Newsletter of the Proportional Representation Society of Australia
Canberra, 2nd-13th February 1998
by Andrew Gunter,
Elected Delegate, New South Wales
In mid-1997 the Federal Parliament legislated for the quota-preferential method of proportional representation to be used for electing half the delegates to Australia's 1998 Constitutional Convention. Senator the Hon. Nick Minchin, in introducing the Bill, referred favourably to submissions (QN1997C) by the Proportional Representation Society of Australia, which were in support of the usual quota-preferential rules for vote counting as used in Senate elections, a novel ballot-paper format to cope with an expected very large number of candidates, and provisions for computer counting to replace a fully manual scrutiny. In most respects it was the election method the Society champions. It had untested elements whose potential merits the Society assessed as being reasonable responses to the unusual circumstances.
The ballot, controversial for being voluntary, and for being postal, returned a very diverse range of delegates who, despite the low turnout of just under 47%, were the broad cross-section of national opinion rightly expected from proportional representation. Despite rigid group-tickets' tendency to impose de facto party list style and outcomes on quota-preferential systems, there was one candidate low down on a group list that was elected ahead of those higher in that group - Hazel Hawke, of the AUSTRALIAN REPUBLICAN MOVEMENT, in New South Wales, and former wife of Australia's second longest-serving Prime Minister.
Despite all this, or perhaps because the other half of the Convention delegates were ex officio party leaders or government appointees, the Convention gave proportional representation very short shrift. Ed Haber and I, both office-bearers of the PR Society's NSW Branch, expressly raised the issue of entrenchment of proportional representation in the Constitution.
Consistent with his long-standing status as a wide-ranging political reformist, another NSW delegate; the former North Sydney Mayor, independent NSW and Federal MP Ted Mack; whose surplus votes contributed to the election of both Ed Haber and myself as NSW delegates, spoke strongly of the need for the political accountability that the Hare-Clark method of proportional representation is best able to provide. We made up 3 of the 20 NSW delegates.
Other delegates that took a position in defence of PR in Senate elections, or advocated its more widespread use, included Mary Kelly (Women for a Just Republic, Qld.), Catherine Moore (Greens, Bill of Rights, Indigenous Peoples, NSW), Hon. Mike Elliott MLC (Australian Democrats, SA), Christine Milne MHA (Greens, Tas.), Senator Natasha Stott Despoja (Australian Democrats, SA) and a few others that were almost all PR-elected delegates, or appointed delegates elected to their parliaments by PR.
Mr Haber flagged a crucial problem with the form in which the AUSTRALIAN REPUBLICAN MOVEMENT'S two-thirds-majority-appointment method had been constructed (Hansard, 4th February 1998, p. 171-173), "... the [ARM's] ... proposal... in a clarifying comment ... kindly noted: 'The prescription of a special majority, being two-thirds, is on the understanding that the Senate continues to be elected by proportional representation.' Is that just a wish and a dream? Unless we entrench it in the Constitution, [the ARM's] proposal is already constitutionally flawed."
'... the AUSTRALIAN REPUBLICAN MOVEMENT ... pointed out the bipartisan nature of the special majority of two-thirds of the joint sitting of the members of the Senate and the House of Representatives, but only back to 1949 when PR was introduced for Senate elections.
Mr Haber showed that a two-thirds majority would often not require bipartisanship if proportional representation was not used for Senate elections, as applied before 1949: '... the two-thirds test would have failed in [the parliaments elected in] 1914, 1917, 1919, 1931, 1934, and 1946.
During this speech, the Hon. Michael Hodgman QC MHA, a former Federal Minister, and proxy for the Tasmanian Premier, the Hon. Tony Rundle MHA, interjected, 'This is not Hare-Clark; it is hare-brained.' Mr Ed Haber said, 'You got elected on Hare-Clark.' Mr Hodgman responded, 'Yes, but I would prefer to be in a single electorate any day.
The following day Ed Haber and I attempted to amend the bipartisan-parliamentary-appointment model, as it then stood, by adding a requirement:
'That a provision requiring the Senate to be elected by the single transferable vote (quota-preferential) form of proportional representation be inserted in the Constitution', followed by an explanatory note for the benefit of those unfamiliar with it, 'Proportional Representation should be entrenched for Senate elections on the grounds that other electoral systems would periodically produce lopsided (greater than two-thirds) Senate majorities for one party or group, as occurred on several occasions between 1901 and 1949, thus allowing partisan appointment to be made more easily.'
The amendment was lost, even though the hurdle that motions and amendments had to clear in order to be included in further discussion was only 25% of delegates (38 of 152). Many of the supporters of this amendment were aghast at the unwillingness of most delegates to entrench such an uncontroversial but vital safeguard.
On Friday of the first week, Malcolm Mackerras, the political commentator and academic, who is a supporter of proportional representation in some contexts, spoke at the Convention as a proxy for an elected AUSTRALIANS FOR CONSTITUTIONAL MONARCHY - NO REPUBLIC delegate. He had stood as an ACM-NO REPUBLIC candidate in the ACT, but had not been elected. In his opening remarks he referred, unlike almost all other proxy delegates, to both his proxy status and the voters that elected the delegate for whom he was a proxy. He said, '... I represent the quota of voters who elected Marilyn Rodgers from Western Australia ...' He may not have been their choice, but he showed decency in acknowledging them.
On the second Monday, Ms Kirsten Andrews, elected for the AUSTRALIAN REPUBLICAN MOVEMENT from South Australia, delivered a paean to that State's nineteenth-century social and electoral reformer, Catherine Helen Spence, without once referring to proportional representation, a cornerstone of her reform views.
Fortunately, Tuesday to Friday of the second week saw modest yet useful progress to discussion of electoral reform as part of the wider debate. A working group that had been created by those delegates that wished the Convention not to be strictly confined to the three heads of consideration identified by the Prime Minister (whether to become a republic; if so, what sort of republic, including powers of and method of choosing the head of state; and timing of any change to a republic) was established by petition of a significant minority of the delegates, under the title 'Process and Procedures for ongoing debate on Constitutional reform'.
This working group proposed, and the Convention eventually adopted as part of its Communique, the establishment of a further convention. That future convention, originally mooted to be fully appointed, would be two-thirds elected (rather than merely half, as was the case with this Convention), and one of its proposed subjects for debate would be the 'system of governance and proportional representation'.
Attempts were made to rule the matter out of order, on the grounds that it was not necessarily connected to any transition to a republic. That difficulty was overcome by amending the proposal to make such a convention dependent on a republic eventuating, and to make its timing between three and five years after the commencement of such a republic.
As part of a broad question, on the final day, dealing with provisional resolutions of the Convention on consequential matters, the proposal for a future convention to deal with matters including the 'system of governance and proportional representation' was supported by 102 delegates and opposed by 16, with 32 abstentions.
Yet, on the questions that the public saw as the Convention's main task, the results were not as clear-cut, particularly when the attitudes of the elected delegates alone (who, all being elected by a form of proportional representation, were the closest Australia has seen to a 'mirror of the nation's mind' on this subject) are considered against all delegates taken together.
The greatest illustration of this was the vote on the motion 'That if Australia is to become a republic, this Convention recommends that the model adopted be [the AUSTRALIAN REPUBLICAN MOVEMENT'S] Bi-Partisan Appointment of the President Model'. The overall result of this vote, when held on Thursday 12th February, was 75 'Yes', 71 'No', and 4 'Abstain'. A closer reflection of community opinion was shown by the elected delegates taken alone:
33 'Yes', 42 'No', and 1 'Abstain'; the reverse result.
The Proportional Representation Society of Australia can, on balance, be proud of the role that PR had in the make-up of the Convention; however it can at best only take solace that the necessary role of proportional representation in Australian public life is likely to get at least some airing at any future convention. I hope that members of the Society, and others with pro-PR views, will take every opportunity to push the essential PR barrow at such a convention.
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Note 1: Andrew Gunter, 34, is a solicitor and a Vice-President of the PRSA's NSW Branch. He is a former National Secretary of the PRSA. He has been a North Sydney municipal councillor since 1995 and, on the Convention ballot-paper for NSW, he successfully headed the ELECT THE HEAD OF STATE group, whose Web site is at www.suburbia.com.au/~mickgg/ethos.htm
Note 2: The PRSA's policies focus on the election of groups rather than single offices. PRSA members have a range of views about Australia's Head of State. The PRSA advocates that both Federal Houses should be elected by a Hare-Clark PR system.
Note 3: At a Women's Constitutional Convention, which preceded the official Convention, PR was high on the agenda. Ms Julie McCarron-Benson, a PRSA ACT Branch Committee member, made significant amounts of literature, including a new brochure on why proportional representation is important for women, available to delegates there. She did likewise at the 21st annual national conference of the Australian Democrats.
Tasmanian municipal councils decreased in number (QN73) from 46 to 29 in 1993, following a report of the former Local Government Advisory Board. Their elections are now all under the Hare-Clark system, but without Robson Rotation. Postal voting, conducted by the State Electoral Office, applies to all councils. The elections are, with one exception, conducted at large. Half of each council faces the people every two years. The Minister for Local Government, Hon. Denise Swan, in May 1997, directed the Local Government Board to carry out a review of the boundaries of the municipal areas of all councils to reduce their number to no more than 15, with single councils covering greater Hobart and Launceston respectively.
On 1st December, the Board's exposure draft proposed that the mainland have nine councils only, and that King and Flinders Islands each have a separate council. It proposed direct election of all Mayors and Deputy Mayors, and general elections of councils (of standard sizes) every four years. The Board warned against breaking the new councils into wards or electoral districts as that would tend to encourage sectoral views on the part of those elected.
Several councils, particularly around Hobart, have strongly fought the prospect of amalgamation. Ten or so official elector polls have indicated 70-90% voter opposition to the published proposals. Two members of the Local Government Board have resigned this year, including former chairman Julian Green, following publication, without his being consulted, of a newspaper advertisement by the Board responding to arguments placed by councils in another paper. Amid significant ongoing public uproar and constant political sniping, the Minister, in mid-February, asked the Board to reconsider its proposals, taking the results of elector polls into account. Under current laws, she will decide whether to implement the proposals put forward in the final report due by 31st May.
Nothing came of the renewed round of Government optimism at the start of December (QN 1997D) about its proposals for reducing the size of the Tasmanian Parliament being enacted. Following a Liberal Party State Executive decision to set aside a long-standing Party policy, the Party's State President, Mr Jim Bowler, on 27th February 1998, sought expressions of interest from Party members in gaining official endorsement for the three periodic Legislative Council elections due on 23rd May 1998. He claimed that this new approach was to counter ALP policy to 'dominate the Legislative Council by stealth', and to pursue the goal of having a Legislative Council 'more responsive to the development of Tasmania' (QN62, QN70, QN1996B).
Labor's incumbent in Buckingham, Dr David Crean MLC, immediately called on voters to treat that election as a referendum on local government reform and the sale of the Hydro-Electric Commission. A large field is expected in Macquarie as Hon. George Shaw MLC is retiring after 30 years. Another Independent, Hon. Colin Rattray MLC, will be re-contesting South Esk. Mr Bowler has subsequently announced that no Liberal will be officially endorsed in Buckingham, and hinted likewise for the other two seats.
The South Australian State elections were held on 11th October 1997. The House of Assembly is elected using 47 single-member electorates, while the Legislative Council uses proportional representation to elect 11 members (half the Council). This gives an ideal opportunity to compare these two electoral systems.
Single-member electorates are used for the House of Assembly, yet there is now, as a result of this election, a minority government, with the Liberals needing the support of at least one of the two Independents or the one National. It is interesting to note that South Australia has had more minority governments (using single-member electorates) over the past thirty years than Tasmania, where proportional representation is used for the Lower House.
For the House of Assembly, only 54% of South Australian voters found that they had voted for winning candidates. Of the past eight State elections (QN56, QN72), this was the worst in terms of the proportion of voters that found their votes did not elect any of the 47 MPs. This is in spite of the requirement now that there be an electoral redistribution, based mainly on voting patterns, after every election.
While it appears that the Australian Democrats were the big losers in the election, winning 16.4% of the votes but no seats in the House of Assembly, it was actually the Liberal and Labor supporters living in the 'wrong' electorates that lost more. Of the 400 000 Assembly voters whose votes did not count, 167 000 supported the Liberals and 147 000 the ALP. If the major parties want to win majority government in future they will need to consider these supporters whose loyalty must be wearing very thin.
n contrast to the House of Assembly, the result in the Legislative Council elections was that only 56 000 (6.6%) of South Australian voters found their votes did not count.
Unfortunately the method used to elect the Legislative Council - proportional representation with the State as one electorate - is not without its faults, including mandatory indication of all preferences (if a below-the-line vote is to be valid), political parties' power to decide the order of their candidates on the ballot paper, and incorrect procedures in counting the votes. Reforms that are well overdue include the Robson Rotation and optional preferential voting for the Legislative Council. For the first time since proportional representation was introduced for the Legislative Council in the 1970s, an Independent was elected to it. A similar result at the next State elections will see both major parties very much short of a majority.
In South Australia, local government has a choice of voting methods - either proportional representation or the 'bottoms-up' method. Regardless of the method used, the size of electorates can range from single-member wards up to a whole council being elected at large (QN1997A, QN63).
The SA Branch of the PRSA (the Electoral Reform Society of SA) with support from the PRSA nationally, has analysed the results of the May 1997 local government elections to compare the two methods and to make comments on other improvements that could be undertaken.
Currently two-thirds of councils use proportional representation. Under this method, voters must mark as many preferences as there are vacancies to be filled, or their ballot papers are treated as informal.
With the 'bottoms-up' method, optional preferential voting is allowed. With this method, the candidates lowest in the poll are successively excluded. The ballot papers for those excluded candidates are transferred to the remaining candidates with the next available preference on each ballot paper, or exhausted, as the case may be, until there remains just the number of candidates to be elected.
An examination of the two methods shows that proportional representation seeks to maximize effective voting by placing all elected candidates on an equal footing through the distribution of any surplus above the quota of votes required to be elected. On the other hand, the 'bottoms-up' method merely seeks to exclude the necessary number of candidates, without regard to achieving an accurate overall reflection of the voters' wishes. As this method pays no regard to surpluses, it is entirely possible that majorities of voters will not be reflected in the composition of the council. Perversely, the more support the individual candidates attract, the greater is the likelihood of a result that thwarts the wishes of the people.
The SA Branch of the PRSA recommended that proportional representation should be used for all local government elections in South Australia. It is pleasing that during the recent State election campaign the Liberal Party released its policy on local government advocating proportional representation for all local government elections where there is more than one member per ward.
The analysis also compared the outcome in relation to the size of the electorates. For example it was noted that for almost 60% of single-member wards there were no contests - this declined to less than 20% where there were six or more vacancies. Also the larger the number of vacancies, the more likely there was an increase in the number of candidates. The voters get more choice and more effective voting when there is a larger number of vacancies.
The SA Branch considers that at-large elections provide the most balanced council participation, and that if wards are created they should return more than three representatives. Other findings from this analysis were:
closer examination is needed for all councils where more than 5% of votes were informal in at least one ward, to try to establish whether ballot-paper layout, or confusion between several elections, might have contributed to those high levels of unused voting power.
Optional preferential voting should be allowed when proportional representation is used.
With proportional representation, the calculation of the transfer value presently used needs refining, and casual vacancies should be filled by countbacks.
The SA Branch gave copies of the analysis (available from Deane Crabb, below) to the Local Government Association, the Review of Local Government Elections being conducted for the Office of Local Government, and the City of Adelaide Governance Review.
© 1998 Proportional Representation Society of Australia
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