QUOTA

NOTES

 

 

 

Newsletter of the Proportional Representation Society of Australia

 

 

 

QN2003A         

March 2003

www.prsa.org.au

 

 

 

 

 

 

"Every Vote Will Shape Victoria"

 

 

 

The Victorian Electoral Commission used this slogan in its advertising campaign to encourage Victorians to vote at the State elections on 30th November 2002. This slogan is much more appropriate to a proportional representation system than to the "winner-take-all" system that applied at those elections, as generally only half the votes cast in a winner-take-all election count towards electing anybody.

At Victoria’s first PR Legislative Council polls in 2006 (an outcome of the 2002 polls), the quota for election in the 8 Upper House regions to replace the 11 former provinces will be 16.7% of the vote rather than 50%. The 5 MLCs per region will each need a separate 16.7% of the vote, so 83% of voters will shape the Council, not just the old 50%. It can never be "every vote", but 83% is much closer than 50%.

Results, on our Web site above, of the PR Analysis of the Lower House, based on 7 and 9-member districts, showed

  

%

ALP

Liberal

Green

National

Other

Votes

47.9

33.9

9.7

3.8

4.7

Seats

70.5

19.3

0.0

7.9

2.3

PR Seats

51.1

34.1

9.1

3.4

2.3

 

The PRSAV-T’s PR Analyses of Victorian Upper House polls since 1996, on our Web site, are based on two notional 11-member PR provinces, as that being the most exact way to use the existing data from the 22 single-vacancy provinces extant until 2004. The new 5-member regions will not give such a close degree of proportionality. A summary of the 2002 Analysis appears on the PRSA website.

The most striking feature of the analysis is, as usual, the gross over-representation of the party that wins most seats. This occasion is special in that, for the first time, the party is one that, although benefiting this time, has understood the inherent defects of the system, has been granted the parliamentary numbers to reform it, and has done so.

An ironic feature of the analysis is the estimate for what the make-up of the full 2002 Council had the non-Labor parties, which had a majority of MLCs from 1999 to 2002, realized the likelihood of a PR system soon and had worked constructively with Labor to introduce one. If they had advocated large regions and succeeded in maintaining rotation of elections, they might have been rewarded with an Upper House without Labor’s present absolute majority!

 

 

 

Victoria's Upper House is Reformed

 

Following Victoria’s State elections on 30th November 2002, the re-elected Labor Government had a substantial majority in the Legislative Assembly and, surprisingly, a majority of six in the Legislative Council. Thus for the first time in its history of over 100 years the Labor Party had majorities in both houses sufficient to pass legislation amending any part of Victoria’s Constitution Act 1975.

Before the election, the Labor Party had laid out a policy to reform the Legislative Council, whose key features were implementation of the July 2002 recommendations of Victoria’s Constitution Commission (see QN2002D) to, among other things, "ensure the Legislative Council is democratically elected and becomes an effective, hard working house of review by:

  • introducing Senate-style proportional representation,
  • creating new multi-member electorates to provide fair representation for all, including rural Victoria,
  • reducing the term of MLCs from eight to four years, concurrent with Legislative Assembly terms, and
  • introducing fixed four year terms in both houses."

Aware that reform of Victoria’s Legislative Council was now not only possible but imminent, the PRSA’s Victoria-Tasmania Branch produced a detailed letter with several extra sheets highlighting our detailed arguments about desirable aspects of any reform. In December, the Secretary, Dr Stephen Morey, and Treasurer, Geoffrey Goode, visited the new Member of the Legislative Council for Higinbotham Province, Noel Pullen, and presented him with a draft copy of the letter and summary sheets. Ironically it was his narrow victory that had given the Government sufficient numbers in the Upper House to pass constitutional amendments.

On election night, it was clear that the Government would hold 23 of the 44 Upper House seats. With a Labor MLC as the President, that would leave the Government 22 members, which would not of itself be the absolute majority on the floor of the House required to amend the Constitution Act 1975. Mr Pullen’s election, unconfirmed until a few days afterwards, ensured that absolute majority. Labor subsequently won another very close contest in Western Port Province to give it 25 of the 44 seats.

After that successful meeting with Mr Pullen, the Council of the Victoria-Tasmania Branch revised the letter and summary sheets, and posted them to every member of the Victorian Parliament. The letter stressed three key points:

  • All Members of Parliament should be directly elected by the people and, as a consequence, voters alone should decide who would fill casual vacancies, not party machines or anybody else.

  • The Upper House reform should ensure that voters choose not only their preferred party, but also their preferred representatives from within that party. The PRSAV-T strongly supported the Hare-Clark system ahead of the Senate-style PR proposed under Labor policy.

  • The Upper House reform should be protected by entrenchment, so that any amendments to the reform can only occur with the approval of the people, at a referendum.

PRSAV-T members also wrote letters and opinion pieces for the local media, particularly The Age in Melbourne. A few letters were published, but the media as a whole showed little or no interest in the reform of the Upper House.

On 26th February 2003, the Constitution (Parliamentary Reform) Bill 2003 was introduced into the new Parliament. It was the second Bill in the new Parliament, and three members of the PRSAV-T Council; the President (Dr Lee Naish), the Treasurer (Mr Geoffrey Goode) and Mr Geoffrey Lutz; were present in the Legislative Assembly gallery while the Premier was introducing the Bill.

The Victoria-Tasmania Branch of the PRSA scrutinized the Bill, which contained a number of positive features. The Branch was very pleased that the new electoral system was to be a quota-preferential PR system, and were pleased that, for ‘below-the-line’ voting, voters would only have to express as many preferences as there were vacancies. The third very positive aspect of the Bill was the effective entrenchment of proportional representation, so that it could not be revoked by an absolute majority of the Parliament alone.

The entrenchment provisions are complex. Provisions for multi-member electoral regions, and a fixed term of Parliament, can only be amended by a referendum. Others, such as those for the filling of casual vacancies, require a special majority of 60% of the two houses in a joint sitting.

The Victoria-Tasmania Branch was, however, concerned at a number of aspects of the new bill:

(a) Casual vacancies were to be filled by party appointment, where the political party that the vacating member had stood for at his or her election would submit the name of a person to a joint sitting of Parliament to appoint that person to fill the vacancy. The Parliament would have to appoint someone that was a member of, and nominated by, the party with the same name as that shown as the vacating member’s party on the ballot-paper at the previous general election. In line with a Constitution Commission recommendation, if an independent were elected, and then resigned or died, the Parliament would have to replace that MP with someone that had not been a member of any political party for at least 5 years, with that person’s appointment requiring a 60% vote of MPs at a joint sitting.

PRSAV-T members were disturbed by this provision as it would lead to the presence in Parliament of non-elected members - for the first time in Victoria since responsible government began in 1856. It was particularly disappointing that the Government rejected countback for casual vacancies, which the Premier and his Government had accepted as an amendment by Craig Ingram to a 2002 Bill passed by the Assembly, but not the Council.

(b) Senate-style PR, with an above-the-line option, was to be introduced, leading to party control over the order that candidates are elected, and ensuring that most Legislative Councillors were in ‘safe seats’

(c) The PRSAV-T regretted the choice of eight electoral regions each electing five members. Victoria’s Constitution Commission had recommended seven-member electorates as a better option, as the PRSAV-T also preferred.

(d) There were several more, quite subtle, flaws in the Bill. As the Bill was written, political parties might have been able to submit Group Voting Tickets (for the above-the-line part of the ballot-paper) expressing only 5 preferences. That would have led to large numbers of exhausted votes.

After the introduction of the Bill, at a meeting with the Government Leader in the Upper House, Hon John Lenders, the PRSAV-T raised its concerns, but Mr Lenders was firmly of the view that the Government had a mandate to introduce the Bill as proposed. He pointed out that the ALP had been working towards this reform for over 20 years.

Mr Lenders did however agree to investigate our concern about Group Voting Tickets, raised by our President, Dr Lee Naish. The Government subsequently amended the Bill to overcome those concerns. Mr Lenders also admitted that the provisions for filling casual vacancies might need to be revisited in the future, particularly those for Independents or where a party’s name had been changed. Sadly those concerns were not addressed during the Bill’s passage.

We also held a successful meeting with an Independent member of Victoria’s Lower House, Craig Ingram. Craig has been a most consistent supporter of democratic reform in Victoria since his election in September 1999. When the Bill was debated, he spoke very strongly for countback and moved an amendment to introduce it. The amendment was supported by the other Iindependent, Russell Savage MLA, but was opposed by all Party MLAs and thus not carried.

Although we were unable to meet the Liberal Party Leader, Mr Robert Doyle MLA, the Branch did meet with the Liberal Leader in the Upper House, Mr Phil Davis. The meeting was friendly, but it was clear that the Opposition had decided to simply oppose all reform of the Legislative Council, rather than to examine the issues and make suggestions to improve the Bill. None of our concerns were supported by any of the Legislative Councillors from the Opposition, all of whom spoke in the debate, except that Mr Davis stated that he had met Lee Naish and Geoffrey Goode as representatives of the PRSAV-T, and noted the logic of the Society’s advocacy of direct election of all MLCs via countback, but did not, on balance, support it.

The Opposition made some interesting comments, including one by the former Opposition Leader, Hon. Denis Napthine, suggesting the abolition of the Upper House. The Government’s response to the Opposition was that it had had many opportunities to contribute earlier to meaningful debate, but by its refusal had forfeited any right to help shape the final legislation.

In his second reading speech, the Premier, Mr Bracks, said, "One of the most important cornerstones of our way of life in Victoria is our system of Parliamentary democracy. Since coming to office, this Government has taken many steps to make Victoria a leader in open and accountable government ... The Constitution (Parliamentary Reform) Bill 2003 is no different. The momentous initiatives in this Bill will bring our Parliament into line with other States and ensure that Victoria has the strongest possible democratic safeguards."

The Bill was debated in the Legislative Assembly in March, and passed (with the amendment advocated by the Victoria-Tasmania Branch) on 20th March 2003.

The Bill was then introduced to the Legislative Council where it was passed on 27th March 2003. There are six Australian bicameral parliaments, and henceforth, in each of them, general and periodic elections in one of their two houses will use the quota-preferential proportional representation system.

There are now seven legislative chambers in Australia whose members, apart from members filling casual vacancies in four of them, will owe their election to gaining a multi-member quota of votes under that system.

 

Threat of 6-Member ACT Electorates Averted

 

Following the June 2002 recommendation by the Standing Committee on Legal Affairs to increase the ACT Assembly to 21 MLAs (see QN2002B), Labor MLA John Hargreaves publicly argued his minority view for at least 23. A smaller number would leave the Executive too dominant within the governing party. The Government’s official preference was for five electorates each returning five members.

In August, the Chief Minister, Jon Stanhope, introduced a bill delaying for six months the redistribution process that normally begins soon after a year into a term. It was passed a month later amid hopes that strong-enough agreement could be reached on an increase for the Territories Minister to accede to a request from the Assembly.

The Territories Minister, Hon. Wilson Tuckey MHR, can change the size of the Assembly by regulation, but only upon the advice of the Assembly. He was said to be sceptical about a need for an increase, and to regard the extent of Assembly agreement as a factor in his decision.

In mid-September, Australian Democrats MLA Roslyn Dundas alleged that the Liberal and Labor parties would be supporting an increase to 23 members, in three electorates of six members and one of five. They would jointly have the two-thirds of the Assembly required to depart from having odd numbers of vacancies in each electorate.

Discussions had taken place among MLAs, but Opposition Leader Gary Humphries denied that a deal had been struck. He would prefer 21 MLHAs, but had not ruled out 23 spread over four electorates. Small quotas with nine or more MLHAs per electorate would let crackpot parties be elected.

The parliamentary Liberal Party expelled Mrs Helen Cross MLA in the same week, and she resigned from the Liberal Party amid extensive publicity. A week later, the Chief Minister introduced a motion seeking agreement that the size of the Assembly be increased to 25, and that he communicate such a decision to the Commonwealth Government with a view to regulations being made by 31st March 2003.

The Government sought urgent passage of its motion, but Mrs Cross’s absence through illness led to a delay of the debate until November. ACT Branch Convenor Bogey Musidlak wrote a short opinion piece for The Canberra Times about the most appropriate size of the Assembly, which showed how differences in voter support had been better reflected in the 7-member Molonglo electorate, whereas in the 5-member electorates the second-strongest party had consistently secured 40% of the seats with around 30% of first preference votes. Even a 15% gap in first preferences in the 5-member Ginninderra electorate in 2001 narrowly failed to be translated into a difference in seats.

As a long series of exclusions typically occurs at the start of ACT scrutinies, newcomers would generally find greater success in reaching a 12.5% target than one just below 16.7%. Allowing for leadership factors, women had obtained a higher percentage of the vote in the Molonglo electorate, and their proportion elected there was higher.

Electorates of 7 members were superior, as swings of 2-3% can usually change the party composition of MLAs, and solid competition is guaranteed within major parties’ endorsed teams. It was therefore not surprising that the ACT Electoral Commission and prominent Canberra academics all supported three 7-member electorates.

The article ended, "With five five-member electorates, a party with 30% of first preferences could hope for 10 MLAs but one with 40% support needn't necessarily get any more. Seven-member electorates would clearly reward such differences in support. Cynics might be excused for regarding the Chief Minister's preferred option as a straw man opening the door for something even worse. Of course, Tasmanian and Senate experience should completely rule out six-member electorates, under which it’s common to get half the seats with under 40% of first preferences, but impossible to get a majority."

The PRSA’s ACT Branch remained concerned about the possibility of 6-member electorates as The Canberra Times kept referring to the likelihood of a ‘compromise’ emerging. The Branch intensified its efforts to demonstrate why 6-member electorates would be unsatisfactory, and urged the Assembly to overhaul its procedures simultaneously with any request for an increase in its numbers.

Meetings with several MLAs followed despatch of an initial letter that included two-page information sheets on how outcomes in 7-member electorates reflect voters’ wishes better, and why 6-member electorates should be avoided (Senate and Tasmanian examples illustrated the key points).

In addition, drawing on the involvement of the people in shaping the electoral system, the ACT Branch organized an information forum in early November, securing the attendance of MLAs or other representatives from all parties in the Assembly. A letter inviting Mr Tuckey noted that party boxes had vanished with the unlamented d’Hondt system, and were specifically excluded when the key principles were entrenched.

The agenda also left room for prominent Canberra identities and representatives of organizations such as the Canberra Business Council, Unions ACT, Women’s Electoral Lobby, the ACT Council of Social Service and Community Councils to state their views. This helped attract radio and newspaper publicity and extend public awareness and discussion of the options before the Assembly.

On the day of the forum, the Leader of the Opposition, Gary Humphries MLA, e-mailed, "My party indicated a willingness to consider other models and arguments, but to date no convincing argument has yet appeared for an Assembly larger than 21 members. Hence the Liberal Party's position remains in favour of 21 members."

Mrs Cross would not state her views at the forum, and showed her willingness too hear more detail of the Government’s arguments. That gave a television opportunity for the PRSA’s ACT Branch of the PRSA to state briefly briefly how seven-member electorates had performed better than five-member electorates.

An irate Chief Minister, hearing that Mrs Cross would not support any increase without a referendum, announced on 19th November 2002 that his motion would not proceed. He attacked others for allegedly putting narrow self-interest before the public interest, which demanded a large increase.

A media release stated that governments of eight or fewer MLAs "cannot most effectively deal with the range and complexity of contemporary administration. However, without general support in the Assembly it is not possible to put the argument to the community, and Labor will not move without community support. An increase to 21, as the Liberals want, will not achieve the desirable result. All it would do is give us another Assembly with an enlarged cross-bench of narrow-issue independents."

The ACT Branch promptly submitted another opinion piece to The Canberra Times, welcoming the abandonment of the plan, and tracing how the ALP, in the recent past a strong supporter of a small Assembly (a previous Chief Minister recommended other legislatures consider reducing their size), or moving more cautiously, had made a revolutionary departure with its proposal for the second-highest percentage increase in any legislature since federation.

The article noted that "30% or more of voters have tended to give their first preference to someone from outside the Labor or Liberal party. With five-member electorates, this pattern might translate into just one seat (20%) as support for the weaker large party has been sufficient for it to reach a second quota. It is far more likely to result in two seats (29%) of seven, prompting politicians and aspirants to remain in touch with constituents’ aspirations."

It concluded, "Three seven-member electorates would be with us for a long time. They are sensitive to small shifts in voter opinion and do not lend themselves to manipulation to slant outcomes. That is possibly why there have been such strenuous efforts to avoid them."

The ACT Branch urged Greens MLA Kerrie Tucker to move her proposal for an increase to 21, so it would register further in the public mind as the natural size, even if rejected by the Commonwealth. It remains undebated on the Notice Paper. Intentions of various parties are likely to be canvassed before the October 2004 polls for 17 MLAs.

 

 

 

Copyright 2003 Proportional Representation Society of Australia

National President: Bogey Musidlak 14 Strzelecki Cr. NARRABUNDAH 2604

National Secretary: Deane Crabb 11 Yapinga St. SOUTH PLYMPTON 5038

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

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