Newsletter of the Proportional Representation Society of Australia

December 1998                 QN1998D                 www.prsa.org.au




1998 Federal Poll: PR Analysis

The PRSA's analysis of how the results at the elections for Australia's House of Representatives on 3rd October 1998 might have been if the Hare-Clark electoral system had been used to translate votes into seats instead of the present unfair system of single divisions is shown on Pages 3-6 (online version here).

The percentage of the first preference votes gained by the contenders was: ALP 40.1%, Coalition 39.5%, One Nation Party 8.4%, Australian Democrats 5.1%, and others 6.8%.

The PR analysis shows a likely outcome, under a Hare-Clark system, of the ALP gaining 69 seats, and the Coalition 67. Either might govern in the 148-member House of Representatives, with the support of the expected seven Australian Democrat MHRs - three in Victoria, two in New South Wales, and one in each of Queensland and South Australia. Remaining MHRs would be the three One Nation members, one WA Green and one Independent.


Why do Parties Stage Manage Senate Tickets?

I always voted at my party's call, I never thought of thinking for myself at all.

Sir Joseph Porter KCB (HMS Pinafore)

Australia's political party organizations first achieved the stage management of Australian Senate elections, insofar as it has an effect on which of the individual Senate candidates of each of the parties participating is elected and which is not, by simply recognizing, and then exploiting, certain provisions of the then law relating to the order in which candidates' names were printed on ballot-papers.

That first achievement showed how much easier and more convenient stage management seemed to be for the party organizations than having candidates within a party publicly and genuinely competing against each other, and also having such competition between parties. Our electoral laws have since evolved to give party organizations their present much greater de facto control of candidates' fate. Such ploys have been a contentious, unsavoury aspect of Australian Senate elections for a long time - existing well before proportional representation for Senate elections began in 1948. Initially it was not deliberately built into the Commonwealth Electoral Act, but was possible by exploitation of at least one of its earlier weaknesses.

Under the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1902 of Sir Edmund Barton's Protectionist Government, Senate ballot-papers listed candidates' names in a single column in alphabetical order, without any indication of, or grouping by, party affiliation. Voters had to mark exactly as many crosses as there were vacancies. That single column was of no significance until the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1919 of W.M. Hughes's Nationalists, which changed the winner-take-all, multiple vote from its original 'first-past-the-post' form to a preferential form, and required that ballot-papers be marked with consecutive preferences for at least twice the number of vacancies plus one, in order to be valid.

From 1919 parties realized that the order of candidates' names on the ballot-paper was of significance, so Hughes's Commonwealth Electoral Act 1922 retained the single column on the ballot-paper, but instituted grouping of names down that column by candidates' mutual consent. The groups were identified solely as 'A', 'B', 'C', 'D' etc. Surnames within each group were listed alphabetically. The order of the groups down the ballot-paper was set by the 'alphabetical order rank average' of candidates' surnames. Presumably the drafters of that provision expected it to operate fairly and impartially. Some party organizations' focus on the order of candidates' names grew after the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1934 of Joseph Lyons's United Australia Party Government required voters to mark all preferences consecutively for a valid vote (The CEA 1940 removed that requirement for the last preference).

At the periodic Senate election in New South Wales on 23rd October 1937 the surnames of the four ALP candidates were Amour, Armstrong, Arthur and Ashley. The Four As, as the ploy became known, ensured, as no other group had conspired to have all its candidates having surnames beginning with the first letter of the alphabet, that under the existing Commonwealth Electoral Act the group appeared as the first group, at the top of the ballot-paper. The group, like all the groups, could not be identified by any explicit party designation, and was designated solely as Group 'A', on the single column of groups of names on the Senate ballot-paper. That enabled the ALP's how-to-vote cards to be very straightforward, and enabled, for ALP voters, the easiest and least error-prone transcription possible from the how-to-vote card to the ballot-paper.

'Donkey voters', fulfilling their duty to vote [a citizens' duty still imposed by Section 245(1) of the Commonwealth Electoral Act] by mindlessly numbering the squares on the ballot-paper from '1' downwards, would have effectively supported the Four As. As the figures at that hyperlink show, under the winner-take-all multiple majority-preferential counting system in force, all four NSW Senate vacancies were won by the ALP, each by an absolute majority of 0.6 percentage points or less. The informal vote was 8.9%. The ALP's rivals accused it of adopting a grubby stratagem for electoral advantage.

The response by R.G.Menzies's UAP Government, the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1940, was for the electoral law to explicitly let party organizations exercise an almost overwhelming influence on which of a party's Senate candidates would be likely to be elected, and which would not be. The Act replaced the single column with the present below-the-line layout of separate vertical group columns set by lot side-by-side left to right, but with the order of names down each column set by a joint written statement of the candidates in the group that they would have their names appear in the order specified in the statement (the amended Act did not refer to parties, but candidates within each group were inevitably of the same political party).

That critical, very manipulative, move from an alphabetically-based order to an order by candidates mutual consent, rather than a randomized order, was made 43 years before the Commonwealth Electoral Legislation Amendment Act 1983 of R.J.L.Hawke's ALP Government introduced Group Voting Tickets, and the related new layout of Senate ballot-papers with their above-the-line and below-the-line voting options. Statutory display of Group Voting Tickets is not always effected at polling places on election day and, even if it is, the excessively fine print can deter their use. The below-the-line option continued (with some minor relaxation from having to mark all preferences) the system that had applied since the end of alphabetical ordering within columns. Continuing it may well protect the 1983 law from a successful High Court challenge that omission of the below-the-line option would conflict with the important requirement of Section 7 of the Constitution that senators be 'directly chosen by the people'.

That established and customary system was put in the less immediate and noticeable position below-the-line on the ballot-paper. The new option was put in the conspicuous position above-the-line. The line is the thick black line printed right across the ballot-paper between the provisions for the two options. The easy option is marking a single box above-the-line. That implements one or more fully preferential voting orders pre-registered with the Australian Electoral Commission, covering all candidates, either a single order, or an effective division of the vote into two or three orders (fall-back provisions in the Act recognize grave constitutional doubts there). Revealingly, on how-to-vote cards, as shown at that hyperlink, the Coalition has discouraged the use of the below-the-line section by stating, 'No need to use this section'. The ALP has also discouraged its use by stating, 'Do not use this section'.

From 1934 to 1983 voters had to mark a preference number against the name of each candidate, but after 1940 the parties' how-to-vote cards invariably instructed voters to 'donkey vote' within each column, i.e. mark the squares in each consecutively downwards - an outcome tailor-made to the wishes of nearly all party organizations, but only for Senate polls. Voters' tendency to take the easy course and follow the party instructions certainly strengthened the power and influence of those few party people that were empowered to determine the order in which candidates' names would appear on the ballot-paper. The Group Voting Ticket system has consolidated that tendency of voters. The percentage voting above-the-line at the 1998 polls was:




















This stage-management of the Senate's quota-preferential system of proportional representation to its present near-ultimate 1983 stage of success in making it extremely easy for voters to implement their party's wishes, and relatively hard, and unusual, for voters to differ from those wishes, has developed gradually. A little-realized self-defeating outcome of this stage management is that a party's representation is minimized for a given level of support where it has more than one quota. In impressive contrast, successive changes in Tasmania's Electoral Act have operated in the opposite direction of making stage management more and more impractical. Tasmania introduced separate columns in 1941, but they each continued to be in alphabetical order until a 1973 law required the order to be by lot. Tasmania has never had the Commonwealth's extraordinary law whereby candidates are empowered to decide the order in which their names will appear on the ballot-paper.

Tasmania's ultimate refinement in this matter was 'Robson Rotation' - a 1979 law introduced by Neil Robson MHA. Ever since it has required that ballot-papers in elections to each house of the Tasmanian Parliament be printed in batches so that the name of each candidate has an equal chance of appearing at prescribed advantageous positions down the ballot-paper - forestalling Senate-style stage-management, and nullifying donkey voters' effect on choice of a party's candidate, but not on its overall vote.

Fierce squabbles within parties over the position of their candidates' names on ballot-papers is the inevitable consequence of the Senate ballot-paper law. Such Assembly squabbles in Tasmania and the ACT are settled at the general election, by the voters, as they should be.

A recent classic case of the rancour caused by a party organization's involvement in an issue that should be the exclusive province of the voters occurred in the Victorian Division of the Liberal Party in 1998. At the October 1998 periodic election of senators, the three Coalition senators seeking re-election were Senators Judith Troeth, Julian McGauran and Karen Synon. The first two, and Senator Jim Short, were elected at the 1993 periodic election of senators. Karen Synon replaced Senator Short when he resigned in 1997. She was in favour then.

The Liberal Party's choice and order of candidates for the 1998 periodic election of senators is made within the party. Party rules provide that a number of State Liberal MPs, chosen by the State Liberal MPs overall, form part of the group that determines that choice and order. However, accounts suggest that, instead of nominations being invited in the party room, and a ballot held, the Premier simply proposed that certain MPs be appointed, and the party room meekly acquiesced in his proposal.

The choice and order selected for the Group Voting Ticket was Senator Troeth, Senator McGauran, Mr Tsebin Tchen, and Senator Synon. Senator Synon was 'dumped' - to use the term used for this manoeuvre. She was relegated to an effectively unwinnable fourth place on the ticket, and was reported to have obtained advice of a Queen's Counsel as to whether the action of the party had invalidated the choice made. Reports indicated that she might have a case, but no further action resulted.


Adelaide City Council Electoral Changes

Deane Crabb, Secretary of the PRSA's SA Branch, reports that, after an extensive City of Adelaide Governance Review, new elections for all seats on Adelaide City Council have been held under the new City of Adelaide Act 1998. Prior to this Act Adelaide had five wards each with two councillors, plus five 'aldermen' and the Lord Mayor elected at large, with all group elections being by PR.

The new Act replaces those 15 members with 8 councillors elected at large, still using quota-preferential proportional representation, as the Review had recommended. Voters must mark at least their first 8 preferences for a valid vote. Voluntary postal voting now applies for Adelaide.

Following a period for comment, SA's Liberal Government introduced the City of Adelaide Bill on 1st July 1998. The Bill maintained proportional representation, but it proposed that the Council remain divided into wards (three wards - two of three members, one of two). The Review had suggested using the Robson Rotation (See article in this issue 'Disputes: Stage Managing Senate Elections'), but the Bill unfortunately lacked that. The proposal to continue with wards was rejected in both Houses of Parliament. In the Assembly, the ALP was not only joined by the two Independent Liberals and the sole National Party member (these three hold the balance of power), but also by Liberal MHA Mr Steve Condous, a previous Lord Mayor of Adelaide, who crossed the floor to support elections at large. Despite not getting its way on these points the Government sought Royal Assent and proclaimed the Act.

Mr Condous argued, 'Why should not every voter in this city have the right to receive the ballot-paper [showing]on [it] everyone who nominates and be able to select the eight representatives they want to represent them on the Adelaide City Council? Why should they be restricted by wards where they can vote only for those people who nominate in their particular section of the city, rather than giving them the ability to elect every one of the eight? What that means is that each one of those eight representatives is responsible not to a particular little section of the city but, through the ballot box, to every voter for every decision they make.' [House of Assembly, 23rd July 1998. Hansard Page 1576].

For the first time, the number of Council members has been reduced below its original 1840 level. It is nevertheless pleasing that the Adelaide City Council continues to be elected in a thoroughly democratic manner, as the Council has the distinction that its first elections, in 1840, for its 15 members, were the first public elections held in Australia, and the first public elections in the world to use proportional representation. Brisbane and Perth are the only State capital cities to have no PR for election of their councillors, but Melbourne has a mixed system, with four of its nine councillors elected from single-member wards.


Jenkins Report: A Major UK Disappointment

In December 1997, UK Home Secretary Jack Straw appointed the Independent Commission on the Voting System, chaired by Lord Jenkins, to propose as an alternative to the current first-past-the-post system an electoral system that best meets the criteria of 'broad proportionality, the need for stable government, an extension of voter choice and the maintenance of a link between MPs and geographical constituencies'. Labour's election manifesto said such a choice would then be put to a referendum before the next UK elections.

Having received public submissions, conducted numerous forums and taken evidence overseas, on 29th October the Commission published [www.official-documents.co.uk/document/cm40/4090/chap-1.htm] a report that is a grave disappointment for anyone interested in enhancing the role of voters. It proposed that 80-85% of the House of Commons be elected through single-member constituencies using preferential voting, and that the remaining 'top-up' positions be determined one or two at a time in 80 regions. The d'Hondt 'highest average' method would establish which party or parties obtained the additional seats in each region, and voters rather than party organizations would determine the successful top-up individuals within parties. A further review was recommended after two elections.

Australian outcomes using preferential voting in single-member electorates have typically produced distortions greater than indicated by the ratio of cubes of two-party-preferred support: however, the 1998 general elections illustrate that minority-support governments are also regularly elected. The Commission's report buried in an appendix its observation that under a 15% top-up, the punishment the Conservatives had from voters in 1997 would have them with fewer seats than were actually obtained under the grossly unfair current system.

While the Commission thoroughly documented what is wrong with first-past-the-post methods, its analysis of the single transferable vote (STV) in multi-member electorates was extremely shallow. Little imagination was shown about how to deal with sparsely-populated areas, and there was great apprehension about the ballot-paper if 350,000 or so people could vote in one electorate. In the end, the Commission stated that STV 'would be too big a leap' from current arrangements and in a 'confusingly different direction' from developments with European, regional and the new elections for London.

In aiming at a solution acceptable to the current dominant political establishment by presenting an unsustainable system that can be superficially packaged as reform, the Commission risks large numbers of people over time questioning whether the extensive changes, which offer voters little additional influence, are worth the effort. A number of prominent Conservatives have supported electoral reform, but their Party has signalled quite intransigent opposition to change. It could mount a fear campaign based on the overall complexity of the proposal, claims that it will usually impose coalition government, and complaints about the periodic further distortion in the single-member component.

The PRSA could never support or campaign for a system, begotten in circumstances not unlike those that led to the imposition of the despised 'modified d'Hondt' method for the ACT elections of 1989 and 1992, that departs so far from the principles of effective voting.


Europe: Lords Want Open not Closed List

The saga reported in QN1998B of the major differences between the House of Lords and the House of Commons on certain details of the European Parliamentary Elections Bill 1998 has intensified, and could form part of a serious constitutional issue. A major point of difference in which neither House will yield is whether the party list system should be an open list or a closed list. The Blair Labour Government insists on a closed list, but the Lords argue that Labour's pre-election manifesto was silent about the list being a closed one. They also argue that an open list, where voters' input decides not only which party is supported, but also affects which candidates within the list are elected, is far more democratic than a closed list where the latter is decided entirely by the party organization.

The President of the Electoral Reform Society, Professor Earl Russell, said in the House, '... The other argument is that the voters are incapable of coping with the flow of information. That has been the classic anti-democratic argument for centuries. I give it no weight. ...

The closed list is a blow to democracy. But we on these Benches also believe that the loss of the Bill would be a blow to democracy.

... I now touch on the consequences for the Prime Minister if he should abandon the Bill. I would not go as far as the Home Secretary, who described the situation as "chaos", but it is pretty serious. The organizational consequences of abandoning the Bill will cause him great difficulties, as will the political consequences. The impression would be given that the Government are prepared to accept proportional representation only in situations where they have a closed list, those being the only circumstances in which, to date, the Government have introduced it.

As the House knows perfectly well, my noble friend Lord Jenkins of Hillhead and his Commission recommended a different system. Their views on the closed list are very close to mine. So were the Government to drop the Bill it would, in effect, pre-empt the debate on the Jenkins report and give a clear answer "No" at this moment. For all I know, it is possible that the Prime Minister may at some stage do that. I would be extremely surprised if he were prepared to forego all the advantages of delay by doing that now. In fact, "extremely surprised" understates the case.

I believe that loss of the Bill is extremely unlikely. Until 4 p.m. yesterday I was planning to abstain. Since then my thinking has been concentrated on the fact that much though I want proportional representation - want it very deeply indeed - its achievement at the price of a return to the two-party system, which would be the result of concessions such as voting for the Bill in its present form is not a price worth paying.'

On Question, That this House do insist on their Amendments Nos. 1 to 4 to which the Commons have disagreed and do disagree with the Commons in their Amendment No. 4A in lieu thereof.

Their Lordships divided: Contents, 237; Not-Contents, 194.


First-past-the-post Anomalies in North America

Quebec: Results for the elections on 30th November 1998 to the unicameral National Assembly of Quebec (its Legislative Council was abolished in 1968) were: Parti Quebecois (PQ) 43.2% vote, 77 seats; Quebec Liberal Party 44.2% vote, 46 seats; Democratic Action 11.9% vote, 1 seat; Others 0.7% vote, no seats. One of the 125 seats requires a supplementary election owing to a death before polling day. Of course it is ludicrous that PQ gained over 61% of the seats with such a minority vote, and that it won some 67% more seats than the opposition Liberal Party, which gained a higher vote than PQ. What brings the distorting first-past-the-post single member electorate system (now virtually shrunk to North America, UK, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh) into obvious disrepute here is government by a minority party such as PQ, which insists that Quebec should secede from Canada, even though two referendums that recent PQ Governments have held have failed to show a majority for secession. The new PQ Premier, having just won Government with a smaller vote than his Opposition, has vowed to hold a third referendum 'if it appears it can be won', although he said he will wait.

Minnesota: In the polls on 3rd November 1998 for the governors of all U.S. states, Mr Jesse Ventura, of the Reform Party, won the governorship of Minnesota, with 37% of the vote. His major rivals were the Minnesota Attorney-General, Mr Hubert Humphrey, a Democrat and the son of a former US Vice-President, who gained 28% of the vote; and Mr Norman Coleman, a Republican and the Mayor of St. Paul, who gained 34% of the vote. Five other candidates shared the remaining 1% of the vote. Mr Ventura, 47, became well known in Minnesota as a former professional wrestler, and later as a talk-back radio host. Mr Ross Perot founded the Reform Party.

The 60% turnout of electors was the highest percentage turnout of all 50 states. One county ran out of printed ballot-papers when the turnout there exceeded 80%. No Reform Party candidate for other offices polled above 12%. The Reform Party's Mr Alan Shilepsky gained 10% of the vote standing for the office of Minnesota's Secretary of State, advocating the adoption of preferential voting.

Mr Ventura's election was decided by that 37% of the vote he gained. The USA's non-preferential systems give no opportunity for the absolute majority of voters that voted for other candidates, in this case 63% of the voters, to indicate whom they would have wanted elected if the lowest-polling candidates had not been standing. With the system of preferential voting used in Australia, it is likely that the second preferences of those that had voted for the Democrat candidate would have determined whether it was a Reform candidate or a Republican that would have been elected - by the votes of an absolute majority of the electors. Just as many ballots would have been counted, but more ballots would have counted!


Copyright 1998 Proportional Representation Society of Australia



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