Electoral (Legislative Council Voting Reform) Amendment Bill 2013

Comments from the Electoral Reform Society of SA, November 2013

This Bill seeks to introduce the Saint-Lague system of vote counting for the Upper House.

In trying to explain this system, Antony Green gave this description in his blog (http://blogs.abc.net.au/antonygreen/):

Sainte-Lague is a conceptual departure from the traditional Australian method of electing members from multi-member electorates. Sainte-Lague is an electoral system with no quota, no preferences, and as proposed by the SA government, is a system based on votes for party rather than votes for candidates.”

For all the reasons given in this description, this Bill should NOT be allowed to proceed.

  • departure from the traditional Australian method of electing members from multi-member electorates

    It will be an untried, untested method not consistent with any experience elsewhere in South Australia, or Australia for that matter, and will lead to confusion and less confidence in our electoral system.
  • an electoral system with no quota

    It is ironic that in South Australia which has a proud record of being the first place in the world where the quota was used in a public election (for the 1840 election of the Municipal Corporation for the City of Adelaide), the State Government now wants to discard this principle.

    Currently to get elected to the Upper House when there are 11 members to be elected, each of those elected needs to receive a quota of 8.3% of the total votes (first preferences plus further preferences). All elected candidates are on the same footing with no excessive votes. More importantly, almost all voters find their votes going towards electing a member and the number of wasted votes is low.

    The Saint-Lague system is divisor-based rather than quota-based and uses averages. Averaging schemes can be somewhat random in their application, especially after a few vacancies have been filled and the larger parties’ quotients start dropping rather slowly. In addition, more voters will find their votes not being used towards electing anyone.

  • no preferences

    South Australia has used preferential voting since 1930 and is an exemplar of its success. After 83 years, this should be strengthened, not undermined. And there will be confusion with voting for the Lower House where there is preferential voting. It will in effect be a first-past-the-post system which is the least representative of all electoral systems.
  • a system based on votes for party rather than votes for candidates

    After the increase in wasted votes, this is one of the main faults of the proposed system. There is no opportunity to vote for individual candidates within a party group, which is a right that is accepted tacitly in the Australian Constitution, and is why voting below the line remained when above the line voting was unadvisedly introduced in 1985. It is also against the spirit of the Constitution, which was written to give power to the people, not the parties.

    Previous attempts to introduce party list systems in Australia have failed. There was a closed list system used for the Upper House for the 1975 and 1979 elections, but as it distorted the results thankfully it was abandoned after only two elections.

Comment on the Bill

There has suddenly become a concern about “preference-harvesting” agreements between minor groups following the recent Senate election. There was not the same concern when such agreements previously favoured the major parties.

In foreshadowing this Bill, Deputy Premier Hon John Rau stated:

“The reforms seek to reduce the likelihood of outcomes where poorly supported candidates obtain a seat in the Upper House, ahead of candidates who receive far greater popular support.”

It does not appeared to have mattered that at the last election there were three Liberal and two ALP members elected to the Upper House, who each initially received less than 200 first preferences when the quota to get elected was almost 80,000 votes.

The policy of the Electoral Reform Society of SA is that –

Above the line voting for the Upper House should be abolished in favour of optional preferential voting.

When this happens, any preference-harvesting agreements will lose significance as it is the voters who will be able to have a more effective say in who they want elected.

What can be done now to improve the process for next year’s election?

There is no doubt that the method of electing the Upper House needs to be changed, but making changes in the last sitting week before the next State Election is not the time to do this.

The Electoral Reform Society had raised issues with the voting system for the Upper House in our submission in June 2010 to the Select Committee on Matters related to the General Election of 20 March 2010. It is a pity that neither the Select Committee, the State Government or Parliament wanted to consider the Upper House at that time when there could have been a public discussion of any proposals and a considered debate in Parliament.

As there is now not time to make too many changes, as an interim step more details need to be provided to the voters about the current system so they can have an understanding about how their votes are counted.

At the last election, the Electoral Commission SA distributed an Easy Voting Card letter to all voters. This included details on the voter’s electorate, polling places within the electorate and messages in other languages.

This letter needs to be sent again with additional information provided including a full explanation of voting for the Upper House and details on the voting tickets.

It was pleasing that the actual voting tickets for the Legislative Council were placed on the Electoral Commission website at the last election. This practice also needs to be repeated.

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