the Proportional Representation Society of
Federation is 100: Links to Senate PR
On 1st January 2001 Australians will begin celebrating the survival of the Commonwealth of Australia for its first century. The Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918, which specifies the electoral systems used for both Houses of the Parliament of the Commonwealth, has prescribed a proportional representation electoral system for the election of the Senate since 1948 - for more than the entire second half of the first century of the Commonwealth’s existence.
Although proportional representation was not used for Senate polls until 1948, the decisions made by the Constitutional Conventions of the 1890s played a major role in setting the scene for that eventual adoption of PR. Major participants in those conventions had opposing views on the virtues of the new Senate being elected using a PR system. The concept of a PR electoral system was known to many of them as it was adopted for elections in multi-member districts to Tasmania’s House of Assembly in the 1890s (it is still in force there), following advocacy by Tasmania’s Attorney-General, Andrew Inglis Clark - a leading member of the various Constitutional Conventions.
The first large-scale gathering to be empowered by the various Australian
colonial parliaments to develop formal proposals for a possible Constitution
for a federation of those colonies was the first National Australasian
Convention, which opened on 2nd March 1891 in
That Convention debated a series of general motions proposed by Sir Henry
on the form of the proposed Constitution. The outcome of that debate was then
submitted to several committees, whose deliberations were considered by a
four-member sub-committee, which produced the draft of a Bill to
Constitute the Commonwealth of Australia. That sub-committee included Mr Andrew Inglis Clark. The
draft it produced was adopted by the convention with only three changes, but
it differed from the Bill adopted in 1901 in important respects. For example,
the draft provided for senators to be appointed by the State legislatures, as
applied in the
The 1891 draft served as a useful starting point for the federal cause to build on. An 1895 Premiers’ Conference took up the ideas of Dr John Quick, and set in train the successful passage of Enabling Acts in each colony to provide for the election of ten delegates from each colony to a Constitutional Convention empowered to draft a Constitution for direct submission to a referendum of the electors, except that Western Australia’s delegates were appointed by its Parliament, and Queensland failed to have any. It was further provided that if a majority of the electors, and a majority of the electors in a majority of the colonies, accepted the Constitution, it would be submitted to the Imperial Parliament with a request that it enact a law to establish the Commonwealth under that Constitution.
Each of the four colonies that held elections, in 1897, used a multiple
first-past-the-post system, which excluded major viewpoints in each colony.
Ballots were invalid unless exactly ten candidates were voted for. Such a
system resulted in all voters’ first preferences having as much electoral
weight as each of their remaining nine preferences. Voters that found they
approved of fewer than ten candidates could only assist those candidates by
simultaneously giving equal vote value to certain other candidates they
disapproved of, and who could have been opponents of the candidates they
wanted elected. Alfred Deakin, one of 29 candidates
in Victoria, Richard O’Connor QC, one of 29 in NSW and Andrew Clark,
one of 32 in
The Convention met first in
The Convention met next in
That compromise - State-wide Senate electorates entrenched conditionally - rather than absolutely, as first sought, yielded the final wording of the first sentence of Section 7 of the Constitution. That wording still exists, and facilitates proportional representation. Parliamentarians of both major parties have suggested, as late as the 1990s, that Parliament should “otherwise provide”, yet the only “other provision” that the Federal Parliament has made regarding Section 7 was the removal, by the Commonwealth Electoral Legislation Amendment Act 1983, of the never-used power the second sentence gave to the Queensland Parliament to divide Queensland for Senate elections.
The final meeting of the Convention ran for almost two months, in
Melbourne in 1898, but it made no further changes to that significant
sentence, which reads, “The Senate shall be composed of senators for
each State, directly chosen by the people of the State, voting, until
the Parliament otherwise provides, as one electorate.” This
wording is a definite improvement on the
That sentence of Section 7, as Emeritus Professor Joan Rydon pointed out at the Joint Senate-ANU Conference in August 1999 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the use of PR for Senate polls (see QN1999C), ensured that it would eventually be recognized, and accepted, that a PR electoral system was the logical choice for Senate polls.
A significant, but little-known fact is that PR made a strong, but not sufficiently strong, showing when the first Federal Government, led by Sir Edmund Barton, who had in 1897 been elected to the Convention with the highest number of votes in NSW, had the House of Representatives pass the Commonwealth Electoral Bill 1902. It provided for proportional representation for Senate polls, and preferential voting in single-member divisions for the House of Representatives, with fully optional marking of second and later preferences for each House.
However the Senate amended it to provide for first-past-the-post voting
for each House despite the best efforts of the Government’s
Senate Leader, Senator Hon. Richard O’Connor QC,
from NSW. Debating the Bill in the Senate, he is recorded in Hansard for 31st January 1902 as saying, “I take
the actual numbers of votes polled, and I find that in NSW my honorable
friend Senator Walker received 79,800 votes; Senator Millen, 75,010; Senator
Gould, 74,253; Senator O’Connor, 72,000” and he had no right to
be in that position on party principles at all Senator Neild,
70,563; and Senator Pulsford, 70,468. Then I take
the protectionists, beginning with Manning, who received 48,000 votes, Kidd
received 44,000 odd; Mackay, 41,000 odd; Waddell, 32,000 odd; and
said, ‘… at the
Independent MHR: Voting Reform is Urgent
The Guest speaker at the October Annual General Meeting of the PRSA’s ACT Branch was Mr Peter Andren, the Independent MHR for the central western NSW
rural federal electorate of Calare, which includes the centres
Mr Andren has not only spoken up on issues of particular importance for his electorate, but he has been prominent in seeking higher standards and greater accountability in public life, often challenging the prevailing parliamentary ethos about members’ entitlements, such as travel and telephone claims and superannuation.
In his AGM address, Mr Andren said that commodity prices and droughts harmed rural communities in the 1980s and since then vital infrastructure has not been maintained, under a prevailing economic orthodoxy that also overlooks the extent to which the world’s trading marketplace is manipulated. He then gave examples, such as the taxation of constituents earning income both on and off farms, where other MHRs are stifled in taking up concerns once party-room decisions are made. The Executive prevails in an atmosphere where major parties take the cynical view that with compulsory marking of preferences in single-member electorates, voters have ‘no other option’ than eventually being taken to support one side or the other.
Mr Andren said that in the days before the AGM, the major parties had ganged up to make it harder for small parties to be registered, but they did not support his amendments to prevent larger parties from warehousing catchy names. Prompted by the attempt of David Ettridge and David Oldfield to register parties without active membership, the amended legislation would not, for instance, prevent the Coalition from registering a ‘No GST’ party.
At the end of the 1996 campaign, Mr Andren had to move quickly to counter Coalition claims that a vote for him was a ‘vote for Keating’. In his hurriedly-organized television advertisement, he countered by saying, ‘A vote for Peter Andren is a vote for Peter Andren’, and highlighting the fact that he was making no recommendation as to preferences. Since then, he has advised another independent in the region to stand alone rather than in a group in local government PR elections (for which above-the-line voting has regrettably been introduced in NSW) and to emphasize that fact in what turned out to be a successful campaign with nearly a quota of first preferences obtained.
In his view, it is an extremely defective electoral system that has left him as the only MHR representing the 20% of Australian voters that did not support the major parties - yet another result ‘voters don’t believe in and don’t want’. The One Nation Party vote, largely one of disillusionment, is waiting for another option while the process of major party decline is ‘irreversible’ because local members are not allowed to represent constituents’ interests and to raise issues where party political considerations intervene.
On the other hand, Mr Andren
is impressed with the way the Hare-Clark system works fairly in
After tumultuous scenes in the House on 30 November 2000 involving the Speaker, Mr Andren issued a statement calling for urgent electoral reform, saying, ‘Today's pitiful debate and censure motions in Parliament only underline the need to reform the corrupted winner-take-all, two party system.’ He continued, ‘Compulsory preferential voting should be abolished. No voter should be forced to allocate preferences beyond their first vote if that is their wish.’
The fairest system was PR such as
Proportional representation in Senate elections delivered members to that chamber representing the Australian political kaleidoscope, but ‘The election system has been corrupted by compulsory preferential voting and how-to-vote cards engineered and paid for by major parties. This present system allows and encourages dummy parties and dummy candidates. … Above-the-line voting is another corruption of a fair voting system and this should be abolished. The public is waking up to the deceit of how-to-vote cards and the devious behaviour of the big parties.’
‘Above-the-line voting, with its Group
Voting Tickets, is also infecting local government as well as state and
federal systems, delivering results that bear little resemblance to many voters'
wishes, and shoring up a two-party system which is held in growing contempt.’
Mr Andren concluded, ‘A
democratic electoral system should reflect the will of the people, represent
the majority, but also minorities, and each person's vote should be equal and
count equally. None of these are delivered by our current system.’
PRSA Submission on Enrolment Issues
In August 2000 the Special Minister of State asked the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters (JSCEM) to examine the issue of the integrity of the electoral roll and fraudulent enrolment. The following month the Committee set as the terms of reference of its current public inquiry on these matters:
After Karen Ehrmann, Queensland
Labor Party operative and one-time endorsed candidate for the State seat of Thuringowa, was gaoled in
August 2000 for her part in fraudulent enrolments in the Townsville area, the
Criminal Justice Commission has been inquiring into such practices across
In its December submission to the JSCEM, the PRSA [see www.prsa.org.au] stated that the demonstrated problem of safe seat preselections involving small numbers of people exceeded that of alleged fraud aimed at tipping the result in marginal electorates. Without more real power in voters’ hands on election day, voter alienation at preselection antics and lack of real accountability in single-member electorates will grow, possibly so much that communities might 'eventually support any movement challenging the status quo, irrespective of the viability of its policies'.
The submission observed that an electoral system in which ‘manipulation by relatively small numbers of people at key junctures can effectively determine an individual seat outcome and thereby have the prospect of a major pay-off for individuals’ careers or factions’ patronage and influence, will be vulnerable to systematic efforts at exploitation by the powerful or power-hungry’.
Formulating and enforcing appropriate party rules, or enacting legislation with minimum standards of conduct for parties registered for public funding and matching administrative resources, would make it riskier to cheat. However, eliminating safe seats is the only way to remove apparent short-cut routes to significant ongoing local political influence. Nothing short of the empowerment of voters achieved by the Tasmanian and ACT Hare-Clark proportional representation systems will secure that fully.
Voters in safe seats where there is branch stacking or other ruthless imposition of a candidate in the dominant party’s preselection process are entitled to be dismayed at such evisceration of the limited level of political contest that is ever possible in their area. Small margins obtained through stacking the numbers within party forums may effectively seal who represents an area for ten or twenty years, unless allegations of cheating lead to a disgusted defeated aspirant leaving the party and nominating, or a well-known local identity stands as an independent and gives voters an alternative with some prospect of being elected. Most commonly, however, voters angered by such actions cannot do anything about them in practice because there is little risk the seat will move to the opposing major party.
Primary elections akin to the American model but with preferential voting would ‘make it harder for small groups to impose their will through systematic fraud at a level in the process accessible in practice only to a minuscule portion of the electorate. However, they would not tackle the significant problems arising as, under a winner-take-all system, political activity in most areas is confined largely to the organs or processes of the dominant party’.
The PRSA submission noted that at the five general elections between 1987 and 1998, between 36% and 48% of individual seats won by Labor or the Coalition required a swing of over 10% to change hands to the other major party or grouping. Only two of these ‘safe’ seats did so during this period, both in 1996, one involving a candidate ‘disendorsed’ during the course of the campaign proper. Seats moving between Labor and the Coalition with a swing of over six per cent are uncommon. There were none in 1987, one each in 1990 (a ‘fairly safe’ seat requiring a swing of over 6%) and 1993, four in 1998 (all marginal) and 18 in 1996 (13 were marginal and 3 were ‘fairly safe’).
The submission noted that the nub of the actual problem is that in practice the majority of single-member electorates are ‘safe’ or ‘fairly safe’ for one party or another. The focus of a few members of dominant parties in their areas turns not unreasonably to picking up prizes available internally, while the fight for government concentrates on persuading the undecided in a few marginal electorates, which therefore get disproportionate facilities and attention.
Although most marginal seats are easily identified, electorates where 100 or even 500 votes might have made a difference are impossible to predict in advance accurately because of the large numbers of voters making their decision on the day itself. Despite numerous, sometimes lurid, allegations, in the past fifty years results at the federal level have not been overturned for multiple or wrongful voting. While the inability to question the accuracy of the rolls has made it hard for candidates to throw doubt over an outcome before the Court of Disputed Returns, the PRSA’s analysis of close outcomes showed that little credence could be given to claims that federal government itself may have been stolen through large-scale enrolment fraud.
In the five elections between 1987 and 1998,
the fraction of combined Labor and Coalition seats with such narrow margins
varied from 2% (in 1987) to some 10% (in both 1993 and 1998). As the
winner-take-all system usually exaggerates winning margins, only in 1993 and
1998 was there even a theoretical chance of government changing through
systematic large-scale fraud in these seats. The PRSA submission concluded
with a description of differences in candidate and party behaviour
that would occur in a federal Hare-Clark electoral system.
ã 2000 Proportional Representation Society of
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 Fax (03) 9589 1680 firstname.lastname@example.org
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