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Early Debates (1863-1898) on Proportional Representation in Victoria's Legislative Assembly

A feature of the floor of the entrance foyer at Victoria’s Parliament House is an Old Testament verse. It has long been set in coloured tiles as a ring around the large Royal Coat of Arms similarly set into the floor. The verse, Proverbs 11:1, reads, "Where no counsel is, the people fall: but in the multitude of counsellors there is safety."

At first sight, the 88 Lower House MPs that are entitled to sit within might be thought to constitute a multitude of counsellors in biblical terms. Unfortunately a little more thought soon reveals that there is little safety in numbers where important attributes like diversity, breadth of representation, and independence of thought are largely absent. Why have 88 MLAs, representing only two mutually antagonistic points of view (one ALP view and one Coalition view), and only two MLAs, representing any other points of view, as has been the case since 2001, when other substantial minorities are left with no MLAs at all?

Of course, if those attributes are present to excess, there might be some reduction in coherence of purpose, but the way to avoid such a reduction is to reach a sensible medium position between Victoria’s complete absence of any proportional representation in its Lower House, and the alternative that occurs in some legislatures, such as Israel’s, where closed party lists, and a low percentage threshold of 2% for a party to be elected, understandably do not show the proportional representation principle at its best. The PRSA advocates a Hare-Clark system, with multi-member electorates.

The introduction of quota-preferential proportional representation, which is the direct and preferential form of proportional representation, for elections to Victoria’s Legislative Council was attempted by the Cain and Kirner ALP Governments, but they could not implement it as they did not have enough support in the Upper House. After the ALP Government gained majority support in both houses in 2001 the electoral legislation was changed and a proportional representation system now applies for Upper House polls. Nevertheless it is worth realizing that the issue of PR for elections to the Victorian Parliament has had a surprisingly long history. The Assembly has voted for PR before, for its own elections.


A life member of the PRSA’s Victorian Branch, the late Mr Roger Donegan of Mont Albert, had obtained for the Society some interesting extracts from debates in Victoria’s colonial parliament that he obtained from various volumes of the official record, the Victorian Parliamentary Debates (more recently known as "Hansard").


A major debate on providing for proportional representation for Victoria's Legislative Assembly, as had earlier in that decade been provided for the districts of Hobart and Launceston in Tasmania, occurred during consideration of the Plural Voting Abolition Bill, which was the bill that resulted in the Constitution Act Amendment Act 1899, when Mr Robert Murray-Smith, MLA for Hawthorn, moved, on 2nd August 1898, "That it be an instruction to the committee to provide for the adoption of Hare’s system of proportional representation." [Victorian Parliamentary Debates Vol. 88, p. 581]

Mr Alfred Deakin, who later became Australia’s second Prime Minister, spoke in support of the motion, saying [VPD Vol. 88, pp. 668-677],

"Proportional representation is not a device to secure the better representation of minorities only. ... Proportional representation is a plan to secure the better representation of majorities as well, and it is in the interests of the majority and of majority rule that I propose to submit that our present system is gravely defective, and that the proposals which have been submitted for proportional representation, although defective in certain particulars, are less defective than the system under which we suffer at present."

"... As a matter of fact, illustrations can be abundantly cited to show that the majority does not rule under the existing system on the questions on which the majority should rule, and that instead of this proposal being antagonistic to the majority, it is a proposal which will bring the legislative forces of the country and its Legislative Assembly into touch with the majority of the peoples in the electorates, just as directly as the referendum does for the whole of the people. [VPD Vol. 88, p. 669]"

"I will support any measure for letting the Upper House or this House try the system of proportional representation ... [VPD Vol. 88, p. 676]

The only important issue is the accurate representation of public opinion. [VPD Vol. 88, p. 745]"

Mr Isaac Isaacs, who later, as Sir Isaac Isaacs, was Chief Justice of the High Court, and then Governor-General of Australia, might have been thinking of party list PR when, in opposing the motion, he said, "And so each man, instead of being an independent voter, would be dragged in as one of the mere details of the party machine, and would have to vote exactly as he was told." [VPD Vol. 88, p 746]

Mr Rbert Murray-Smith's motion was voted upon, and was lost [VPD Vol. 88, p. 750]. Unfortunately neither this nor other attempts, either before or since, to introduce proportional representation for elections to the Victorian Parliament were brought to a successful conclusion until the introduction of legislation in 2003 to provide for election of Victoria's Legislative Council by PR in November 2006, which year was the 150th anniversary of the first general election for members of that Legislative Council. Victoria is the last of Australia's six bicameral parliaments to have one of its houses elected using PR.

Earlier discussion of PR included the following:

The Premier, Mr Duncan Gillies, moved, on 25th September 1888, that a Bill, that amongst other things, would increase the number of single-member electorates from 29 to 73, be read a second time. [VPD Vol. 58 pp. 1213-1215]

The number of multi-member electorates, with the non-preferential "limited vote" system applying, was to be reduced to make way for this development. Such electorates, using that voting system, which were also phased out in the United Kingdom in this era but still, curiously, still apply in some electorates for the ancient House of Keys on the Isle of Man, had been used in Victoria since it had separated from New South Wales in 1851. They continued to be in force in South Australia until the late 1930s. In the debate, reference was made to the single-member seat of Boroondara, where Victorian Electoral Commission records show that the two candidates polled as follows:

William Walker 1338 votes, Charles Taylor 1323 votes.

In the debate on the Premier’s Bill, Mr John Gavan Duffy said, "The Minister for Customs (William Walker) had alluded to (the Victorian electorate of) Belfast as a horrid example of an electoral anomaly; but the honorable gentleman himself was returned at the last general election by a majority of only fourteen." The Premier interjected, "What does that matter?"

Mr Duffy continued, "The honorable gentleman having been returned by a majority of fourteen, it followed that one-half of the large and important constituency of Boroondara, less fourteen, was completely disfranchised. Was not that an anomaly? ... Had the Premier, who chose to sneer at any line of argument which did not exactly please him, never heard of the representation of minorities? (Mr Gillies: "No") Then he would lend the Premier a little book on the subject. (Mr Gillies: "By whom?") Written by a gentleman named Hare. (Mr Gillies: "You are mistaken.") If he (Duffy) must speak by the card, he would say that the system was called the proportional system of representation, but it is more popularly known as the representation of minorities.[VPD Vol. 58, p. 1715]"

In a Victorian Legislative Assembly debate, on 17th February 1881, a former Premier, Sir John O’Shanassy, said, "I am surprised that no plan of proportional representation is provided for in the Bill, especially as leading statesmen and philosophers are every year more strongly advocating the adoption of that principle in connexion with the electoral system. Why should the representation in every district be given to a bare majority of the electors and the minority be left out in the cold?"

That former Premier of Victoria went on to say, "Why is the system of proportional representation altogether ignored, when it is founded on justice, and the professed desire of the men in this country who call themselves liberals is that the whole people shall be represented - not merely a part, but the whole? ..." [VPD Vol. 35, p. 1484]

Sir John O’Shanassy had not made his views known precipitately. He had said, over seven years earlier, on 26th August 1873, "I gave an early adhesion to the principle which he (Thomas Hare) endeavours, in his admirable treatise, to illustrate - a principle under which all classes of feeling may be represented in a body of influence and weight. ... Mr Hare has been described by an honorable member of another place as a "closet philosopher", but the fact is - and I visited him when in the mother country - that he is a practical lawyer; he drafted his own Bill; and I assert, after considering that Bill, you can vote as easily, under Mr Hare’s system, as you can stamp a letter and put it into the post-office. ... The machinery looks complicated, but the elector has no more to do with that than the person who drops his letter into the post-office has to do with the postal machinery." [VPD Vol. 16, p. 1214]

Sir John O’Shanassy had advocated the implementation of Hare’s system in 1863 when he was Premier [VPD Vol. 9, pp. 540-541]. In a debate on the Electoral Act Amendment Bill on 4th March 1863 [VPD Vol. 9, p. 538], Mr Charles Gavan Duffy said, "In their own (Victorian Legislative) Assembly the principle (Thomas Hare’s system of proportional representation) had been introduced; and, in a House of sixty members, twenty-five voted for it and twenty-three against it. Since that time nothing further had been done. ... The honorable member (Mr Higinbotham) also stated that it (Hare’s system of proportional representation) had not been carried in Victoria; but it had been so, although before it could come into operation a change of ministry took place, and Mr Chapman (the member for Mornington, who was sent for to form a government, was opposed to the principle."

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