Newsletter of the Proportional Representation Society of Australia



March 1999                 QN1999A                 www.prsa.org.au







The Campaign to Discriminate Against Independent and Minor Party Voters


In late1998, NSW Liberal Senator Helen Coonan, the Government Deputy Whip in the Senate, gained publicity for questioning the way the Senate was operating, initiating debate over the role it should play, and canvassing possible options for changing the way it is elected. Her widely-reported speech to The Sydney Institute on 3rd February was said to strongly reflect the Prime Minister's views.


Senator Coonan asserted that in recent years minor parties in the Senate have re-interpreted a balance of power role as giving licence to re-arrange the policies presented by any government with a substantial House of Representatives majority, and to engage in the ‘culture of confrontation’ rather than ‘keeping the bastards honest’. She suggested, ‘to enhance the strength and stability of government’, that there should be a threshold of first preference votes for parties and independents, below which candidates would be excluded at the outset of Senate scrutinies and their votes transferred to those who had jumped that hurdle.


She did not specify a preferred level for the threshold, but her paper, The Senate: Safeguard or Handbrake on Democracy?, listed consequences at recent elections of using one of four examples: a threshold of 5 or 10% of first preferences, or 50 or 80% of a quota, respectively. In her haste to threaten to reduce the number of independent and minor party senators, she did not analyse the predictable consequences of such a scheme. She said ‘obviously expert advice would be necessary to conduct a thorough analysis of the impact of a threshold system, but conceptually it offers the possibility of a solution to the rule of minorities that has so characterized the Senate in recent years’.


The rudiments of an informed answer are to be found in her paper, but she did not consider whether such a distortion of voters' wishes was at all likely to produce a government majority in some State as she intended. Her paper notes that with six vacancies at a time, a party will normally require over 57% of the vote after preferences to secure four places. Senator Coonan appears not to have contemplated long over whether knocking out various candidates at the outset makes this more likely at times than the other major party getting to 43% of the vote and taking three places.


A moment's careful thought about historical voting patterns shows that, to adopt her terminology, ‘for practical purposes effective power’ would almost certainly be ‘concentrated in the hands’ of even fewer people, or alternatively government and opposition numbers might be equal, with neither grouping being able to pass contentious motions in the Senate, as votes are lost unless a majority of senators support them. The intense promotion of such an obviously self-defeating scheme therefore raises questions about whether the impact most desired from it might be to influence voting behaviour in the Senate in the short term.


The PRSA’s submission to the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters after the 1996 federal election indicated that thresholds were incompatible with the principles behind quota-preferential systems, and pointed out that, had there been a threshold at 80% of a quota, ‘Labor would have had an additional third senator elected’ in the 4 States where a successful Australian Democrat or Tasmanian Greens team began with fewer than the ‘required’ first preferences. It also noted that in Tasmania the Australian Democrats fell just 64 votes short of 50% of a quota, and their supporters would have justifiably complained about the legitimacy of the electoral process had they been arbitrarily excluded.


As the 1996 results showed, Australian experience is that a 3-3 outcome will almost certainly occur in any State when an up-front distortion of voters' wishes arbitrarily excludes all independents and minor parties. In those circumstances, the odds of one or two senators (who achieve a quota in their own right or come very close) sitting between two blocs that will often simply oppose each other for tactical advantage, or alternatively of a Senate evenly-divided, and thus at a standstill, increase dramatically.


At the 1998 general elections, there were three instances - Labor (in NSW and Tasmania) and Liberal or Coalition (in SA) - where major parties barely surpassed 40% of first preferences. Consequently, there is no way that application of one of the arbitrary distorting thresholds considered by Senator Coonan would have produced a 4-2 outcome.


Furthermore, the Australian Democrats were within 3,000 votes of a 10% threshold in Victoria, and One Nation was also closer than that in South Australia, but neither party could boost its start to a quota during the scrutiny. Exclusion of either of these candidates at the outset of the scrutiny would have drawn strong and protracted public criticism, and could have cast widespread doubt about the legitimacy of the outcome.


Despite her conclusions being utterly flawed and more likely to produce situations of which she complains, and her avoidance of discussing the events of 1973-75 or previous occasions on which the two Houses were extensively in conflict, it is important to note that Senator Coonan recognized that there were other ways of seeking to achieve her stated goals, but discarded them as unachievable or undesirable. For instance, she observed that ‘part of the problem lies in the intense political brinkmanship that characterizes modern political parties. It provides a Senate Opposition, implacably opposed to a Government's agenda, that effectively hands the casting vote on national legislation of immense importance to the minor parties and independents.’ She touched on knee-jerk Opposition behaviour elsewhere, but the theme was not developed.


She said that the 1959 Joint Committee on Constitutional Review, in reporting ways of resolving deadlocks between the Houses, had urged removal of the nexus between their sizes, and proposed different procedures for money Bills from those for other Bills. In her eyes, earlier failure to achieve constitutional change made the prospect ‘remote’ of ‘any far-reaching constitutional reform to the Senate's powers’, but even if it could be done, ‘it would not address the fundamental problem of disproportionate power concentrated in the hands of a few’.


The paper notes that reverting to the pre-1983 size of the Senate would lift the quota (and more significantly, make 50% plus one vote, rather than 57% of the votes, the target for winning a majority of places in any State). However, Senator Coonan indicated the political reality is that ‘politicians are not going to willingly vote themselves out of existence any time soon’ and that with the combined Senate vote for Labor and the Coalition being around 75% in 1998, ‘it is by no means certain that a government would obtain a majority in this event’. The possibility of increasing the size of the Parliament to achieve an odd number of vacancies ordinarily in each State, requiring another series of major House of Representatives redistributions, was dismissed as ‘hardly a palatable proposition for voters in the current climate’.


She then rejected the proposals by former Liberal Party Federal Director Andrew Robb for regional single-member electorates (as in Victoria, where there is hardly an Opposition to speak of in the Legislative Council) or other suggestions to divide States into multi-member electorates each ordinarily returning very small numbers of senators. Ultimately her belief was that, especially when one in four or five voters does not strongly support either major party, proportional representation is important in introducing ‘a broader coalition of interests and a more diverse representation of opinion in the Senate Power-sharing and consensus-building is to be commended if it results in harmonization of viewpoint. The problem arises however when minor parties insist on a share of power out of all proportion to their numbers and electoral support.’


This series of assessments led Senator Coonan to the observation that many European systems of proportional representation have threshold requirements for election. She seemed completely unaware that those systems are non-preferential and pay no heed to the extent of overall vote wastage with their particular variation of allocation formulae based conceptually on average numbers of votes, usually moulded by anomalies experienced in practice.


In her view, ‘no voter would be disenfranchised by the imposition of a formal threshold’ as ballot-papers for candidates with insufficient votes would immediately be re-examined and re-allocated to the first available preference for candidates deemed to have climbed above the threshold.


Most impartial observers would see a heavy onus falling on any proponent of setting aside voters' expressed wishes to justify such patronizing behaviour smacking of the most authoritarian aspects of ‘guided democracy’.


The PRSA's 1996 submission pointed out the appalling experiences with thresholds in South Australia in the 1970s, and in the ACT with its d'Hondt system, and various ways in which a few votes determined whether the outcome was widely viewed as a major distortion of voters' wishes. With the increasing tendency for smaller parties to put the largest ones last on registered Group Voting Tickets, any further drop in the combined vote for Labor and the Coalition could lead to a party (or inherently discordant grouping of parties contrived for the sole purpose of getting above the arbitrary threshold) clambering just above the threshold, and achieving two seats - causing widespread public disquiet.


Deliberately distorting voters' wishes by electoral artifice simply cannot produce fairer electoral outcomes.


At the time when Senator Coonan's proposals were aired, PRSA President Bogey Musidlak wrote to metropolitan newspapers and magazines indicating that, apart from the proposals’ lack of moral legitimacy, they had no prospect of achieving the State Senate majorities being sought. Instead, real Senate electoral reform could only come by ordinarily having odd numbers of vacancies, by introducing Robson Rotation to spread the vote for larger parties and to avoid premature exclusion of some of their candidates, and by parties focusing on articulating better policies and endorsing candidates with whom voters could identify.


The Senate Opposition Leader, Senator Faulkner, said that the Liberals came to the debate ‘with blood on their hands’ after their obstructive behaviour during the Hawke and Keating Governments, and the way in which they brought down the Whitlam Government. Senator Coonan's proposals would ‘pollute’ proportional representational voting, and re-inforce that unrepresentative aspect of the Senate produced by its having equal numbers of senators from each State. While the Labor Party would not be supporting any such scheme, it was however prepared to enter any serious debate about the powers of the Senate.


Australian Democrats spokesman on electoral matters, Senator Andrew Bartlett, attacked the proposal as an attempt to ‘chloroform Parliament’. He said, ‘at the centre of Senator Coonan's call for a threshold vote in the Senate is the abhorrent notion that citizens can be discriminated against because of their political beliefs’. He viewed as ‘offensive’ the idea that ‘over two million people who did not vote Liberal or Labor in October should have lesser rights to representation than other Australians’.


Prior to the 1998 general elections, the PRSA’s Victorian, NSW and SA Branches canvassed issues related to the Senate voting system with Senate and certain Lower House candidates. No respondents indicated any planned changes. Liberals Barry Wakelin (Grey) and Neil Andrew (now Speaker) each indicated that they knew of no plans to change the system, and the Labor Party also indicated it did not foresee change.


It is important to demonstrate that ‘threshold’ ideas are completely without merit, and have already been proven so in Australian experience, each time such ideas are floated.



The 1999 NSW Upper House Poll


The March polls for the vacant half of the seats in the New South Wales Legislative Council again resulted in neither Government nor Opposition parties gaining an absolute majority of those 21 seats. A record 264 candidates stood. As the whole State is a single electoral district, the quota for election is just under 4.55% (161,717 votes). The record number of parties or groups, 80, resulted in a large ballot-paper, dubbed ‘a tablecloth’, being the largest ever used in Australia in a public poll. No candidate or party gained even 38% of the 3,557,762 first preference votes votes cast, let alone an absolute majority. The six candidates not members of a registered party gained only 801 votes. Despite the liberal formality provisions (either a party box above-the-line or at least 15 preferences below-the-line), there were 274,594 informal votes (7.2%). Only 3.8% of the formal votes were marked below-the-line.


The Liberal-National Coalition’s share of the state-wide vote (27.39%) was only 77.5% of the combined 35.35% vote of all those voters (more than one in every three) that had voted for neither the Government nor the Coalition. The parties that are ‘serious’ contenders for government gained together 64.65% of the vote, and two-thirds of the seats. The table below shows that more than one third of the voters that spurned those ‘serious’ contenders gave one third of the seats to candidates of other parties.




Percentage of First Preference Votes (%)

Percentage of Seats (%)

Ranking of Parties in First Prefs.

Australian Labor Party








One Nation Party




Australian Democrats




Christian Democrats (Fred Nile)












Progressive Labor




Reform the Legal System








Outdoor Recreation 




Others *





These 69 parties and 6 independents each had 1.3% of the vote or less.


Only 3 candidates gained a quota of first preferences. ALP and Coalition candidates alternated for the next 10 seats then 2 ALP candidates were elected. The order for the last 6 was: Malcolm Jones (Outdoor Recreation Party), Arthur Chesterfield-Evans (Australian Democrats), Lee Rhiannon (Greens), Peter Wong (Unity), Peter Breen (Reform the Legal System), and Fred Nile (Christian Democrats).


The number of cross-bench MLCs went from 9 to 13. There are now as many cross-bench MLCs in the full Legislative Council as there are Coalition Opposition MLCs. The ALP Government has only 16 of the 42 MLCs By contrast, in the larger Upper House in Victoria, a State with only 67% of NSW’s population, but with a highly unrepresentative winner-take-all electoral system, the Government has 34 MLCs, the ALP Opposition 10 MLCs, and there are no cross-bench or other MLCs whatsoever.


Despite that contrast, commentators expect the Carr Government’s legislation to be carefully reviewed, but not greatly blocked or distorted. The cross-bench MLCs in the new House will probably be less likely to oppose ALP legislation than they were in the previous House, which scrutinized it thoroughly but rarely rejected it. The Government will only need the votes of 6 of the 13, an increase of only one over the 5 of 9 that it needed before March, and it has four more to choose from.


Alan Corbett's surprise election in 1995 to represent ‘A Better Future For Our Children’ appears to have spawned a plethora of parties registering catchy names at the last moment and agreeing to put similar parties ahead of larger longer-established ones on their registered voting tickets. Glenn Druery of Republic 2001/People First Party cheerfully admitted to bringing together over 40 such groups for agreements about preferences. Commentators that said his election was almost certain were proved wrong. The effect of the lodged tickets, once the ALP and Coalition had run out of surpluses, was to elect Malcolm Jones. His Outdoor Recreation Party gained only 7264 first preference votes.


David Oldfield of the One Nation Party, whose surplus of 63,275 first preference votes was transferred to other candidates and eventually helped elect Peter Breen, was not the only critic of the election of Malcolm Jones. Mr Oldfield said he would ‘definitely’ vote for change to the system of voting for the Upper House to ensure that parties or candidates that do not win, say, 3% of the first preference vote are immediately excluded from the count – i.e. he favours a threshold.


Mr Oldfield did not deal with the fact that the 95.5% of a quota that helped Malcolm Jones to be elected was made up of transferred votes preferring Malcolm Jones to any of the remaining One Nation Party candidates. It would have suited Mr Oldfield if those voters’ preference for Malcolm Jones over any remaining One Nation candidates could be overridden or set aside, but it is by no means clear that it would have suited any of those 154,453 voters, otherwise they would have marked their ballots differently. Yet, put bluntly, that is what a ‘threshold’ means - arbitrary deprivation of voters’ choice and voting power, on a large scale! Other critics of the election of anybody from a party whose total of first preference votes was so small also tended to support a more widespread view that the very large number of parties almost certainly meant that most of them were little more than titles, and that very few voters would have had much idea of what lay behind the titles. There are now strong views, within the larger parties that had candidates elected, that changes are needed to deal with these perceptions.


As Andrew Gunter, a Vice-President of the PRSA’s NSW Branch, was reported as saying in the Sydney Morning Herald before polling day, the simplest and most desirable reform would be the discontinuance of the system of Group Voting Tickets and the associated above-the-line voting. Dean Jaensch, Professor of Politics at Flinders University, advocated that reform for South Australia’s Upper House in a recent Advertiser article. Group Voting Tickets allow a party, however small or tenuous, to register one, two or three orders of preferences, about which many voters would be fairly innocent, but which come into effect simply by a voter marking a single box above-the-line. In this 1999 poll each such order of preferences, for each of the 80 parties (twelve registered multiple lists in 1999), was a list of at least 15 candidates in order.


It appears, not surprisingly, that the masterminds of many small parties have negotiated deals for registering their preference orders, with the aim of accumulating a quota for one of them. Which of such tiny co-operating parties might be elected is difficult to predict, and is probably very much a matter of fortune. Without Group Voting Tickets, such deals would be of little value, as it is fairly unlikely that many voters would include unknown entities among their marked preferences when the very reasonable formality provisions entrenched in the NSW Constitution Act 1902 require that only 15 consecutive preferences need to be marked for a ballot-paper to be formal. Using the Robson Rotation, as applies in Tasmanian and ACT polls, would also remove distortions due to ‘donkey voting’, and voters mindlessly following how-to-vote cards.


Unfortunately the main reform sections of the Coalition and One Nation are mentioning is imposing thresholds, as discussed in our article on Senator Coonan’s campaign, which would be blatantly discriminatory against the voting order marked by many voters for small parties. Current MLCs Breen, Corbett, Wong, M. Jones and Rhiannon would not have been elected with such a provision in force.


Another possible reform, suggested by psephologist Malcolm Mackerras, is to reduce what he terms ‘district magnitude’ - the number of vacancies per electoral district. That is not inherently unfair provided that the number is not made unnecessarily or artificially low. As there are currently 21 vacancies at each poll now, the simplest such change would be to divide NSW into three 7-member Upper House provinces, but there is no need to do that until the more pressing and sounder reform of discontinuing Group Voting Tickets has occurred. It may well be found that that reform is enough, and that there is no justification for reducing voters’ choice by reducing the ‘district magnitude’, although the introduction of some geographic relationship with particular voters, and the discouragement of groups with excessively narrowly-focussed ideology might give the 7-member model some broad appeal.


Former Democrat and now Green Independent Hon. Richard Jones MLC has offered to chair a committee to review the electoral legislation for the Upper House. Fortunately the key electoral provisions are contained in Schedule 6 of the Constitution Act 1902, and that Schedule cannot be changed without a referendum.



Unfair House of Representatives outcomes, so Australian Democrats float a Top-up Scheme


The Australian Democrats have long had a policy that elections to the House of Representatives and legislatures in the states and territories should be counted by the quota-preferential form of proportional representation. The Hare-Clark system of proportional representation used by Tasmania and the ACT is Australia’s best example of a quota-preferential system being successfully used for elections to governing houses. It has been in continuous and popular use for Tasmania’s House of Assembly since the late 19th century. This form of proportional representation is widely used in Australian democracy, as most upper houses use it also, as do municipalities in most of the states, including the capital cities of those states.


That policy has been democratically adopted within the party by postal ballot of its national membership. There are mentions in the Senate Hansard over a number of years, by various AD senators, of the party’s policy in favour of that specific form of proportional representation. Some of those statements are shown in full on the PRSA’s Web site. Such memorable former Democrat senators as Michael Macklin, David Vigor, John Siddons, John Coulter, Janet Powell and Cheryl Kernot, three of whom are former leaders of the party, have made publicly reported statements championing the official Australian Democrats policy.


In her speech to the National Conference on 23rd January, Australian Democrats Leader Senator Meg Lees pointed out that in 1998, just as in four of the previous 19 elections, the "wrong" party - the one receiving a minority of the vote after distribution of preferences - was declared the winner in the House of Representatives. She added that in each instance the winner was the incumbent government and asked 'How much longer should we have to tolerate an electoral system that allows an incumbent government effectively to deny power to a more popular opposition?'


She said 'It is time to make both houses of the parliament truly representative of the people's wishes. Optimally, I would like to see the House of Representatives selected on a proportional basis, the voting system of choice, in one form or another, of most western democracies. This system ensures that the parliament truly reflects the views of the electorate at large. But, I am realistic enough to know that the major parties would never accept this.’


Senator Lees declared that the mixed electoral system recommended by the Jenkins Commission in the United Kingdom should be considered for Australia’s House of Representatives. That system includes using single member districts, as in the House of Representatives, but would also provide for the election of some MHRs on a party list basis, for the purpose of making the party balance in the House closer to that in the electorate.


Such proposals do nothing about the problems of safe seats and the concentration by parties aspiring to government on a handful of marginal seats at each election. They also do nothing to improve voters' effective participation in determining the composition of the Parliament. Such top-up systems would also run the risk of a constitutional challenge under Section 24 of the Constitution, as all MHRs must be ‘chosen directly by the people’.


Fortunately the proposals by Senator Lees do not seem to have been taken up by anybody.



© Copyright 1999 Proportional Representation Society of Australia



National President: Bogey Musidlak 14 Strzelecki Cr. NARRABUNDAH 2604


National Secretary: Deane Crabb 11 Yapinga St. PLYMPTON 5038


Telephone: (08) 8297 6441, (02) 6295 8137   info@prsa.org.au


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