Newsletter of the Proportional Representation Society of Australia
Following a tense day that included numerous procedural motions and entry on to the floor of the chamber by several members of the public, at around 10 p.m. on 22nd July 1998 the Tasmanian House of Assembly passed legislation to reduce its numbers from 35 to 25 at the next election, and those of the Legislative Council from 19 to 15 within three years. The Parliamentary Reform Act 1998 passed through the Council shortly after noon the next day, and was proclaimed on 28th July.
After earlier failures to agree on a model to reduce the size of the Parliament (QN1997C), Labor indicated in May that it would recommit its Bill for five 5-member Assembly electorates and a Council of 15, still to be elected in annual rotation. Parliamentary Secretary Bob Cheek was among Liberals reported as wanting a deal whereby Labor would undertake for 6 months not to bring down the Government, in return for its legislation passing. The Greens were expected to bring on an immediate no-confidence motion if 7-member electorates were jettisoned.
While others backed away, on 18th May Mr Cheek said he was likely to support Labor, as Tasmania needed majority government. Mr Cheek crossed the floor three days later. The Premier, Tony Rundle, gave him an ultimatum - to resign from, or be sacked from, his posts. He resigned, but pointed to Tony Fletcher MLC keeping his leadership position, despite working against parliamentary reform. He vowed he would not be silenced within the Liberal Party.
A constitutional convention to draw up questions for a referendum on parliamentary reform was discussed by the Liberals at the start of June. Before the ALP State Conference, Deputy Leader Paul Lennon stated that its MPs did not support any 'tick a box' tampering with the Hare-Clark system, and claimed that nine Liberals privately supported Labor's plan for reducing the size of the Parliament.
On 13th July, the Premier caused a major surprise when he announced the third-ever one-day sitting on 22nd July 1998 to pass measures to ensure a reduction in Parliament's size, and that general elections would be held on 29th August. This stopped dead in their tracks any moves for registration by One Nation. Tasmanian Greens leader Christine Milne accused Mr Rundle of betraying her trust to 'disenfranchise quite deliberately a group of Tasmanians and to rig the electoral system to the advantage of the Liberal and Labor parties'.
The Proportional Representation Society of Australia gave whatever assistance it could to Hare-Clark supporters in the hectic days ahead. Our research material pointed out that only in 1969 would 5-member electorates have produced majority government where 7-member electorates did not. Letters stressed that with 7 vacancies, each party stood to win or lose seats everywhere and that large parties were not always assured of reaching 37.5% to elect three MHAs. On the other hand, 33.3% to elect two of five was historically almost certain and parties with some 40% or 55% of first preference votes would concentrate their efforts elsewhere as a gain or loss next time was most unlikely.
PRSA President Bogey Musidlak wrote a message of support to an overflow Save Tasmania's Democracy protest meeting in the Hobart Town Hall on the day before Parliament resumed, urging efforts to entrench the key principles of the Hare-Clark system, as in the ACT. Most MLCs were contacted about the relative defects of five-member electorates compared with seven-member, and the unsustainability of their numbers when 25 MLAs proves insufficient for an effective Assembly, as the Morling Inquiry concluded in 1994.
A dozen eastern States political science professors and ten academics from the University of Tasmania achieved publicity for their last-minute efforts to prevent regression, but the die had been cast. Despite a range of parliamentary tactics by the Tasmanian Greens aimed at averting the proposed changes, ultimately their complement of four could not succeed in the face of the determined combined weight of the remainder other than Independent Bruce Goodluck MHA, whose resignation on medical grounds was announced first thing by the Speaker. The result foreshadowed the smallest parliament in the 142 years of representative government in Tasmania since 1856, when the name Tasmania replaced the former name - Van Diemen's Land.
Labor leader Jim Bacon quickly announced that his party no longer intended to abolish the Legislative Council. The Hobart Mercury wrote that the outcome was 'the worst of all the available options that could have been chosen. Probably its only virtue, as far as the public is concerned, is that it eliminates 14 parliamentarians.'
The Premier asserted that the 25-15 model was not perfect, but a step in the right direction ending the 'cosy arrangement whereby 10% of the Statewide vote could control 85%'. The rules and practices of the Parliament would need to change, with the Council being better used. Mr Cheek asked to be reinstated to his previous positions.
The poll on 29th August 1998 resulted in a serious reduction in the accuracy of representation. A majority Labor government would have been formed irrespective of whether there were five or seven vacancies per electorate. The immediate tasks ahead for Hare-Clark supporters will be to repulse the subsequent call for single-member electorates by former Liberal Premier Ray Groom, to gather momentum for entrenchment of the system's key principles, and to begin the work for improved representation when the inevitable moves to absorb the Legislative Council within the Assembly succeed.
The writs for Tasmania's House of Assembly elections on 29th August 1998 were issued on 4th August and nominations closed at noon ten days later.
In July, Labor announced it would stand 35 candidates, but Brighton Councillor Darren Purcell quit the Lyons team to stand as an Independent in Franklin, except that he arrived just too late to lodge his nomination.
Long-term Liberal MHAs and Ministers John Beswick, John Cleary and Ron Cornish announced their retirement, and among the 25 candidates nominated, five were in their 20s or 30s.
With the Tasmanian Greens and Tasmania First also putting forward five candidates (the latter six in Bass), the choice for voters ranged between 21 candidates in Lyons and 31 in Denison. Formal votes required the marking of at least the first five preferences without duplication or omission.
Opinion polls continued to indicate a gap of around 10% between Labor and Liberal support, high enough to wipe out virtually any vestige of an Opposition if single-member electorates were used.
The future of the Hydro Electric Corporation was a major issue. The Tasmanian Greens objected to the way legislation changing the composition of the Parliament was passed without a referendum, and upbraided the media for not taking sufficient interest in environmental issues. Labor stressed that it alone could form majority government.
While there was initial uncertainty over the flows of preferences from candidates of smaller parties, the ALP's position continually strengthened and it won majorities of seats in four electorates without having obtained 47% of first preferences in any of them. Only in Denison, where the Tasmanian Greens, led by Peg Putt MHA, polled over 13%, was Labor restricted to just two seats.
The table below illustrates this advantage by comparing the Statewide outcome with what would most likely have transpired in seven-member electorates. Informal voting was 3.9% overall, ranging from 3.7% in Franklin to 4.2% in Braddon.
Four candidates were elected with a quota of first preferences. Very large numbers of candidates were typically excluded in sequence before anyone else was elected, and several were then elected in a flurry at the end of the scrutiny. On this occasion, there were no wafer-thin margins.
Seven females were elected and nine sitting members were defeated. Of the 138 candidates, 53 had their deposit returned by being elected or having at least one-fifth of a quota when they were excluded. Most new candidates with a fairly high public profile were excluded with under half a quota of votes. The youngest to be elected was 20-year-old information technology consultant Matt Smith, a Liberal, in Franklin.
As Labor and Liberal candidates with high fractions of a quota remained in all scrutinies, independents and candidates from other parties needed to match this to avoid exclusion. With the quota at just under 16.7%, parties obtaining 8-10% of first preference were finding themselves well short as ballot-papers became exhausted or flowed more to Labor and Liberal, which were generally able to win all seats on combined first preferences of around 80%. For instance, preferences from Tasmania First, originally established in protest against stricter gun legislation, favoured Labor slightly more than the Liberals, and twice as much as the Tasmanian Greens. Over one-third of these papers became exhausted however, part of an overall rate ranging from 3.1% in Lyons to 5.8% in Bass.
While such levels of exhaustion are high, the PRSA's view is that informal voting should be kept as low as possible, and voters encouraged to mark more preferences to maximize their chances of a fully effective vote. Ultimately in a democracy voters should be able to freely decide what to make of their vote.
A careful study was undertaken of voting patterns in an attempt to establish the most likely outcomes had the same level of support for all parties occurred in seven-member electorates. While this is inherently difficult because the introduction of additional candidates could alter the break-up of the vote within party columns, the repeated pattern of a long series of exclusions made it possible to draw some conclusions with a large degree of confidence.
Labor majorities would have been very likely in Bass (3 Liberals), Braddon (3 Liberals) and Lyons (2 Liberals and a Green), and possible in Franklin, but not expected because the Tasmanian Green, Mike Foley MHA, would have exceeded 90% of a quota during the scrutiny. The election in Denison of three each from Labor and Liberal, and one Tasmanian Green was also fairly certain, making a majority Labor Government of 18 MHAs the most likely outcome.
The ability of seven-member electorates to more closely reflect voters' wishes is one of the features that can be discerned from the key particulars for each electorate summarized in the table below (further information is available from www.electoral.tas.gov.au, the web site of the Tasmanian Electoral Office). It also indicates that large parties can expect to win at least two seats out of five, and will sometimes both do so even though their respective levels of voter support are not close together.
Percentages of MHAs Likely for Seven-member Electorates
Late in 1997, a joint review of the ACT's governance by the ACT and federal governments was announced. The terms of reference specified that the Working Party, headed by Professor Pettit, of the Australian National University, should assume a continuation of self-government and of the Hare-Clark electoral system.
The submission of the PRSA's ACT Branch emphasized the practical working knowledge gained through the obstacles faced in having the Hare-Clark system adopted, and its key principles entrenched. It argued that schemes for directly electing the Chief Minister (these have been floated from time to time without much detail) should be given short shrift. These would introduce a completely different relationship between the Executive and the Legislative Assembly, and also have the potential for inflicting extensive deleterious impacts upon the Hare-Clark system.
Support for citizen-initiated referenda as the ultimate safeguard for voters, which arose from the failed attempt to white-ant Robson Rotation in 1993, was re-iterated. It was also suggested that the Federal Parliament should amend its Australian Capital Territory (Self-Government) Act 1988 to allow the people to make laws directly, should the ACT Legislative Assembly choose to legislate for that.
The Working Party was also asked to investigate the origins of the Self-Government Act's unusual entrenchment provisions, which require a majority of 'electors' to support a proposition (because those that do not vote or whose vote is informal are effectively counted as being against, over 55% of formal votes will be needed in practice), and to at least set out the arguments for and against them. Suggestions were made about how MLAs might become better informed through the Committee system and how the Internet could enable community groups to remain aware of fast-moving developments in relation to particular proposed legislation.
ACT Branch Convenor, Mr Bogey Musidlak, expanded orally on parts of the submission in March. He emphasized the currently entrenched aspects of the electoral system, and urged great caution in relation to recommendation of changes that would be at odds with the views the people have already expressed.
The Working Party tabled its report in the Assembly on 24th April. It recommended that power to alter arrangements for the normal processes of government be assigned to the Territory, that the Ministry be increased from four to five, and that Departments and Assembly Committees be re-aligned according to individual Ministers' responsibilities. Independent MLA Michael Moore has subsequently joined the Executive in a loose coalition of the type discussed tentatively in the Report, and there has been a re-arrangement of Departments and Assembly Committees.
The Working Party showed concern that 17 MLAs were insufficient for the effective operation of the ministry and committee system. It recommended the ratio of representatives to electors be maintained at the 1989 level of about 1:10,000. It suggested minimum numbers in each electorate should stay at five, and as close as possible to each other in an Assembly with an odd number of seats overall. It did not receive much testimony on how-to-vote cards, but it thought it 'extremely paternalistic' that no material from the parties was available in polling places on polling day, as voters 'may prefer to take their guidance from a body that has more information than they personally have about the candidates and that possesses the capacity to co-ordinate votes'.
A Select Committee of the Assembly was established to examine the Report. Bearing in mind the boundary stability that Hare-Clark should bring and the 1995 entrenchment of the size of the Assembly, should power over this revert to the Territory, the ACT Branch does not support automatic increases in the membership of the Assembly. It believes that the current Assembly's committee system can be made to work much more effectively if there is a rethink of membership conventions.
In its submission to the Select Committee, the Branch emphasized the importance of each electorate having an odd number of members, as was entrenched in 1995. After noting the Working Party's curious use of the term 'paternalistic' in relation to the absence of how-to-vote cards inside polling places, and its failure to think through the practicalities associated with its proposal to loosen current restrictions, the ACT Branch observed that parties have enormous scope for advising electors of many things before election day: the 1998 election without polling-day how-to-vote material passed with scant complaint from the public.
Drawing on the 1993 experience of a Working Party established by the then Opposition MLA Mr Gary Humphries to report on the practical operation of Hare-Clark in the ACT, the ACT Branch canvassed how greater flexibility in forming task forces or working parties, and the appropriate application of modest resources, could assist the Assembly in discharging its legislative and monitoring functions.
Appearing before the Committee in September, ACT Branch Convenor Bogey Musidlak was questioned on suggestions by some Liberal MLAs of 3-member electorates or direct election of the Chief Minister, whether the extent of voting down party columns was likely to abate over time, whether the Hare-Clark system contains an inherent bias against women, why the Branch does not support the distribution of how-to-vote cards outside polling places on election day, and how more flexible task forces would operate in practice. A report by the Select Committee is expected later this year.
The Maltese House of Representatives was dissolved on 3rd August 1998, and polling was held on 5th September for thirteen five-member electorates using optional preferential voting and quota-preferential counting. One-time Prime Minister Dom Mintoff, a Malta Labour Party candidate for about fifty years, who objected to some new policy directions of his party, had voted against a proposed quayside development because he considered that far too generous conditions were being offered to the private sector. The loss of the enabling legislation was treated as a matter of confidence by Prime Minister, Dr Alfred Sant, and fresh elections called less than two years into a five-year term. Malta had gained PR early this century after its Prime Minister, Sir George Strickland, had promoted it, as he had been impressed, when previously Governor of Tasmania (1904-09) by its introduction and success in Tasmania. A 2/3 vote of MPs is needed for its abolition.
Candidates in each district varied between 16 and 26, with both the Labour Party and Nationalist Party tending to endorse the most (respectively 19, and 15 several times) in their areas of strongest support. In all, 200 candidates stood, but as many nominated for two districts, voters had 282 contestants for the 65 vacancies. About 10% of these were women, of whom four were successful. The Nationalist Party obtained 51.8% of first preference votes, and won 35 seats (one four, seven threes and five twos), while the Labour Party took the remaining 30 seats with its 47.0% support. Informal voting ranged from 0.8% to 1.8% in individual districts, and was 1.4% on average. Further information can be found at www.magnet.mt, the official website of the Maltese Government.
At the previous election in October 1996, the Malta Labour Party received 50.7% of first preferences, but won only 31 of the 65 seats - one four, four threes, seven twos and one one. Under the Constitution, four additional seats were created, filled by losing Malta Labour Party candidates with the highest numbers of votes.
The 1996 election, as did two of the previous three, illustrated the difficulty in some five-member situations where results other than three-two seldom occur. The Malta Labour Party polled over 60% in four districts, but was short of the fourth quota on all but one occasion. If there had instead been seven-member electorates, it would have achieved a five-two split three times and secured a bare majority of seats overall without any resort to the top-up mechanism that was introduced in the 1980s.
© 1998 Proportional Representation Society of Australia
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