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Newsletter of the Proportional Representation Society of Australia

QN2000C          September 2000            www.prsa.org.au

 

PR for the Northern Territory - Real Practical Reconciliation

 

Aboriginal members of Federal Parliament

The only aboriginal federal parliamentarians to date have both been senators. No aboriginal has ever been elected as a member of the House of Representatives.

The first aboriginal senator was the late Neville Bonner, a Liberal, who filled a Queensland casual vacancy in 1971. He was elected as one of the ten senators for Queensland in the 1974 full Senate poll. He has the distinction of having obtained, in the 1975 full Senate poll, the highest first preference vote (56.1%) so far recorded for any state Senate candidate since the introduction, in 1948, of quota-preferential proportional representation for electing senators. Only eleven senate candidates have ever obtained an absolute majority of the first preference votes in their State, and none of those were obtained after 1975.

The second aboriginal to be elected, in 1998, Senator Aden Ridgeway, is an Australian Democrat. He is one of the twelve senators for NSW - not a state with nearly as high a percentage of aboriginal voters as some others - so he too owed his election to the support of a great many more voters than aboriginal voters alone.

Press reports have suggested an aboriginal Dubbo councillor is a serious contender for the third place on the ALP Group Voting Ticket for New South Wales. No suggestions have appeared that any of the other parties presently represented in the Parliament might give an aboriginal candidate a winnable place on the next round of Senate and lower house ballot-papers.

Aboriginal members of State Legislatures

There has been no greater percentage of aboriginal members in any state parliament than in the Federal Parliament. In the parliaments of Victoria and Queensland the lack of any proportional representation system makes the election of members identified with minority groups even less likely than it otherwise would be.

The PRSA has, in articles criticizing views on the subject of some major party MPs (QN71, QN74) referred to the widely prevalent fallacy of too readily assuming that the parliamentary representative chosen by a group of voters, whether it is a majority or a minority, necessarily has to possess particular characteristics of that group of voters.

The word representative is a very ambiguous word in the English language. The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines the noun as "Sample, specimen, typical embodiment, analogue, of; person or firm's agent; delegate, substitute, successor, heir; deputy in representative legislature".

A proper electoral system should leave it entirely up to electors to freely choose, if they wish, a person with a totally different background from themselves. The members of such groups might well decide to make that choice on the quite appropriate grounds that they consider that the person's views are closer to theirs than those of other people more readily and outwardly recognizable as part of their group, or that the person has better skills and ability to present those views to greatest effect.

Debates over the percentage of women that should be present in a parliament have focussed on the mere fact of the representatives being women or not, as opposed to the substantially more important issue of having a percentage of the voters much higher than a mere 50% being in possession of the power to have their first significant preference votes elect a group to represent their diversity of views as electors. Diversity of effective choice for voters, in practice, produces greater diversity in representatives, as any legislature elected by PR shows.

LET THE NORTHERN TERRITORY VOTE ON PR

Aboriginal people form about 29% of the Northern Territory population, which is almost ten times the percentage in any other Australian jurisdiction. All seats in the NT legislature are filled on a winner-take-all basis, and it is often the case that this large aboriginal minority are the losers in electoral contests, and have little representation.

The unicameral legislature of the Northern Territory has, under the Commonwealth's Northern Territory (Self-Government) Act 1978, so far been able to consist only of single-member electorates. By contrast, the only other internal Commonwealth territory, the Australian Capital Territory, has, by virtue of Commonwealth law facilitating its adoption, a popular and successful Hare-Clark system with multi-member electoral districts. That law enabled a 1992 plebiscite on Hare-Clark versus single-member districts, and there was a successful referendum in 1995 on entrenching its key principles, both of which were supported by the Liberals and Australian Democrats.

This restriction to single-member electoral districts has adversely affected representation of Northern Territory voters from the very first election. No ALP candidates were elected then although ALP candidates stood for all seats, and the overall ALP first preference vote was over 30%.

The Commonwealth should give Northern Territory voters a choice of having the present system changed to a Hare-Clark system, as it did for the Australian Capital Territory. That would be an act of real practical reconciliation between aboriginal and non-aboriginal Australians. Two of the three alternative election models in a Final Draft Constitution tabled in August 1996, after unanimous support by the NT Legislative Assembly's Sessional Committee on Constitutional Development, explicitly allowed for a proportional representation electoral system.

Initiatives they take in this area will help reveal the various parties' commitment to real practical reconciliation.

 

Craig Ingram MLA Moves to Correct the Flaws in Victoria's Bill for Upper House PR

The Victorian ALP Government withdrew its Constitution (Reform) Bill 1999 (see QN2000A) and replaced it with the Constitution (Proportional Representation) Bill 2000 and the Constitution (Amendment) Bill 2000. The majority of Legislative Councillors are in the Opposition Liberal Party, which says it will reject both bills, passed by the Assembly in September, and to be debated by MLCs in October.

Embarrassingly for the Government, one aspect it strongly supports in the Constitution (Amendment) Bill 2000, removing the Council’s power to reject supply bills, was opposed by two of the three independent MLAs, the support of all of whom was initially required, and provided, to enable a Labor Government to replace the previous Liberal Government. Since that initial support was given, two seats have changed to Labor at by-elections, thus enabling the ALP Government to have bills passed in the Assembly without all three independents' votes.

The Bracks Government, as was foreshadowed in the Governorís speech opening the 54th Parliament (see QN1999D), has declared that it will establish a Victorian Constitutional Commission for consideration of the Bills and the desirability of obtaining the views of the people of Victoria on Upper House reform. The last time such a plebiscite was held in Victoria was when the question of changing the closing hour of licensed hotels from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. was put by the Bolte Liberal Government.

The PRSAís Victoria-Tasmania Branch welcomes the split into two bills. The Constitution (Proportional Representation) Bill 2000 is essentially confined to the electoral system. The other bill is not a special focus of PRSA activities. The PRSA firmly believes that the PR should be Hare-Clark PR, and definitely not PR as corrupted by the voter-disempowering aspects included in the bill. These views were also forcefully put by a key Independent, Mr Craig Ingram, MLA for Gippsland East, in the Assembly on 6th September 2000, after moving his amendment to have all vacancies filled by countback.

Mr INGRAM: These amendments change the way vacancies are to be filled when a person either ceases being a member of the Legislative Council or dies. The amendments allow the filling of casual vacancies by countbacks.

That is the system that will apply to the filling of casual vacancies regardless of whether the person who has ceased to be a member of the Council was elected as a member of a political party or as an Independent.

The reasons for moving the amendment are clear. Firstly, I have a fundamental view that no-one should become an MP unless he or she has faced the voters. In other words, before a party can put someone into a seat in the Council, that person should have faced the voters. If a casual vacancy is filled by a person who is nominated by a political party, in essence that person could become a representative of the people without having faced them.

Mr BRACKS (Premier): The Government would prefer to have the bill stand as it is, but it accepts the argument put by the member for Gippsland East that there is an alternative to filling vacancies with party choices, which was the original intention. That is the case in the Senate, on which the legislation is modelled, and it is also the case in New South Wales and South Australia. We are aware that vacancies are filled by countback in Western Australia, Tasmania and the Australian Capital Territory.

If a member has died or is no longer able to continue in office, a countback is held to fill the position with the next preferred candidate. That is the system proposed by the member for Gippsland East. While it is not our first approved option it is still a very workable option and it is one the Government will accept. It does not at all detract from the bill. It is a method of filling a vacancy which is legitimate, which is in place in a number of states, which is workable, and which still reflects the choice at the ballot box at that time and considers the next preferred choice. So in this case the Government accepts the amendment.

Dr DEAN (Shadow Attorney-General): It is absolutely extraordinary to hear what the Premier has just said. In effect he has said, 'We have gone to a great deal of trouble to bring in a bill which we believe is an appropriate way for the upper house to operate. Oh, by the way, we are now going to change one of the fundamental tenets of the legislation simply because the Independent member has decided to put that up.' I will go over the reasons why it is inappropriate to simply have a countback.

If an MP retires prior to a general election and has to be replaced and the introduction of proportional representation legislation prevents you from having a by-election, you are left in the position of hoping to fill that vacancy with a person of the same political view or the same persuasion as the person who has left. The most likely way of achieving that is to have the party from whom that person originated nominate another person of the same political view.

If you remove that provision and simply operate on a countback you are likely to end up with the reverse situation. If there is a contest between groups of people - say, the Greens and the Removal of Trees Party - and an issue such as the planting or chopping down of trees, one of those groups will win and the one that came second is probably of the opposite political persuasion. So with the countback system, which the government has now agreed to put in, you will probably get someone of the opposite political persuasion filling that spot. It is absolute nonsense.

This is a situation where the very basis of trying to fill a vacancy in a proportional representation situation requires the provision that the Government had included in the bill and which it knew was correct. The Government has made a complete fool of itself by removing it on the basis that an Independent wants to go down that path. The Independent wants to go that way for obvious reasons. I understand that and I accept them, because it suits the Independent.

However, the Government has also gone down that track. Had it had the courage to do what it should have done, it would have had the Opposition's support and the provision would have been intact. The Opposition will vote against the bill in total, but at least the Government would have been able to walk out of this place with its integrity intact.

Mr LENDERS (ALP and, and a former PRSAV member): The honourable member for Berwick clearly does not understand the amendment that has been moved by the honourable member for Gippsland East to Clause 4, nor has he listened to the Premier's comments. The Government was committed to a number of provisions in the bill, and Clause 4 which deals with proportional representation is one of them. There are different ways of filling casual vacancies. As the Premier said, two models are being used throughout the country. The preferred choice of the Government was the Senate, South Australian and New South Wales model, but we have accepted the amendment of the honourable member for Gippsland East to support the amendment of the honourable member for Gippsland East that deals with the ACT, Tasmania and Western Australian model.

The concerns of the honourable member for Berwick would probably be legitimate concerns if political parties only ran sufficient candidates for positions they might win, but what the Liberal Party in Tasmania, the ACT and Western Australia does, and what the Labor Party does, is to run more than sufficient candidates. In almost all circumstances a countback will involve the same party providing the replacement as has occurred in the three jurisdictions I mentioned - the Tasmanian Assembly, the ACT Assembly and the Western Australian Legislative Council. It is a common provision that was supported by the National Party in Western Australia and by the Liberal Party in Tasmania and in the ACT. It is easy to understand and it is the way countbacks are done.

Mr INGRAM (Gippsland East): I remind Opposition members that members of the parties would put up enough members, usually one or two more than they would expect to get elected at that election. If the opposition parties do not have the depth to be able to put up enough good candidates in elections and if they cannot handle it, that is up to them. The parties would put up enough members, at least one or two more than they would expect to win in that election, so that on a countback the members that would be elected would be members of that party. The amendment gives all members in those elections an equal opportunity. It provides the same framework and restrictions for Independents, members of minor parties and members of the major parties.

Dr Denis Napthine, Leader of the Opposition,spoke next, in similar terms to the Shadow Attorney-General, as also happened in the next debate, on above-the-line voting.

The committee divided on the amendments: The 44 Ayes consisted of ALP and the three Independent MLAs, and the 41 Noes consisted of Liberal and National MLAs.

Mr INGRAM (Gippsland East): I move the first of a large number of amendments that basically set about removing the provision for above-the-line voting in the bill. One of the basic principles of a democratic system is that people elect their representatives. In my view a system in which people can vote for parties undermines that principle.

Supporters of above-the-line voting say that people vote for parties anyway by following the tickets, and that it does not matter if they tick a party box. Independents cannot have above-the-line voting and cannot group together as can candidates of parties, and the amendment will provide equal opportunities for everyone. Because of the way the proposed provinces are to be drawn up there would be a reasonably small number of candidates - around 20 would be a fairly high number - and it would not be too difficult to go through and individually number those in the standard way we vote in normal elections.

Mr BRACKS (Premier): The Government opposes Amendment no. 7 onwards. It opposes them for good and valid reasons. One is that above-the-line voting, which has now been well accepted for the Senate ballot paper, works to reduce informality. In fact, Victorians voting for the Senate informally have gone down from double figures to about 4%. It is important in our democracy and democratic system to ensure that a vote is valid and to maximize the potential of a valid vote.

I also state for the record that above-the-line voting is a choice. It is not as if it is a mandatory requirement that a voter must vote for a party or a group which is otherwise not a party but which is still grouped above the line. It is a matter of choice. Voters have the choice of marking ballot papers above the line, which is a party vote, or below the line, which is where they can fully fill out their ballot papers. Individual voters can choose the facility the honourable member for Gippsland East requires by filling their ballot papers out fully and not going above the line.

That system, which has worked well in the past, balances the need to reduce informal voting with the need to give voters the choice of filling out their preferences extensively. However, if they choose to vote for a party, they must realize that the party has already stipulated the preferential arrangements that will flow from their filling out their ballot papers above the line. Voters can make a conscious choice to do that. It is interesting to note that, by choice, most voters vote above the line. At the last federal election 97 per cent of Victorians chose above-the-line voting. They have effectively voted to support the system under which the Senate is elected.

Dr DEAN (Shadow Attorney-General): It has just been said that although as a matter of convenience it was previously not necessary to have a group or party vote, and although it is much more convenient than having a countback, all of a sudden convenience is the go. During the debate on the previous amendment we were told we should support it because if there are more members than are required within the group, that person will slip in and therefore there will be no problem with the countback because the party person will be there. The honourable member is now moving to abolish grouping, which means the basis of his argument in support of his first amendment is now completely shot.

The committee divided on the amendments: The 3 Ayes consisted of the three Independent MLAs, and the 82 Noes consisted of Labor, Liberal and National MLAs.

 

PRSA Submission to ATSIC Review Panel

The PRSA made a submission (at www.prsa.org.au) in June 2000 to the Review Panel on Elections to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission that is formed after each round of Regional Council elections. Detailed analysis of thirteen disparate Regional Council scrutinies provided the empirical evidence to illustrate various effects in a quota-preferential system with many good features (including optional preferential voting) and to describe potential solutions to problems.

The Society pointed out how most of the problems arising from large numbers of candidates being elected without a quota of votes can be dealt with through simple alteration of the way the quota is struck and transfer values are defined. We emphasized that the transfer value of a ballot-paper should not rise in the course of a scrutiny.

Key points to promote vote effectiveness included:

  • the current requirements for casting a formal vote should remain, and concerted efforts be made to improve awareness of how to make full use of the single transferable vote;
  • in setting ward boundaries, except for compelling reasons to the contrary, an odd number of vacancies, no fewer than 7, should apply;
  • to minimize the number of wasted votes, the quota should be calculated with each vote having a value of 100, and in distributing surpluses, the number of transferable papers, or more generally the continuing vote weight, should be the divisor in the calculation of the transfer value of a ballot-paper (with a proviso that this value not increase).

Since the 1993 Regional Council elections, after which the Society's previous submission was made, there has been a general reduction in the number of vacancies in wards. In 1993, quite often between 40 and 100 candidates nominated when there were more than 12 vacancies. This meant that voters in some areas received rather large ballot-papers, and although casting a formal vote was straightforward, there were cases of high informality and rather large numbers of exhausted votes.

At the 1999 Regional Council elections, 1044 candidates stood for 387 vacancies in 124 wards, an average of 2.69 candidates per vacancy. The maximum number of candidates was 27, for 10 Alice Springs vacancies. There were insufficient candidates in three three-member wards, and candidates were unopposed in four one-member wards, one two-member ward and one five-member ward.

While the ratio of candidates to vacancies declined slightly as the number of vacancies rose, voters benefited from having many more candidates to choose from, without their ballot-papers ever becoming unwieldy. As the number of vacancies rose, the distribution of first preferences gained by elected candidates spread out a little more widely in the scrutinies perused (quotas ranged from 51 to 176). Only 3 candidates with more than half a quota of first preferences failed to be elected.

Voter satisfaction, as measured by percentage of votes for elected candidates, increased from the low 70s to the high 70s with number of vacancies, while votes for the last unsuccessful candidate trailed off from nearly 20 per cent to just 7 per cent in the larger electorates studied. The level of exhausted votes was rather high at around 10 per cent - unnecessarily so.

The Society was alarmed to find that in the transfer of surpluses amounting to 327 votes, the extraordinarily high number of 166 votes was deemed exhausted or lost by fractions. Suggestions made and worked through numerically showed how these losses could be cut by well over 90 per cent without any candidate having grounds for complaint. One scrutiny provided two examples of the transfer value of some ballot-papers rising in mid-stream. With computerized counting now in place, such defective procedures must be replaced with sound ones before the next round of Regional Council elections.

 

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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