QUOTA    NOTES

 

 

Newsletter of the Proportional Representation Society of Australia

 

 

          QN2004D           December 2004          www.prsa.org.au

 


 

Historic Canadian Moves Towards PR

 

Canada’s use of first-past-the-post counting in single-member electorates for elections to its House of Commons, and to each of its provincial parliaments, has frequently led to a one-party domination that does not reflect voters’ wishes. Ongoing public disquiet has given real signs of the crude method being reconsidered and possibly changed, particularly in certain provinces.

 

BRITISH COLUMBIA: The Province of British Columbia has been an outstanding leader in creating an opportunity for a sound PR system to be instituted. Its Liberal Government, which received 57% of the vote and took office with 77 of the Province’s 79 MLAs, honoured its 2001 election commitment by setting up a Citizens’ Assembly whose task was to decide whether to make a recommendation to change the province’s longstanding electoral system, and if so, what should replace it. The law that created the Assembly provided that if it made a recommendation for a specific change, a referendum would be held on that recommendation at the Province’s next general elections. If the referendum question is carried, the parliament is required to institute the system approved before the next provincial elections.

 

The elections and referendum will be on 17th May 2005 with the question for voters being ‘Should British Columbia change to the BC-STV electoral system as recommended by the Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform?’ The criteria for the referendum question to be carried are, however, quite demanding, as a simple majority vote in 60% of the province’s 79 electoral districts as well as a 60% majority vote overall is required. The Government has not ruled out legislating for a change if the vote falls slightly short of that requirement.

 

The unicameral Parliament set up the Assembly on a quite novel and convincing basis in order to remove the decision-making from the established party political sphere entirely. Its Chair, Dr Jack Blaney, in delivering the final report of the Citizens’ Assembly to the BC Cabinet, stressed how unprecedented it was for a parliament to transfer to a group of ordinary electors, none of them named by the parliament or the executive, and exclusive of MPs, to decide whether the referendum was needed and, if it was, what replacement electoral system would be the subject of the referendum.

 

The Assembly was formed by a scrupulously fair process of invitation at random from each parliamentary electorate of people of both sexes from a range of ages to select from the acceptances, again at random, a man and a woman from each of the 79 electorates. To the 158-member Assembly so formed was added a similarly selected male and a female indigenous Canadian, as the electorate process had not produced any indigenous representation. Compensation of $150 per day plus meals and hotel accommodation was provided for all delegates. The details of the selection and deliberative processes, and of the final recommendation, appear in the excellent Technical Report at www.citizensassembly.bc.ca

 

After long and thorough study and debate including public submissions and meetings throughout 2004, the Assembly voted on three key questions it had formulated. Firstly, if a replacement system was to be recommended, should it be a Single Transferable Vote system, like Tasmania’s Lower House, or should it be a Mixed-Member Proportional (MMP) system, like New Zealand’s Parliament? The Assembly voted 123 to 31 in favour of STV. The second key question was whether the present first-past-the-post system should be retained. The Assembly vote was 11 to retain it and 142 to replace it. The third key question was that the STV system the Assembly had developed as an option in the first question should be recommended as the system to be made the subject of the referendum. The vote on that was 146 in favour and 7 against.

 

Features of the PR model recommended include:

·  casual vacancies filled by Tasmanian-style countback,

·  Robson Rotation of candidates’ names and groups,

·   between 2 and 7 seats per electoral district,

·  fully optional preferential voting.

·  explicit prohibition of an ‘above-the-line’ option, and

·  weighted inclusive Gregory transfer of surpluses that reflects the different values at which ballot-papers were received by the elected candidate.

 

The Proportional Representation Society of Australia will make a donation to the campaign of the STV for BC group (www.stvforbc.com). Branches and their members wishing to assist should forward contributions to the President, Bogey Musidlak, at 14 Strzelecki Crescent, NARRABUNDAH ACT 2604, or arrange an electronic transfer by emailing him at bogeym2002@yahoo.com.au.

 

OTHER ELECTORAL PROPOSALS: The Province of Ontario now plans to establish a Citizens’ Assembly like BC’s. New Brunswick, Quebec and Prince Edward Island are moving towards having MMP proposals put to referendums. At the federal level the Law Commission of Canada produced a recommendation for an MMP system in March 2004 (www.lcc.gc.ca/en/themes/gr/er/er_main.asp) and the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs of the House of Commons was promptly asked by the Minister responsible for Democratic Reform to undertake a broad review of the electoral process, and to come forward with recommendations within one year. Fair Vote Canada has wisely called on the Federal Government to implement a process to let Canadians assess voting systems and choose between them.

 

Results of our 2004 Federal Elections

  

A notable aspect of Australia’s 2004 federal elections was that the Coalition Government, as well as being more successful electorally than its opponents in both Houses, achieved the election of Coalition candidates to an absolute majority of the Senate seats available.

 

SENATE SURPRISES: The last federal government to have an absolute majority of senators was the Fraser Coalition Government between December 1975 and June 1981 inclusive. The increase in the number of senators to be elected per State at each periodic Senate election from five to six, from 1984, made it very much harder for a party to gain a Senate majority, as four quotas, or just over 57% of the vote, is needed to take four of six places. With any odd number to be elected in each State a party can have an absolute majority of senators in a State with just over 50% of the vote, but with an even number of places such a vote only guarantees half the places.

 

It was a useful demonstration of the fairness of the PR system when sufficient voters in Queensland chose to mark their ballot-papers so that at the end of the scrutiny over 57% of the vote was with Liberal and National Party candidates, who stood on separate tickets. Those voters’ instructions were given, either obviously in the case of those voting below-the-line, or by reference to one or more Group Voting Tickets lodged by the party they voted for in the case of above-the-line voters.

 

That ensured that four of the six senators elected for Queensland were from the Coalition. As the Coalition had, in the other States, and in the Territories, repeated its 2001 result of winning half the available Senate seats, the Government will have an absolute majority in the whole Senate from 1st July 2005. It could well be the case that most of those voters’ instructions, which were expressed by means of the single Group Voting Ticket box they marked, were given because those voters trust the party that had lodged the Ticket. However the alternative of having to mark at least 90% of the squares below-the-line, as is unnecessarily required by the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 for such a vote to be formal, is also an important factor in the regrettable large-scale abdication of voters’ involvement in the ultimate outcome of their voting decision.

 

The second surprise was the election, for the first time, of a candidate from the Family First Party. Steve Fielding, who was first on that party’s Group Voting Ticket in Victoria, received only 1.85% of the first preference vote there - 1.77% as the first preference vote his party’s Group Voting Ticket attracted, and 0.08% as below-the-line first preference votes for him. The other candidates of his party gained 0.03% of the first preference vote. The quota of 14.29% of the vote that he eventually gained from surplus and exclusion transfers, and that entitled him to be elected, thus included at least 12.41% of the vote from elsewhere.

 

Four other disparate groups, one of which was the Australian Democrats, each gained a total of first preference votes in the range 1.80-1.94%. The Australian Greens fared much better, receiving 8.80% of Victoria’s first preference votes. Because the third Australian Labor Party candidate, Senator Jacinta Collins, was excluded when three candidates were still vying for the last place, most of her votes were transferred as required by the Group Voting Ticket lodged by the ALP. The preference that ticket gave to Family First ahead of, for example, the Greens, was the principal factor in the election of Mr Fielding, whose progress total had been boosted for a similar reason when the last of the Australian Democrats was excluded. Family First had reciprocated, by placing Senator Jacinta Collins ahead of the Australian Democrats and Greens on its ticket, but no transfer of its ticket votes was required. Had the ALP ticket put the Greens ahead of Family First, the Greens would have readily had their leading candidate, David Risstrom, elected as a senator.

 

There was speculation, on early figures released, that a similar fate awaited the Greens in Tasmania, but Christine Milne eventually achieved a quota owing to the much higher percentage of below-the-line.voters there, including some 14% of Liberal and Labor supporters. Many Labor and Australian Democrat voters making that choice gave her a higher position than the operators in their party organizations chose to do. That established tendency of Tasmanian voters is attributed to their familiarity with the power that the Hare-Clark system gives them in their State’s Lower House polls. They usually need to mark only 20-30 preferences to record a formal vote, a less onerous imposition than voters in mainland States face.

 

HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES – PR ANALYSIS:

The PRSA Web site above displays PR Analyses of the 2004 polls and the preceding three polls for the House of Representatives. The Society’s 2004 PR Analysis is also included as an insert in this issue of Quota Notes.

As stated on the Results Australia-Wide page, the Coalition would have gained an absolute majority of seats under a PR system, and those seats would be far less likely to change hands if a casual vacancy arose. At 46.5%, the Howard Government’s first preference vote in 2004 was only 0.3 percentage points lower than at the 1996 elections, which began its period of government.

 

Its share of the seats under the present winner-take-all system, which exaggerates majorities of seats in relation to majorities of votes, fell by 5.6 percentage points. Nevertheless, the Coalition won 75% of the seats in Queensland, 73% in South Australia and 67% in Western Australia. Under PR, where seats are, as would be expected, far more proportional to votes, the share of the seats in 2004 would have been 50.7%, which is the same share as PR would have given it in 1996.

 

Tasmania’s new Electoral Act 2004

 

Tasmania’s modernized Electoral Act 2004 (QN2004C) received the Royal Assent on 17th December 2004. Tasmania’s long-standing Hare-Clark system of proportional representation was first instituted for the whole of the State in the Electoral Act 1907, after a cautious Legislative Council decided to make Hare-Clark permanent following an earlier period of its trial use that began in the late 19th Century for Hobart and Launceston.

 

Major amendments to the original 1907 Act introduced countback in 1918 and Robson Rotation in 1979. The 1907 Act was the principal act until the Electoral Act 1985, - now just superseded - completely overhauled and replaced it, while Hon Neil Robson was Minister.

 

Victorian Redivision for Upper House PR

 

Victoria’s Electoral Boundaries Commission is required to begin its statutory redivision to create new electoral divisions for the Legislative Council of Victoria in January 2005, and to complete it by November 2005. Those electoral divisions, under the new proportional representation system that will apply to the Upper House for the general election of both houses, which constitutionally must now be held in November 2006 in ordinary circumstances, will be called regions.

 

The Legislative Council will consist of 40 members. Each of the 8 regions will consist of 11 lower house districts and elect 5 members. The Commission is expected to invite submissions on proposed grouping of those districts, the main statutory condition for which is that the enrolment in each region must be within 10% of the average enrolment for all 8 regions.

 

The new system of Upper House general elections by PR replaces the system used at every election since the first Council elections in 1856. The old system used single-vacancy periodic polls in each two-member province, to elect its MLCs for overlapping terms. The deadline for public submissions, and copies of those submitted, are expected to be available at http://www.vec.vic.gov.au/

 

Catherine Helen Spence Lecture Series

 

Over five weeks covering August 2004, the University of the Third Age and the State Library of South Australia held a fascinating series of lectures about Catherine Helen Spence. It covered a Life Overview, Her Role as a Political Activist and as a Writer, Spence and Unitarianism, and Finding out about Spence. At times nearly 100 people attended.

 

Catherine Spence was born at Melrose, in Scotland, but lived in Adelaide from 1839 until her death there in 1910. She was a non-partisan public figure, a social reformer, a great literary figure and educator, and a passionate campaigner for proportional representation. To try to advance PR, she stood, unsuccessfully, for election to the 1897 Australasian Federal Convention, thereby becoming Australia’s first female political candidate.

 

The second lecture attracted the most interest from members of the Electoral Reform Society of South Australia. A former Premier of South Australia, Hon John Bannon, spoke about “Federation” and Miss Spence’s involvement as the first female candidate, in 1897. Deane Crabb, Secretary of the Electoral Reform Society of South Australia, and National Vice-President of the PRSA, spoke about “Proportional Representation”, outlining Catherine Spence’s life-long campaign for “effective voting”, and explaining what she was trying to achieve. This lecture then finished with a presentation from Dr Helen Jones on “Social Reform and Education”, outlining all the other various activities of this remarkable woman.

 

Those unfamiliar with the story of Miss Spence might nevertheless have seen her picture on the reverse side of Australia’s $5 banknote commemorating the Centenary of Federation. The State Library of South Australia’s Web site pages on Women and Politics in South Australia give more details at www.slsa.sa.gov.au/women_and_politics Click on the section there about Catherine Spence. More details and links about her campaign for proportional representation are in the History section of the PRSA Web site - see address at top of this page.

 

Two Unsatisfactory Polls in Queensland

 

Single-member electorates are typically defended with the argument that they ensure a healthy two-party system. Unpacked, that assertion implies that both a stable Government (with an absolute majority of seats on election night) and a sizeable Opposition (strong enough to challenge the Government both on the floor of the Legislative Assembly, and at the ballot box) are good. Unfortunately the Legislative Assembly of Queensland’s unicameral Parliament rarely achieves that result. The same problem now plagues Brisbane City Council - the world’s most populous local government unit - with the fifth-largest budget of any government in Australia (i.e. larger than the smallest States. The City of Brisbane is not larger in population than London, New York or Paris, but those cities are divided into smaller boroughs or districts, each with its own council, like the "cities" that make up Sydney and Melbourne. Brisbane is not so divided. Its city council wards each contain more voters than its electorates for Queensland’s Legislative Assembly).

 

The Queensland election on 7th February 2004 followed the pattern set for the 2001 poll, with Peter Beattie's Labor Party retaining its landslide majority (63 seats out of 89, compared with 66 three years earlier), with only 47% of the first preference vote. Within the Opposition, there was also a great disproportionality - the Nationals, with 17% of the first preference vote, concentrated in rural areas, won 15 seats while the Liberals gained more of the first preference vote (18.5%), but only won 5 seats.

 

Of the eight polls since the Liberal-National Coalition ended in 1983, those of 1983, 1995-96, and 1998 gave "hung Parliaments", where no one party or pre-election group won an absolute majority of seats on election night.

 

In 1983, the Premier, Mr Bjelke-Petersen, induced two Liberals MLAs to transfer to the Nationals; and in 1995-96 and 1998, a single Independent held the balance of power. The Queensland general elections in July 1995 gave Labor 45 seats out of 89, against 43 Coalition and one Independent. However, the result in the Townsville-based district of Mundingburra was later overturned by the Court of Disputed Returns. A supplementary election (often inaccurately called a "by-election") held in February 1996 gave the seat to the Liberals. The balance of power then shifted to the Independent, Liz Cunningham. She announced that she would support the Coalition to govern, on the grounds that she was dissatisfied with her treatment by the Labor Premier, Wayne Goss, and that the Coalition had polled a majority of the two-party preferred votes.

 

In the other five elections (1986, 1989, 1992, 2001 and 2004), the government won a large majority, and in all but 1986 it counted as a "landslide". The danger of a "landslide" is that it makes the Government arrogant. Its majority on the floor is immune from the threat of a few backbenchers rebelling against the whip, and its majority at the next poll is safe because of the advantages of incumbency for MPs with access to the Premier's largesse.

 

Municipal polls were held only seven weeks later, on 27th March 2004. The contests for Queensland’s two largest councils - Brisbane and Gold Coast - seemed much more competitive than the State contest, thus attracting greater media and public attention. The successful candidates for the popular and direct election of the mayors were respectively, Campbell Newman and Ron Clarke - both high-profile figures. Mr Newman is a son of Kevin and Jocelyn Newman, once Liberal Federal Cabinet Ministers from Tasmania. Ron Clarke MBE is a famous runner.

 

In Brisbane's case, the way that the outgoing Lord Mayor, Cr Tim Quinn, who failed in his bid for a new term, had become Lord Mayor aroused attention, and some resentment. The Labor Party’s appointment of him to fill the vacancy created when the previously elected Lord Mayor, Cr Jim Soorley, retired after four successive victories backfired. A by-election was not held, as Cr Soorley had timed his resignation so that just under twelve months remained of his original four-year term. The relevant Queensland laws, the City of Brisbane Act, for Brisbane, and the Local Government Act, for the other 64 councils, only provide for a by-election if a vacancy arises in the first three years of the term of a mayor or councillor. In the fourth year the endorsing party but, for vacating independents, the council, appoints a replacement.

 

Campbell Newman became Lord Mayor with over 52% of the vote after preferences were distributed. Of the 26 wards - each electing a single councillor to make up the rest of the Council - Labor won 17 and Liberals won 9, even though those parties’ overall first preference vote tied at 47% each. In one ward the Greens candidate gained just over 25% of first preference votes.

 

 

© 2004 Proportional Representation Society of Australia

National President: Bogey Musidlak 14 Strzelecki Cr. NARRABUNDAH 2604

National Secretary: Dr Stephen Morey 4 Sims Street SANDRINGHAM 3191

Tel: (02) 6295 8137, (03) 9598 1122  info@prsa.org.au

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