Evolution of electoral system

by on May 16, 2009

Article written for The Canberra Times’s special edition on the 20th anniversary of self-government for the Australian Capital Territory.
IF THE ACT were split in 17 single-member electorates, the ALP would have won all 17 of them at the last election – on just 37.5 per cent of the vote.

The ALP would have won all 17 in 2004 and 2001. And the Liberals would have won 15, possibly 16 of the 17 in 1995.

If you look at the vote by polling place last election you cannot concoct an electorate of one 17th of the ACT where the Liberals were ahead of Labor, let alone ahead of Labor and the Greens combined. It was similar for the other elections.

A single-member system would not work in the ACT because all of the electorates would be fairly socio-economically similar with similar voting patterns. We would become an Opposition-less polity. It would not be good for government or democracy.

Single-member systems work only where there is a reasonable diversity – rural and urban; rich and poor and so on.

In the lead up to self-government for the ACT, both major parties federally recognised the need for some sort of proportional representation. Labor might have like a single-member system if it could get away with it, but the system would never have passed the Senate.

After much debate, committee hearing and amendments, the Modified d’Hondt system of voting was settled upon for the ACT’s first self-government election.

The Australian Electoral Commission (which conducted the election) was dead against it, arguing it was too complicated and would take too long to count.

It was a nightmare. The trouble was the silly compromise between and below the line voting. People could mark preferences above and below the line, as in 1 for Labor, 2 for candidate Bloggs (who may or may not be Labor), 3 for Greens, 4 for Billy Smith who might be Liberal and so on.

It was compounded by there being 118 candidates.

Every day, journalists mulled around the Australian Electoral Office counting room while people moved bundles of the partially counted metre-long ballot paper on to tables marked by candidate or party.

Once a candidate got a quota of 5.4 per cent he or she was elected. Not many candidates were. Most had to wait for the party vote to pile up and be distributed and then for the votes or preference against individuals to be added to it.

In the upshot, allowing people to move between above the line and below the line as they numbered from 1 to 118 did not make one jot of difference as to who was elected. A pure Senate system of above OR below would have yielded the same result.

But it caused delay. It took two months and one week for the count to be finalised.

And despite stern warnings from editorials and opinion pieces written by people whom modesty forbids me to disclose, nothing was done and the accursed Modified d’Hondt system was used in the 1992 election.

It had only one virtue – the look on the face of Labor ninth candidate David Lamont as what seemed like an unstoppable accumulation of preferences were transferred to him under the bizarre system at a discount of 87.5 percent while all of the preferences flowing to Michael Moore from excluded candidates came in at full value. How the cherubic was transformed to ashen and the defeated turned cherubic. Labor had to wait 12 years for majority government.

As it happened, Lamont was elected in 1995 and became Deputy Chief Minister.

At the 1992 election a non-binding referendum on the electoral system overwhelmingly (65 per cent) approved adoption of the Hare-Clark system. With that result the federal politicians were morally bound to give the people of the ACT their wishes.

In any event, Labor did not have a majority in the Senate so had no hope of getting single-member electorates through. The Greens, Democrats and the Coalition were against it.

Hare-Clark, a system that had worked in Tasmania since 1909, was adopted by the federal Parliament and applied in the 1995 election at which a referendum entrenched it – so that only another referendum or a two-thirds majority of the Assembly could change it. But the Feds retain control of the size of the Assembly.

The ACT was divided into three electorates: a seven-member central electorate (Molonglo) and two five-member electorates – Tuggeranong-based Brindabella and Belconnen-based Ginninderra.

The system is similar to that of the Federal Senate but there is no above-the-line voting or voting for parties. Voters must vote for individuals, but the individual candidates can be grouped under a party banner.

The system of Robson rotation To reduce the influence of parties multiple ballot papers must be printed so every candidate gets an equal number of ballot papers with their name at the top and other permutations of names ensure the donkey vote is eliminated.

In each election the number of candidates won by candidates has fairly closely matched the percentage of the vote, though the possibility of a lot of destabilising shrapnel candidates is avoided by requiring a reasonably high quota (either 12.5 and 16.6 per cent of the vote after preferences).

It has been fairly quick to count, too. It just 11 days at the last election.

Since Hare-Clark was introduced every Assembly has run to term. Nothing is perfect, but the Hare-Clark system has provided a more workable and fairer system than d’Hondt or a single-member system.

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