Newsletter of the Proportional Representation Society of Australia


September 1999                  QN1999C                      www.prsa.org.au




Proportional Representation for the Senate: the 50th Anniversary!

In 1948, legislation enlarged the Commonwealth Parliament - from 36 to 60 in the case of the Senate - and introduced quota-preferential proportional representation for elections to the Senate. At the time, the Opposition in the 36-member Senate consisted of only three senators - the other 33 senators were all from the Government Party, the ALP. The Senate was widely regarded as a national embarrassment.

The first PR elections for the Senate, on 10th December 1949, brought the Menzies-led Coalition into Government and left it with 23 of the 42 Senate vacancies contested on the day. Control of the Senate remained with the Labor Party until the 1951 double dissolution election because of the winner-take-all advantage it retained from 1946.

To commemorate fifty years of proportional representation being used to elect the Senate, the Research School of Social Sciences at the Australian National University and the Department of the Senate held a two-day Representation and Institutional Change Conference at Parliament House on 5th and 6th August 1999. Distinguished academics and current or former senators presented papers on aspects of the continuing evolution of the Senate’s role and powers, including the contentious issues of who is represented, what mandates can be claimed in a bicameral system whose founders deliberately built in powers for a strong Upper House, what voters expect of the Senate, and where the people fit into the legislative process.

Over 100 people registered for the Conference, including the National President, Vice-President, and Secretary of the PRSA, one or more Office-bearers from all but one PRSA Branch, and other PRSA members. After each session, people questioned the presenters or commented on the talk. PR campaigners’ questions elicited current policy positions and canvassed improvements to current counting methods. Their comments illuminated points of historical interest and led to lively discussion in the forum and during intervals.

In advance, registrants received overview papers on why PR was chosen for the Senate in 1948, by Dr John Uhr (ANU), and on the institutional impact of PR, by Professor Elaine Thompson (UNSW). ALP Senate Leader, John Faulkner, a strong supporter of proportional representation for many years, undertook archival research into motives for the Chifley Government’s plan of a new system for the Senate.

Professor Thompson noted that the Senate was the first Upper House in the world to be popularly elected, but that before 1949, the Senate had not fulfilled the expectations of the framers of the Constitution. She wrote, “By 1949 the Senate, while not quite moribund, was largely regarded as a weak institution, irrelevant to the conduct of politics”, and contrasted this with the “vital, representative, democratic second chamber” that now seeks to ensure laws are supported by a majority, properly representative of the country, and that ministers are accountable to the people for their conduct. Her paper highlighted how the Senate had increased accountability and community participation.

Both Dr Uhr and Senator Faulkner outlined how far the majority-preferential “winner-take-all” system had fallen into public disrepute, owing to the frequent lop-sided poll outcomes, making a travesty of debate in the ensuing Parliament, interspersed with several occasions on which the two Houses were controlled by opposing parties and both showed intransigence until a double dissolution was sought to break the deadlock. They also showed how quota-preferential counting had long been promoted by vigorous proponents before and after Federation, and how it had gained and maintained the status of a serious alternative in the minds of prominent figures.

This included its championing, before and after 1901, by Melbourne University’s Mathematics Professor, Edward Nanson, then Secretary of the Proportional Representation League of Victoria, and by the South Australian advocate of effective voting, Catherine Helen Spence; its use in 1901 to elect all Tasmanian MHRs and senators before a Commonwealth electoral statute existed; and its presence in the Barton Government’s first Electoral Bill, in 1902, after a committee of experts had commended it to the Home Affairs Minister, the Hon. Sir William Lyne.

The Senate amended the 1902 Bill to replace PR with a multiple plurality system, despite warnings of the one-sided outcomes that soon eventuated. Amid growing public disquiet, the Royal Commission Upon the Commonwealth Electoral Act recommended PR for the Senate in 1915, as did the Royal Commission on the Constitution in 1929.

The Country Party’s emergence after 1918 brought further persistently strong support. Earle Page was only nine votes short of passing committee stage amendments in the House of Representatives to introduce PR for the Senate in 1922. Other strong PR supporters from both Labor and the Coalition argued that a Senate that was not representative or performing useful functions risked a charge of redundancy.

There was regular dissatisfaction with electoral outcomes, but Dr Uhr and Senator Faulkner both noted occasions on which each party was reluctant to make a change when it perceived itself as being currently advantaged by the system. Worse results were produced under majority-preferential counting (from 1919) because disciplined party voting had by then come to dominate patterns.

Making the Change to PR: Dr Uhr noted that when the change was finally made, the Opposition Leader, Robert Menzies, kept up a barrage of accusations that the Chifley Government was making the change to retain its control of the Senate in case it lost Government. He quoted Fred Daly MHR, a long-time opponent of PR, insisting that Arthur Calwell played strongly on the self-preservation instincts of other Caucus members in his promotion of the change. The mean number of voters per MP had risen from some 12,000 at Federation to 63,000 in the late 1940s, producing pressures for an expansion of the Parliament. For the much larger Senate mandated by the nexus in Section 24 of the Constitution (the House to be as nearly as practicable double the size of the Senate) a one-party Senate would be harder to defend, and more obviously farcical.

Senator Faulkner did not deny the likelihood of self-preservation as a factor in the change, but stated that in his detailed examination of Caucus and Cabinet records, the process of change appeared to have been driven by the perceived desirability of enlarging the Parliament and the consequences that flowed from that. In particular, following the 1947 Census, redistributions would have been required in all mainland States, and desirable in Tasmania, in the opinion of the Commonwealth Electoral Officer.

In May 1947, Caucus recommended an increase in the size of Parliament before the next redistribution. On 3rd July, Cabinet deferred consideration of a proposal to increase representation until after a detailed analysis of the Census results and their implications had been prepared.

On 8th December 1948, the Prime Minister, J.B.Chifley, presented a memorandum on the need for redistributions. It was silent on the issue of PR. A Cabinet sub-committee - Arthur Calwell (Vic), Senator Nicholas McKenna (Tas) and Victor Johnson (WA) - examined redistribution proposals and how Parliament could best be enlarged. Cabinet accepted, on 12th January 1948, its recommendation that “in the event of Caucus approving an increase in the size of Parliament, senators at the next and subsequent elections be elected on the basis of proportional representation”.

Caucus gave approval for proportional representation the following month and for the resultant Commonwealth Electoral Act 1948, passed in April 1948, to be based on Tasmania’s House of Assembly system “subject to the Constitution and with an altered practice regarding the transfer of surplus votes”. One weakness in the legislation was its lack of a special method for filling casual vacancies, but another, which Senator Faulkner did not mention, was the ALP’s decision to continue to require the compulsory marking of all preferences. Tasmania’s Dame Enid Lyons and other Coalition MHRs argued in 1948 that voters should have much greater freedom in casting a formal vote.

The Opposition Leader, Robert Menzies, said that the threat of a double dissolution would be far less formidable than in the past should the Senate consistently oppose legislation of an elected government. The Opposition finally voted for the Bill to enlarge Parliament and alter the way the Senate is elected, after unsuccessfully proposing a referendum to remove the nexus provision and thus allow a small Senate to continue to be elected by defective methods.

Keynote Speech: On the first day, well-known American political scientist, Professor Arend Lijphart, whose distinction between ‘consensus’ and ‘majoritarian’ models of democracy has been taken up all over the world, gave a major keynote speech examining the empirical evidence of whether proportional representation was associated with less decisive and less effective government. He began by noting that among democracies that had experienced British rule, adaptations from the Westminster model had generally been along the federal-unitary dimension, rather than the executives-parties dimension, these two dimensions being where variations in institutions of democracy tend to occur.

For the latter dimension, he observed that majoritarian democracy was characterized by one-party majority cabinets, executive dominance over the legislature, two-party systems, majoritarian and disproportional electoral systems and pluralist interest group systems with free-for-all competition among groups, whereas power was dispersed and limited in consensus democracy. At the same time, majoritarian systems tended to involve unitary and centralized government, concentration of legislative power in a unicameral legislature, flexible constitutions that can be amended by simple majorities, legislatures that have the final word on the constitutionality of their own legislation, and central banks that are dependent on the executive.

He said that STV elections for the Senate had strengthened bicameralism and the federal character of Australian democracy. As the number of vacancies was usually small, the index of disproportionality (imbalance between votes and seats for various parties) was at the higher end for PR systems, but much lower than for any majoritarian systems. He noted a clear trend towards multipartism. He concluded that adoption of a proportional representation system for House of Representatives elections was “probably not just a necessary but also a sufficient condition” for turning Australia into a consensus democracy.

Professor Lijphart mentioned the conventional wisdom of  “a trade-off between the quality and the effectiveness of democratic government”, and its quite wide acceptance without adequate empirical examination. Political theorists challenged the assertions that faster decisions by majoritarian governments were necessarily better ones, and observed that “the supposedly coherent policies produced by majoritarian governments may be negated by the alternation of these governments” and abrupt changes in economic direction. Empirical work suggested that small countries with PR and corporatist practices compensate for the disadvantages of their size in international trade.

Professor Lijphart collected all the necessary data about all but the very smallest democracies, and then conducted regression analyses of five sets of macro-economic variables (economic growth, inflation, unemployment, strike activity and budget deficits) against the degree of electoral proportionality. He initially found that that proportionality was associated with less economic growth and higher budget deficits, fewer strikes, and less inflation and unemployment. However, when the level of economic development and population size were controlled for, the picture turned “uniformly favourable for PR”, prompting three conclusions: “PR has a uniformly better macro-economic performance record than majoritarian systems, especially with regard to the control of inflation and also, albeit more weakly, with regard to all of the other economic performance variables”; the presence of only a few statistically significant correlations “did not permit the definitive conclusion that PR systems are better policy-makers than majoritarian systems”; and most importantly, “majoritarian democracies are clearly not superior to PR systems as policy-makers” and “the conventional wisdom is clearly wrong in claiming that this is the case”.

Professor Lijphart studied the relationship between PR and five indicators of the quality of democracy and democratic representation; women’s representation in parliaments and cabinets, income inequality, voter turnout, satisfaction with democracy, and proximity between governments and citizens on policy positions. He found PR making large differences for all indicators, concluding that “PR has a much better record than majoritarian democracy on all of the measures of democratic quality”, and that ... majoritarian systems do not have a better record of governing. This means that there is no trade-off and no difficult choice to make in electoral engineering: PR systems clearly outperform non-PR systems.” At the Conference, Professor Lijphart said he had not expected to find such strong and unequivocal patterns. He also gave a ‘National Interest’ interview with Radio National’s Terry Lane on 8th August.

Former senator, Peter Baume, and Mr Harry Evans, the Clerk of the Senate, spoke at a Senate reception and launch of its Web pages on the Australasian Federal Conventions of the 1890s at www.aph.gov.au/senate/pubs/records.htm

Text of original documents on the PR Society’s 1940s campaign for PR for the Senate, and the parliamentary debate on Dr Evatt’s Second Reading Speech on the 1948 Bill appear in the ‘Brief History’ item on the PRSA Web site below. QN1999D will report on other topics at the Conference raised by participants such as Professors Campbell Sharman, Murray Goot, and Ian Marsh; former senators Hon. Fred Chaney, David Hamer and Dee Margetts; and Senators Andrew Bartlett, Helen Cooney and Kate Lundy.

Summing Up: In summing up proceedings Professor Geoffrey Brennan (ANU) said he was struck by remarks by the PRSA National Vice-President, Geoffrey Goode, that Catherine Helen Spence had witnessed and been impressed by the conduct of the world’s first public election using proportional representation, in Adelaide in 1840, and that 1999 was also the 80th anniversary of the introduction of preferential voting for the Commonwealth Parliament. He said that there was room for a major study of Australia’s long and distinguished record of institutional innovation. Mr Harry Evans, the Clerk of the Senate, also summed up. At the end all present stood and sang “Happy Birthday PR for the Senate”, ably led by Professor Brennan and Mr Evans.


Call for Nominations for Elections of PRSA Office-bearers for 2000-01

The Returning Officer is Mr Jim Randall of NSW. Under the PRSA Constitution the Returning Officer rotates among the Branch Secretaries. The order, by precedent, is Victoria, NSW, SA, WA, Queensland and the ACT. Nominations, for President, Vice-President, Secretary and Treasurer, need be signed by the candidate only, as consent to nomination, and should be with Mr Randall at 69 Ben Boyd Road, NEUTRAL BAY NSW 2089 by 31st October 1999.

Any candidate may submit, with the nomination, 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 2000. If any poll is required, ballot-papers will be posted on 7th November 1999, and the poll will close on 14th December 1999. Results will appear in Quota Notes for December 1999, QN1999D.


NSW Branch Responds to ‘Tablecloth Ballot-paper’ and Threshold Threat

The New South Wales state elections held on 27th March 1999 might not be remembered for much in years to come: a first-term Labor government gaining a second four years and an increased lower house majority (with single-member electorates, optional-preferential voting, and only 42% of the voters supporting Labor), and much post-defeat soul-searching by the Liberal-National coalition. Those events are virtually indistinguishable (just change the names) from dozens of other state election results Australia-wide.

A dubious legacy of these NSW polls was the introduction of the term ‘tablecloth ballot-paper’ into the political lexicon. The Legislative Council poll filled 21 vacancies state-wide, using quota-preferential proportional representation (the quota was 4.5% of the vote), together with a ballot-paper format that included Group Voting boxes above-the-line and provision for parties and groups on the ballot-paper to register Group Voting Tickets facilitating the rigid exchange of preferences between them.

In 1995 these rules allowed the election of a very minor party candidate whose first preference vote was 1.3%, and who received the disciplined delivery of Group-Voting-Ticket preferences from other small groups to reach the quota for election to an 8-year term. By 1999, many more groups had registered as parties, some chiefly to garner enough votes from interlocking preference swaps to reach the quota. When nominations closed, 80 parties and 264 candidates had nominated. The Electoral Commissioner produced a ballot-paper with 80 boxes above-the-line, in three rows, as well as 259 ‘grouped’ candidates in 27 columns of three rows each, plus five ungrouped candidates in the lower right-hand corner of the paper.

Talkback radio, tabloids and broadsheets seemingly could not resist the 1010 by 720 mm size, 2.8 times the paper area of the ballot-paper at the previous Council poll, using it mainly as a figure of fun or absurdity. Much comment attacked PR in general, rather than this manifestation of it. Opportunities for the Society to rebut the less well-informed claims were limited, but were taken where possible, and resulted in at least some broadsheet coverage for the Society’s defence of the PR principle.

The Upper House poll unsurprisingly produced a proportional result: of the 21 seats, Labor candidates gained 8, with 38% of the vote; Liberal-National Coalition candidates gained 6, with 28% of the vote; and the remaining candidates gained 7, with some 34% of the vote. However several very small parties took advantage of preference exchanges using the Group Voting Ticket rules to win a seat with even fewer first preference votes than in 1995, one with a mere 0.2%. That would not have been objectionable had voters directed their own preferences openly between these parties and groups, rather than the parties and groups exchanging voter preferences behind the ‘veil’ of Group Voting Tickets, and usually without the voters’ knowledge, as actually occurred.

After the polls, the Treasurer, Hon. Michael Egan MLC, launched an Upper House reform proposal, to entail:

  • a reduction in the size of the House from 42 to 34 MLCs, with 17 elected at a time (giving a 5.5% quota);
  • reducing the power of the House by introducing provisions for Joint Sittings to deal with Lower House bills rejected twice by the Upper House;
  • higher hurdles for party registration;
  • the introduction of a distortional ‘threshold’, 3% of the vote, below which minor party and independent candidates would automatically be eliminated, but poorly supported candidates low down on major party lists would stay in the count and thus be able to receive preferences from eliminated and elected candidates; and
  • a single referendum question on the package.


The President of the Society’s NSW Branch, John Webber, observed that the Egan package would retain the current system’s greatest defect and chief contributor to the ‘tablecloth’ ballot-paper - the rigid direction of preferences behind the ‘veil’ of Group Voting Tickets, and above-the-line voting. It would also create two ‘classes’ of candidates, favouring weaker candidates on major party tickets over the stronger lead candidates on minor party or independent tickets, contrary to the arithmetic integrity of the quota-preferential form of proportional representation. The Egan package failed to get support from other than the Labor MLCs, and it was withdrawn, but it will probably resurface with some variations in the near future.

The Society’s NSW Branch has instead responded with the following preferred model for Legislative Council reform, with practicality and fairness as the prime objectives:

·        reduction of the House from 42 to 33 MLCs;

·        reduction in the term from two Lower House terms (8 years) to one Lower House term (4 years);

·        division of NSW into three regions (one mainly rural and regional, two mainly metropolitan, each formed by grouping 31 of the 93 Lower House districts);

·        each region to elect 11 MLCs, with a quota of 8.3% of the vote required for election;

·        no group-based threshold (such as the Egan package’s 3% threshold), which would have created distortions between ‘classes’ of candidates;

·        abolition of above-the-line voting and Group Voting Tickets, with voters to mark their own preferences;

·        minimal requirements for a vote to be formal, with a clear first preference vote sufficient by itself;

·        batch-printing of ballot-papers, with the ‘Robson Rotation’ as in Tasmanian and ACT Assembly polls.


The NSW Branch is promoting these reforms on the basis that they would make ballot-papers far more manageable, the range of candidates more comprehensible, and the membership of the Upper House less fissured, all without distorting the rules between ‘classes’ of candidates for essentially undemocratic purposes.

The Branch is also seeking to engage some of the political players and commentators in discussions on the pursuit of these reforms, and readers can thus expect further instalments in future issues of Quota Notes.

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

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