever that many candidates nominated;
  • the faulty definition of the transfer value should be changed to a properly-weighted one that minimizes exhausted votes;
  • more information about the voting tickets of parties and independents should be forwarded to voters along with the brief candidate statements permitted; and
  • Part B should prevail over Part A where a voter filled in both by mistake.
When giving oral evidence to the Committee, PRSA President Mr Bogey Musidlak circulated an example where a transfer value can rise under the definition proposed, and explained that this is tantamount to some voters getting more than one vote. The example was reproduced in full in an Appendix of the Committee's report. As the Australian Electoral Commission does not appear to have provided the Committee with commentary on the substance of the example, there will be further efforts in this regard.

Mr Musidlak has also written to senators about the difficulties that would occur with a Senate-style ballot-paper on which perhaps a hundred or more names had to fit (and where the marking of large numbers of preferences below the line would be required for a formal vote). He suggested it would be better to secure amendments to the Bill to give voters greater opportunity to express preferences, and ensure they had at least summary information about registered voting tickets.


When the Parliament rose in June, the matter remained stalemated between the Senate and the House of Representatives, along with whether voting should be compulsory and through personal attendance at a polling place. Many commentators were pessimistic about the prospects of a Convention taking place at all.


Two Houses of Commons: Each Is Now Dominated by a Single Minority-support Party

At the UK House of Commons election on 1st May 1997 some two-thirds of the seats were filled by the Labour Party. It gained them with around 43% of votes in a 71% turnout. Only Labor gained a greater percentage of seats than votes. Details are shown in the table and graph below.

The Conservatives, with their lowest level of support since Sir Robert Peel founded the modern party in the 1830s, lost government, gaining only 31% of the vote, compared with 43% five years earlier. Numerous voters, voting tactically with their "X" to unseat them, helped them lose over half of their previous seats. They now have none outside England.


The Liberal Democrats' 46 seats was more than any third party had gained since 1929. Their Leader, Paddy Ashdown, promptly made it clear that he will hold Labour to its manifesto (See QN1997A), and the joint-party agreement to have a commission on electoral reform leading to a referendum on proportional representation within two years. This gleaming prospect for UK proportionalists is tempered by Mr Blair saying that he is personally not persuaded by the case for introducing PR.


Legislation has been introduced for referendums on the devolution of powers to Scottish and Welsh Assemblies. Proportional representation for such elections is also part of the Labour Party's platform.

U.K. PARTIES		Vote (%)		Seats (%)
Labour 43 63
Conservative 31 25
Liberal Democrat 17 7
Others 7 4

On 3rd June 1997 the outcome from a 67% turnout for the Canadian House of Commons election also extensively distorted the voters' wishes. The headline Distinct Societies in the weekly magazine Maclean's summed up the electoral splintering of the nation into regional blocs. As the table below shows, three parties received more than their proportionate share of seats (figures shown in bold), while two others emerged grossly under-represented.

CANADIAN  PARTIES	Vote (%)		Seats (%)
Liberal 38.4 51.5
Reform 19.4 19.9
Progressive Conservative 18.9 6.6
Bloc Quebecois 10.7 14.6
New Democratic 11.1 7.0
Independent 1.6 0.3

This election again gives little comfort to the Progressive Conservative Party, which tumbled at the previous election (see QN72) from being the Government party to holding only two seats. Despite having gained nearly half the votes of the Liberal Party, the Conservatives have only the fifth-largest Commons complement, one-third that of the Reform Party, which has replaced the Bloc Quebecois as Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition. The Reform Party gained only slightly more votes than the Progressive Conservatives.

The Liberal Party's representation among the Provinces highlights the disturbing winner-take-all regional malapportionment Canada's single-member electoral system again shows. Of Ontario's 103 seats, the Liberals have 101 - nearly two-thirds of their number. They hold 26 of Quebec's 75 seats, compared with 44 for the Bloc Quebecois, which is based in Quebec alone. In their five weakest Provinces, the Liberals had just 12 successes in 95 ridings. On the Atlantic Coast, they went from 31 of 32 seats to just 11, as the Conservatives regained a noticeable presence and the New Democratic Party won there for the first time.


The Reform Party won in over three-quarters of constituencies in the three most western Provinces. It has no seats east of Manitoba. The New Democrats is the only non-government party with seats on both coasts.


In these circumstances, it is hard to see how any of the parties in the Commons could claim to be in touch with the mood of the entire nation. Nothing could better illustrate the need for proportional representation as a cohesive force through its ability to have voters' wishes accurately reflected in the regional make-up of any legislature.


Both of these Parliaments lack the Australian Parliament's advantage, from the point of view of the voters, in at least having its second chamber mostly directly elected. Australia has the additional advantage that the directly-elected members of its Upper House are directly elected by quota-preferential proportional representation.


Continuing Senate PR Dismemberment Kites

Since the election of the Howard Government in March 1996, there have been periodic bouts of publicity for Liberal suggestions to alter the Senate voting method to wipe out minor parties and increase the likelihood of government majorities there. Paul Keating, Prime Minister in 1993 and 1994, made similar threats then (See QN73).

In early 1996 Mr Wilson Tuckey and Senator David MacGibbon were reported raising the possibility of automatically excluding from an election parties that fail to gain respectively 50% or 80% of a quota of first preference votes. The PRSA's submission on the 1996 elections to the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters showed how such 'exclusion threshold' schemes bring inherent instability, with sometimes several places hinging on a handful of votes, as happened under the ACT's notorious d'Hondt scheme. This naturally tempts parties to seek to manipulate the exclusion level in order to achieve particular ends. Further, minority support can be converted into majority representation, especially if scrutiny rules, such as those introduced in South Australia by the Dunstan Government, limit the transfer of preferences.


The PRSA noted that major uproar could have been expected on the 1996 voting figures under an 'exclusion threshold' scheme because the 50% and 80% exclusion marks were just above the levels of support for elected senators in Tasmania and Victoria.


Another suggestion, attributed to Tony Abbott MHR and former federal Liberal Party Director, Andrew Robb, was to divide each State, either into 2 regions both ordinarily electing 3 senators, or into 6 single-member electorates whose 2 representatives served alternating terms. PRSA's submission pointed out the intrinsic unsatisfactoriness of such schemes aiming at creating artificial majorities.


Mr Abbott's example of a rural cum urban division would be criticized for creating further unnecessary imbalances between population and representation, and be widely seen as giving the Coalition a big advantage from the rural halves. Other population-sensitive schemes with a quota of 25% would lead to attempts to draw boundaries that also maximized the prospects of a 4-2 outcome and made 3-3 possible even with relatively low voter support.


Any single-member system would presumably presage a return at double dissolutions to the winner-take-all majority-preferential system replaced in 1948 after decades of producing lop-sided outcomes. Victoria's Legislative Council Provinces, where each normally has only one MLC elected at each poll, are no recommendation as the current attenuated Opposition presence there has brought that chamber's very role into question. In May, Hon Alan Hunt, former Government Leader in the Council, called for the Council's committee system to be upgraded, and its election by proportional representation in five-member electorates.


A further burst of kite-flying occurred during May. Government Leader Senator Robert Hill confirmed (The Advertiser, 5th May 1997, P.1) that the question of Senate majorities was being discussed by senior Liberals including the Prime Minister. He added that the Government wished to float the issue to engender some community debate.


Later that month, the Liberal Federal President, Hon. Tony Staley, expressed his frustration with the influence of Senate minor parties on government legislation, saying,

"The fact is a vital government Act can be, and so often is, determined by a tiny minority of the community as reflected in the Upper House vote for minor parties."
He said the party was giving very close scrutiny to changing the Senate Electoral Act (sic) to allow Governments to more easily gain control of the Upper House.

His comments drew fierce denunciation from other parties represented in the Parliament, as well as independent observers, and saw senior Government Ministers such as Treasurer Hon. Peter Costello distancing themselves from such a planned dismemberment. Some recalled that when Prime Minister Keating made similar menaces, Mr Howard characterized them as a lethal dagger aimed at the heart of the smaller States. Psephologist Mr Malcolm Mackerras commented,

"This is pure propaganda for the Liberal Party. They won half the seats from 44 per cent of the vote, and they have the hide to say, 'We was robbed'."
Noting that neither Mr Staley nor his predecessors had voiced such sentiments while Labor controlled the House of Representatives, The West Australian editorialized, The only consideration the Staley plan deserves is which rubbish bin of political self-interest does it go in.

ALP Senate Leader John Faulkner said the electorate voted for a house of review not a rubber stamp. Australian Democrats Leader Cheryl Kernot suggested the Government wanted to create a dictatorship to avoid scrutiny of hard-line policy plans. Mr Harry Evans, the Clerk of the Senate, noted the close relationship between Senate votes and seats currently, and pointed out that plans for obtaining government majorities were by no means guaranteed success if put into effect.


Mr Deane Crabb, Secretary of the Electoral Reform Society of South Australia, obtained week-end ABC coverage for his timely media release drawing attention to the possibility of a return to the lop-sided Senates that were a debilitating feature of the early part of the century. For instance, the 1996 voting figures in Queensland, WA and SA would have seen at least a 17-1 advantage there for the government. Mr Crabb also pointed out that real reform involved the election of an odd number of senators at each ordinary election, so that majorities of voters would always translate into majorities of seats in each State.


The report on the 1996 elections by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters notes that major parties are not forced to place minor parties next on their registered voting tickets. It states that suggestions of reducing the size of the Senate by breaking the 1:2 nexus with the House, or alternatively electing five and seven Senators from a State be considered further in any future discussion on constitutional reform.


Public attacks on the Senate should be seen through the filter of the pressure they seek to apply to senators' voting behaviour, but the PRSA considers that they also demonstrate the importance of entrenching the key principles underlying Senate elections in the Constitution.


Whither Tasmania's Legislative Council?

After months of deadlock between Tasmania's House of Assembly and Legislative Council over transitional provisions for new Legislative Council boundaries without the previous imbalances in enrolments, the deadline for issue of writs for the May elections passed with the matter unresolved. Next week, the Greens reached agreement with the Government, both giving in to the Council's reluctance to alter its power over legislation, even though a six-month Select Committee was to be set up to examine its powers.

The Liberal Premier, Hon Tony Rundle, had earlier announced his intention to have a referendum this November on the abolition of the Legislative Council. The Parliamentary Liberal Party is expected to decide during July or August the wording of questions that might be put to electors. Regular vociferous support for the Council's abolition has been given in editorials of The Mercury. Labor wants a 40-member unicameral Parliament, 15 from single-member districts and the rest in 5 five-member electorates, using Hare-Clark. The Greens support Upper House retention and Hare-Clark there. Some Government MPs say they like the unicameral option - a 'second-best' from the 1994 Morling Inquiry - 16 single-member electorates and 4 electing 7 each, using Hare-Clark. The Inquiry preferred 2 Houses with Hare-Clark to elect alternately nine and ten Council members State-wide. In 1994, the PRSA submitted to the Morling Inquiry that there be State-wide Hare-Clark elections for the entire Council, returning between 11 and 15 members. The Council's independence could be emphasized by its elections not coinciding with the Assembly's. For a unicameral chamber, there should be 5 nine-member electorates to retain the pattern of following federal divisions, and instituting citizen-initiated referendums should safeguard voters against Executive arrogance.


At elections on 2nd June 1997 Silvia Smith, former ALP Bass MHR, stood without party endorsement in Westmorland. Gaining 35.2% of first preferences, she ousted the leading opponent of homosexual law reform, George Brookes (33.9%), on gaining a slight majority of the third candidate's votes. Sue Smith, Central Coast Mayor and Local Government Association President for 4 years, won against 4 opponents in Leven, with 37.9% of first preferences. George Squibb resigned Leven to contest Mersey. He received 36.6% and defeated 4 opponents. Labor's Michael Aird held Derwent with 57.5% of the vote, against 2 others.


The new President, Hon. Ray Bailey, is campaigning to show the Council's value to the public. The PRSA will aim at Hare-Clark for the Upper House, or failing that, strengthening Hare-Clark in a unicameral Assembly.


Recent Achievements by PRSA Members

Mr Ed Dermer, the Treasurer of the Western Australian Branch of the Proportional Representation Society of Australia, was elected, by PR, earlier this year as an ALP member of WA's Legislative Council.

Cr John Campbell, the Deputy Lord Mayor of Brisbane, who is a former Vice-President of the Queensland Branch of the PRSA, was elected last year as the President of the Australian Local Government Association.

Mr Anthony van der Craats, a Life Member of the Victorian Branch of the PRSA, was elected last year as a member of the Council of the National Trust in Victoria, at the annual election to fill one third of the positions on the twelve-member Council. In a postal ballot where there were five candidates for the four positions to be filled, Anthony received the largest number of first preference votes. The Trust in Victoria specifies in its Articles of Association that elections to it shall be by the quota-preferential method of proportional representation, in accordance with the Proportional Representation Manual of the PRSA.



1997 Proportional Representation Society of Australia

National President: Bogey Musidlak 14 Strzelecki Cr. NARRABUNDAH 2604

Editor, Quota Notes: Geoffrey Goode 18 Anita S. BEAUMARIS 3193

Tel: (02) 6295 8137, (03) 9598 1122 Mobile 04291 76725 quota@prsa.org.au