Newsletter of the Proportional Representation Society of Australia


QN1999D               December 1999               www.prsa.org.au



ALP Bill for PR for Victoria’s Upper House, but Voter Empowering Features are Lacking

Victoria's 2-term, and apparently confident, Kennett Liberal Government called a general election almost a year early. It had been over-represented in both Houses of Parliament, in relation to votes for it, at both of the preceding elections.

In his speech opening the new Parliament on 3rd November 1999, His Excellency, the Governor of Victoria, Sir James Gobbo AC, said, "The general election on 18th September and supplementary election for Frankston East on 16th October resulted in a change of government in Victoria.

The Leader of the Australian Labor Party, Mr Bracks, was offered and given the commission to govern after advising me that he enjoyed the support of two Independent Members of the Legislative Assembly and one Independent Member-elect of the Legislative Assembly, and could form a minority government.

I have called you together today for the first session of the 54th Parliament to deliberate on the policy directions for the term of the new government.

The Australian Labor Party was pleased to enter into a formal memorandum of understanding with the Independent Members for Mildura and Gippsland West, and the Independent Member-elect for Gippsland East, based on their Independents' Charter Victoria 1999.

In his written response to the Charter, Mr Bracks indicated that he supported the Charter in its entirety, and noted that it was his Party's policy to implement the reforms it proposed to revitalize Victoria's democratic institutions, increase community participation in decision making and strengthen the power of key independent watchdogs.  

The Government's first priority is to restore public confidence in our democratic institutions. The Government believes that Victorians demand and deserve a Government with a real commitment to democratic practice.  The process of renewal will extend to the Parliament, and the Government will introduce legislation to reform the Legislative Council.

Should the Legislative Council block the Government's legislation to reform that chamber, the legislation will be referred to the new Victorian Constitutional Commission for consideration of putting a question by way of plebiscite to the Victorian community.

The Government will establish the Victorian Constitutional Commission, made up of eminent persons representative of the community, so that it can begin its work of reviewing the State Constitution.

These measures reflect the Government's belief that open public debate is vital for a healthy democracy. The Government acknowledges and supports the right of the Parliament and the community to scrutinize the actions of the Executive.”

Neither the outgoing Coalition parties nor the ALP won even half the seats in the 88-member Legislative Assembly, so the choice of which of those minority groupings should govern was made by the three independent MLAs in rural seats, which were previously Coalition strongholds.

Seven close Assembly districts had a Coalition candidate win most first preference votes, but lose to the ALP and two Independents, who benefited from preferences of most Green and Australian Democrat voters. The analysis on the PRSA Web site shows that the Coalition would have gained government with a six-seat absolute majority if the single member districts were decided by the discredited first-past-the-post electoral system now used by very few countries.

By contrast the three Upper House seats with winners, after distribution of preferences, with under 50.8% were Liberal wins. A shift of 1667 votes would have given an 11-11 result, rather than the actual result of Coalition 14, ALP 8.

The Premier, Mr Steve Bracks, introduced the Constitution (Reform) Bill 1999 into the Legislative Assembly on 25th November 1999. Among other things, it would change the Legislative Council electoral system from the present single-vacancy system to one of multi-member Provinces with quota-preferential proportional representation. The PRSA, in December 1999, held a Public Meeting on this issue. The PRSA National President was the key speaker.

The anomalous result re-inforced His Excellency's remarks. The graph below shows 11 of the 22 long-term Upper House seats (50%) as gained by the Liberal Party, even though it gained only 39.7% of the first preference votes State-wide. Its Coalition ally, the National Party, was grossly over-represented, as it gained 3 of those 22 seats (13.6%), although its first preference vote was only 7.3%. The term Winner-take-all (WTA*) is used in the graph to describe the present Upper House electoral system, as a bare majority of votes in each Province gives all the representation for that Province to one person, and thus to only one political view, whereas the multi-member Hare-Clark system enables several points of view, much more than a bare majority, to be represented for each Province.

The Coalition's 50.5% of the first preference votes in the eastern half of Victoria gained it 10 of the 11 seats there. It gained 14 of the State's 22 long-term seats (63.6%), with a first preference vote of only 47.0% State-wide. By contrast the ALP won only 8 of the 22 seats (36.4%), yet it won 42.2% of the first preference votes State-wide. The next largest voting group, the Australian Democrat voters, gained no seats despite their 6.8% of first preferences State-wide. With Hare-Clark they would have gained 1 of the 22 long-term seats (4.5% of those seats).

The current Upper House result is not the only example of badly skewed outcomes from Victoria's electoral system, where both Houses are elected solely by single-vacancy elections. The 17-5 result at each of the 1992 and 1996 polls ensured that from 1996 to 1999 over 77% of MLCs were Coalition members, despite the State-wide percentage of voters marking them as first preference being below 53%. Results for those earlier polls are on our Web site.

A move for PR itself does not need Victoria's Constitution Act 1975 to be changed, but is put as part of a package of other unrelated proposals in the Constitution (Reform) Bill 1999 to alter the Constitution Act 1975. The Bill would have MLCs' terms change from two Assembly terms with overlapping membership to a term equal to and concurrent with the Assembly; the number of MLAs drop from 88 to 85, and MLCs from 44 to 35 (five 7-member provinces); and the Council lose its power to refuse Supply Bills.

The approach being taken mixes a number of major, but essentially independent, measures. These would be more successfully and democratically treated as separate Bills. Changes to the Constitution Act 1975 require the vote of an absolute majority of the members of each House. The Government and its three Independent MLA supporters, having supplied a Speaker, who cannot vote unless a Bill is tied, have only 44 members left on the floor of the 88-member Assembly. Those 44 are not an absolute majority.

The press has reported the Leader of the Opposition, Dr Denis Napthine, saying that he personally would accept PR for the Upper House, but that he and his party consider some of the other proposed changes to be unacceptable.

The PR measures seek only to amend Victoria's messy, obscurely named and separate consolidated Act, The Constitution Act Amendment Act 1958. It is the equivalent of what is called the Electoral Act in five Australian jurisdictions that have been more advanced, and more successful, in their implementation of electoral reforms than Victoria has this century. Accordingly they would be better contained in a Bill that deals only with the amendment of what is Victoria's de facto Electoral Act.

The general idea of a proportional representation electoral system for Victoria's Upper House is of course most welcome to the PRSA. Unfortunately, some of the details of the proposed form of PR depart excessively from the Hare-Clark type of system that the PRSA recommends.

The Bill would attempt to fill casual vacancies of Independent MLCs by a recount of all ballot-papers, by the Western Australian recount method, but it pointedly eschews that concept for MLCs belonging to a party at the time of their election. Vacancies of such party MLCs would be filled, undemocratically, by party appointment.

The ballot-paper would be like the Senate ballot-paper, with its Group Voting Ticket boxes, rather than one with the genuinely voter-empowering ballot-paper principles the Tasmanian and ACT Electoral Acts embody. It would permit only one omission or duplication below-the-line.

The Bill would not entrench PR by requiring a referendum for its abolition. As the Governor's speech foreshadowed, the Bill might be rejected, and then the whole package can be considered by a Victorian Constitutional Commission, which will presumably receive public submissions, including one the PRSA is already busy on.

It is important that a provision like Section 73 of Western Australia's Constitution Act 1889, which requires that all MPs be 'directly elected by the people' be, along with other key principles, entrenched in Victoria's Constitution. Australia's Constitution also has such direct election sections, Sections 7 and 24, but they do not cover casual vacancies, which appear in separate Sections, 15 and 33.

50 Years of PR for the Senate

(Report on Commemorative Conference, continued from QN1999C)

After the Change to PR: Professor Campbell Sharman (University of Western Australia) spoke on whether the rise of minor parties and independents, whose Senate numbers have continued to grow, could have reasonably been foreseen at the time proportional representation was introduced. He noted that since the 1955 success of the Democratic Labor Party, originally called the Australian Labor Party (Anti-Communist), there have only been Government majorities during 1958-61 and 1975-81. He said that there was a steady long-term decline in the vote for the two major political groupings, to the extent that one voter in four now regularly puts some other candidate first. For each of Labor and the Coalition, getting 40% of nation-wide first preferences is now something of an achievement, and a bare 50% appears well out of reach.

A careful examination of voting figures before 1948 showed that, except for the Country Party in some States, there were only two occasions when anyone other than Labor and the dominant conservative party gained more than 16.7% of the vote - a post-1948 quota - (independents obtained 19% in South Australia in 1937 and Non-Communist Labor 20% in New South Wales in 1940). It was even rather unusual for third forces to start with half a quota of first preferences and entertain some hope of picking up sufficient votes, when others were excluded or elected, to have serious prospects of election. In his words, the 'vote for most minor party and independent candidates was far less than 10% and highly variable between elections'. Furthermore, the NSW Branch of the ALP had regained cohesion after a period of fragmentation, and there was no immediate prospect of further splits.

There had also been no proliferation of parties in Tasmania under its Hare-Clark system of proportional representation, and the NSW State experience of electoral outcomes under proportional representation from 1920 to 1925 had differed little from the patterns of the next 25 years. The historical record thus gave no grounds for predicting representation for minor parties other than the Country Party.

Professor Sharman identified three major phenomena that led to new patterns of election to the Senate. Firstly, in a period of broad social and political change, new issues had arisen that the major parties could not successfully integrate within their own make-up. Secondly, cataclysmic political events and splits had occurred, within the ALP in the 1950s (leading to the formation of the DLP), and then in the Liberal Party after the 1975 constitutional brinkmanship (leading to Don Chipp founding the Australian Democrats and taking them to a balance-of-power position after 1981). Thirdly, the DLP's experience showed that achieving parliamentary representation could lead to a significant influence on policy decisions, and generate broader public visibility. Its ability to wield the balance of power for a long period sent a 'clarion call' to others that the parliamentary route was worth aspiring to. The dynamics of inter-party competition to secure Senate places were quite different for the Lower House.

In Professor Sharman’s view, before 1972 the ALP showed greater enthusiasm for enhancing executive accountability than did minor parties or independents. After the short-term fall in the vote for minor parties with the polarizing effects of the events of 1975, the Australian Democrats emerged in 1977 as a centre party pledging to moderate the activities of government. Without any experience of executive power other than that of their Leader, Senator Hon. Don Chipp, their overwhelming concern to strengthen the legislative and scrutinizing functions of the Senate was an approach in perfect alignment with continuing efforts to make the Senate a stronger institution. More recently, State Upper Houses elected by proportional representation see the Senate as a powerful example of their political potential.

Where polarization between Government and Opposition was not intense, a 'consensus style of politics in which compromise and the accommodation of different points of view are regarded as the normal way of doing business' was possible. By contrast, concluded Professor Sharman, the 'abrasive style has done much to bring parliamentary politics into disrepute'. In answering questions, he said he would have much preferred the high level of informal voting dealt with by introduction of optional preferential voting rather than of party boxes, in 1984. He also said he feared for the future of the lopsided Victorian Upper House still elected on the basis of single-member vacancies, unless it was reformed quickly and achieved some public relevance. At another time he commented that the moral of the 1975 stand-off was that the Opposition in the Lower House should not have control of the Senate.

Ms Dee Margetts, a Western Australian Greens senator till July 1999, observed that the introduction of proportional representation for WA's Upper House had led to much more public interest in its activities, and politics in general, and much more public participation in its processes.

Mr David Hamer, former Liberal MHR and Deputy Senate President, said the Senate is the sole real Federal legislature, and that each House of Representatives could well be closed after it had chosen the Executive, as it had no other real function, apart from electioneering. He said that all Bills must be referred to a Committee in New Zealand, but in the Senate only about 25% had that level of scrutiny. Mr Hamer also noted that, with two-thirds of their members from the House, major parties take their direction from action there, and again suggested that the Senate would perform a better function if senators aspired not to be Ministers, but to head Committees undertaking major work, and to gain public and peer recognition for it.

Near the end of the two days, Dr Richard Klugman, ALP Chairman of the inaugural 1983 Joint Select Committee on Electoral Affairs, said he was a strong opponent of minor parties, and proudly stated that his colleagues hoped to keep them out of the Senate by increasing the usual number of a State's senators to be elected from 5 to 6 (to win 3 seats then needs only 42.9%, not 50%). He said, “they never thought the major parties would fall below 43%” - but it has occurred often. He said a major motive for a larger Lower House was to let Caucus more easily overturn Executive decisions, as took place often with the looser factional discipline of the Whitlam Government.

The campaign for a different type of Senate, by Senator Helen Coonan, who was mentioned in the previous part of this article, in QN1999C, appears to have abated in recent months. Other presenters not mentioned as such in that part included Harry Evans, the Clerk of the Senate; Professor Marian Sawer; and Michelle Grattan. Questioners included Dr Lowitja O’Donoghue, Malcolm Mackerras, Antony Green, Professor Joan Rydon, former senator Ted Wheelwright, and most of the Office-bearers and members of the Proportional Representation Society of Australia present, from 4 States and the ACT.


New Zealand's Second PR Elections

New Zealand's second-ever Parliamentary elections using its Mixed Member Proportional electoral system were held on 27th November 1999. The outcome in party terms differed greatly from the first MMP election in 1996 (See QN1996D). This time Labour and the Alliance gained 60 of the 120 seats, whereas at the first election Nationals and New Zealand First (NZF) together won a majority of seats.

Again, it was a fairer result, in party terms, than the previous NZ electoral system, which used single-member plurality constituencies only. MMP continues to use such constituencies, but attempts to compensate for their plainly acknowledged inadequacies. It gives voters a second, party list vote to elect further MPs to yield a Parliament with as near the same party proportions as that party vote calls for.

Results for NZF, and the Greens, gave glaring examples of why the PRSA strongly recommended the direct, flexible, and entirely multi-member quota-preferential form of PR over MMP's mixture of single-member plurality and an indirect, rigid, closed party list system subject to a highly unstable and arbitrary threshold provision.

Until the counting of overseas and absentee votes, it appeared that the Greens would gain no seats, whereas NZF would gain six, despite the Greens' 4.9% share of the party list vote being greater than NZF's 4.3%. That strange anomaly would have resulted from the arbitrary 5% threshold below which list seats are only awarded if the party gains one or more constituency seats. The only Green to win a constituency, in Coromandel, gained 40% of the vote. She initially lagged by 114 votes, until enough overseas and absentee votes helped her win the Greens' first seat ever, by 246 votes, so with her party's new list seats Greens shot up from no seats to at least six. Only one NZF candidate won a constituency - Winston Peters MP - in adjoining Tauranga. His 30% of votes, just 62 above the runner-up, and that slender win it could face a court challenge - let his NZF gain an instant bonus of five party list seats that would otherwise have been denied to it!


National Office-bearers for 2000-01

The Returning Officer for the recent elections of PRSA National Office-bearers, Mr Jim Randall, has declared the candidates below elected unopposed for the term 1st January 2000 to 31st December 2001:

National President:                    Mr Bogey Musidlak

National Vice-President:           Mr Geoffrey Goode

National Secretary:                   Mr Deane Crabb

National Treasurer:                   Mr Robert Forster


Copyright © 1999 Proportional Representation Society of Australia

National President: Bogey Musidlak 14 Strzelecki Cr. NARRABUNDAH 2604

National Secretary: Deane Crabb 11 Yapinga St. PLYMPTON 5038

Tel: (08) 8297 6441, (02) 6295 8137     info@prsa.org.au

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