Newsletter of the Proportional Representation Society of Australia

QN2000B                  June 2000        www.prsa.org.au

Constitution Alteration (Proportional Representation in the Senate) 1999

A major party has never proposed entrenchment of Senate PR, although the Australian Democrats have raised it. The ACT, with the support of Liberal MLAs, entrenched the key Hare-Clark principles in 1995. The Green MHA Bob Brown tried, but failed, to gain such protection for Tasmania’s Hare-Clark system. The Victorian ALP Government's Constitution (Reform) Bill 1999 does not provide for a referendum before its proposed PR system could be changed. Senator Len Harris (One Nation Party, Queensland), the sole Federal parliamentarian of that party, whose first preference Senate vote Australia-wide exceeded one million in 1998, introduced his party’s Constitution Alteration Bill above on 28th August 1999.

The Bill would alter the Constitution so that paragraph 1 of Section 7 read: "The Senate shall be composed of senators for each State, directly chosen by the people of the State, voting as one electorate, using a method of proportional representation that shall be uniform for all the States."

The Bill’s repeal of the second paragraph of Section 7 would remove an obsolete qualified provision to empower the Queensland Parliament to legislate to divide that State into divisions for the election of senators. A uniform method of proportional representation over entire territories would be used in all territories electing senators.

Coupled with the nexus requirement of Section 24 of the Constitution for the number of MHRs to be close to twice the number of senators, these changes would make it very difficult for a government to change the Senate status quo.

Senator Harris’s second reading speech began, "The Senate has proved its worth to the Australian people on many occasions, most recently with the Goods and Services Tax. We need a strong and independent Senate to control the excesses of government, and to represent the 1 in 5 voters who have been effectively disenfranchised by the two-party system.

Our federal bicameral system of government consists of two separately constituted legislatures with equal power, each to act as a balance on the other, and to offer a degree of representation and accountability that is unachievable with a unicameral system. The division of powers between the House of Representatives and the Senate helps to safeguard against the abuse of power by government. A functional Senate is the best protection against the arbitrary exercise of power by the Federal Executive that we have."

Of the composition and role of the Senate, he said, "The Senate is elected by proportional representation, unlike the House of Representatives, in order to best reflect the diversity of electoral opinion in Australia. Due to the rigid two-party system and compulsory preferential system in Australia, virtually all votes in the House of Representatives ultimately go to either the Labor Party or the Coalition, and just 14 independents have managed to win seats in the House of Representatives since 1946. This has resulted in the two-party domination and hegemony of parliamentary debate and economic and social policy in Australia, and the imposition on an unwilling electorate of all sorts of objectionable policies. ... This is an unacceptable situation for the 20% of voters who voted for someone other than Labor or the Coalition in the House of Representatives in the 1998 federal election. For these voters who have been effectively disenfranchised by the two party system, the Senate offers the only relief, where it is possible for independent candidates and small political parties to regularly get elected.

The operation of the Senate in fulfilling its constitutional role of countervailing government power and operating as a house of review has been the source of constant complaint from governments for many years, regardless of whether Labor or the Coalition has been in power.

That the Senate fulfils its constitutional role very effectively is irrelevant to government politicians, who view it as a threat and maintain that the Senate “destabilizes the political system”. Yet when in opposition, these same politicians take full advantage of the operation of the Senate to further their own political goals.

The fact that the House of Representatives is dissatisfied with the powers and the conduct of the Senate at times is evidence in itself of the necessity of the Senate. The easiest way for the government to obtain a majority in both the Senate and the House of Representatives is simply to get more votes by enacting legislation that is more acceptable to the Australian people. Methods to hamstring the Senate include replacing proportional representation with preferential voting, changing the number of senators representing each state, or imposing electoral thresholds.

... The Australian people have, by right of the Constitution, the Senate as a second house of review, and it would be in their best interests to resist all attempts to nobble it, whether by cajolery or threat. The necessity for a strong and effective house of review is now greater than ever due to the entrenchment of the two-party system in Australian politics and the increasing power and domination of the Executive over the legislature. The latent danger for the Senate and the Australian people is that Section 7 of the Constitution enables the government to fundamentally change the way the Senate functions without a referendum. Evidently the founders of the Constitution underestimated the determination of the two-party body politic to give themselves more power by neutralizing the Senate under the guise of “providing stable government”. Only with a referendum can the Australian people enshrine the Senate in its current form in our Constitution."

The PRSA applauds this particular initiative by Senator Harris as it strongly supports entrenchment of PR as the method of electing the houses of our parliaments, to be alterable only by referendum, as applies for the Lower House in the Republic of Ireland. The Bill would remove Parliament’s power to divide a State, or Territory, into electorates for Senate elections, and would exclude majoritarian electoral systems for Senate polls, but it would not change the present power to introduce party lists, thresholds or other devices that would degrade the present system, let alone the Hare-Clark ideal.


Polls for London Mayor and Assembly

Polls over the whole London metropolitan area on 4th May 2000, to elect for a four-year term an inaugural Mayor with limited powers and 25-member Assembly for a Greater London Authority, used primitive electoral rules initiated by the Blair Labour Government.

Voters for this new metropolitan-wide position of Mayor received ballot-papers inviting them to mark with a cross against a candidate’s name, on the left of the list of candidates’ names down the ballot-paper, their first preference, and on the right, if they wished, their second preference. They could indicate no other preferences. The only redeeming feature of these rules, and the rules for electing the Assembly, is that they were not quite as bad as Britain’s traditional first-past-the-post system.

The system provided that where no candidate was elected with an absolute majority of first preference votes, all but the two highest-polling candidates marked on the left of the list would be excluded from the count, and all the votes for those two candidates marked on the right of the list would be added to their first preference votes to produce a final

total for each. Whichever of the two candidates gained the higher total vote would be elected Mayor, even if it was less than an absolute majority of the valid first preference votes. This supplementary vote system could be called a partial preferential system.

After controversy over the weighting of votes in the preselection process for Labour’s mayoral candidate, Ken Livingstone MP, who had been the left-wing head of the former Greater London Council disbanded by the Thatcher Conservative Government, announced he would be standing against the official Labour candidate for Mayor, Frank Dobson, a former Health Minister, and was expelled from the party.

Only one person in three voted. Spoilt papers exceeded 2%. The two strongest polling candidates in first preference votes were Ken Livingstone, Independent (39.0%), and the Conservative candidate, Steven Norris (27.1%). Frank Dobson gained 13.1%; and Susan Kramer, the Liberal Democrat candidate, gained 11.9%. The other seven candidates shared the remaining 9% of the first preference vote. Mr Livingstone would have won with that 39.0% alone under the traditional UK system. He also won under the modified system, obtaining another 6.3% through second preference votes to leave him with 57.9% of the total vote that could be counted under the highly restrictive rules - the only second preference votes that could be counted were those for one of the two candidates with the highest first preference vote!

Labour Party officials have already suggested that they will abandon an electoral college for future preselection ballots for mayoral candidates, returning to the principle of one member, one vote. They have also indicated that they will change the ‘closed list’ method of selecting Labour candidates for European elections. The Party’s General Secretary, Margaret McDonagh, confirmed this, saying: "As a party we now have to decide what type of election is best handled by an electoral college and which should be decided by one member, one vote."

The Assembly’s numbers come from 14 ‘first-past-the-post’ constituencies and 11 top-up places from party lists whose order voters could not rearrange. The latter are determined using the d’Hondt ‘highest average’ procedure, initially dividing total party votes by one more than the number of single-member constituencies won and awarding the first seat to the party with the highest divisor. The process is repeated ten more times, adjusting on each occasion for the seat just allocated.

Labour gained 6 constituency members and the Conservatives 8, despite Labour’s higher vote. The closed list members were 3 Labour, 1 Conservative (the last to be elected), 4 Liberal Democrats and 3 Greens. Further details are at www.detr.gov.uk/london/election01.htm 


ACT Branch of PRSA Remains Active

How-to-vote material: In August 1999, ACT Greens MLA Kerrie Tucker presented a Bill to allow party machines and independent candidates to submit how-to-vote material in a standardized A4 page format, for inclusion in folders in polling booths over the last five days before polling, as well as on election day itself. In 1995 the ACT Branch of the PRSA strongly opposed (QN 80) defeated ALP amendments that would have required any electoral material submitted by candidates to be displayed in each voting compartment.

Careful study of the Bill led the ACT Branch to write to key MLAs urging a vote against a move ‘contrary to the spirit of Hare-Clark’ that would create ‘administrative problems and diversions without significantly adding to the information and assistance already available to voters’. The Branch noted that candidates and parties have ample opportunities to send material to voters and that ‘the time for campaigning has well and truly passed when voters are just about to mark their ballot-papers’. The Hare-Clark system encourages voters to actively sort out who is elected rather than vest primary influence in party machines. The 1998 poll, the first with a ban on election-day distribution of how-to-vote material, gave no sign that many voters were dissatisfied with the new arrangements.

The letter remarked on how odd was a proposal that only party machines and independents could submit last-moment how-to-vote material when individual candidates campaign vigorously. It pointed out that parties unlikely to win more than one seat that were concerned at preferences drifting or drying up could endorse teams earlier, and have them campaign more effectively as a group, or nominate fewer candidates than the number of vacancies and concentrate efforts on persuading supporters and those of like mind to mark more preferences.

Unacceptable in principle, the Bill also suffered from numerous practical defects. The Electoral Commissioner had to have the how-to-vote material printed on paper and yet had to minimize the risk of its defacement, obliteration or removal. With no guidance on how the significant costs of that activity should be recovered from parties and candidates submitting material, the Commissioner would inevitably be embroiled in controversy in setting fees.

Because a ‘recommended allocation of preferences’ was required, the absence of material from parties and independents not wishing to offer such how-to-vote advice ‘could raise in people's minds a number of unwarranted questions about Electoral Commission bias or error’ or there could be court action over how folders were being prepared. There was also uncertainty about whether material not in the English language would be permitted.

The Liberal Party and independent MLA Michael Moore immediately indicated that they would not support the Bill. Independent MLAs Paul Osborne and Dave Rugendyke wrote back likewise after studying it. It remains on the Notice Paper, and has not yet been brought on for debate.

Redistribution: The ACT’s Electoral Act 1992 requires a redistribution to begin as soon as practicable within the last two years of each Assembly term. It allows expected enrolment per seat in any electorate a maximum 5% departure from the ACT average on the next day of polling and sets out community-of-interest criteria to be duly considered by the Redistribution Committee. The Australian Capital Territory (Self-Government) Act 1989 allows a maximum 10% tolerance at the time a redistribution is finalized. Owing to fast growth in the new township of Gungahlin, the current boundaries for Molonglo, the ACT’s central electorate, will, in October 2001, be outside the permitted tolerance.

The ACT Branch of the PRSA made a detailed submission to the ACT Redistribution Commission in March 2000 stressing how Hare-Clark supporters have always emphasized boundary stability, as in the official 1992 case for PR. It urged the Committee to place importance on the boundaries adopted for 2001 being retainable in 2004.

As population changes necessitated some change, the ACT Branch showed that Ginninderra, the northern electorate, could not satisfactorily expand to be the seven-member electorate. Instead, it proposed re-allocating the suburb of Nicholls from Molonglo to Ginninderra, to better maintain communities of interest than other possible small-scale changes would, and to give boundaries that population projections showed could stay unchanged in 2004.

Both the Liberal and Labor Parties placed similar strong emphasis on stability of boundaries and concurred with the ACT Branch. The Australian Democrats suggested a major realignment of boundaries north of Lake Burley Griffin and the options most attractive to the ACT Greens also involved major changes. Commenting on suggestions, the ACT Branch noted that no submission seeking major boundary changes had made a strong case. In April 2000, the Redistribution Committee proposed two minor changes as well as transferring Nicholls.

The ACT Branch is pleased that the Committee has stated explicitly that ‘this is the minimum change necessary to ensure that each electorate is within the required statistical tolerance’ and that ‘change should affect as few electors as possible’. It also sees as important the rejection of proposals involving significant splits in the community of interests of recognizable geographic entities.

Further details of submissions, and the process under way, are at www.elections.act.gov.au/redis99.html


PNG Electoral System Change Recommended

The Australian Electoral Commission Web site (www.aec.gov.au) shows that, at the request of the Papua New Guinea Electoral Commission, two AEC officers were funded to report on possible reforms before PNG’s elections in 2002, such as voter registration, staff and polling official training and electoral education.

One recommendation, which would need legislative change, is for PNG to adopt optional preferential voting. PNG has used a first-past-the-post system in single-member districts since 1977, when it abandoned the preferential voting system for such districts bequeathed by Australia. Large fields of candidates, and an evenness of their vote has had many MHRs being elected by a very small percentage of the vote, sometimes as little as 5%. 


PRSA Branch Structure Extends

At its 2000 Annual General meeting the PRSA’s Victorian Branch altered its Constitution to change its name to Proportional Representation Society of Australia (Victoria-Tasmania). It has Tasmanian members, as the PRSA has never had a Tasmanian Branch, although PRSA did work with Tasmania’s Municipal Reform Group.

A prominent PRSA member, Hon. Neil Robson, long an MHA for Bass, instigator of the Robson Rotation feature of Tasmania's Electoral Act, and later a Minister administering that Act, was consulted before the change was made. The meeting was told that both he and the PRSA President, Bogey Musidlak, supported the proposal.

The PRSA’s Branch structure now covers all six States and the ACT, leaving the Northern Territory alone without a PRSA Branch. Federal law has always applied a single-member electorate system to NT Legislative Assembly polls, after which the Country Liberal Party has always been over-represented at others’ expense.

By contrast, each major group has won the Federal seat at times since it was created, in 1922. After the Northern Territory just qualified for a second seat at the next Federal general election, the recent proposal for redistribution of House of Representatives seats was for the creation of two new divisions, Solomon, essentially the Darwin urban area, and Lingiari, the remainder of the Territory. Under a Hare-Clark system the change would see the two major strands of NT political opinion represented at virtually every federal poll, but the present system could see just the majority view regularly duplicated. The NT’s Country Liberal Party supported the separation into one distinctly urban division, and one distinctly non-urban, but the NT Branch of the ALP opposed it, as it wanted the divisions’ composition to be as similar in character as possible.


New Web Address for the PRSA

The PRSA is grateful to the President of its Victoria-Tasmania Branch, Dr Lee Naish who, as the PRSA Webmaster, has arranged for a simpler, and more easily quoted and remembered Web address for the Society. The new address for the PRSA is www.prsa.org.au

It is much shorter, and immediately conveys an indication of its connection with the PRSA. Of course it has long been the case, under Lee’s careful supervision, that the site has been significant. For instance, Professor David Farrell of the Department of Government at the University of Manchester has recently praised it highly. This new address makes it more convenient to access. Readers should change their bookmarks, and any links, please.

The site now has PR Analyses of recent Federal, Victorian and Queensland election results that show how much fairer a PR electoral system would have been to voters.

Letter to the Editor: Scrutineers Vindicated

On 18th March 2000 I was a scrutineer for a ward of Bayside City Council. The triennial general election was administered by the Victorian Electoral Commission. Each of the nine wards has its single councillor elected under a preferential system. Separate VEC teams counted several wards concurrently. In another ward, Clayton Ward, where there were seven candidates, the team leader of the count decided, after the exclusion of two of the candidates, to next exclude the candidate that had the third lowest first preference vote, even though that candidate did not have the lowest vote in the progressive count at that point.

When a scrutineer initially challenged that, the team leader rejected the challenge. The matter was then referred to the Returning Officer, who consulted several others and eventually conceded that the candidate that had the lowest vote at this point in the progressive count should be the next excluded. The most disturbing aspect of this was that I was told that the method of exclusion used by the team leader of the count was the method taught by the VEC. I have since written to the VEC about this. They have assured me the correct procedure is taught to all staff.

I am reassured by this, but the case does show how important it is for scrutineers to know correct procedures, to stay vigilant, and to take action promptly.

Stephen Morey, Member of PRSA (Victoria-Tasmania)


©  2000 Proportional Representation Society of Australia

National President: Bogey Musidlak 14 Strzelecki Cr. NARRABUNDAH 2604

National Secretary: Deane Crabb 11 Yapinga St. PLYMPTON 5038

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

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