Getting the upper house in order: part two

As outlined in the earlier instalment, Greens leader Bob Brown has a bill before parliament that will require above-the-line Senate voters to determine their order of preferences by numbering every box, rather than allowing their one chosen party to make their decisions for them. The Greens presume, no doubt correctly, that Labor voters required to engage their minds will baulk at favouring right-wing over left-wing minor parties regardless of what the how-to-vote card says. The Bob Brown model is similar to that introduced for the New South Wales Legislative Council at the 2003 election, with the significant difference that voters will need to number every box to record a formal vote. The New South Wales system of optional preferential voting requires voters to number only as many boxes as they desire, after which their vote exhausts. This would deal with the main problem of the Bob Brown model identified in my earlier post, namely the spike in the informal vote when voters are required to number too many boxes. Perhaps the Greens admire the mathematical elegance of the existing system, but it is just as likely that they suffer an aversion to optional preferential voting born of lower house state elections where they have lost the preferences that indifferent major party voters were once obliged to give them.

If this is so, their fears with respect to multi-member upper house elections might be misplaced. A paper by Antony Green for the New South Wales parliament informs us that 78.6 per cent of voters carried on their habit of marking one above-the-line box at the 2003 Legislative Council election, so that most votes exhausted rather than carry on to other parties. After nine Labor, seven Coalition and one Greens candidate were elected with full quotas, four seats still remained to be won. At that point, second Greens candidate Sylvia Hale led the field with 0.89 of a quota followed by Gordon Moyes of the CDP with 0.67, Labor’s tenth candidate Tony Catanzariti with 0.60 and John Tingle of the Shooters Party with 0.45. The high exhaustion rate meant that few preferences were distributed after this point and the four aforementioned candidates won their seats in the order listed. This underscores the point that unless a result is exceptionally close, optional preferential voting will deliver the final seats to whichever candidates get closest to a full quota on their own primary vote, in place of the current lottery created by monolithic preference transfers.

Had this happened in last year’s Senate election, the Greens would easily have defeated Family First in Victoria and Tasmania, where they respectively suffered defeat and an unnervingly narrow victory. The outcome would otherwise have been the same, with the Coalition still winning its four seats in Queensland, the major parties still monopolising New South Wales and South Australia, and the Greens still winning a second seat in Western Australia. In light of the primary vote figures, these were not unreasonable outcomes. It is harder to say what the outcome would have been under Brown’s proposed model of full above-the-line preferences, but it almost certainly would not have favoured the Greens more than optional preferential. Now that the party can no longer rely on tight preference arrangements with the Australian Democrats, all the Greens have to gain from compulsory preferential voting is continuing access to preferences from the major parties who invariably favour the Greens over each other. From a purely self-interested perspective, it is a debatable point as to whether this justifies the system for the Greens. Apart from the small surplus that major parties pass on when they exceed three quotas, the Greens can only access major party preferences if they perform well enough to overtake their third candidates, and performances of such strength would usually win them the seat under optional preferential voting. Nor should they overlook the possibility that Brown’s amendment will not produce hugely different outcomes to the current system, given the notoriously obedient attitude of major party voters towards how-to-vote cards.

Looking beyond the interests of the Greens, it becomes even harder to maintain an argument for compulsory over optional preferential voting, which would keep the informal vote to a minimum and give voters the widest range of options in directing their vote.

Upstairs, downstairs

The re-elected Gallop government yesterday secured passage of its latest one-vote one-value legislation through the Western Australian Legislative Assembly, in readiness for the return of the Legislative Council in two weeks. Labor will then have until May 21 to convince dumped ex-Liberal independent Alan Cadby, at which point the newly elected members will take their seats and again put a constitutional majority beyond Labor’s reach. The Greens have always supported one-vote one-value, and earlier this week The West Australian reported that Cadby had indicated his support for the bill. The West also reported that "up to five" Liberal members wanted the party to cut a deal with Labor.

The current bill differs from the one Labor went to so much trouble over between 2001 and 2003 in two important respects: it quarantines the five remote electorates that constitute the Mining and Pastoral upper house region, which delivers on a widely ridiculed election promise, and it increases the size of the upper house from 34 to 36. The former measure is the source of objections from the Greens and at least one of the lower house independents, who favour a Queensland-style method of regional vote weighting over Labor’s on-the-run election promise to protect mostly Labor-held seats. New Liberal leader Matt Birney said there was "nothing more certain that the Greens are going to reject the quarantining of the Mining and Pastoral (region) and therefore the government will come to Kalgoorlie and the Goldfields and say, ‘I’m terribly sorry about that promise we made during the election campaign, but unfortunately we are not able to keep it’." But Labor’s manoeuvre presents Birney with a tactical difficulty of his own because it protects his seat of Kalgoorlie, which would probably become notionally Labor under the method favoured by the Greens. Since the Liberals appear resigned to the likelihood that Cadby will support the legislation in one form or another, there is a growing view that the party should accept the inevitable and negotiate with Labor over the head of the Greens to achieve the best possible outcome.

The other change in the new-look legislation, which alters the size and composition of the Legislative Council, is quite startling and has been surprisingly little discussed. The legislation that came before the last parliament maintained equal numbers for the metropolitan and non-metropolitan zones despite the disparity in population, thereby accepting the principle of rural vote weighting in the upper house while rejecting it for the lower. Now Labor proposes to give with one hand, by protecting the five Mining and Pastoral seats in the lower house, while taking with the other, by adding four metropolitan and removing two non-metropolitan seats in the upper house. The Council will remain divided into three metropolitan and three non-metropolitan regions, but the former will have seven members (and will include north, south and central metropolitan regions as opposed to the existing north, south and east) and the latter only five. This is surely a tactical gambit on Labor’s part; perhaps they are providing room for Cadby to extract a face-saving concession for the country, or preparing the way for Coalition acceptance of two extra members, a desirable but unpopular outcome.

While the Greens have been critical of the Mining and Pastoral innovation, anything they have had to say about increased metropolitan representation in the upper house has escaped the Poll Bludger’s notice. It is a highly significant point because it introduces a dimension of self-interest which is missing while the debate remains confined to the lower house, where they will find it nearly impossible to win seats in any circumstance. The new measure is certainly at odds with the model the Greens forced upon Labor as the 2001 legislation went through parliament, which put an enlarged Council on the table for the first time by providing for each region to have six members. If Jack Lang spoke truly when he told a young Paul Keating "always put your money on self-interest, son, it’s the only horse that always tries", Labor’s new proposal would seem likely to win their support because it will produce low quotas in the metropolitan area where their vote is highest. Comparisons with Tasmania seem instructive, given that Labor and the Liberals joined forces in 1997 to thwart the Greens by reducing the number of members for the five lower house electorates from seven to five. Where previously the most common outcome had been 3-3-1, the Greens were now now lucky to get a look-in. That said, the situation in the Western Australian upper house is more complicated because the Senate-like combination of full preferential and above-the-line voting makes outcomes so unpredictable that anyone hoping to twist the existing system in their favour will eventually be left looking foolish, as various preference negotiators have recently discovered.

The Poll Bludger has gone to an absurd amount of trouble to construct the results that the various systems would have produced given the voting figures from the last two state elections, assuming all votes had been ticket votes (which is true of all but about 5 per cent of votes cast).

26 February 2005 10 February 2001
ALP LIB NP GRN OTH ALP LIB NP ONP GRN AD
Current system (34) 16 15 1 2 13 12 1 3 5
Agricultural (5) 1 3 1 1 1 1 1 1
Mining and Pastoral (5) 3 2 2 1 1 1
South West (7) 3 3 1 2 3 1 1
East Metropolitan (5) 3 2 3 2
South Metropolitan (5) 3 2 2 2 1
North Metropolitan (7) 3 3 1 3 3 1
Old legislation (36) 17 16 1 1 1 14 14 1 3 3 1
Agricultural (6) 2 3 1 1 2 1 1 1
Mining and Pastoral (6) 3 3 3 2 1
South West (6) 3 3 2 3 1
East Metropolitan (6) 3 2 1 3 2 1
South Metropolitan (6) 3 2 1 3 2 1
North Metropolitan (6) 3 3 2 3 1
New legislation (36) 16 16 1 1 2 12 13 1 4 5 1
Agricultural (5) 1 3 1 1 1 1 1 1
Mining and Pastoral (5) 3 2 2 1 1 1
South West (5) 2 3 1 2 1 1
East Metropolitan (7) 4 2 1 2 3 1 1
South Metropolitan (7) 3 3 1 3 3 1
North Metropolitan (7) 3 3 1 3 3 1

Above all, these results show up the vagaries of the Legislative Council electoral system, and by extension that for the Senate. The Greens won a seat in the five-member Mining and Pastoral region in 2001, but they would not have done so if there had been six members. The lower quota would have resulted in a greater surplus carrying through to Labor’s third candidate, preventing him from being eliminated before the Greens and thereby delivering them his preferences. They would have been similarly deprived if there were six rather than seven seats in South West, but not if there were five. The 2001 election was in all respects an unusual result, but the equally grim assessment for the Greens under a six-seat model at the recent election seems less haphazard. Unless the Greens either break through their existing 8 per cent primary vote ceiling or find new sources of preferences to replace the Democrats, they will struggle to win outside of seven-member metropolitan regions. Their narrow win in the seven-member non-metropolitan region of South West in February was an exception to prove the rule, as it was achieved through a preference arrangement with the Nationals; the seat would otherwise have gone to Family First.

As for the major parties, none of the three models seems to offer either side particular advantages relative to the other. In fact, Labor’s current proposal to boost metropolitan representation would have strengthened the Coalition’s position at each of the last two elections. The only exception is that the six-by-six model seems more attractive to the Coalition than to Labor, despite Labor’s acceptance of it during the last parliament. With six members in each region the Coalition would stand a good chance of winning fourth seats in Agricultural and South West, which Labor might very occasionally manage in Mining and Pastoral or the new Central Metropolitan region. The Coalition would thus stand a reasonable chance of winning an overall majority whereas Labor would have little or none. In terms of their collective interest in freezing out the minor parties, it appears that a seven-seat region can be relied upon to return at least one non-major party candidate, so however many such regions exist is a minimum figure for the numbers on the cross-benches. Six-seat regions are a 50/50 proposition, while five-seat regions will return all major party members more often than not (the 2001 election being an exceptional case, as in so many other respects).

Another point worth noting is that more seats means an increased likelihood of micro-party candidates being elected from a very small percentage of the primary vote. At the recent election the Christian Democratic Party would have won a hypothetical seventh seat in East Metropolitan, and the Fremantle Hospital Support Group would have achieved what it very nearly managed in the five-seat South Metropolitan region if there had been either one or two extra seats. One might also be mischievous enough to cite the South Metropolitan seat that the Democrats would have won in 2001. Of course, there could be other remedies for this, such as those raised in the previous post on Bob Brown’s proposed Senate reforms.

UPDATE: Monica Videnieks reports in today’s West Australian that Alan Cadby gave his "clearest signal yet" that he will support the legislation, while the Greens are insisting on both the six-from-six upper house model and Queensland-style regional vote weighting in place of a quarantined Mining and Pastoral.

Getting the upper house in order

Bob Brown and the Greens have a worthy but self-interested bill before the federal parliament which aims to correct the injustice whereby Family First won a Victorian Senate seat at the Greens’ expense with barely a fifth of their primary vote, and very nearly did the same in Tasmania. Similar issues arose in the Western Australian election, when a similar system very nearly delivered seats to the Fremantle Hospital Support Group and Christian Democratic Party despite miniscule public support. Brown’s solution is to require above-the-line voters to number all boxes sequentially, rather than just one. This will solve the current problem where 95 per cent of voters never engage their mind about where their preferences will go, that decision being made for them by the party machines.

While this is a logical solution to an acknowledged failure of the current system, it inevitably presents its own problems. One is the matter of ungrouped candidates, who for whatever reason do not lodge grouped tickets and are placed in the far right column of the ballot paper, with supporters required to number every box. This column would have to be done away with and each candidate given their own column and above-the-line option. At last year’s election there were four such candidates in New South Wales along with 29 grouped tickets. A repeat situation under the Brown model would require voters to number 33 boxes, which brings us back to the reason above-the-line was introduced in the first place: the high informal vote when voters are required to number too many boxes. Thirty-three was the exact number of candidates who ran for the Senate in New South Wales in 1980, the last half-Senate election before the situation was deemed to necessitate an above-the-line option. This number leapt to 62 at the double dissolution election of 1983, and there would presumably be a similarly enlarged field if a double dissolution occurred today. This would mean a return to the high informal voting rates at those elections – 9.4 per cent in 1980 and 11.1 per cent in 1983, compared with 3.5 per cent last year.

At this point counter-measures begin to suggest themselves, each of which is a subject in itself. They include optional preferential voting, with voters only required to number as many boxes as they choose before their vote exhausts, and placing greater obstacles before candidates wishing to nominate. These options have parallels with reforms implemented for the New South Wales Legislative Council after the farcical "tablecloth" election of 1999; these reforms and their relevance to the Senate will get a going over in a forthcoming post.

Hours of fun

Praise be, for the 2004 Australian Election Study is now available online, along with all other such surveys going back to the 1987 election. These provide intensely detailed information on the voting behaviour, attitudes, demographic profile, television viewing habits and hair and eye colour of 2000 respondents, along with the facility to easily cross-reference the various results. The Poll Bludger was not aware that this magnificent resource was so freely available, which appears to be a recent innovation of the Australian National University’s Research School of Social Sciences.