Tweedledee, Tweedledum: all electoral systems were not created equal

The Australasian Study of Parliament Group is hosting a talk by a friend of mine, Sacha Blumen, at Queensland Parliament House tonight (5.30pm for 5.45pm). Details are posted below, and more here. I’m hoping Sacha might send me the text so I can post it here after the event.

Please join us for this timely event as the Queensland Government considers public feedback on the proposals in the Electoral Reform Green Paper (developed and released as part of its first 6 Month Action Plan).
Take this opportunity to hear Dr Sacha Blumen share his rare insights into the likely electoral outcomes and broader implications of adopting different electoral systems (such as proportional representation and Hare Clark) and electoral rules (such as voluntary voting). How would the results change if we changed electoral systems in Queensland?

Dr Blumen conducted a mathematical analysis some years ago using Queensland electoral data to determine the hypothetical outcomes had different electoral systems been used. His interest in the topic was sparked by an awareness of the long-standing gerrymanders in Queensland, particularly the National Party gerrymander extant in his youth. He has a PhD in Pure Mathematics, first class honours in Political Science (and an A.Mus.A), and is closely involved with politics in Sydney, where he now lives.

Sacha is a senior consultant with the Allen Consultant Group, co-convenor of the Police Powers and Civil Rights sub-committee of the NSW Council for Civil Liberties, and was President of the Kings Cross residents group 2007-09. He was the ALP candidate for the seat of Sydney in the 2011 NSW State election and an ALP candidate for Councillor in the 2008 City of Sydney elections.

Update: The talk is now posted here.


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38 responses to “Tweedledee, Tweedledum: all electoral systems were not created equal”

  1. Lefty E

    On a related note, I think itx fair to say that the model of the parlimentary party electing the leader alone is broken and bankrupt.

    It was interesting for me to discover the Canadian party leaders are elected by a party-wide ballot (of varying sorts). For the UK Labour leader, MPs only get a third of the vote, with the remaining thirds going to ordinary members and unions.

    Only in Australia and NZ Labo(u)r are these matters left to parlimentary party alone.

    With either of these systems I dare say we wouldnt have witnessed the debilitating spectacle of NSWitis. Surely whats left of the ALP after September should look at this a permanent check on the craziness we’ve witnessed since June 2010, and earlier in NSW.

  2. Andrew Reynolds

    The other one I would like to see addressed is the impact of the unicameral system in Queensland. While I am a fan of single member constituencies to form a government, the lack of an upper house, with a different electoral system, cannot be said to have promoted humility amongst the Premiers of Queensland – past or present. There should, somewhere, be an effective brake on the power of the executive.

  3. Martin B

    Only in Australia and NZ Labo(u)r are these matters left to parlimentary party alone.

    No, that would be just Australia. NZ Labour changed its rules at the conference last year. Leadership is now decided by a whole-party election with 40% of the votes going to the caucus, 40% the membership and 20% the union affiliates.

  4. Chris

    It was interesting for me to discover the Canadian party leaders are elected by a party-wide ballot (of varying sorts). For the UK Labour leader, MPs only get a third of the vote, with the remaining thirds going to ordinary members and unions.

    Wasn’t party elected leaders the source of many of the problems of the democrats in Australia? The party members electing people who didn’t have the support of the parliamentary members? Though I agree that there wouldn’t be the leadership instability which would be a good thing for all parties.

  5. Lefty E

    NZ Labour changed its rules at the conference last year. Leadership is now decided by a whole-party election with 40% of the votes going to the caucus, 40% the membership and 20% the union affiliates.

    Ahah, well there you go. Only Australia employs this bad idea.

    Wasn’t party elected leaders the source of many of the problems of the democrats in Australia?

    Possibly, though the larger problem of the Dems was surely ideological confusion.

    This is surely part of what renewal would look like.

  6. Martin B

    As far as the leadership selection went, IMO the bigger problem with the AD was the small hurdle requirement for a spill – only 100 member petition. But LE and MB are right – the real issue was that the membership of the AD – who Stott-Despoya wanted to appeal to – were centre-left – while a huge part of their voters – who Lees wanted to appeal to – were centre-right. The AD weren’t able to resolve this, and collapsed.

  7. Oz

    Australia is actually the only English-speaking Westminster democracy where none of the major parties directly elect their party leader. In most others, parties of the left and right all directly elect. There’s a book that does a comparative examination at leadership selection by William Cross and Andre Blais.

    I think direct election of leader is likely in the near future (probably to indicate to people that Labor has changed & the NSW disease of rotating through leaders has been “cured”). Most of the Left backs it and a minority of the Right does (in NSW at least). There is, however, a rule in the ALP National Rules that prevents its adoption which I explain here. Once that rule gets removed, it is likely that state parties will adopt it. Tasmania is most likely to be first as the Left has the numbers on Conference floor and has passed a resolution there in favour of the measure.

  8. Oz

    Urgh, screwed up the link in my previous comment. The post is here and points to the exact clause in the National Principles of Organisation that prevents direct election of leader.

  9. Lefty E

    Very interesting, Oz, thanks.

    Another piece of Australian exceptionalism that has a long overdue date with the bin is group ticket voting in the upper house.

    But one rant at a time I guess.

    Suffice to say, electoral systems matter.

  10. John D

    Before discussing alternatives it is worth putting together the features of a desirable system. Otherwise the discussion is likely to get bogged down on the negatives of recent elections. Here is one wish list:

    1. The party that wins the 2PP will form a stable government on its own with the power to raise the funds it needs to do the job.
    2. The number of members from each party should be close to what would have happened if the whole state/country had been one multi-member electorate using proportional preference voting.
    3. There will be a viable opposition.
    4. The result will be fairer to minor parties.
    5. Independents with strong local support can still become members.
    6. Each electorate will have one government and one non-government member.
    7. The votes in every seat are equally important.
    8. The outcome doesn’t depend on the location of electoral boundaries or the geographical distribution of party supporters.
    9. Party leaders (including the government leader) can be changed easily. (I don’t want a system like the US one where it took yonks to get rid of Nixon)
    10. Voting should be compulsory (Too easy for people to be pressured out of voting if it isn’t)
    11. Optional preference voting should be used.
    12. A vote should only be ignored at any point where it is not clear what the intention is. (Ex: If a voter allocates two 5th preferences the vote should be temporarily set aside at the point where the confusion over 5th preference actually makes a difference and brought back into the vote after this pint is passed.)
    13. Systems such as the current senate above the line system should not allow voters to vote for one party with their preferred party allocating preferences.

    So far the closest I have come to a system that meets all these requirements is this system based on Two member electorates

  11. Paul Norton

    Oz @10, the clause in the ALP Constitution you refer to reads:

    In all parliaments, the parliamentary leadership, the Ministry and Shadow Ministry shall be elected by the Parliamentary Labor Party.

    A strict application of this rule would have precluded Rudd and Gillard personally appointing Ministers in 2007, 2010 and subsequently, yet a way around the rule was found to enable them to do this. Obviously it would be preferable to openly change the rule rather than finding a hole in it to crawl through, but the question can be raised as to whether a rule change is strictly necessary in order to enable an alternative method of selecting the leader.

  12. Paul Norton

    Lefty E @6 and Mark @7 are right about the Democrats. Meg Lees’ deal with Howard over the GST legislation brought a number of latent contradictions into a state of fusion.

  13. Oz

    Paul @13 It has been suggested to me that if the Parliamentary Labor Party changes its owns rules to agree to “elect” whoever wins a direct election contest as leader then technically it could by-pass that clause in the National Rules. I assume that is how they got around it to allow the federal leader to appoint the Federal Ministry (unfortunately I don’t have a copy of the PLP rules to check).

  14. Oz

    For those interested in how the ALP could directly elect its leader, I’d also recommend this post from the UK Fabians looking at five different models for direct election of leader.

  15. Martin B

    But one rant at a time I guess.

    You’ve changed.

    Break a leg, Sacha!

  16. Peter Murphy

    I attended. Interesting speech. Quite a few MLAs attending – all LNP, I was informed. The absence of the ALP members (I was explained) was that there are only seven of them, and they’re finding it hard to cover all the committees.

    Hare-Clarke seems to be the best system to keep out “hacks and timeservers” (to use my words), according to Sasha.

    However, I felt a little uncomfortable when people tried to suss out what I did. Are you a member of parliament, or associated with any party or academic organisation? No, I’m some random bloke who happened to know Sasha from uni, but otherwise have no connection to the “political process” (beyond doing some work at ECQ). I wasn’t intimidated, but I could understand why a lot of the other 4 million or so Qlders could feel that way.

    (People weren’t doing it to be nasty, but just to see where I “fit”.)

    It’s a shame: it’s the sort of meeting that should be open to everybody, except that people don’t know about it or don’t feel wanted.

  17. Terry

    Do the Greens really favour a voting systen that would deliver 10 MPs to Bob Katter? It sounds like a Charter to promote pig shooting in national parks

  18. Peter Murphy

    Terry: I think they’d be happy with a system which delivered at least one Greens MP.

  19. Terry

    One Greens MP and ten Katterites. Sounds like a formula for success.

  20. Martin B

    Terry, Sacha is in the ALP and the Queensland Green’s policy is for MMP.

  21. Martin B

    Sorry, misplaced apostrophe. The QG have already achieved their goal of more than one party member :-)

  22. Peter Murphy

    Martin B: The people I talked to didn’t feel happy with MMP. Once the Eddie Obeids of the world get themselves on the party list, they’re there for life or royal commission. It’s also unclear where these list representatives have their offices (or even if they have offices at all). I wish the Greens would change their minds on this.

    Terry: the Greens would get at least 3 on the 17 seat partitioning, and 7 (if I recall correctly) on the 11 seat partitions.

  23. Martin B

    Once the Eddie Obeids of the world get themselves on the party list, they’re there for life or royal commission. It’s also unclear where these list representatives have their offices (or even if they have offices at all).

    Gee, it’s almost like the Senate.

  24. François-Marie Arouet

    I disagree with what the KAP have to say, but I will defend to the death their right to say it.

  25. Martin B

    Rather.

    Faced with a situation where 11.5% of Queensland voted for KAP I would describe the challenge as needing to persuade people to vote for left-of-centre parties, rather than needing to devise electoral systems that better disenfranchise the people we don’t like, but maybe that’s just my idiosyncratic understanding of democracy.

  26. Terry

    You can see how happy people on the left were when One Nation got 11 seats in the Queensland Parliament in 1998, which was also democracy in action.

  27. Paul Norton

    Some history. When the Queensland Electoral and Administrative Review Commission reviewed Queensland electoral system in 1991 in the wake of the Fitzgerald Royal Commission, it recommended single-member electorates with optional preferential voting, but also recommended that proportional representation should be considered if parties and candidates other than the then major parties (Labor, National and Liberal) began to attain a significant share of the vote. Since then we have seen the Democrats, One Nation, Greens, KAP and independents all achieving significant minority shares of the vote at different times, so the conditions proposed by EARC for PR to be looked at have certainly been met.

    Also, it is possible that political parties’ positions on electoral systems might be motivated by more than consideration of partisan advantage to themselves and disadvantage to those they dislike or disapprove of. Indeed, it is desirable that they be motivated by less base considerations.

  28. Peter Murphy

    Almost, Martin B. Good for minor parties, good for getting the Faulkners and Wongs of the world into office, good also for getting the Richos and Barnyards into public life as well, and since it’s written into the Constitution we’re stuck with it.

    If the Greens are going to choose a system, perhaps choose one with less built in defects than the others.

  29. Martin B

    The voting method for the Senate is not constitutionally entrenched, but that’s a minor quibble.

    There is a balance between a system providing proportionality (which is, ceteris paribus, a good thing) and a system providing genuine contests for as many seats as possible (ceteris paribus, also a good thing). The problem is that systems don’t do both of these things at the same time, so a balance needs to be struck.

    It’s also worth noting that most of the time (excluding landslides like Qld 12) there are many seats in parliament where the appearance of a contest is just that, an appearance, and the seats are just as safe as any top-of-the-list spot in MMP.

  30. Oz

    One could always create open lists for MMP with Robson Rotation or have the Baden-Württemberg variation where there’s no list but instead it’s the best near winner from electorate contests, allocated proportionally amongst parties.

  31. Sacha

    Thanks Mark!

  32. Lefty E

    Baden-Württemberg variation where there’s no list but instead it’s the best near winner from electorate contests,

    Interesting! I like it. That would make MMP all the more palatable for sticks in the mud I’d wager, but not presenting them with any differences in the booth.

  33. Lefty E

    Once the Eddie Obeids of the world get themselves on the party list, they’re there for life or royal commission.

    Well yes, as Martin B said, welcome to the Australian upper houses.

    But you do have a point: and Hare-Clark is much better in that regard as it allows competition as well between the candidates of the same party.