I thought I might leave the USA and its elections for a week or so, to allow something to happen there other than wonder at what might happen next with the President’s health, and give a brief account of what is happening on my own doorstop — the four-yearly elections for the Legislative Assembly of the Australian Capital Territory (ACT). To be able to do that properly, especially for those who live elsewhere, I need to say something about Proportional Representation (PR), because that is the system through which we in the ACT elect MLAs and thus a government. All Australian citizens know a version of PR in that they use it to vote for Senate candidates. But the system used in the ACT and in Tasmania is somewhat different. It is known as the Hare-Clark system, and from now on I’ll focus on the ACT, which has an Assembly of 25 MLAs, elected from five constituencies, five MLAs eventually coming from each.
The whole concept of PR was based on the belief that the shape of the parliament, wherever it was, should reflect proportionately the way in which the nation, state or territory voted. If 40 per cent of the voters supported candidates from party A, then the parliament should have around 40 per cent of its members from that party. You can see underlying that principle is the notion that parties or interest groups are important, indeed the dynamic of the political system. It’s hard to knock that principle aside. But it does have side-effects, and one of them is that if you have a nation more less evenly divided between two powerful parties or groups, then it will be difficult for elections to produce a majority government. Is that a bad thing? Opinion around the world is divided.
You can see that problem in operation in the ACT, which introduced the Hare-Clark system in 1995. Since then only one Government has been in a majority in the Assembly. All the others have been either implicit or formal agreements between the ALP and the Greens. How come? Well, both Labor and the Liberals can usually count on 40 per cent of the vote, which gives them each two of the five seats at stake. The other one is the really important contest. It is said that the ACT is a ‘natural’ Labor territory — lots of public servants, lots of highly educated people, and so on. I’m not sure of the reasons, if indeed there is anything natural about Labor’s dominance in local politics, although it is well illustrated in Federal elections. In the Territory itself? Hmm… Dunno.
Scrambling to win the fifth seat are Labor and Liberal candidates, of course, but also Greens, Independents and a raft of other groupings of whom most voters will not have heard. I hadn’t myself until I saw my own ballot-paper. So the preference orders of each voter will be crucial to the outcome. I am obliged to number five candidates, well, I am urged to. I can’t vote above the line, as I could for the Senate, because that is not an available option.
As can be inferred from what I have written above, Labor has been more successful in picking up that fifth seat, either through the transfer of preferences or through an alliance with the Greens. Indeed, Labor has been in power throughout the past nineteen years. Our election will take place on October 17th, eleven days away from the day of writing, though postal voting has been in place for some time, and lots have already voted. Because I live in an aged-care facility I have voted ‘postally’, an arrangement organised by the Electoral Commission, the ACT Government and of course the facility itself.
What are the odds? The knowledgeable are saying that Labor will scrape home again. That is not my preference. I do not think it is in the best interests of electoral democracy for one party to be in office for so long. It can lead to cosy arrangements between the private and public sectors, and that they exist has been argued for some years now. What would the Liberals know about governing? That is what Labor supporters will argue. Indeed so, but the Libs are never going to find out if they’re never given the chance to do so. That was my reasoning. I supported a woman Independent of whom I’ve heard good things, a Sikh Liberal candidate, and a Labor candidate whom I met and talked with when I was shopping. The Liberals had far and away the most multi-ethnic candidate slate; in contrast the Labor Party seemed to have drawn many of its candidates from sources close to Ministers’ offices. That’s what happens, isn’t it.
As election day gets closer the number of placards along the arterial roads gets more numerous. I’ve enjoyed some of them, and a few needed editing. My favourite was something like ‘Reduce taxes/Enlarge services’. How you can do both at the same time seems almost miraculous to me. Another urges us to ‘Unlock the bush capital’, and what is imagined here is equally mysterious to me. One of the candidates is a Dr Dan Long, whose placards proclaim ‘Vote Labor/Vote Long’. How do we vote long? Ah, it’s his name, silly. But it reminds me of an apocryphal slogan from the past, which was ‘Vote early, vote often!’ and another from the distant past: ‘It doesn’t matter whom you vote for. A politician always gets in. Vote Informal!’
Will the outcome matter in the broader scheme of things? I doubt it. What will happen in Queensland at the end of the month, when the sunshine state has its own general elections, will not be affected at all. Nor will it be any real guide to the next Federal elections, due in 2022. We in Canberra will have either a Liberal Government supported by an Independent, or a Labor Government supported by the Greens. They are the most likely results. Will it make much difference to the quality of life in the ACT? I doubt it. It will be most interesting to see in action a new government none of whose members has ever had ministerial responsibility, rather like the Whitlam Government in 1972, though that is not a model I would urge the Liberals to follow, if they succeed on October 17th.
Back to PR, in conclusion. One last issue for me is the matter of representation. Your five members do not represent anyone anywhere in particular inside their large electorates. As I wrote in an earlier essay on the US election, I am keen that representatives actually represent us and can be held accountable for the way they do it. The Hare-Cark system doesn’t provide for that, any more than the Senate PR system does. They are deficiencies, in my view. But Canberra has, to round upwards, around 500,000 people, and 25 MLAs would be representing 20,000 each. It would make for pretty small single-member electorates.
There is no perfect electoral system, but that’s the one we have in the ACT. I’ll provide a small report on the outcome when I know what that is. It may take some time to be absolutely sure.