QUOTA prsa logo NOTES


Newsletter of the Proportional Representation Society of Australia



   QN68                     December 1992           www.prsa.org.au


Is the House of Representatives an "Unrepresentative Swill"?

Paul Keating recently became the first Australian Prime Minister to be censured by a vote of the Senate, after publicly describing the Senate as unrepresentative swill.

Mr Keating maintains his position as Prime Minister by having a majority of Labor MHRs in the Lower House. The Australian Labor Party gained those MHRs with less than 39.5% of the first preference votes cast at the last election. The Coalition gained 43.4% of the votes cast. The remaining 17% of the voters gave their first preference votes to candidates that were not connected with those parties, but they gained no more than one MHR (0.7% of the House).

If MHRs were elected on a proportional representation basis as applies in nearly every European lower house, the present small absolute majority of Labor MHRs would instead be close to that 39.5%.

Perhaps Mr Keating is trying to distract public attention away from the painful reality that the ALP's majority of MHRs and his resulting position as Prime Minister is due to the distortion produced by Australia's highly unrepresentative Lower House electoral system. The major parties cling to that system desperately. It is all that maintains their duopoly - the electorate's voting pattern certainly doesn't.

An unrepresentative Prime Minister has been properly censured by the Upper House where, thanks to the Senate's proportional representation electoral system, his party has 37% of the seats, a share that corresponds to its recent electoral performance. That percentage is much fairer and more reflective of how Australians voted than is the ALP's unjustified majority in Mr Keating's power base - the unrepresentative Lower House.

Several newspapers recently published letters along the above lines from the Federal Parliamentary Leader of the Australian Democrats, Senator John Coulter, and the PRSA National President.

PR Continues to Make Progress

Legislation to establish an ACT Electoral Commission and to implement the result of this year's poll on the ACT Electoral System has begun its passage through the ACT Legislative Assembly. The ALP Government has accepted several Opposition amendments including a preamble, which records the fact of the February poll, and explicitly states that the Hare-Clark system was chosen and that it included Robson Rotation. This contrasts with Tasmania's Electoral Act 1985, which regrettably does not mention either Hare, Clark or Robson by name.

The previous Quota Notes reported that Professor Peter Singer, of Victoria's Monash University, a key mover in the inauguration of the International Association of Bioethics, proposed a clause in its draft constitution that requires that votes be counted by the quota-preferential method of proportional representation, in accordance with the Proportional Representation Manual of the Proportional Representation Society of Australia. He has informed the PRSA that October's inaugural meeting in Amsterdam accepted his proposed clause.

Also in October the Melbourne Diocese of the Anglican Church conducted its first periodical elections using the quota-preferential system that was adopted by an Act of Synod last year as a replacement for the previous points system. The Returning Officer informed the Victorian Branch Secretary, Dr Lee Naish, that counting took only one day, compared with two days under the previous system.

In the election of four Lay persons to the Diocesan Council, only two candidates, who were well recognized as opinion leaders for major viewpoints within the Diocese, obtained a quota of first preference votes.

There was no motivation for, and relatively little occurrence of, the circulation of full and detailed tickets carrying exhortations to complete them exactly as specified, which was felt by most participants as a most regrettable tendency encouraged by the previous points system. All the other Anglican Synods still elect committees by first-past-the-post. PR Anglicans note!

Notable Election in Victoria

The Victorian Parliament is the last surviving bicameral Australian Parliament that does not have a House elected by a proportional representation electoral system. Thus not only is the House from which the Victorian Government is chosen improperly reflective of the voters, but also there is no properly balanced other House to provide the review and fine-tuning of legislation, based on a true reflection in each electorate of the strength of all the votes cast there, that occurs in all our other bicameral Parliaments. At the 1988 Victorian elections, it could be seen that the governing ALP was already being regarded with suspicion by the voters, as the ALP gained significantly fewer first preference votes in each House than the combined vote of its Liberal and National opponents, but the single-member electoral system rewarded it with an absolute majority of Assembly seats

The PR analysis of that election indicated an Assembly where the ALP would only have been able to continue governing with the support of several of the Australian Democrat MLAs that would have been elected. Of course that would have been derided by some as weak government, which could have precipitated an election well before 1992 if the ADs had considered that they should no longer support the ALP. As there was no PR for the Assembly, the ALP was able to rule for four years as a strong government.

That strength allowed it to lose the State Bank of Victoria, and to be responsible for various other financial problems that the Coalition criticized throughout those four years without once suggesting that strong government as a general principle might be worth rethinking. No, they were simply waiting for their turn to be a strong government, and have now introduced legislation that many that voted for them seem to be considering something of an over-reaction.

During their decade in opposition the Liberal and National Party MLCs enjoyed a majority in the Upper House, and were able to reject much ALP Government Legislation, including more than one bill to introduce PR as an option for local government elections, and two bills to change the Legislative Council electoral system to a form of quota-preferential PR. Unlike the first of the latter two bills the second was introduced, as a bill confined to that purpose only, before the 1988 election. It was a campaign issue, but the new Legislative Council still rejected it.

A PR analysis of this year's election by our Victorian Branch showed a clear Coalition absolute majority in both Houses although, unlike the result under the present law, Liberal MPs alone would not have formed an absolute majority in either House.

Given the limitation that applied to the ALP's decade in power, of having the Coalition parties holding an absolute majority of the Council seats, despite their failing to win an absolute majority of votes at either the 1982 or the 1985 elections, it is interesting to see how closely balanced the Upper House would be if a Hare-Clark type PR system had applied to it at both the 1988 and 1992 periodical elections.

The Full Council would have contained 20 ALP and 20 Liberal MLCs, with the balance, and balance it would be, consisting of 3 Nationals and 1 Independent. Such a Legislative Council, with an absolute majority for the Coalition of one seat, would not be inherently anti-Government as was the Council from 1982 to 1992, but it could reasonably be expected that extreme aspects of the Kennett Government's legislation might be rejected as, provided the ALP and the Independent agreed, any one Coalition MLC crossing the floor could defeat a bill, and any two could amend it in that House.

Of course some MPs and their supporters, from both of our adversarial major parties, would be horrified by such a possibility, which is the norm in most other Australian parliaments, as the fun and games of industrial confrontation might be avoided that way, and the long-suffering voters might be spared unnecessary trauma

The PR analysis of the polls took account of the present arrangement in Victoria whereby each Upper House Province is contiguous with four Lower House Districts. Thus the PR model analysed involved two PR Legislative Council Provinces, each with eleven MLCs to be elected. Each of those Provinces was contiguous with five seven-member Assembly Districts and one nine-member District. Those multi-member Assembly Districts were contiguous with that number of existing single-member districts needed to provide the relevant number of Assembly seats.

The results are summarized in the following graphs for both the Assembly and the full Legislative Council.

Threat of Indirect Elections in Victoria

Soon after becoming Premier Mr Jeff Kennett announced that he favoured amending Victoria's Constitution Act to provide, in cases where the difference in numbers between the Government parties and others in the House in question exceeded a prescribed minimum, that casual vacancies in State Parliament be no longer filled by a poll of electors, but instead by a system of nomination of the replacement MP by the party of the vacating member. Mr Kennett had not mentioned this proposal prior to the October election. His justification was the cost savings that could result. Such a proposal, for single-member electorates, has not been proposed by any Australian government previously.

Mr Kennett's proposal was opposed by the ALP Opposition and various community groups, including the PRSA. Fortunately Mr Kennett indicated that he might not favour amending the Constitution Act without bipartisan agreement.

The ALP's opposition to this undemocratic move is welcome although it is ironic that one of the worst features of its own Constitution (Proportional Representation) Bill 1988 was its unprecedented provision, for Victoria, for casual vacancies to be filled by party nomination, rather than by the electors, under the Hare-Clark countback system. The countback system, applied to single-member electorates, formed the basis of an excellent, but unsuccessful bill, introduced by the former SA Senator David Vigor, who is now a Vice-President of the PRSA's South Australian Branch.

Strange Election Results This Year

The first-past-the-post procedure, one of the crudest and least fair electoral systems, is still widely practised, and can produce some particularly unrepresentative results. Quota Notes No. 66 gave the overall results for April's UK polls, but did not mention as did Representation, the journal of the PRSA's UK counterpart, that a new UK record for the election of an MP by the smallest percentage of the vote was set by Sir Russell Johnston, who became the Liberal Democrat MP for the seat of Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber with 26.1% of the vote.

The other candidates received 25.1%, 24.7%, 22.6% and 1.5%, but their voters had no influence on the outcome, let alone receiving any representation. Their only consolation was that the party of the MP elected advocates quota-preferential proportional representation for the House of Commons. The previous record for the lowest share of the vote electing an MP to the Commons was 26.9% in 1922.

Of course far more outrageous results occur with this procedure yet it still persists. At this year's presidential election in the Philippines, Fidel Ramos was elected from 7 candidates after gaining 23.5% of the vote. The remaining 76.5% of the voters had no effect on the outcome.

Finally, it being Presidential election year in the United States, it is worth pointing out the erroneous nature of the headlines in Australian newspapers in November that described the popular vote for Presidential Electors pledged to Mr Bill Clinton as being a landslide for Clinton. The reality is that the popular vote for such Electors pledged to Mr Clinton was under 43%, i.e. over 57% of those that voted chose Electors that were pledged to others. Rather than being a landslide, Mr Clinton's success was the result of the second-lowest percentage of the popular vote for a President-elect since 1872, which was the first election where Presidential Electors from all States were elected by popular vote, all State legislatures by then finally having ceased appointing Electors.

It must be expected that the result of the Electors' voting on 14th December 1992, which will be declared by the President of the Senate, Danforth Quayle, on 6th January 1993, will mark the 11th of the 31 Presidential elections from 1872 onwards where the successful candidate has failed to gain an absolute majority of the popular vote. In two of those elections (1876 and 1888), the successful candidate not only lacked an absolute majority of votes, but he did not even receive the largest number of popular votes. Of the 31 Presidential elections since 1872 only one, Woodrow Wilson's election in 1912 with just under 42% of the popular vote, was a result with less popular support than Mr Clinton received.

Another quirk of the indirect Electoral College system is shown by the two candidates since 1872 that received the largest percentage of the popular vote in their respective contests, but failed to receive an absolute majority of the Electors' votes - Tilden losing to Rutherford Hayes in 1876, and Cleveland to Benjamin Harrison in 1888.

Another undemocratic twist in the story could have occurred at this election if the Electoral College candidates pledged to vote for Ross Perot had gained a plurality of the popular vote in even one State and perhaps thereby denied the other nationwide Presidential candidates an absolute majority of Electors' votes. That would have required the House of Representatives to elect the President from the three Presidential candidates with the highest number of Electors' votes, but in doing so the representation from each State can only vote collectively, and that collective vote is a single vote per State. The 50 odd MHRs from California would collectively have the same influence on the outcome as the single representative from Alaska.

That provision has so far only been implemented twice. At the third Presidential election, in 1800, Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr each received 26% of the Electors' votes, and John Adams, the outgoing President, received 24%. The House of Representatives had to vote 36 times before one of those three, Jefferson, received the mandatory absolute majority of its vote (by States).

At the sixth Presidential election, in 1824, Andrew Jackson received 38% of the Electors' votes and John Quincey Adams, son of the former President John Adams, received 32%, but the House of Representatives elected Adams. Four years later the two faced each other again and Andrew Jackson won 68% of the Electors' votes.

In his first message to Congress as President, Andrew Jackson said:

"... The right to elect the President belongs to the people. Their choice should never be defeated, either by the electoral college or by the House of Representatives. ... In the election of the President, as in all other matters of public concern, as few obstacles as possible should exist to the free expression of the public will. Let us, then, try to amend our system so that no citizen can become President except as a result of a fair expression of the will of the majority. ..."
Attempts since Jackson's day to move to a direct election of the US President have so far been fruitless. The archaic system that persists, not to mention the continued use of single-member electorates to elect people to supposedly representative chambers, makes it hard for the US to be taken seriously as a leader in the practice of democracy.

As US voters are not enabled to indicate their votes preferentially, nobody will ever know the answer to what one would have thought was a fairly important and relevant question when the President is not chosen by the Legislature. Would an absolute majority of US voters have preferred Bush to Clinton, or vice versa?

We should not be too smug. Who becomes our Prime Minister is also decided by an electoral college - our House of Representatives. It is, between elections, a standing college rather than a periodic one, and it does not have as many archaic distortions as the US college but, as it is based on single-member electorates, it is by no means a proper or faithful reflection of the national will.

Death of Former ACT Branch Secretary

Sadly, Mr Bill Mason, a leading member of the Committee of the Australian Capital Territory Branch of the PRSA and its former Secretary, died last month. Bill worked hard in the successful ACT poll on PR earlier this year, and his death is a loss to the Society. His obituary in the Canberra Times recorded his service as a Lancaster bomber pilot over Europe in World War II, and his subsequent work for Treasury and the Royal Australian Mint. On the day of his funeral the ACT Legislative Assembly passed a motion of condolence.


1992 Proportional Representation Society of Australia

National President: Geoffrey Goode 18 Anita Street BEAUMARIS VIC 3193
National Secretary: John Alexander 5 Bray Street MOSMAN NSW 2088

Tel:  (03) 9589 1802 Mobile 04291 76725 quota@prsa.org.au