A sense of proportion

Despite finding “increasing comfort” that the current system is working, New Zealand Prime Minister John Key says he will honour a promise to hold a referendum into the country’s MMP (mixed-member proportional) electoral system. The National Party went to the last election promising a choice between retaining MMP and having a second referendum, at which the choice would be between MMP and “another electoral system or systems”. However, the options currently under discussion include one to resolve the matter in one go by asking both whether MMP should be abolished, and what if anything should replace it. Key earlier said he favoured replacing MMP with a “single-member supplementary” system that would tilt the playing field in the major parties’ favour. Where currently the 50 “top-up members” are added to the 70 constituency seats in such a way as to produce a proportional result, single-member supplementary would simply add a proportional 50 to a non-proportional, major party-dominated 70. By my reckoning, that would have cut non-major party representation in the MMP era by about 30 per cent, producing majority Labour government after the 1999 election and majority National government in 2008, but hung parliaments in 1996, 2002 and 2005.

Closer to home, a bill for a referendum to “reform” the South Australian Legislative Council is currently before the chamber itself. As Dean Jaensch writes in The Advertiser, the referendum would offer four proposals: changing Council terms from a staggered eight years to an unstaggered four; a double dissolution mechanism to resolve legislative deadlocks; cutting Council numbers from 22 to 16; and a deliberative rather than casting vote for the President. However, it proposes to offer them on an all-or-nothing basis, which would certainly be a recipe for defeat at a federal referendum. The first and third would be popular enough in their own right, although a term reduction would mean a lower quota for election and an entree to micro-parties, and 16 members would make it impossible to sustain a satisfactory committee system. In any event, the bill will first have to negotiate the Council itself, which is unlikely to be accommodating. The cut in numbers offers nothing to the minor parties, which stand to win fewer seats, or to the Liberals, who would be more likely to face a Labor-Greens majority.

What is not proposed is that the Council be abolished, which has long been advocated by The Advertiser. The paper’s editorial yesterday begrudgingly acknowledged the upper house’s value as “the primary, although not exclusive, means by which minor parties and independents have had a democratic voice”, which it said might be accommodated by changes to the lower house electoral system. Presumably such changes would have to be minor: in 2005 the paper argued that advocates of “checks and balances, particularly in the form of minor parties and independents” were suffering a “fundamental misunderstanding of the strength of our democratic system” (i.e. the staging of regular elections, which in South Australia as in New South Wales are held at fixed four-year intervals). That would leave some kind of mixed system, perhaps along the lines proposed in New Zealand.

UPDATE: Embarrassment for the Rann government as its upper house reform bill fails to pass the lower house. As a constitutional amendment, the bill requires the support of an absolute majority of all sitting members, and the conjunction of a parliamentary wine club meeting and an apparent error by the Speaker in neglecting to call for the bill to be read a second time meant it could only muster 23. Significantly, Karlene Maywald (Nationals member for Chaffey and Rann cabinet member) and Rory McEwen (independent member for Mount Gambier and former Rann cabinet member) both voted against. The Opposition reportedly says the bill cannot be reintroduced before the next election, though I can’t imagine why that might be. The government insists it will be passed through the house in very short order.

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.

34 comments on “A sense of proportion”

  1. I think that New Zealand should adopt Hare-Clark maybe with a small number of top up seats.

    The SALC should be cut to 6 years and have elections at different times to the HASA.

  2. The reason there was such a push for MMP in NZ is that in a unicameral system, once a party is in power, there is effectively no barrier to what it can do. During the 80s and 90s both sides of politics pushed through agendas of radical change when in government which had not been initially flagged and which alienated a large proportion of the population (either in their own heartland as in Labours case or across the spectrum during the Bolger years). When the system is first past the post as it was in NZ (or in the UK for that matter) a government can win a large majority with a distinct minority of the vote (UK 1983 and 1987 are good examples – though Labour in NZ in 1984 had quite a low vote because of a fractured opposition).

    Having been to NZ many times and observed the political system and talked to people about it, I would make the following observations:

    1. MPs on the list are really accountable to no one – you can lose your own individual seat (i.e the voters don’t want you) but you can still pop up on the list – not such an issue for minor parties but to me there is something fundamentally wrong when an MP such Winston Peters (former NZ First leader) could lose his seat of Tauranga in 2005 and still reappear. Transposed to OZ – what sort of credibility would John Howard have had if he had lost Bennelong in 2007 and still popped in parliament as PM if the Libs had won – absolutely NONE. Helen Clark to her credit did not have a position on the list – one commentary I saw described her as ‘brave’ – well she did have a very safe seat.
    2. At least when an MP is tied to a geographic area (as in single member or Hare Clark) there are voters they have to answer to and be representative of.
    3. The top up of the list is fundamentally undemocratic when a voter has two ballot papers – last year National outpolled Labour by approximately 10% but won fewer list seats because National had won considerably more single members seats. Consequently, a large number of National voters were disenfranchised, their votes rendered worthless because of some electoral and ideological purity. It makes a mockery of proportional representation and any fair democracy. Have list seats but apportion seats according to the number of list votes – and occasionally, one of the parties may win a majority in its own right. Thank you Antony Green for pointing out how the list top up works..
    4. They have lots of options rather than moving back to the old system – all single seats but preferential voting, smaller parties are not necessarily locked out and every vote has a value:Hare Clark with say 5 or 7 member seats, or reintroduce an Upper House as a house of review, elected on PR and move to single member for the lower house.

  3. [The SALC should be cut to 6 years and have elections at different times to the HASA.]

    South Australia?

    Are you kidding? Lower and upper house elections out of sync is an archaic idea that took too long to get rid of as it was. I support Rann’s 4-year terms. The number of members is up for debate however.

  4. 3

    It means that the votes are more likely to be considered separately rather than a vote for the same party in both houses and gives the minor parties more air for the upper house. The problem with the old system was that the restricted franchise and the silly electoral system.

  5. 2

    Allowing members for list seats to run for constituency seats means that they are likely to try and win that seat next time meaning they are more personally accountable.

    The list seats are allocated to make the whole house proportional not just the list seats. This is good because it means there is always a decent opposition numerical presence to hold the Government to account and keep the elections competitive.

    Reintroducing the Legislative Council of New Zealand would be a good idea but not a popular one as it means more politicians. The act to implement STV LC elections should have been implemented instead it of being scrapped in 1950 (by the Nationals not Labour). It would have become more relevant in 1954 with the emergence of Social Credit who would have gained the balance of power an acted like the Democrats in Australia. Maybe if New Zealand was an Australian state it would have kept it?

  6. In terms of Australia, I actually am pretty convinced now that the best model would be to have a Hare-Clark lower house and a single-member-constituency upper house elected at a different time. Either that or adopt the model of the German Bundesrat, which is a genuine states’ house, in that each state sends delegates from their state governments. In that way it resembles the General Assembly, as opposed to the Senate in Australia or the US where a Senator is independent of their state government.

    I definitely think STV would be a big improvement for NZ. They still have the problem of wasted votes and tactical voting, where voters are worried their votes might be wasted if they vote for a minor party and it drops below 5%. You could fix this problem by allowing preference voting and distributing the votes of any party that falls below 5% and make it possible for a party to cross the threshold on preferences. As well as that, the single-member constituency is still deeply flawed in being run using First-Past-the-Post instead of preference voting, and it does tend to value races involving independents or minor parties over Labour-National races. Epsom, Ohariu, Tauranga, Coromandel and Wigram have been much more significant, since they can determine whether a party passes the threshold and enters parliament.

  7. Had a read of Anthony Greens explanation of MMP and i can see how in a unicameral system its much fairer than just 1st past the post. The party leaderships or whoever decides the order of the party lists would seem to have a lot of power in this system, but probably no more than the people who decide the order of candates on a party senate ticket.

    Seems to me that MMP is equivilent to having a lower house elected on a 1st past the post basis, AND an upper house elected on a strictly “above the line” proportional basis, but you always have joint sittings so you get to call it a unicameral system.

    Personally i prefer our system, mainly as i really dont like the possibilities inherent in 1st past the post systems for seats to be held by members with quite low actual support if there are a lot of candidates. MMP seems to be a way of trying to compensate for that.

    Why not have preferentialy elected electorate members in an MMP system??

  8. Argh 4 and 8 year terms are a terrible idea – a much better reform to SA would be to have 3 year terms and 6 year terms in the upper house (or maybe 3 year terms there too)

  9. I’ll be voting ‘NO’ next year if it is all reforms or none of them. I like reducing the term years but not reducing the numbers from 22 to 16, its not enough to do a descent job. Besides if you were going to be changing the numbers it would make sence to change it to an odd number like 17, 19 or 21.

  10. I agree with DEAN JAENSCH of the Advertiser on each of the four issues, that William links to:
    [In summary, there are four proposals: reduce the term of members of the Council from eight to four years; establish sensible deadlock provisions when the Houses disagree; cut the membership from 22 to 16; and provide the President of the Council with a deliberative instead of a casting vote.
    My view is that the first two are sensible reforms and merit support. The second two are not justified, and are not worthy of support. ]
    So does giving the President a ‘deliberative’ vote essentially mean giving him/her two votes? Thats not on, it would be better to overcome this obsticle by having an odd number of MLC’s.

  11. A deliberative vote means taking part in every vote, as occurs with the Senate President. A casting vote means only voting when it’s tied. At present a bill might get passed on an 11-10 vote in a situation where it would be 11-11 if the President had a deliberative vote, in which case the bill would be voted down (tied votes being resolved in the negative).

  12. Oh, I see. Well even though the President will usually be from the ‘bastards’ that the upper house is there to ‘keep honest’, he/she was elected and should be allowed to vote at any stage, fair is fair. Again, this would be less of an issue with odd numbers.

  13. [Seems to me that MMP is equivilent to having a lower house elected on a 1st past the post basis, AND an upper house elected on a strictly “above the line” proportional basis, but you always have joint sittings so you get to call it a unicameral system.]
    This is a common way of looking at it, east of the Tasman. But as Malcolm Mackerras pointed out this only makes sense if your aforementioned “upper house” seats are allocated separately from your “lower house” seats. On the contrary however, list seats are allocated as a function of not only the votes, but also of the distribution of constituency seats.

    [Personally i prefer our system, mainly as i really dont like the possibilities inherent in 1st past the post systems for seats to be held by members with quite low actual support if there are a lot of candidates. MMP seems to be a way of trying to compensate for that. ]
    Well not really. Constituency seats are still elected on a first-past-the-post basis.

  14. Dean Jaensch got his maths re deliberative vote muddled last week. Saying that it was more likely to result in ALP controlling LC with aid of Greens – example given 7 ALP 7 Lib and 2 Greens. The blocking vote is as William suggests of some importance. Its always amazed me that the Govt wants to hold the Presidents position under current rules as it clearly weakens their position.
    The Presidents deliberative vote is irrelevant unless an absolute majority is needed which in 16 members is 9. The exact same ALP + Greens having a majority could occur now over 2 elections.
    The Govt is obviously just going through the motions as it is doubtful that the proposal will even get voted on by Parliament before election because it has been left so late. The Libs FF and probably Independents Bressington and Darley will almost certainly force an inquiry and hold it up till early next year. The Govt will be caught because they don’t intend calling on Parliament before the end of March election.


  15. Oz, the two MPs were not Labor MPs. Ones a National, ones an Independent. The Advertiser was calling them Labor’s Ministers because they were in Rann’s Cabinet.

  16. And reading that article all the way through, I’m not clear at what point it was defeated. The Opposition says it can’t be re-introduced, the Government says it can. It’s certainly an embarrassment for the government, but don’t rely on news reports of parliamentary procedure to be entirely accurate.

  17. I would have thought that under Westminster conventions that a minister who voted their own governments bill would be obliged to resign. Can somebody enlighten me?

  18. I presume they have agreements like the WA Nationals and minor party ministers in New Zealand which allow them to exercise a certain degree of independence in exchange for solidarity on most issues.

    In New Zealand you even get the spectacle of minor party cabinet ministers asking disparaging questions of their major party counterparts in question time.

  19. One of Ben’s preferences in #6 (Hare-Clark lower house and a single-member-constituency upper house elected at a different time) is basically what we have here in Tasmania, with the added burden that the upper house elections are staggered at the rate of a few per year. Much as I like Hare-Clark I wouldn’t recommend this arrangement to any similar political culture.

    In the current three-party Tasmanian lower house (where the smallest party is more distinct from the two larger parties than the larger parties are from each other) it causes numerous problems. Minority governments are difficult to avoid and in recent experience quite unstable, and are most readily avoided by majority-government supporters swinging their votes depending on who they think will win. Thus, representation of the major parties is not proportional anyway; rather, the big-party voterbase often rorts around the system.

    Because the Upper House has a watchdog role, Tassie’s single-seat upper house reflects distrust of party politics, and hence typically most of the MLCs are not party members. But this encourages candidates with strong leanings towards a given party to hide those leanings and run, for instance, as closet-Liberal independents. Furthermore, because the elections are held at a different time to the Lower House ones, public interest is low and voters really have little idea what the candidates stand for. As a result, candidates tend to get elected by running local government style campaigns that are often not very relevant to what they will actually be voting on if elected.

    Of course, different regions with different political cultures and parties will produce different outcomes under such a system.

    I quite like the idea of a single house which contains a mix of single seats (with preferential voting) and some form of PR (whether Hare-Clark or a nationwide system). Such a system is not proportional but should ensure some level of representation for significant minorities, and create a balance-of-power situation when there is little between the major parties, while also ensuring that a major party that is close to 50% of the vote and well ahead of its opposition can still win a majority.

    I made similar comments about Tassie’s system on another thread recently but it was near the end as it was tapering off.

  20. [Since this defeat in the HASA shows that the Libs oppose the bill, I would say that it has Buckley`s in the SALC.]

    I thought the Libs voted for it but the total number of MPs in the house at the time voting yes didn’t amount to 24?

    On a side note, David Pisoni was at the Liberal booth at the Royal Adelaide Show yesterday. I yelled out “well done with dodgygate, keep up the good work!”


  21. Oh, and from that article…

    [The Government resubmitted the Bill later in the night, when it passed 25 to 13 after several ministers, absent on speaking engagements, and Premier Mike Rann, who had gone home ill, were recalled.]

  22. I try to ignore the bedlam know as NSW politics where possible. However, having spent a week there recently, it is obvious that any voting system that gave them not one but two Shooters Party members in the Upper House should not be copied. Even less representative than the DLP in Victoria or Steve Fielding. It’s unbalanced power at its worst.

  23. FF & DLP have a presence in the Senate and VLC respectively because of an undemocratic system of “above the line” group voting tickets with hidden preferences. I say undemocratic because most of the people who elected Fielding and Kavanagh didn’t even know they were voting for them.

    The Shooters’ presence in the NSW politics on the other hand is much more authentic. It comes as a result of the NSWLC being the most thoroughly proportional elected chamber in Australian politics. (And there are two of them because the chamber is elected in two halves at alternating elections; just like the Senate.)

  24. New Zealand is the founding state of the Meeks method of counting Proportional Representation votes.

    MMP hybird systems do not work, they create subsets of voting mandates each one having a different mandate base. Each house of paliament should be elected on an equal mandate. The lower house being based on local multi-member districts (each electorate returning either 5, 7 or 9 members of parliament – each electorate must return the same number of represenatives) using a Single Transferable Vote – preferential voting system and the Meeks method of counting the vote

    The Tasmanian/ACT Hare-Clark (last bundle system) as recommended in post #1 should not be used. It is an outdated undemocratic system. With the use of computer based counting system there is no justification in maintaining or adopting a segmented distribution of the vote. There should be one transaction per candidate (A transaction being either the distribution of surplus votes or the redistibution of preferences on exclusion). remainders should be retained with the value of the vote and all ballot papers that make up a candidates surplus distributed proportionally equal to the value of allocated to each vote.

    The Meeks System meets this criteria.

    Australia should adopt it for its multi-member elections. (senate, State Upper-houses and Local Government)

  25. Adelaide should opt for a 15 or 21 member upper-house with 5 x 3 or 7 x 3 electorates.

    Agin the method of counting the ballot should be STV preferential proportional representation with either the Wright System (A reiterative count) or Meeks method (with a Gregory Weighted Transfer) used to count the vote . The term of office should be one four year term aligned with the lower house.

    Failing that they should abolish the upper-house altogether. Victoria’s upper-house is a good starting base BUT Victoria should have adopted a five electorate model with either seven or nine members elected per electorate.

    The key to a good representational model is to ensure that each electorate has an equal mandate, that the number electored in each electorate is the same and an odd number.

  26. 31

    The things I support about Hare-Clark are, multi-member seats, quota preferential counting, candidate choice and Robson Rotation. I have no problem with computerised counting and any compromises on proportionality for a manual count should be eliminated.

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