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QUOTA  PRSA logo  NOTES

 

Newsletter of the Proportional Representation Society of Australia

 

 

             QN50                                    June 1988                      www.prsa.org.au

 


 

Death of PRSA Founding President (1982-85)


On 13th May 1988, Mr J.F.H.Wright, who was instrumental in establishing the Society as a nation-wide body, died after a brief illness. Many members of the Society knew Jack well as a humorous and good-natured man of great intellect and humanity, who, for more than 40 years, wrote about and campaigned for the adoption and improvement of Proportional Representation for the election of parliaments, councils and committees. Much of Jack's spare time and retirement had been devoted to the cause of electoral reform through PR. By his tireless efforts in writing and publishing on the subject, and in providing expert advice on the system's advantages to those seeking it (and to some that didn't, but needed to know), Jack probably did more to advance the cause of PR than any other single Australian in the 20th Century.


The Society is very much the poorer for Jack's passing. He combined the four essentials for any publicist: a deep understanding, a commitment to the cause, energy and an ability to communicate his ideas even to the most stubborn opponents. Those that knew him well feel a very great loss indeed. Our sympathy is with his widow, Katie, and the Wright family at this time.


                                                Constitutional Land Mine Defused
 
The eagle eyes of the NSW Branch of the Society found a disastrous flaw in the Constitution Alteration (Fair Elections) Bill 1988 before the Senate was due to pass it. The Society's swift pressure on Party Leaders and senators fortunately led to the Australian Democrats and the ALP agreeing to abandon the sub-section 29(2) proposed for the Constitution, which would have read, "The number of members (of the House of Representatives) shall be the same for each division of a particular State." The sub-section would have introduced a new requirement into the Constitution, but it appeared to serve no essential or even useful purpose. Its abandonment does not appear to have harmed the Bill in any way. Had 29(2) entered the Constitution, however, there would thenceforth have been no constitutional possibility of dividing into multi-member electorates any State or States where the number of MHRs to be elected is a prime number (i.e. a number divisible only by itself or by one e.g. 43, 47, 53 etc.) This would have provided an insuperable constitutional barrier to the practical use of quota-preferential proportional representation for electing MHRs, because that system is most conveniently applied when relatively small numbers of vacancies, up to about 15, are to be filled as a group.

Because the determination of the number of MHRs per State is governed elsewhere in the Constitution by provisions that are to be left unchanged, there is no way of ensuring that a prime number will not be stipulated as the number of MHRs for a particular State or States.

The demise of 29(2) received no media attention we know of. We shall probably never be told its supposed purpose.
 
                                        Constitutional Bonus Gained


By contrast, another oddity in the Bill the House of Representatives sent to the Senate was highlighted by the Opposition, and received considerable media publicity. The successful motion by Senator Macklin (Australian Democrats) for its amendment received no media attention at the time, but it was a very pleasing achievement for the proportional representation cause. The Bill would, as a result of that amendment, insert into the Constitution the requirement, where House of Representatives, State or Territory elections are to be held at large, "that the method of choosing those members shall be a system of proportional representation". This would be the first prescription of an electoral system anywhere in the Constitution - we must surely be grateful that the right system was chosen! A statement by the National President of the PRSA on a postal ballot of our members on the "Fair Elections" Bill is shown on the last page of this issue of Quota Notes.


                                    A.C.T. Party List System Threatening


The Minister for Territories and Local Government, the Hon. Gary Punch MHR, has proposed Self-government for the Australian Capital Territory, but with the d'Hondt non-preferential Party List electoral system using the whole A.C.T. as a single electorate. The PR Society has written to Mr Punch, Federal Party leaders and key senators proposing a quota-preferential system instead. Our letters urging that have been published in the "Canberra Times", Melbourne "Herald" and Hobart "Mercury".

If the Constitution Alteration (Fair Elections) Bill 1988 is approved at the September Referendum, the Constitution will require direct elections for every House of every legislature in Australia. As Party List systems interpose an intermediary device beyond the direct control of the voters, viz. the Party List, such systems cannot be called direct. Party List systems could thus become vulnerable to action in the High Court.
 
A non-Party-List but nevertheless non-preferential system might not be technically unconstitutional, but it would certainly seem to be inconsistent with the spirit of the Fair Elections Referendum, and would undoubtedly be attacked on those grounds. The Society has also urged that casual vacancies be filled by the voters directly, i.e. that the Tasmanian Assembly system of re-examination of the ballot-papers that formed the vacating member's quota at the previous general election be instituted.

                                        Citizens' Initiative Reappears


At various times in Australian political history suggestions have come forward that citizens themselves be given the right to initiate and implement legislation or constitutional alteration or both. It has usually been advocated that the collection of a certain number of signatures to a Bill would require a Referendum to be held to decide the question. To this extent the Parliament would be overridden. Parties proposing such forms of citizens' initiative include those of the left, centre and right, and now include the right-wing Citizens' Electoral Committee, whose candidate, Mr Trevor Perrett, defeated the National Party candidate in the Barambah (Qld) by-elction, held after the resignation from Parliament of the former Queensland Premier, Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen.
 
Of course, it would be possible, under Citizens' Initiative, for Queenslanders to vote to replace their malapportioned, single-member electoral system with Proportional Representation, and a mere minority could not stop them.


                                    Victorian Government Initiatives


Some progress towards the introduction of Proportional Representation at two levels has already been made. The Government has availed itself of the option to use Proportional Representation for the 1988 elections for the Richmond City Council (to be re-instated this year after six years of being governed by a Commissioner). A council of nine will be elected (three from each of three wards), but subsequently there will have to be a single vacancy in each ward each year, as is required by Victoria's antiquated Local Government Act. The Government is using this year's Richmond elections as a showcase for possible future use of PR in Victorian local government.


The Government's proposed reform of the Legislative Council electoral system has already ben passed by the Legislative Assembly and will be debated by the Legislative Council itself in the Spring. The Bill, if enacted, would provide for a system of five provinces, each returning nine members. This would establish a quota for election of 10 of the vote in each province. The Australian Democrats support the Bill and have indicated their willingness to refrain from making a specific recommendation to their voters to mark their preferences in a particular way at the next State election provided that both major parties support the Bill in the Upper House this Spring. If the Bill fails because of Liberal and National opposition, the possible Democrat recommendation that voters mark their preferences to put the Liberals and Nationals last may assist in the Government's return.



                                                        Proportional Representation Society of Australia

            Postal Ballot on Support or Opposition to Constitution Alteration (Fair Elections) Bill 1988

                                                        STATEMENT BY NATIONAL PRESIDENT
 
Quota Notes No. 50 reports
that the amended Bill for the September Referendum would result in the expression     "proportional representation" appearing in the Commonwealth Constitution in the following new Section:
 
"124D. (1) Where an election in an electoral region is not to be held in electoral divisions or, if so held, is or would be contrary to section 124C, the region shall be one electorate.
            (2) Where a region is to be one electorate, an election in the electorate shall be held:
                (a)  if the election is for the purpose of choosing members of the House of Representatives - as the Parliament                           provides; or
                (b) if the election is for the purpose of choosing members of a House of the Parliament of a State or the                                  legislature of a Territory or a combination of Territories - in accordance with the law of the State, Territory                      or Territories, as the case requires, or, if there is no such law, as the Parliament provides;
but so that the method of choosIng those members shall be a system of proportional representation."


At present there is no constitutional requirement for PR whatsoever.
 
The late Jack Wright, our Founding President, strongly criticized the Bill in its then unamended form. His last letter, written the night before he died, to Senator Haines (A.D. Leader), explains clearly why the Bill does not ensure "one vote, one value". He also objected to the title "Fair Elections" as misleading, because the main result of the Bill will be to place a tolerance on inequalities of enrolments per MP, but not, except in the special circumstances added after his death and discussed above, to require the use of PR, which is the only system that gives one vote, one value. He was concerned that approval for the Bill would give the impression that it was an adequate answer to Australia's need for electoral reform, which it clearly is not.


The proposal for this ballot has been discussed with the other National Office-bearers as required by our Constitution. They have supported the postal ballot being held, and my issuing a statement.
 
To sum up, the Bill is not a sufficient answer
to Australia's electoral deficiencies, but its approval is desirable as it would
(a) cause an electoral system to be specified in Constitution for the the first time,
(b) result ln that system being a proportional representation system,
(c) require all legislatures to be directly elected, thus presumably prohibiting Party List systems of PR,
(d) demonstrate that the electors support rather than oppose attempts at electoral reform, and it would thus create a precedent and climate that would show reform to be popular and achievable,
(e) remove a popularly perceived defect of single member systems and thus reveal more clearly the other defects of those systems and
(f) provide, by equalizing enrolments per MP, a requirement that is as desirable for multi-member electorates with PR as it is seen to be for single-member electorates.



                                                    This letter by our late founding National President
                                                     gives some of the reasons for a "No" vote on the
                                                    Constitution Alteration (Fair Elections) Bill 1988.

 
30 Kooloona Crescent, West Pymble, NSW 2073
12 May 1988
 
Senator Janine Haines,
Leader of the Australian Democrats,
l10 Hutt Street,
Adelaide,
South Australia 5000


Dear Senator Haines,


The term 'one vote, one value' is being used widely applied to the proposed Constitutional amendment to limit the variation in the enrolment per member in any electoral division. I suggest that it is very unwise for Australian Democrat Senators to allow this usage without protest at its dishonesty. Although it is certainly desirable that each member of Parliament should be elected by approximately the same number of voters, this would not be ensured by the proposed amendment.


The House of Representatives election last July illustrated clearly that uniformity in enrolments in a single-member-electorate system does not ensure one vote, one value. All electorates except Macpherson were within 10 of the State average enrolments and Macpherson was about 11 over the average. The enrolments were thus about as close to uniform as they would be likely to be if the Constitution were amended as proposed. The results were nothing like one vote, one value.


As you know, the ALP first-preference total of 45.8 was less than the 46.1 for the Coalition, but the ALP won 86 seats to 62 for the Coalition. No one was elected to represent the 8.1 (almost three-quarters of a million) who voted for candidates outside the Government and Opposition parties. The votes of more than 45 of all those who voted formally had no effect on the outcome through their first or any other preferences, and were therefore of no value. To refer to results of that kind as one vote, one value and to suggest that the system that produced them ensures democratic representation is simply dishonest.
 
There is also an important pragmatic consideration. If the amendement is adopted and there is ever an Australian Democrat initiative for the introduction of proportional representation, the spokespersons for whichever major party is in government at the time will be fully justified, unless the Australian Democrats speak out now, in saying that the Democrats agreed that the amended Constitution ensures democratic elections without proportional representation, and therefore that there is no case for change.
 
I hope you will agree that part of the business of keeping them honest includes exposing this particular piece of dishonesty.


Yours sincerely,

 
J.F.H. Wright


1988 Proportional Representation Society of Australia

National President: Geoffrey Goode 18 Anita Street BEAUMARIS VIC 3193

National Secretary: Andrew Gunter 5 Wheatland Road MALVERN VIC 3144

Tel: (03) 9589 1802, (03) 9509 1514    info@prsa.org.au

Regd. Australia Post Publication No. NBH 4671 ISSN 0792-9699