Drawing the lines

The South Australian Electoral Districts Boundaries Commission has today unveiled its draft redistribution of state electoral boundaries, to take effect when the next election is held on March 20, 2010. South Australian redistributions tend not to be greatly momentous, as they are conducted every term. Their other distinguishing feature is that the commissioners are obliged to meet the demands of "electoral fairness", which they endeavour to achieve through boundaries that will deliver a majority to the side of politics that wins the majority of the two-party preferred vote, assuming a uniform swing. Since Labor won 56.8 per cent of the two-party vote in last year’s election, and the Labor side was deemed to have won 30 of the lower house’s 47 seats (including the independent-held seats of Mitchell and Fisher, more on which shortly), their objective was to produce boundaries in which seven seats on the Labor side would fall in the event of a 6.9 per cent swing.

This of course requires the commissioners to work around the vote for independents and minor parties, which in the South Australian context includes the Nationals. This was done by re-calculating preference distributions in seats that did not produce Labor-versus-Liberal two-party results, so that Labor and Liberal candidates were not eliminated at earlier points in the count. On this basis, the independent-held seats of Mitchell and Fisher respectively produced Labor margins of 14.7 per cent and 8.5 per cent, while Mount Gambier produced a Liberal margin of 6.1 per cent. A re-calculation was also necessary in the Nationals’ sole seat of Chaffey as the final two-party result was between the Nationals and Liberal candidates; it produced a Liberal majority over Labor of 21.9 per cent. The Liberal Party’s submission to the commission argued that Chaffey and Mount Gambier should be treated as Labor seats on the grounds that their members, Karlene Maywald and Rory McEwen, have been part of Mike Rann’s cabinet since the pre-election period when Labor did not have a parliamentary majority. If the commission had agreed to this, it would have been required to bring the margins in two extra Labor seats below the level where a uniform swing would have given the Liberals a two-party preferred majority. Since both seats are overwhelmingly conservative by nature, the commission was quite right to reject this self-serving proposal.

Based on the result of last year’s election, the Liberals would have needed a uniform swing of 9.5 per cent rather than 6.9 per cent to win seven seats and government, so the commissioners needed to cut the Labor margins in Bright (9.5 per cent), Morialta (8.0 per cent) and Newland (6.9 per cent) to bring them below the latter figure. To this end, it has been proposed that Bright move north along the coast to take in North Brighton and the southern part of Somerton Park from the Glenelg-based Liberal seat of Morphett, while the industrial area of Lonsdale and the Labor stronghold of O’Sullivan Beach to the south will be transferred to Kaurna. This has cut the Labor margin by 2.6 per cent, making sitting member Chloe Fox the redistribution’s biggest loser. Morialta combines Labor-voting outer eastern suburbs with lightly populated conservative territory in the Adelaide Hills beyond – here the margin has been cut to 6.8 per cent through a transfer at the suburb of Paradise to Hartley in the west, while in the south a stretch of hills territory from Skye east to Basket Range has been added from Bragg and Heysen. Newland, which is immediately to the north of Morialta, has been pulled eastwards into Upper Hermitage, Lower Hermitage and Paracombe by population growth in the outer suburbs, which has done the commission’s job for it by cutting the Labor margin from 6.9 per cent to 5.2 per cent. The Labor members to suffer from these changes are Lindsay Simmons in Morialta and Tom Kenyon in Newland.

Other amendments have been driven by changes in the population distribution, and are only of political interest at the bottom end of the pendulum. The eastern inner-city seat of Norwood, which produced a markedly below-average swing to Labor at the election, has expanded south-eastwards to take Kensington from the safe Liberal seat of Bragg, cutting the Labor margin by a potentially significant 0.6 per cent. There is better news for Labor in Hartley, where Grace Portolesi defeated Liberal member Joe Scalzi last year. The aforementioned transfer at Paradise from Morialta has expanded the electorate’s Labor-voting northern end, while a part of the Liberal-voting southern end at Kensington Gardens will now be wasted for the Liberals in Bragg. The Gawler-based seat of Light, won for Labor at last year’s election by Tony Piccolo with a margin of 2.6 per cent, has been trimmed in three places due to population growth, adding 0.2 per cent to the Labor margin. The other significant marginals, Liberal-held Stuart and Labor-held Mawson, have respectively been changed very little and not at all.

These proposals will now go through a public consultation process, for which the deadline for submissions is 5pm on Monday, February 26.

UPDATE: Greg Kelton from The Advertiser’s take on this is that "Labor’s chances of staying in power at the 2010 state election have been bolstered by changes to electoral boundaries". Further, a "senior Labor source" is quoted describing the redistribution as "a disaster for the Liberals". This conclusion is reached mostly on the basis that Liberal MP Graham Gunn’s seat of Stuart has been made "even more marginal", and is thus "almost certain to go to Labor" when he takes his personal vote into retirement with him at the next election. This highlights a source of confusion that I had glossed over in the above post. Appendix 9 of the draft report tells us that these supposedly calamitous changes to Stuart affect a grand total of 33 voters, in Oodnadatta and William Creek. However, Appendix 11 tells us that the margin in Stuart has indeed been cut from 0.7 per cent to 0.4 per cent. Similarly, other seats that are mooted as being unchanged in Appendix 9 – Mawson, for example – are listed with altered margins two appendices later (Mawson having gone from 2.3 per cent to 2.7 per cent). Unless someone can explain this to me in the next few days, I will attempt to get an explanation from the State Electoral Office on Monday.

FURTHER UPDATE: Antony Green (who else?) has the answers in comments. It turns out that the commissioners must go so far as to project the electoral impact of population trends over the next three years in calculating a "fair" outcome (which in this case go against the grain of the last election, when the Liberal vote held up remarkably well in Stuart). So Kelton is wrong to say the redistribution has significantly harmed the Liberals in Stuart. Antony makes another point that occurred to me: this system punishes marginal seat holders who do their job well and build up a personal following by taking their gains away from them, the very popular Chloe Fox being a case in point.

Also from Greg Kelton comes an opinion piece reporting a "strong feeling among political observers" that "the time has come for a new system". This is a defensible proposition as far as it goes, but most of the assertions that follow are head-scratchers of one type or another. To deal with them in turn:

• The present system of redistributions following each election is "resulting in many MPs not living within their respective electorates or having to change addresses every three years". This sounds at best like an exaggeration. The current redistribution affects about 60,000 out of a little over 1 million voters, or 5.7 per cent of the total. On this basis, the likelihood is that two or three sitting members will be moved a very short distance out of the electorates they represent. If party rules make this a problem (there is no law demanding that MPs live in their own electorates), they should probably be relaxed.

• The "consensus" is that the Electoral Reform Society’s proposal for seven multi-member electorates chosen by proportional representation "would be much fairer". Coming from anyone other than The Advertiser, this assertion would not cause my eyebrows to raise quite so. But this is the paper which in November 2005 editorialised in favour of abolition of the upper house, saying those who believed in "checks and balances, particularly in the form of minor parties and independents" were suffering a "fundamental misunderstanding of the strength of our democratic system", having failed to notice that elections were held every four years. It now proposes that those checks and balances be duplicated in the other chamber.

• Under such a system, "boundaries would not have to be redrawn after each election". Why ever not? The capital’s share of the state’s total population will continue to grow, and that of remote areas will continue to decline. It would accordingly be necessary to redraw the boundaries of the proposed seven regions so equality of representation was maintained.

• "A Liberal voter who lives in Treasurer Kevin Foley’s electorate of Port Adelaide might as well not bother voting because he has no chance of getting a Liberal candidate up in the area. The same applies to a Labor voter in the safe eastern suburbs seat of Bragg". This is at best partly true, so long as those voters also have an upper house to elect. Furthermore, complacent, corrupt or incompetent members in safe seats can be dumped in favour of independents. The threat of this occurring gives members an incentive to observe minimum standards of performance, and parties to withdraw endorsement from those who fail to meet them.

• "The major parties oppose multi-member electorates because it would end the system of putting party loyalists into Parliament and it would give minor parties a much better chance of winning seats". South Australia’s upper house, which the aforementioned Advertiser editorial told us was "a haven for underperformers, union hacks and those gripped with the politics of self-delusion and self-importance", is elected from just such a system. In fairness though, the Electoral Reform Society model under discussion proposes rotating ballot papers that would avoid the problem of unloseable positions for party favourites at the top of the ticket, although Kelton neglects to explain this (presumably being mindful of the need to avoiding boring his readers senseless with technical minutiae of the type that is the Poll Bludger’s stock in trade). It would however create a more complex voting system and a sharp upturn in the informal vote.

Author: William Bowe

William Bowe is a Perth-based election analyst and occasional teacher of political science. His blog, The Poll Bludger, has existed in one form or another since 2004, and is one of the most heavily trafficked websites on Australian politics.

48 comments on “Drawing the lines”

  1. William, thanks for your analysis of the SA redistribution, it didn’t even make SA’s news today! The redistribution is particularly boring, as they usually are given, as you say, the distributions happen so often (and may I change that phrase to ‘ridiculously often’!) I live in Bright, the seat to have the ‘biggest loser’ in Chloe Fox. This used to be a fairly safe Liberal seat but suffered a massive 15% swing at the last election. I doubt the reduction will really worry Fox that much. The other changes are boring and only the slight change in Norwood has any potential of causing Labor a problem at the next election (which is quite a while away!)

  2. I always find it fun to look at the submissions from Liberal and Labor, which always seem to be devoid of consultation from anyone who lives in the relative electorates, or has some concept of where they are.

    This time Labor did better, they recommended moving a suburb, which is 5 minutes drive out of my electorate, into the neighbouring electorate, which it is already in. This compares well to the Liberals who recommended moving a suburb which is ten minutes drive out of my electorate into another electorate and then later recommended moving it from the electorate they just moved it into, to another electorate, which is in fact where it has always been

  3. William, the processes used by the S.A. Boundaries Commission to try ensure fair boundaries is weirder than people realise. After nearly two decades of practice, they even take into account changes in population in trying to predict what the margin will be at the next election. They don’t just re-allocate results and add them up to produce margins. They estimate what change in population in different parts of the electorate will have on the margin at the next election. So a seat like Stuart where they predict continuing decline in conservative voting rural population may end up seeing its estimated margin decline, even if the boundaries of the seat are relatively unchanged.

    This sort of madness is all a consequence of the clause that forces the Boundaries Commission to take ‘fairness’ between the parties into consideration in drawing boundaries, and why no one else has followed the S.A. example.

  4. I’d also make the point that in recent years, the boundaries would have been left untouched by redistributions were it not for the fairness clause. Population shifts in between elections have been relatively minor in South Australia, and all the changes to boundaries have been nips and tucks at the edges to try and engineeer an even spread of districts on the electoral pendulum. In particular, the process tends to mean that any local MP with a personal following tends to get their margin whittled back at the subsequent redistribution. e.g. Liberal Michael Armitage in Adelaide in the 1990s was constantly having new Labor voting areas added to his electorate in a deliberate decision by the Commission to make his seat more marginal so that the fairness criteria could be met.

  5. I don’t think the fairness clause was a silly idea originally – remember it was introduced at a time when it was not uncommon for state electorate boundaries to be rigged outrageously. However, it has created problems that were presumably not predicted, and gerrymanders are now a thing of the past.

    It needs to go. I imagine the only reason it has been kept is that both parties are scared of removing legislation calling for “fair boundaries” as people will think they are pushing for unfair boundaries. However, we have seen at federal level how uninterested people are in electoral changes that really are designed to make the results undemocratic, so I don’t think Rann should worry too much about a backlash.

  6. The fairness clause was introduced after the 1989 election when the Liberals got 52% of the 2pp but failed to win the election. However it didn’t fail to stop Labor again winning in 2002 with only 48.5% (and nearly in 1997 with 47-something. The Liberals won the 2PP in all four elections prior to the most recent one – but only won government in two of them (1993 & 1997) – hardly a fair result and ample justification for the fairnes clause. Even if it dosent always work, as in 2002, surely its better than nothing. If it wasn’t implemented now, the Libs would require nearly 53% of the 2PP to win in 2010.

  7. I would suggest there is a demographic bias against the Liberals in SA due to the strong concentration of Liberal voters in ultra-safe country seats.

    The same thing happens in other states – ironically I believe the rural weighting practiced in Qld & WA actualy served to balance this out leading to overall fair boundaries (in terms of 2PP but not in terms of representation)…. Goss won (initially) in 1995 with just 46% of the 2PP on the one-vote one value boundaries.

    In NSW it is the Libs concentration on the North Shore, rather than the countryside which works against them.

    In Victoria the situation was reversed because the ALP piled on massive majorities in the north & western suburbs. This was the reason they could never win the Legislative Council. In the assembly the smaller size of electorates made it easier as they could win some pockets in the Eastern suburbs and country. In the council these pockets were smothered by the surrounding conservative areas due to the larger electorate sizes.

    Surely other states should consider the SA method, which is world-leading.

  8. If we are going to continue with single member electorates in the houses that determine government then we should have S.A. style provisions so democracy is at least aimed at getting the result the voters voted for.

    Better still have PR.

    Rural weighting never helped the Libs in Qld.
    It was put in by Labor in the second half of the 40`s to work against the Queensland People`s Party then the Libs. It did this job well.

    But Labor in Qld split in `57 and in the election of that year they lost and the Coalition took power with the the Nats getting less votes but more seats so being the senior coalition partner.

  9. I doubt the weighting in Qld had the systemic impact suggested above as since 1992 there have been 5 weighted seats, of which the ALP has won 2 at each election (except for the 2001 election in which it won 3) with the complement won by the Nats. If weightage didn’t exist, there would probably be four seats instead of five, and it’s possible that the seat based on Mt Isa might have been National instead of Labor as it has been, but it’s a bit hard to say. (In early 1996 some state Labor MPs suggested to me that Mt Isa would indeed have been a Nat seat and that Matt Foley had been thinking about drawing up legislation to remove the provision for weightage before they were tossed out of govt.)

    The 1995 Qld election was unusual – Labor held some marginal seats like Maryborough, Hervey Bay and Whitsunday and lost a chunk of its middle class Brisbane vote. The fact it won a majority of seats doesn’t mean that there was overall “bias” in the boundaries – in the last few decades, the “wrong” result has only happened once, in 1995, which was “corrected” at the Mundingburra re-election. The 1998 election had a different kind of result where a two-party-preferred vote wasn’t very meaningful.

  10. The “wrong” outcome comes about as these are single member electorate elections. The only way to ensure that a majority in the chamber reflects a majority of votes cast is to have the state as one electorate.

  11. The fairness provision was entrenched in the SA Constitution by a referendum. It can only be removed by a referendum.

    I believe that political fairness should be allowed as a consideration by boundaries commissions. The problem everywhere else is that fairness is not a criteria for drawing boundaries, after quota requirements the main criteria being ‘community of interest’, an entirely subjective criteria. This prevents any real discussion of the political impact of electoral boundaries, despite the fact that parties put in very partisan political boundary submissions, dressed up in a few fig-leaves of community of interest justification.

    The problem in South Australia was that instead of allowing political fairness to be a criteria, they made it the overwhelming criteria and were very specific about how it should be measured. Now that no-one is happy with the formula and how its interpretation has developed, it can only be changed by a referendum. Such are the problems of being too specific in constitutions.

  12. Kelton’s piece in The Advertiser is the usual filler we get in our state’s only newspaper. Uninteresting and largely meaningless.

    His comments about Stuart are essentially baseless. Graham Gunn, the sitting Liberal member clearly has a massive personal vote. On the figures of the last election we could calculate that this personal vote is worth at least 6% (an average swing of about 8% occured against the Libs, while Gunn’s marginal seat dropped by about 2%) and the boundaries were changed or not. The result in the 2010 election is likely to be similar to that experienced by the Nats in Keppel in the 2004 Queensland state election (a very popular sitting member retired and the seat was lost to Labor).

    Kelton’s most ridiculous comment came in the last paragraph of his opinion piece. He writes:

    ‘The major parties oppose multi-member electorates because it would end the system of putting party loyalists into Parliament and it would give minor parties a much better chance of winning seats.’

    Why is this the case? It would surely be easier for the major parties to get their loyalists and hacks into parliament in a multi-member system where voter-MP relationships are diminished by each elector having 7 MPs to choose from (similar to the federal senate). In multi-member electorates the party draws up lists of candidates and would surely just put their most ‘loyal’ hacks at the top, parachuting them straight into parliament. In single member electorates this is less likely to happen as voters identify with a single candidate from each party, are more likely to know about his/her background and negative campaigns regarding ‘career politicians’ are more likely to gain momentum. Kelton’s comments make no sense to me.

  13. Dave, Kelton’s final paragraph is defensible when you consider that he is talking about the submission of the Electoral Reform Society, which proposes the “Robson’s rotation” system of rotating ballot papers that operates in Tasmania and the ACT. There are no “party lists” under this system – each candidate appears at the top of as many ballot papers as each other candidate, so that party candidates are required to compete with each other for voter support. He would have made more sense if he had mentioned this, but I’m inclined to go easy on him as he has sub-editors and his readers’ short attention spans to contend with.

  14. No reason to not have party lists in PR. Allow above the line voting for people who don’t care about candidates and treat their vote with respect to candidates from a given party as a donkey vote down the (randomly rotated) list for that party. That makes it easier for morons to vote formally without handing undue power to party machines.

  15. Contra Antony: what does “fairness” mean? That every party should receive the same percentage of seats as it polls percentage of the vote? No system of single-member seats can do that. Even under the SA system it would be possible for a party to win 51% of seats with 25% of the vote, or 100% of seats with 51% of the vote. Single-member systems cannot be forced to deliver proportionality.

    If SA voters want proportionality, they should adopt PR. And why is “fairness” confined to the large parties? Small parties have no better access to the lower house than they have in NSW or Vic.

    The SA legislation is in my opinion the most pernicious electoral law in Australia, since it FORCES the commissioners to gerrymander the boundaries, according to their OPINIONS about how specific seats will vote. It is a standing temptation to corruption.

    Finally, “fairness” cannot be the only criterion for judging the utility of an electoral system. What about delivering stable and effective gopvernment? The single-member system, despite its obvious faults, has the virtue of nearly always delivering a stable majority to the leading party. The SA law weakens that feature, thus undermining an existing virtue in pursuit of an unattainable objective.

  16. “On this basis, the likelihood is that two or three sitting members will be moved a very short distance out of the electorates they represent. If party rules make this a problem (there is no law demanding that MPs live in their own electorates), they should probably be relaxed.”

    Ha ha ha!

    Parties forcing people to live in their electorates? Yeah, right!

    Doesn’t SA Premier Mike Rann live in Norwood, while representing ” rel=”nofollow”>Ramsay, about 20 km away in Salisbury?

  17. Adam, I’m not arguing for fairness. South Australia shows the problem of what happens when you try to institute a mathematically measure of ‘fairness’. But the politics of electoral boundaries and the impact they have on seats/votes ratios should be open for discussion in Boundaries Commissions, not banned as it is in most states. Party submissions are always about trying to fiddle advantage by locking up opponent’s votes in ultra-safe seats. As you can’t discuss the politics of electoral boundaries in boundary commission hearings, debate about this is always conducted in obtuse arguments about the meaning of community of interest.

    South Australia is a case in point. Labor used to argue that Port Augusta and Port Pirie had a strong community of interest. Before the fairness clause was introduced, they were kept together in one seat, producing one of only two safe Labor seats outside of Adelaide. After the fairness provision was introduced, the two cities were separated and included with surrounding rural areas, resulting in two marginal Liberal seats. That one change undid most of the ‘fairness’ problem in South Australia, and could have been achieved without the overkill of the fairness provision that was adopted.

    In NSW and Queensland, where you get areas with odd mixes of mining towns and rural communities, where you draw the boundaries can produce extremely different results. And certainly from my experience of NSW state redistributions, the parties take every opportunity to gain political advantage, even though their entire submissions are written in the language of community of interest.

    If you get a chance, get hold of my new book (well, I’m one of the editors), “The Electoral Atlas of NSW”, which charts the development of NSW electoral boundaries since 1856. It has 21 chapters, one for each redistribution, includes theme maps coloured by party for every election since 1891, text explaining the politcis of each era, and lots of pictures. It includes an introductory essay on the development of the electoral system, and for the first time makes available the state’s electoral boundaries when Queensland still elected members to the NSW parliament. All in a coffe-table size book on glossy paper. Good value at $85. Call the NSW Lands Department in Bathurst on 02 6332 8200 and ask for map sales. Fantastic background for the state election.

    I’m currently working on the database behind the atlas which contains results of every election since 1856. I’ve spent most of this last week double checking the names and party affiliations for the 1889 and 1891 elections. All general election results up to 1894 had to be obtained from newspaper searches, as did by-elections up until 1920. I think i’ve consulted around 100 regional NSW papers in this search. How people ever read these old newspapers set in 6pt and 8pt type before electric light I don’t know.

  18. Antony: I sympathise. I spent a lot of time a few years ago looking at C19th Victorian election reports in the Age and Argus. Not only are they illegible (especially on blurry microfilm), they are also scattered all over the paper with no headlines to guide the searcher. Plus of course old newspapers are endlessly distracting.

  19. Greetings

    This is a courtesy note to advise that the LiberalVoter blog has:

    1) Liked one of the comments on your blog so much, we re-published it.
    2) Linked to your blog in acknowledgement of the use of the comment.

    Sorry we didn’t contact you prior to republishing the comment. Since LiberalVoter is an attempt to inject some much-needed humour into the Australian political blogosphere, we hope you’ll forgive our impudence.



  20. I’d only heard about the SA model in passing, so I’m quite surprised, and I find it a bit jarring. I think there is something fundamentally wrong in drawing electoral boundaries which consider how people have voted. While the intention may be to create electoral fairness, it seems to have a lot in common with old-style gerrymandering: ie. creating boundaries in order to create a particular result. Election results shouldn’t have a bearing on electoral boundaries.

    Not to mention the fact that the electoral pendulum is only an analytical device to give us an idea of what seats might change. While it’s good for that, non-uniform swings mean that it can never be accurate enough to actually be the basis for writing the rules of the game.

    Attempting to create “fairness” in a single-member system can never be more than an illusion. Even if it is done as they do in SA, swings will never be uniform, and one party will always do better than another. And in the end, it will still continue to disadvantage minor parties. If you want fairness, the only way to go is for proportional representation.

  21. Well, if you want PROPORTIONALITY, the only way to go is PR, certainly. But “fairness” is a much harder concept to define. Fair to whom? To political parties, to candidates, to voters, to the res publica? There are arguments for and against the single-member system. On balance I prefer it for lower houses, since it usually delivers a stable government acceptable to the majority of voters, and it forces parties to broaden their appeal so they can win a majority of seats, rather than focus on their own narrow constituency and then do deals with other parties after the election, as in the Netherlands or Israel.

  22. I’d argue that the SA concept of electoral fairness can be just as much in opposition to a “stable government” as proportional representation. Distortions in electoral results in the strictly two-party sense (ignoring other parties) generally favour the government, giving it more stable majorities.

    It’s interesting while you point out the Netherlands and Israel, the only two countries to use a pure system of proportionality, no-one has seriously proposed that as a model in Australia. Any PR in Australia would either go along the Tasmanian model (although I doubt we’d ever get Robson Rotation on the mainland) or the NZ/German model, with a variation for preference voting.

    And the vast majority of long-term PR systems have settled into no more than, say, 5 or 6 parties with a significant influence. New Zealand, which is still in the process of changing it’s party system after 11 years of PR, only has 8 parties.

    Germany has five parties, Austria has 5 also. Countries that are still adapting to their system of government, such as eastern European countries or countries like New Zealand which have recently changed, are still settling, but even a country like the Czech Republic only has 5 parliamentary parties.

  23. Yeah that is true. But the ACT introduced it after never having had a majority government, meaning that the political culture is very different to the two-party systems of the mainland states. Also it’s smaller and it was new to self-government. In the developed and stable party structures of the states, there’s no way that either party machine would allow itself to lose that control. That’s at least my experience of NSW and Victoria. Maybe smaller states are more open to something like that.

  24. The main problem with Hare-Clark is that it is a very personal form of voting that places great emphasis on voting for candidates. It works well in Tasmania, with five long established electorates and a quota of around 10,000. It works slightly less well in the ACT where there is no lower tier of local government, and there is also a significant minority of the population whose real concern is Federal politics. You see more people just voting straight down a party ticket in the ACT compared to Tasmania, which is why they had to introduce an even more complex form of randomisation to remove not only the impact of donkey voting, but also to completely randomise ‘linear’ or straight down the ticket votes.

    But NSW state electorates average more than 45,000 voters per district. If you introduced 7-member Hare-Clark districts, they would have an enrolment only slightly less than the entire state of Tasmania, and you would only have one seat west of Bathurst.

    Hare-Clark is fine for small electorates, but does it make sense when most people are voting on the basis of party? That’s exactly why it is confined to use in small parts of Australia, with similar systems used in Malta and Ireland, both small countries.

    Hare-Clark is a fine system, but it is advocated mainly by people who distrust political parties, and it is really best suited to small districts where voters are most likely to know the candidates. That is why it is used in various places for local government. It also gets dismissed in Europe because it is not a proportional system. The more members you elect per seat, the better off you are using more traditional forms of proportional representation.

  25. I reckon that in an ideal world pure Hare-Clark is the best system, but in the real world, I’m happy to see party lists as we have in NSW introduced as part of a PR system. It effectively creates a system of party list voting, with preferences. Just as long as there isn’t ticket voting.

  26. I would have thought advocates of PR would be a little wary of citing the Czech Republic as an exemplar. The Czech system (PR by provincial party lists) has delivered a deadlocked parliament and no government at all for the better part of a year. The deadlock was only broken by the apparently corruptly induced defection of two MPs. Meanwhile, Germany, Austria and the Netherlands all have weak “grand coalition” governments caused by PR election results which failed to give either side of politics a clear majority. “Grand coalitions” are always a sign of systemic failure. They lead to soft-centre compromise governments and allow extreme parties to fill the vacuum caused by there being no official opposition. The more I see of PR and its consequences the less I like it.

  27. With Hare Clarke the voters get to chose which candidates they get elected from the partie(s) they vote for and they can also vote accross party lines.
    These are good for democracy because they mean that candidates with good profile get higher votes while the lower profile people get less votes so are less likely to get elected and the ones with bad publicity would drive a significant portion of voters to deliberately put them lower on their preferances.

  28. ‘“Grand coalitions” are always a sign of systemic failure. They lead to soft-centre compromise governments and allow extreme parties to fill the vacuum caused by there being no official opposition.’


    I don’t entirely disagree but the systemic failure I see is of major parties competing to be the One True Soft-Centre option and preferring to cooperate ‘across the aisle’ rather than form a coalition with minor parties who are are, at least in theory, like-minded.

    In the 2005 German election, for instance, the SPD, the Greens and the Left Party won 53% of the seats and could have formed a government. But the SDP *preferred* to go for the soft-centre option and form a coalition with the CDU. They were not compelled to do this by an indecisive result, they chose it.

    Politics is a messy business, driven in a large part by individuals’ egos and there’s a lot of unpleasant decisions and compromises to be made. But a failure of political will should not be mistaken for a failure in the electoral system.

  29. No democratic party in Germany will form a coalition with the PDS until it renounces Marxism, as you ought to know. Also you could hardly expect the SPD to go back into government with a treacherous demagogue like Lafontaine. It was actually greatly to Schroeder’s credit, for all his reputation as an opportunist, that he quit politics rather than do so. But this is not really the point. The point is that if Germany had a single-member system, the issue would not have arisen, because the CDU-CSU would have won a narrow majority in their own right.

  30. Adam, the PDS was (is?) a two-term Coalition partner with the SDP in Meckleberg and Berlin, which *you* should know (you are Dr Psephos, yes? Or have I got my Adams confused?) and I don;t know what you’re talking about with Schroeder quitting rather than go into coalition with the PDS, ’cause they’re not in coaltion with the PDS.

    The situation with Lafontaine is exactly what I was thinking of when I wrote about ‘individuals’ egos’. You might well say the same thing about Winston Peters in NZ and the various parties and governments he’s stormed in and out of, but as always these are *political* decisions by the leadership of the parties and none of them are definitively better or worse than the alternatives.

    With respect, the failure of political will is exactly the cause of political situation you dislike – the rise of the Soft Centre Option. The major parties got pushed into a difficult numerical situation and you don;t like the solution they decided on. Neither do I, but it’s not the fault of the electoral system.

    And finally I think claiming that the German situation ‘would not have arisen’ with single member electorates is a pretty long bow to draw. Sure, the CDU/CSU got 40.8% of the constituency vote to the SDP’s 38.4%, but you could only be sure of a CDU win if and only if the seats returned were strictly proportional to the vote received which is, like, the system you’re trying to argue against.


  31. The Czech Republic case has nothing to do with proportional representation. It is simply the case of two sides being deadlocked. It can happen in any Parliament with an even number of seats. It could just as easily happen with 75 ALP seats in the House of Reps and 75 Lib/Nat seats.

  32. But Germany has MMP and therefore has 299 seats elected by first past the post and another 315 members elected by party lists which when combined with the 299 seats creates a proportional result. If you look at just the seats elected by first past the post you get CDU / CSU 150, Green 1, PDS 1, SPD 145 for an Conserative majority of 3. So I think that’s what Adam meant.

  33. Agree with Ben R. If for only this reason, it may be useful as a general rule to have an odd number of seats in government forming chambers.

  34. Ah, I see. It didn’t occur to me that Adam was also advocating first past the post. Takes all sorts, I suppose ;^)

    Still a very long bow, though. Would people vote the same way of they didn’t have the Party List vote? About 1 in 8 people who vote for a major party in the constituency choose a minor party on the list. I don;t know what they’d do, and neither does Adam.


  35. I don’t claim to know what voters in PR countries would do if those countries changed to single-member seats (which is not the same as first-past-the-post, by the way: I am in favour of single-member seats and preferential voting). But I’m prepared to bet that the Knesset, for example, would look rather different – much more conducive to strong and stable government, and much less beholden to fringe parties.

    My guess (a reasonably well-informed one) is that the CDU-CSU would have won the German elections comfortably if the Australian system were used. Under the current system, voters know that it doesn’t really matter who wins their local Bundestag seat, because it is their 2nd vote (for the party list) that really counts. If the German election used the Australian system, voters would know that if they wanted to put Schroeder out (as I think they did), they would have to vote against their sitting SPD local member, and therefore would have done so in greater numbers.

  36. At the risk of *totally* derailing this thread into ‘idle speculation about historical Eurpoean election outcomes held under alternate electoral systems’ I’m interested in how you reached that conclusion. If it is the case, as you contend, that Germans know that the Party List vote is the one that ‘really counts’, those results don’t seem to support your guess either. SDP + PDS + GRN = 51%, with a net swing of -0.1%

    And I know single-member isn’t the same as first past the post, but Teiresias84’s suggestion was the only way I could see to make sense of your claim that the CDU would have won a narrow victory. Constituency vote SDP + PDS +GRN = 51.8%, again with a net swing of -0.1%.

    All figures from Wikipedia (In case anyone hadn’t guessed :^) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/German_election_2005

  37. Electoral systems don’t just change the number of seats each party ends up with, they actually change how people vote. Clearly the US system is particularly bad for the Greens, while in Australia there is no strong disincentive against voting for the Greens (because of preferences) but no strong incentive either (since we won’t win in most electorates).

    I’m sure that the elements of the Left Party who were previously part of the SPD before they split and joined with the PDS would not have done so in a two-party system. The Greens would still have existed but would not have been as strong (certainly wouldn’t have had a seat in government, maybe not even in Parliament).

    And when you look at the reason why the SPD went into government with the CDU/CSU is not because the left overall lost ground. It’s because they couldn’t work with each other. There was a clear majority for the broad left. But most cases of grand coalitions come to be because there is a third party with substantial strength but is in such a position that neither major party can work with them (ie. the German Left Party, the Austrian Freedom Party).

    And it’s certainly true that there would generally be less political parties. In fact, any system other than the pure PR of Israel would result in less parties than in Israel. As much as I support PR, I acknowledge that the Israeli system is insane. There should still be some measure of local representation, be it through German MMP (we’re a federation, so it’s more applicable than NZ MMP) or Tasmanian STV.

    PS. Maybe we need an idle speculation thread for “nerdy psephological European what-if questions”? :-p

  38. OK I am happy to get back to the federal election. I am in Perth at the moment and the chattering classes here are chattering about the Peel by-election and what a disaster it is for the state Liberals. The question is, what implications, if any, does it have for the federal election, now probably eight months away? We have all got used to saying “there is no flow-on from state to federal politics” (because if there was, Kim Beazley would now be PM). But just how hopeless and demoralised can the state Liberal branches get before this starts to flow through into their federal campaigning? Can Howard really carry the election all by himself with no help at all from his very badly broken party machine?

  39. I know that I said we should go back to the point of this thread, but as a recent example of how PR settles down eventually to a fairly stable system, take a look at the latest poll in NZ.


    This poll shows that, apart from one seat each for ACT and United Future, which would both be lost if their leader retired, the entire Parliament would be divided between four parties.

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