Newsletter of the Proportional Representation Society of Australia
QN2004A March 2004 www.prsa.org.au
Both the Proportional Representation Society of Australia and the Electoral Reform Society of South Australia made submissions in response to the Government’s Discussion Paper (QN 2003D) about resolving deadlocks between the Senate and House of Representatives before the deadline of 31st December 2003, which was strictly enforced.
The submissions challenged a number of assertions and assumptions in the Discussion Paper. It was claimed in that Paper that as the 1983 expansion of the Parliament had ended the potential for governments to obtain a majority in the Senate (because four of six places in a State requires over 57% of the vote and is therefore out of practical reach), the removal of a permanent non-government veto requires reform of Section 57 of the Constitution dealing with joint sittings as the mechanism for resolving legislative deadlocks. Despite the inclusion of a table of early lop-sided Senate compositions, it was asserted that the principal beneficiaries of the introduction of proportional representation have been minor parties and independents. It was assumed that outcomes for the House of Representatives reflect voters’ wishes appropriately.
The PRSA submission anticipated that change would take some time to achieve as voters had not been involved very long in the debate on how best to handle disagreements over legislation. It was important that:
After noting that "regular lop-sided outcomes of the early ‘winner-take-all’ years (starting with block voting and then switching to majority-preferential methods in 1919) resulted in the Senate alternating between being a laughing-stock rubber stamp (with limited Opposition presence) and being used as a force implacably opposed to the government of the day", the PRSA stated that "the advent of proportional representation in 1949 has ended lop-sided results, giving a much fairer outcome to the less popular of the major parties in particular, and opening the possibility of others being elected (it is incorrect to characterize PR as just opening the door for minor parties to be elected or to hold the balance of power)".
Over several periods, conflict between the Houses has been more intense than in recent times. Significant numbers of voters deliberately choose a third party when voting for the Senate as they do not want "to give governments untrammelled power nor to set the chambers on a deliberate collision course".
The mixed record of who has prevailed at a double dissolution election "indicates that for voters the solution isn’t as simple as emasculating the Senate’s influence". Joint sittings "unrelated to matters already put clearly to voters at a previous election would constitute a dangerous unchecked extension of the Executive Government’s power and be widely rejected for their likelihood of greatly undermining the relevance of the Senate".
The PRSA tabulated the wide variation in House of Representatives seat margins since 1949 when both the ALP and Coalition had two-party-preferred support in the range 48-52% to show that "the extent of a government majority in the House should not be confused with overwhelming voter support". It observed that in both 1990 and 1998 incumbent governments were returned despite having a minority of the two-party-preferred vote, and it tabulated instances of majority support after preferences not translating into a majority of seats in a State in 17 of 22 elections since 1949, and examples where a party’s share of seats diverged from its two-party-preferred vote by more than 10% at all of those elections.
The submission stated that "regional imbalances between votes and seats are even more marked, with one party often having an apparent stranglehold on representation for extended periods to the extent that rival party organizations and serious local political debate may atrophy" and that "20-25% of voters are casting first preferences for candidates not from the Labor Party or the Coalition and finding that their wishes do not get translated into anywhere-near-commensurate numerical presence in the House of Representatives".
Fair-minded voters would also expect "some investigation of whether government majorities might reasonably be formed more readily in the Senate", for instance through the use once more of odd numbers of vacancies, and the introduction of Robson Rotation stopping major parties from "tying up whole quotas of votes at the start of scrutinies".
In the absence of a more sophisticated attempt than in 1967 to break the nexus between the size of the Senate and the House of Representatives, the alternatives available are to contract or expand the size of both those components of the Parliament (which would require no change to the Constitution), or to have five and seven senators being elected from a State in alternation (which would require amendment of how the two classes of senators are formed after a double dissolution election), or to have all senators serving a single term coinciding with the House’s (which would also require constitutional change).
Rather than assuming that the nexus can never be broken, the submission suggested there could be benefits in starting a public debate about how best to achieve this, given the clear desirability of having an odd number of senators elected from a State wherever possible. For instance voters might accept a House of Representatives rising beyond the current two-to-one link provided that there was a cap on how much bigger than the Senate it could become.
The PRSA added, "regardless of what is done to make Senate majorities feasible again, no fair electoral system will give a Senate majority to a government with support around 40% or lower. The onus would clearly be on parties to produce policies and endorse candidates that attracted significantly higher support, before realistic hopes could be entertained of securing Senate majorities in one or more States".
The Electoral Reform Society of South Australia noted that at the 2001 elections, 88% of Australian electors found that their votes elected a senator, while only 54% found that their votes elected an MHR. As 1.77 million Liberal Party supporters and 2.17 million ALP voters found their votes did not elect anyone to the House of Representatives, while "virtually all votes for the major parties were effective in electing senators", it is definitely the supporters of the major parties who have gained most from the introduction of proportional representation for the Senate.
Options for electing an odd number of senators from each State at each Senate election were set out. Voters would have much greater choice in multi-member electorates for the House of Representatives, and might be less inclined to depart from the major parties if above-the-line voting for the Senate were abolished in favour of the Hare-Clark approach under which it is easier to support candidates of voters’ choice.
The submission concluded that only "after both Houses of the Australian Parliament are democratically elected, can the issue of deadlocks be seriously considered, keeping in mind that the final decision should always be in the hands of the Australian electors".
The Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet has advised of the intention to post submissions on its Web site (www.dpmc.gov.au) after analysis and consideration by the consultative group.
A New Aid for PR Vote Counting
>Dr Paul Grossman, a member of the PRSA’s Victoria-Tasmania Branch, has developed a spreadsheet method to assist with PR counting, which he describes in this article.
One of the aims of the PRSA is to encourage small organizations to use the quota-preferential method of PR. Officers of these small clubs or societies are often reluctant to use it, arguing quite plausibly that manual counting on paper is too complicated and tedious.
There are of course computer programs that will present the results once all data have been entered. However, they have no intrinsic means for the voters to check the results independently, and voters must accept assurances that the program has been tested and has proved to be sound.
The layout of the spreadsheet designed to facilitate manual counting is close to that of the counting sheet in the PR Manual of the PRSA, using columns or multiple columns for candidates’ names, first preference votes, the distribution of surpluses of elected candidates and the redistribution of preferences of excluded candidates. Each result displayed by the spreadsheet may be checked manually, so fractions are listed to only the precision used in manual operations. Being designed for a small electorate, the program gives each vote a value of 1000.
Once the returning officer has entered details of the poll and the number of first preference votes received by each candidate, the spreadsheet will display: Vote values and sums, the quota, marks against the candidates that have reached or exceeded the quota, and (in the next set of columns) the highest vote value for distribution of its surplus, the number of votes available for transfer, the integral part of the transfer value and the remainder.
The name of the elected candidate whose surplus is to be distributed is typed in by the returning officer, who also enters the number of transfers obtained by each of the second (or later) preferences on that candidate’s ballot-papers. When the returning officer has adjusted the elected candidate’s cumulative value to the quota, the spreadsheet displays: Additional vote fractions received by each candidate and their cumulative vote values, sums for checking, a new marking to distinguish candidates whose surplus has been distributed from the elected candidates yet to be processed, marks against candidates that have reached the quota with the help of transfer, and (in the next set of columns) either the maximum vote value or, if no candidate has exceeded the quota, the minimum belonging to the candidate to be excluded.
Multiple sets of columns are used to distribute excesses of candidates elected with the help of transfers and for reallocation of votes of excluded candidates, one set for each provenance. The returning officer must enter the number of transfers and the transfer values under which each parcel of votes was received. The spreadsheet derives new transfer values.
It is clear from the above, that the returning officer must still examine all ballot-papers for first and later preferences and must enter the figures. However, he or she is no longer burdened with the simple but tedious calculations involved, thus saving effort and time. A side benefit is the ability of the spreadsheet to readjust the figures if an entry is corrected later. It is hoped that this aid will encourage small societies to use the quota-preferential method. No PRSA Branch has yet considered its view on the method, but it certainly appears to be a promising development.
Contributions by Members are Welcome
Accurate well-written articles from members on the broad area of electoral reform will be considered for publication in Quota Notes, provided that authors accept editing and that copyright passes from the author to PRSA alone, without attribution to the author, for legal and space reasons. Please send material to the Editor’s email address, in the box at the end of each Quota Notes, no later than the start of the final month in a quarter. Depending on their length, available space, and the presentation style of the points being made, Letters to the Editor may be printed (subject to shortening, but with the author’s name shown).
Opportunities to regularly exchange more informal thoughts exist on our discussion group on Proportional Representation now operating at Yahoo Groups. Visit http://groups.yahoo.com/group/proportional for more details on the discussion group. To subscribe, email email@example.com This is an opportune time to join as the newly-elected National Vice-President, Deane Crabb, plans to organize shortly an extensive review of the Society's PR Manual and associated publicly-available material.
NSW Branch member Ralph Rowlatt has written recently to disagree with the PR Manual’s approach of establishing a transfer value by dividing by the number of transferable papers rather than the total number of papers in the last parcel received by an elected candidate. He bases his view on voters knowing that they may direct any surplus to a continuing candidate (those not yet elected or excluded) and if they deliberately choose not to mark further preferences their ballot-paper will drop out of the counting with any remaining value exhausted.
The approach in the PR Manual seeks to minimize vote wastage by giving voters an opportunity to obtain full value for the expression of their views when a particular preference contributes to the election of a candidate, but there is none available for any of the other continuing candidates. As much as possible of their ballot-paper’s remaining value is placed within the quota of the elected candidate and the surplus is shared among transferable ballot-papers.
Efforts to Improve ATSIC Election Scrutinies
During 2003 a major review of the role and functions of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) was undertaken by a panel comprising former Northern Territory senator and minister Bob Collins, former NSW minister John Hannaford, and indigenous academic Jackie Huggins. Before the conclusion of the review in November, administrative functions connected with programs based on ATSIC Board policies and priorities were moved into a separate agency, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Services (ATSIS).
Having made earlier submissions to the review panels established to consider ward boundaries and electoral procedures after each set of periodic elections and found that these matters were not followed up at all during the 1993 and 1999 reviews, the PRSA made a brief submission (in Stage 2 list at www.atsicreview.gov.au/submission.htm) to the review supporting the continued use of quota-preferential counting and optional preferential voting. The submission suggested concerted efforts be made to improve awareness of how to make full use of the single transferable vote, vote wastage be minimized by giving each vote a starting value of 100, and where possible incorporating ballot-papers without a next available preference within the quota of elected candidates, and provision be made for the possible replacement by countback of a vacating candidate elected that way.
Noting that the "scrutiny operates as a continuous process revolving around whether anyone has sufficient votes to be declared elected and have a surplus distributed" and that only a "vigorous education campaign pointing out the benefits of marking as many preferences as are held" could reduce votes wasted when candidates are elected, the submission stated that the "current definition of the transfer value causes votes to be unnecessarily written off as exhausted or lost by fractions when they could readily be treated as being fully effective". Procedures should also change so that no ballot-paper could rise in value when being transferred after helping to elect a candidate.
In its study of thirteen scrutinies in 1999, the PRSA had found 166 votes of 327 votes deemed exhausted or lost by fractions in the transfer of surpluses. Three surpluses at or near the start of the scrutiny in the Alice Springs election, where 27 candidates contested 10 vacancies, totalled 76 votes, and in their attempted distribution, 18 were exhausted and 26 were lost by fractions. The PRSA showed that if its remedial suggestions were adopted in part or as a whole, in this instance wastage could have been reduced to as little as 2.9 or even 0.25 votes.
The review’s major finding was that ATSIC had become distanced too far from the grassroots and that the Board elected on a regional basis from among successful candidates should be abolished. There was little about actual voting other than it continue to be voluntary and encouraged, and that the issue of proof of aboriginality be addressed by all levels of government as a matter of priority, but that no separate indigenous electoral roll be introduced.
The PRSA will in the first instance pursue the question of improving transfer value definitions with newly-appointed Minister for Indigenous Affairs Senator Amanda Vanstone.
Book Review: Peace, Order and Good Government - State Constitutional and Parliamentary Reform
Editors: Clement Macintyre and John Williams. Published by Wakefield Press, in association with the Australian Association of Constitutional Law, 2003, pp x + 334, ISBN 1 86254 717 7, $39.95. Reviewer: PRSA National Vice-President, Deane Crabb
As this book begins with a quote from Catherine Helen Spence, I was expecting an emphasis on electoral reform. That is certainly provided in Dr John Uhr’s excellent contribution on "Reforming the Parliament". Dr Uhr, a Senior Fellow in the Political Science Program at the Australian National University, takes his inspiration in writing this contribution from Miss Spence’s promotion of democracy. It is not surprising therefore that the first reform priority that Dr Uhr calls for "is to entrench proportional representation in the system, to put it beyond the interfering reach of the major parties."
Unfortunately Dr Uhr’s essay is only one of twenty-one as this book is a collection based on papers presented to a conference held at the University of Adelaide in August 2002. These cover both constitutional and parliamentary reforms, ranging from detailed studies of the proposals for SA’s recent Constitutional Convention to broader experiences from interstate and overseas (particularly South Africa and New Zealand). While most of the authors are leading academics, there are also contributions from such practitioners as the Hon Neil Andrews (present Speaker of the House of Representatives), Hon Justice Ellen France (High Court of New Zealand) and Senator Gary Humphries (previously Chief Minister of the ACT).
The editors state that the theme of this book is based around the belief in the "importance of a parliament that is independent of the executive, and yet able to maintain appropriate levels of scrutiny over it". And certainly the contributions are based on this theme.
From an electoral reform point of view, besides Dr Uhr’s contribution, others that are of interest include Chris Sumner (a former ALP Attorney-General of South Australia), who points out that a former Premier of South Australia, Don Dunstan, had rejected the electoral fairness provision that now applies in SA, describing it as "absurd" and "giving the Commission an impossible task". Geoffrey Walker, from the University of Queensland, writing about Citizens’-Initiated Referendums (CIRs), acknowledges that proportional representation is the fairest method of parliamentary representation. However, not all contributions are as supportive. Geoffrey Lindell, from the University of Adelaide, complains that the Australian Capital Territory has adopted a "complicated" proportional representation system that has the "effect of ensuring the election of only minority or coalition governments". Lisa Hill, also from the University of Adelaide, in discussing CIRs where compulsory voting is used, ignores the potential benefits of proportional representation, in her search for a "better and more representative government".
Those interested in constitutional and parliamentary reform will find value from the twenty contributors to this book. The editors are to be praised for convening the conference and adapting the papers into this book, publishing it in time for South Australia’s Constitutional Convention.
ă 2004 Proportional Representation Society of Australia
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