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Newsletter of the Proportional Representation Society of Australia

 

             QN1997C              September 1997        www.prsa.org.au

 

 

First Address Ever to PRSA by an Overseas Government Minister

 

The Proportional Representation Society of Australia achieved a landmark in its history on 25th July 1997, when the Honourable Winston Peters MP, the Deputy Prime Minister and Treasurer of New Zealand, was the Guest Speaker at a special meeting of members of the Society, to which other interested people had also been invited. Mr Peters was the first Minister of an overseas government ever to have addressed a PRSA meeting.

The meeting was held in the Council Chamber of the University of Melbourne, thanks to the assistance of the University's Centre for Comparative Constitutional Studies. It was an invaluable experience for PRSA members and others to directly and in person hear from Mr Peters his first hand experience of achieving the fairness that only a proportional representation electoral system gives. The PRSA thanked him sincerely for providing it.

Mr Peters, a former National Party cabinet minister, left the National Party in 1993 and helped found the New Zealand First Party that year. The first election Mr Peters' new party contested was the 1993 General Election - New Zealand's last election using the highly unrepresentative system of single-member electoral districts that developed last century. The New Zealand First Party won only two seats at that election.

In the 1996 General Election, New Zealand's first under a form of proportional representation known as the Mixed Member Proportional system, the New Zealand First Party won 17 of the 120 seats. Following negotiations with both the largest minority parties, the National Party and the Labour Party, neither of which received enough voter support to give them an absolute majority of seats in the Parliament, the National-New Zealand First Coalition Government was formed in December 1996, with Mr Peters as the Deputy Prime Minister and Treasurer.

Mr Peters, both in his address and in answer to questions later, explained something that is a puzzle to many people - how MPs from either of NZ's two major parties came to provide a referendum that would let voters for other parties have a fair chance of being represented in Parliament. His answer was that the MPs did not want a change, but voters' concern at the unpredictable and almost uncontrollable divergence between votes and seats under the single member system seats wrung from the MPs the concession of a referendum. The referendum then revealed that the single member system was not popularly supported, that MMP was preferred to it, and that therefore MMP would supplant it, whether the MPs liked it or not.

The Deputy Prime Minister explained to the meeting many of the subtleties of MMP that appear when it is put into practice. These are not always apparent when one considers only the formal rules, which were all that most NZ voters knew when they nevertheless preferred it to the single member system that they knew only too well.

A significant theme in Mr Peters' address was the failure of many MPs and party members to fully understand the ramifications of MMP, and how it would affect the way in which politics would henceforth be conducted in New Zealand. A classic example of those people displaying their outmoded and inappropriate winner take all attitudes was the repeated calls for New Zealand First, and other parties that were not one of the two largest parties, to declare in advance of polling day which of those two largest parties they would go into coalition with to form a majority government, if that were, as seemed likely, to be necessary. Mr Peters told the meeting that he regarded it as quite contrary to the whole spirit and point of a proportional system to sew up coalitions before the people's voice had been heard and before anybody knew what particular MPs had been elected.

Mr Peters said that New Zealand's proportional system had made the Parliament much more of a genuine arena for the nation's decisions and much less of a rubber stamp for the Executive. Mr Peters concluded his speech by saying that the coalition he helped lead had governed for seven months now and New Zealand hasn't fallen apart yet.

An audio cassette, and a transcript of proceedings, are available for $3 each, postage included, from PRSA, 18 Anita Street, BEAUMARIS VIC 3193. Following the address many questions were put and answered. One of the most searching was put by the former Senator for Victoria, Mr Sid Spindler, who asked for background on how the MPs were successfully pressed into legislating for the referendum process that led to the introduction of MMP.

Mr Peters' New Zealand First party has more democratic credentials to be part of a coalition governing the country it was elected in than the minority party in Australia's Coalition Government does. New Zealand First's share of seats is proportional to its vote, and the electoral system that ensured that was decisively carried at a recent referendum of New Zealand voters.

By contrast, Australia's present electoral system has a far more indirect and remote basis. The system has never been directly put to voters for their choice between it and its predecessor, as was New Zealand's - its democratic basis is the power to legislate for an electoral system that was given to the Federal Parliament by the democratic (in the context of the times) adoption of the 1901 Constitution. The present version of that Constitution can still not be amended except by action of the Parliament created under it. As that Parliament is elected using the electoral system in question there is a tendency, which is hard for MPs to disregard, for them to be excessively attached to the electoral system that elected them - a de facto entrenchment of the system.

 

Call for Nominations for Elections of PRSA Office-bearers for 1998-99

 

Under the PRSA Constitution the Returning Officer rotates among the Branch Secretaries, the order, by precedent, being Victoria, NSW, SA, WA, Queensland and the ACT. This year the Returning Officer will be the Secretary of the Victorian Branch, Mrs Nancye Yeates. Nominations, for President, Vice-President, Secretary and Treasurer, need to be signed by the candidate only, as consent to nomination, and should be received by Mrs Yeates at 33 Ormond Esplanade ELWOOD VIC 3184 by 31st October 1997.

Any candidate may submit a statement of up to one hundred words to the Returning Officer, who shall submit it to voters with the ballot-papers. The two-year term of each office begins on 1st January 1998. If any poll is required, ballot-papers will be posted on 7th November 1997, and the poll will close on 14th December 1997. Results will appear in December's Quota Notes.

 

Constitutional Convention Proceeds

 

After last-minute reversals of previous votes by Tasmanian Senators Brian Harradine and Bob Brown, there will be a voluntary postal vote later this year to elect 76 delegates to a proposed ten-day Constitutional Convention in February 1998 on whether Australia should become a republic. Prime Minister John Howard announced the names of the 76 appointed delegates three days after passage of the legislation.

In Part A of the ballot-paper, voters will be able to endorse an order of preferences registered by a group or independent. Alternatively, in smaller States and the Territories they can indicate between one and nine preferences by writing numbers associated with candidates' names in Part B: in the three most populous States, the number of preferences can go up to the number of vacancies.

Senator Harradine, who was troubled by the voluntary voting aspect, moved that

"the Senate is of the view that having regard to the fact that the system of voluntary voting provided for in the bill is for the election of delegates to a specific Constitutional Convention for a limited and temporary purpose in special circumstances, the system should not be seen as a precedent for elections of members of parliament or for any other ballots including referendums".

Only the Australian Democrats voted against this amendment, asserting that the claim was untrue.

Senator Brown said his lack of success in suggesting various compromises left him with the impression that the Government did not want the Convention to proceed. As there was no way the compulsory voting system would currently be changed in the Senate, he felt an overriding need to "give the republic back to the people", rather than allowing the issue to slide off the public agenda because of bickering over the Convention election arrangements.

Before the winter recess, PRSA President Bogey Musidlak wrote to Senators Harradine and Colston and a cross-section of senators from the various parties, expressing concern about the practical difficulties that would arise if a large number of nominations occurred in any state and all the candidates' names had to appear on the ballot-paper. He also suggested improvements in choices and information available to voters that would greatly enhance the proposed voting arrangements.

Replies outlining party positions and enclosing extracts from the Hansard debate and formal record of proceedings were received from Senator Nick Minchin, Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister, who had carriage of the legislation, and from Senator John Faulkner, Leader of the Opposition in the Senate.

Senator Faulkner emphasized the Labor Party's unwavering commitment to the Australian style ballot, involving compulsory personal attendance when voting. An amendment he had moved provided for optional preferential voting below the line on the ordinary Senate-style ballot-paper.

Speaking in the Chamber, Senator Minchin had stated,

"I note that the Proportional Representation Society of Australia, which I trust you all treat as reasonably neutral in this debate - apart from its obvious advocacy of proportional representation, but we are proposing a proportional representation election - has written to a number of senators. In its letter, the Society said, We believe that the government's efforts to cater for the possibility that very large numbers of candidates will nominate in some states are quite reasonable. It went on to say, Experience in the most recent New South Wales Legislative Council election and the first ACT election using the discredited and discarded d'Hondt scheme shows that the Senate-type ballot-paper becomes extremely unwieldy when around 100 candidates nominate. There would be utter pandemonium if 200 or more candidates came forward. So the Proportional Representation Society of Australia is endorsing our system. It is warning the Senate, as I do, that the adoption of the full Senate system could be an utter shambles.

 

Senator Minchin continued,

"We as a responsible government have had to plan for a situation where not 200 but 500 candidates might nominate. I remind you that the Electoral Reform Society and Malcolm Mackerras - whatever you might think of him - have both endorsed the system we have proposed and do so from, I think, a more neutral corner than any of us in relation to this debate."

 

During numerous media debates that followed, Senator Minchin often mentioned the assessments of the PRSA and Electoral Reform Society of South Australia when criticizing the unworkability of the Senate's initial amendments.

PRSA President Bogey Musidlak regards the Society's role on this question as a useful model for Branches pursuing reforms. An early submission to Senator Minchin, timely analysis of the proposed legislation with constructive suggestions about desirable practical improvements, and persistence were all essential in trying to promote more effective voting.

A recent issue of Electoral Newsfile, a publication of the Australian Electoral Commission, deals especially with the forthcoming Constitutional Convention polls. It states informatively that copies of all voting tickets will be displayed at AEC offices (The customary display at polling booths is impossible as there aren't any for a postal ballot), but it fails to state that copies of those tickets are available on request to the AEC, as Senator Minchin had indicated would be the case. As PRSA inquiries have established that they are available, it is recommended that members and readers ask the AEC for those tickets.

 

Two Questions for Tasmanians?

 

As foreshadowed in July when he first committed the Government to seeking a binding outcome, Tasmania's Premier, Tony Rundle, introduced legislation, on 14th August 1997, for a referendum on 29th November about Tasmania's constitutional future. The Government intends two questions to be put, namely

  • "Do you support reducing the number of Members of the Tasmanian Parliament from 54 to 40?"

          and

  • "If a majority of electors vote yes to the first question, do you support reducing the Tasmanian Parliament from two Houses of Parliament to one?"

Once Tasmania's Chief Electoral Officer has certified the results, the people's responses would determine which sections of the enabling legislation that amends Tasmania's Constitution Act 1934 and other laws would come into force and which would be repealed.

The Premier favours a unicameral chamber of forty where the Hare-Clark system would operate in four seven-member electorates, and there would be twelve single-member electorates, three in each of these four electorates. In a reduced bicameral Parliament (which a number of Liberals have publicly advocated), a Redistribution Committee would divide the State into twelve Legislative Council districts, and each year elections would be held in two of these. In either model, in the event of a deadlocked Parliament, the party achieving a majority of the two-party-preferred vote would form Government and the Executive would be given an additional vote in the event of deadlock on a particular question after a Government has been formed. Labor and others have been commenting on the constitutional novelty of such a proposition.

If suitable legislation does not pass through the Tasmanian Parliament by 23rd October, the Premier has said that a voluntary postal plebiscite will be held instead. A Hobart Mercury poll of 500 voters in August found about 90% in favour of reducing the number of parliamentarians as proposed: 52% supported a unicameral Parliament, 31% opposed that and 17% were undecided.

PRSA President, Bogey Musidlak, wrote in vain to the Hobart Mercury to point out some clear defects in the Government's plan. At five of the past eight state elections in Tasmania, there would have been little trace of parties or members other than the Government under any single-member scheme. In these circumstances, the proposed single-member electorates would turn a healthy Hare-Clark majority into a lopsided Parliament not reflecting the people's wishes. On the other hand, where voters did not clearly want just one party in Government, the personalities of individual candidates and the luck of boundaries for the single-member electorates would determine the outcome - neither majority nor majority-support governments were at all assured.

The Labor Party stated an early intention to move amendments to the questions put to voters. It advocates a unicameral chamber of 40 in which those elected from five five-member electorates determine who forms government and alone vote on key financial legislation. The remaining fifteen would be elected Statewide, also using Hare-Clark. The Leader of the Opposition, Jim Bacon, has been quite open about seeking to diminish the Tasmanian Greens' influence on government, adding that the Nixon Inquiry's recommendation of nine three-member electorates using Hare-Clark should appear as an option on the ballot-paper.

The Greens, accused by Labor of doing a deal to retain seven-member electorates, have nominated fairness as a key criterion against which change should be measured. They question the need to reduce the size of the Parliament if the electoral system for the Council switches to Hare-Clark as recommended in 1994 by the Morling Inquiry.

On 4th September, the Legislative Council passed a resolution instructing its President and two other MLCs to inform the Premier of the principles it will insist on if it forgoes some of its current unparalleled powers over legislation for a suspensory veto in which disagreements can be resolved by referendum or dissolution of the Assembly. The demands include retaining five Assembly electorates, and at least fifteen MLCs, elected in single-member electorates to maximize the number of independents. Some MLCs, including Government Leader Tony Fletcher, have suggested a reduction in the size of the Parliament can be achieved without a referendum.

In its submission to the Morling Inquiry in 1994, the PRSA indicated that the Council should comprise between eleven and fifteen members elected Statewide using Hare-Clark. If the Council failed to agree to such fundamental reform, an alternative was a unicameral Assembly containing forty-five members from five electorates (which long-time Labor federal and State politician Ken Wriedt also supported): in that case, entrenchment of the key Hare-Clark principles and scope for citizen initiated referenda would be necessary to limit the prospect of authoritarian abuse by majority governments.

The Society will directly inform both MHAs and MLCs about some of the principles at stake. Starting out with a premise that a majority government is essential, irrespective of the views of voters, must run the risk of compromising fairness to distort the people's message when no party secures decisive support. While the quota reduces as more candidates are to be elected, a party searching for government must also get much closer to 50% in its weakest areas if it is not to fall three or more seats behind its main opponent: consequently not only are seven-member or nine-member electorates preferable to five-member ones for voters, but they are also more likely to produce a majority fairly where there are geographical fluctuations in party support.

At a time when Tasmanians are clearly minded for significant reform, it would be a major pity for the opportunity to be lost because only short-sighted proposals with major defects were given serious consideration or put to the people.

 

Lopsided Northern Territory Outcome

 

Following a very short campaign, Northern Territory voters went to the polls on 30th August 1997. The Country Liberal Party (CLP), in power since self-government, secured around 58% of the two-party-preferred vote. By winning the two closest contests that required a distribution of preferences, it emerged with 18 of the 25 Legislative Assembly seats. The Australian Labor Party (ALP) gained the remaining seven.

As is common in single-member systems, about two-thirds of the seats continued to be safe for either of these parties with a margin of over 6%. Voters' choices were extremely limited as thirteen of the electorates each had only two candidates, and there were only sixty-six altogether: four candidates was the maximum, in each of four electorates. Six women were endorsed by the major parties, and three of them were elected.

Each of the twenty-one incumbents renominating was successful, but two of the remaining four seats moved to the CLP. Retirement of long-serving independent and former CLP MLA, Mrs Noel Padgham-Purich, saw Nelson narrowly turn to the CLP. The unsuccessful independent complained that Labor's how-to-vote card had put him below the CLP. After the ALP passed over an aborigine with strong connections throughout Macdonnell in its preselection, another well-known aborigine stood as an independent. First preferences were evenly divided among three candidates. The previously very safe ALP seat fell to the CLP.

The key to the strong imbalance between votes and seats was again the area around Darwin, which constitutes thirteen seats. Here, the CLP received about 58% of first preferences and won eleven seats, while the ALP attracted 34% support and narrowly took two seats. Since the size of the Assembly rose to twenty-five, Labor has not won more than two seats in the suburbs of Darwin and adjoining areas: it twice won three of nine seats when there were just nineteen MLAs.

The adoption of multi-member electorates would eliminate unfair lopsided outcomes of the type described above, without imperilling the prospects of majority governments being formed as long as voters continued to express such a clear preference for a single party. A priority for the PRSA will be to simulate the 1997 and previous elections using quota-preferential methods. This work should help concerned Territorians understand the true nature of their electoral system's problems - the absence of effective voting.

The NT's Chief Minister, Shane Stone, has signalled renewed efforts to achieve statehood. It would be essential for any Constitution Act for the new state to allow for the straightforward introduction of multi-member electorates in the future. Two of the three alternative election models in a Final Draft Constitution tabled in August 1996, after unanimous support by the Assembly Sessional Committee on Constitutional Development, consciously made adequate provision for that possibility.


 

1997 Proportional Representation Society of Australia

 

National President: Bogey Musidlak 14 Strzelecki Cr. NARRABUNDAH 2604

National Secretary: Deane Crabb 11 Yapinga Street PLYMPTON SA 5038

Tel: 0429176725, (03) 9589 1802  info@prsa.org.au

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