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Australian Capital Territory (Electoral) Amendment Bill 1991



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House: House of Representatives

Portfolio: Arts, Tourism and Territories

Purpose

To alter the preferential voting system to prevent preferences being given to another party or independent; alter the counting of votes; and to increase the deposit and the number of members for a party to be registered.

Background

Following much debate and objections from a large percentage of the A.C.T. population, elections for the A.C.T. Legislative Assembly were conducted in 1989. The system of voting introduced by the Australian Capital Territory (Electoral) Act 1988 (the Principal Act) is known as a `modified d'Hondt' system. The main characteristic of the d'Hondt system, as used in some European countries, is that voters vote for lists of party candidates or independents and have no ability to alter the list presented by the party so that once the number of votes for a party is known it is a simple operation to determine who is elected. There is no distribution of preferences. The system for the A.C.T. was modified following negotiations between the various Federal parties and the modifications resulted in many peculiarities.

A major change was to allow the distribution of preferences not only within the party voted for but also between the various parties. As well, voters could change the ranking of the candidates in a party. The resulting ballot paper resembled the Senate paper with a list of parties above the line and the names of candidates below the lines with voters having the option of voting for the party above the line or voting for any mix of candidates below the line. It was also possible to vote both above and below the line until all preferences were exhausted. A further modification was the exclusion of votes for parties which failed to establish at least one quota on the counting of first preferences. However, while the first preferences for such candidates were excluded, the preferences were distributed. The complexity of the system was noted by the Australian Electoral Commission, which is quoted as saying that `any plausible justification for it in terms of underlying principles is now invisible behind the veil of comprises and trade-offs' 1 Another comment on the system was that `If the politicians had done a poor job of cobbling together a voting system, they compounded their folly by their failure to keep the ballot paper free of minor groups and independents.' 2

The election held under these rules on 4 March 1989 was seen largely as a matter of humour for many, particularly those outside the A.C.T. There were 117 candidates for the 17 positions and the ballot paper was approximately a metre long. The range of parties represented ranged from the normal main stream parties to a range of unknown parties, such as the Sun Ripened Warm Tomato Party and the Party! Party! Party!. A range of parties opposed to self government also stood as did community based parties. The counting of votes took 65 days, largely due to the distribution of preferences, and over 60% of votes did not follow party tickets. The main parties gained nine members, five labor and four Liberal, with four going to the Residents Rally, three to the No Self Government Party, and one to the Abolish Self Government Coalition. With no party having a majority, coalition governments have resulted.

Following the election, the electoral system was referred to the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters. The report commented that it was `an unacceptable electoral system which has bought the never popular self-government concept into further disrepute in the ACT.' 3 The Committee made a number of recommendations, including:

* the deposit be raised to $250;

* that parties seeking registration have at least 100 members who are eligible voters;

* that individuals only be able to register one party; and

* that a referendum be held to determine whether the voters prefer a system based on single members electorates or one based on the Hare-Clark system.

In the second reading speech for this Bill, the Minister rejected the last recommendation on the grounds that it was unlikely that there would be clear support for a single system and would be likely to regenerate earlier debates on the merits of self-government. The cost of a referendum was given as a secondary reason. It was also announced that power over the electoral system would be handed to the local government after the next election and that legislation to achieve this would be introduced in the next session. In a Media Release dated the same day as this Bill was introduced, the Minister foresaw the next election as a referendum on the type of electoral system the ACT's voters wanted. This was based on the view that the various parties could outline their preferred system before the election and the voters would chose the system they preferred. However, this view can be criticised on two main grounds. First, the assumption that the election will be treated as a referendum rather than an election based on a number of policies, such as the past performance of the party and their economic and social policies, can be argued with as the weight given to the electoral system may be minor for a number of voters. The party, if any, which wins a majority will be able to claim a mandate for their system whereas this may not have been a major consideration for a number of voters. Secondly, there is no guarantee that the election will show what the majority desire. On past figures, it is highly unlikely that one party will gain a majority and the support for the electoral system proposed by the party that achieves the highest vote will be based on the vote allegedly showing that more people prefer their system. It appears likely that the next government will also be a coalition and the electoral system adopted could well be an amalgamation of the coalition parties proposed systems, which no-one will have voted for.

Main Provisions

Section 5 of the Principal Act, which deals with determining preferences, will be repealed by clause 3.

Section 18 of the Principle Act, which deals with how a voter may vote, will be amended by clause 5. The amendments will restrict voters to voting for an independent; for one registered party; or for a candidate of a party and, if the voter desires, for other candidates of that party. This will remove the ability to give preferences across parties.

The method of counting votes will be amended by clause 6 which will substitute a number of new sections into the Principal Act. Proposed section 19 provides for the determining of quotients of various ranks with the seats being distributed on which party or independent has the higher quotient. The distribution of seats will continue down the list of the quotients until all the seats are filled. Where the number of quotients received exceeds the number of candidates, the excess is to be disregarded.

Clause 9 provides that a party will be liable to de-registration if its registered officer is also the registered officer of another party.

Clause 7 will implement the amendments contained in the Schedules to the Bill. These include:

* the deposit will be increased from $100 to $250; and

* the definition of eligible political party will be changed to require the party to either be a Parliamentary party or a party which has at least 100 members who are entitled to vote for the Assembly.

References

1. The 1989 Election, Scott Bennett, Politics, v. 24(2), p. 136.

2. Ibid., p. 137.

3. Ibid., p. Inquiry Into the ACT Election and Electoral System, Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, November 1989, p. xvii.

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Commonwealth of Australia 1991

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Published by the Department of the Parliamentary Library, 1991.