Wednesday, March 10, 2010

State Election Musings

Tasmania operates its own advanced, home-grown system of proportional representation, the Hare-Clark method, whereby each of the five Lower House electorates returns five members (formerly seven).  Without going into the intricate and admirable details, each person votes by numbering all the candidates from one to whatever, thus indicating his preferences in due order.  

In simple terms, a candidate is elected if he gain a quota (16.66% of the votes cast), and any surplus votes above this quota are redistributed to the others, according to the next preference indicated; first he who has the most votes above the quota has his extra votes redistributed, whilst being declared elected; whoever has the most votes above the quota once this has been done is next declared elected, and his surplus votes likewise distributed; this continues until no one has a quota – when the candidate with the least votes is eliminated, and his votes redistributed to others according to the preferences expressed; if any now have a quota, the process continues as before; if none do, then the candidate with the next-smallest number of votes for him is likewise eliminated, and so on.  Did I say, simple?

It usually takes a fortnight to count the votes and then to carefully perform the distribution of them to ascertain who has been elected!  

Typically, the most well-known candidates win well over a quota, and lesser candidates from their own party typically gain the second or third preferences from the surplus votes.

There is even an exquisite, nice adjustment called the Robson rotating ballot: to stymie the donkey vote (when a fool, unable to understand the system, stupidly numbers the ballot straight down), different ballots are printed with the candidates' names in different order.

The system avoids the backroom machinations that plague the party-list system, which binds the voter to vote for a party, not individual candidates: if I wish, I can vote for a Liberal first, then a Green second (like Hell!), then a Labor third, or any other combination I like.

All this being said, the House of Assembly nowadays has too few members - only 25! - whereas up to a decade or so ago it had 35 (the exact number had fluctuated since colonial days from 30 to a high of 38, before the Hare-Clark system was fully introduced a hundred years ago.)

In Tasmania, we have gone from the two-party system (Labor and Liberal) of old, to an unstable three-party system (Green, Labor and Liberal) over the past thirty years.  A shameless late-night sitting of Parliament in 1998 resulted in Labor and Liberal (always enemies) ganging up against the Greens, by reducing the number of members of the House, reducing the number elected in each electorate from seven to five, and thus increasing the quota each needed from 12.5% to 16.66% – they thought the Greens would be unable to gain enough votes to pass that threshold, but in fact they have, as their vote has continued to grow over time.  Hence, even when one party has a majority in the House (for minority governments are now common), it only has perhaps 13 members, notoriously not enough to provide sufficient Ministers of decent quality.

Allegedly the Labor Party is considering changing the model somewhat, by dividing the State into seven electorates of five each, thus returning the Lower House to its traditional 35 members.  I would favour this as a minimal reform in the right direction.

My own modest proposal (and I have appeared before a Parliamentary Inquiry into these matters some years back, to testify to what would benefit our State), would be to remain with the present five electorates (since Tasmania has employed these same divisions for State and Federal elections for several generations now, as the Constitution entitles Tasmania to have five M.P.'s in the Commonwealth Parliament), but to return to electing seven, or even to go beyond and elect nine members per electorate – thus increasing the House to 35 or even 45 members.  

Why?  Because the more members per electorate, the closer to an ideal form of proportional representation, and therefore the more democratic the system.  We're not ignorant yokels content with a first-past-the-post simpleton system; rather, Tasmanians have been using a very advanced electoral system for a century, and ought continue to perfect it, not diminish its proportionality.

I am aware that Labor and the Greens support social engineering increasingly antithetical to traditional morality, but democracy means we get a reflection of popular mores, alas; we get what we deserve.

(By the way, the Upper House, the Legislative Council – which can reject any legislation, even financial bills, and can never be overruled nor ever dissolved – has but 15 members, all titled The Honourable, each elected from a single-member electorate in the usual Australian manner by Single Transferable Vote, our improvement on the plurality system.  It had 19 until recent redistributions; but 15 was the original number.  Every year, three electorates have an election, such that the Council's composition is continually changing, but within an overall continuity.  Legislative Councillors are traditionally independent of party affiliation, though some are Labor men.  The Council was traditionally a potent and conservative House of Review, but has become far less effective in recent years, alas.)

What to expect of the upcoming election, to descend to the level of practice from that of theory?

Well, Labor has been in government for twelve years, and I certainly believe it is time for a change, especially given all manner of major and minor scandals and goings-on that ill-beseem Her Majesty's Government in right of Tasmania.  As to whether the Liberals can gain a majority, frankly I doubt it (though I desire it); the Greens I suspect will sit on the cross-benches and hold the balance of power (damn).  But I actually think the worst thing is a majority government, and the checks and balances of an independent Upper House, and a divided Lower House, should actually serve to keep the State from overstepping its due functions.

At present, since the last election in 2006, there are 14 Labor members (who form the Government), 7 Liberals (Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition) and 4 Greens.  As to the near future, well, reputable opinion polling indicates that the Liberals are ahead of Labor; for the first time ever, the Greens are neck-and-neck with Labor – it would be shocking but perhaps logical if the left continues its generational shift from Labor to Green, while the right continues Liberal, and those in the middle split three ways.  Those uncertain how to vote still number a fifth of those polled!

Could we end up with the House of Assembly divided into 10 Liberals (Will Hodgman as Premier; what a pity his father has just retired from Parliament after decades, missing out on being in his son's ministry), 7 Greens, and 8 Labor MHA's?

In any case, we all go to vote (voting is compulsory, just as it should be) on Saturday the 20th of March, and with luck a new Premier and Ministers will be sworn in by the Governor just after Easter – though possibly, if there is no clear winner, we may have to wait till Parliament is opened, and the matter is decided by a vote of no confidence on the floor of the House.  Since neither Labor nor Liberal will ever enter coalition with the Greens, let alone with each other, it is possible that, if no Premier able to command the House can be found, we'll have to go to the polls again...


Anonymous said...

There is even an exquisite, nice adjustment called the Robson rotating ballot: to stymie the donkey vote (when a fool, unable to understand the system, stupidly numbers the ballot straight down), different ballots are printed with the candidates' names in different order.

Excellent. Very impressive!

A hung parliament could well be very unstable, for the reasons you state at the end. The Liberals are the best of a very bad bunch - God help us!

Ttony said...

"We're not ignorant yokels content with a first-past-the-post simpleton system"

Neither are we in the UK. We are highly sophisticated voters with a first-past-the-post complex system which allows us to select Governments and give them a strong mandate.

Joshua said...

Tasmanians are often mocked by other Australians as behind the times, hence my comment...

And I was alluding to the archaic and slipshod electoral system used, not for Westminster (recall that the devolved Parliaments - surely analogues of our State Parliaments - of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all use some sort of prop. rep.), but for the legislatures of another nation...