This was intended to be the first of a three-part series covering the forgotten war of the New South Wales election – the contest for the upper house. It was to consist of a general introductory overview to the state’s upper house system, combined with a form guide covering Labor candidates whose ticket positions were winnable or better. However, it appears that the not inconsiderable notes I gathered earlier this week on the Labor candidates failed to save properly. Fiddle-de-dee. So instead, I bring you the first of a four-part series covering the upper house, which will be limited to the introductory overview.
Created in 1824 as an appointed body advising the Governor, the New South Wales Legislative Council is Australia’s oldest parliamentary chamber. It was also perhaps the slowest to modernise; members continued to be appointed by the Governor until 1934, and were henceforth elected indirectly by members of both houses under a system of proportional representation. Direct election was finally introduced transitionally starting with the 1978 election, when 32 of the existing 60 members were retired and 15 new members directly elected. The 1981 and 1984 elections each saw the retirement of a further 14 appointed members and the direct election of 15 new ones, bringing the total number up to 45. The intention was that a third of the 45 members would then rotate at every third election, for a maximum nine-year term.
These term lengths were inevitably criticised as excessive, and further changes were made under a package of reforms endorsed at a referendum held in conjunction with the 1991 election. The reforms included fixed terms of four years for lower house members and eight years for upper house members, along with a cut in upper house members from 45 to 42. The cut in numbers took effect immediately, cutting short the careers of three existing members who were entering the final third of their terms (one Labor, one Nationals and an independent who had originally been elected as a member of Fred Nile’s Call to Australia). Henceforth, elections have been for 21 members, reducing the quota for election from 6.25 to 4.55.
The most recent round of reforms followed the celebrated fiasco of the 1999 election, at which voters were presented with a "tablecloth" ballot paper sized 100 by 70 centimetres. Even worse, from the perspective of those with the power to do something about it, was the election of no fewer than seven candidates from minor and micro parties. The two phenomena were linked many of the 81 groups that bloated the ballot paper (one possible example being the brilliantly appealing Three Day Weekend Party) were set up to gather preferences for the benefit of electoral entrepreneurs, who cut mutually supporting deals to take advantage of each others’ "preference harvesting". The major parties were thus able to claim they were acting in good conscience when they took corrective measures.
Whatever the motivation, the changes have produced the best upper house voting system in Australia, and it is a great shame the federal, Victorian, Western Australian and South Australian systems have not followed its example. Firstly and most importantly, the above-the-line voting option was changed to do away with the monstrosity where voters number one party’s box and have that party determine a full preference distribution for them. This was replaced with an optional preferential system in which voters number as many above-the-line boxes as they wish, with preferences flowing down these parties’ lists and then exhausting. The 2003 election demonstrated that the overwhelming majority of voters will continue to number one box above-the-line; in effect, a party gets a seat for each quota it receives, and leftovers are apportioned to those with the highest remainders. Preferences will only affect the outcome when the result is very close most importantly, they will then do so as a result of the conscious intention of voters who choose to number more than one box.
The new system resulted in an increase in the number of seats won by the major parties (from 14 to 17, although this was assisted by an increase in their share of the vote from 64.7 per cent to 76.8 per cent), and there are those who criticise it on this basis alone. However, the Poll Bludger has never understood how a system that gives the Coalition six seats from 28.6 per cent and the Outdoor Recreation Party one seat from 0.2 per cent could be described as "proportional representation". The new system penalises micro parties not because it is flawed, but because they don’t get enough votes. It is still among the country’s friendliest systems for minor parties, with a low quota for election and little chance of one party gaining a majority.
The following charts show the number of seats won by the parties at each election since 1978, and their total numbers after the election (i.e. including members who were not up for re-election).
The following phases should be noted:
1978. Fifteen new members are directly elected, joining 28 of the 60 existing indirectly elected members, for a total of 43.
1981. A further 14 indirectly elected members retire and 15 new members are elected, for a total of 44.
1984. The final 14 indirectly elected members retire and 15 new members are elected, completing the transition to 45 members.
1991. The passage of the referendum results in an immediate cut in numbers to 42, with three long-term members having their terms cut short.
1995. First election under the new system of eight-year fixed terms, with 21 rotating at each election.
1999. "Others" includes Liberal and Democrats members who had quit to sit as independents in the previous term.
2003. First election with optional preferential above-the-line voting.