Paul Rodan looks at the impact of the Brack government’s 2003 upper house reforms on the recent state election, and discusses some options for fine-tuning
A FUNNY thing happened with the 2010 Victorian election: the lower house returned an upper house result, and the upper house returned a lower house result.
Given the nature of the electoral system, it is common for the party or parties which win government to secure more seats than their proportion of the vote would indicate. The system of single-member constituencies in the lower house (whether using first past the post or the longstanding preferential voting method) usually delivers a “winner’s bonus” to the government, as evidenced by previous results.
In the Victorian election of 2006, with the ALP securing 54.4% of the two party preferred vote (2PP), it won 62.5% of the seats; in 2002 it won 70% of the seats from 57.7% of the 2PP vote. Similar illustrations could be offered from federal elections.
Conversely, the match between votes and seats was much closer in the 2006 upper house election, the first conducted under proportional representation (PR), with the state divided into eight regions, each returning five members. With the smaller quota (16.7%) for election compared with the lower house (50% plus one), primary vote (not 2PP) is the relevant measure. Labor won 41.45% of the vote and 47.5% of the seats; the coalition won 39% of the vote and 42.5% of the seats; the Greens won 10.6% of the votes and 7.5% of the seats. The remaining spot went to the Democratic Labor Party with a miniscule 2.6% primary vote, as a consequence of the opportunistic preference deals negotiated by various parties and individuals.
The 2010 result turned this pattern on its head. With 51.6% of the 2PP, the coalition won 51% of the lower house seats, a near perfectly symmetrical result which a PR system would be unlikely to better: no winner’s bonus for them. But, in the upper house, the coalition secured 52.5% of the seats with 43.2% of the primary vote; the ALP secured 40% of seats from 35.4% and the Greens gained 7.5% of seats from 12%. The losers, in proportional terms, were the Greens and smaller groups.
With two elections behind us, it is now possible to offer some observations about the impact of the Bracks government’s upper house reforms of 2003. First, the division of the state into eight regions, rather than a single state-wide electorate as in NSW and SA, would seem to provide a greater chance of the non-Labor parties securing an outright majority, if all the cards fall right, as they did for the coalition in 2010. This was not widely seen as likely (especially by pessimistic conservatives) when the reforms were passed in 2003.
It certainly renders it more problematical to secure a close match between state-wide votes and overall seats won. The Liberal and National parties were sufficiently popular in enough regions (five) to secure three of the five positions, something Labor could only do in one region. For the foreseeable future, Labor’s primary vote weakness, due to the contest with the Greens, will make an ALP upper house majority an extremely unlikely outcome.
The election of candidates with minimal genuine support was averted, despite some speculation about perennial parliamentary aspirant Stephen Mayne and Fiona Patten of the Sex Party. However, the risk of such a falsification of democracy remains, and those genuinely concerned about “accidental elections” might consider two possible remedies. The first would be the introduction of a primary vote threshold for election (as used in some PR systems) without which candidates could not be elected, and their votes would pass to “live” candidates as per their preferences.
The second possible solution involves wider publicity for one of Victoria’s best kept secrets: that optional preferential voting (OPV) is permitted for the upper house ballot. An elector who votes below the line may do so validly by recording at least five preferences (ie the number of candidates to be elected in a region), and if this were more widely known, I suspect that some more voters might ignore the party how-to-vote card and limit their preferences to the legal minimum. Any such development works against the accidental election of assorted eccentrics and sex entrepreneurs, as such votes would exhaust rather than flow to unintended beneficiaries.
The upper house reforms also saw the end of staggered elections, a relic of conservative ideology that belongs in the nineteenth century. Victorians now vote for a government and a full house of review on the same day, a reform which the coalition opposed, but from which they now benefit- not having to cope with half the legislative council being left over from Labor’s good year of 2006.
Victoria also benefits from a reform which preceded the upper house changes- fixed terms. Under the previous system, the Baillieu government would now almost certainly be waiting for a lift in the polls before seeking a bigger majority at a premature election; in fear of such opportunism, the Labor opposition would be deferring any desirable introspection, policy review or party reform. Instead (barring an unlikely coalition by-election loss), we know that the next election will be held in November 2014- great for stability and no bad thing for democracy.
There is one anomaly which warrants comment. While electors have access to OPV for the upper house, a formal lower house vote still requires the recording of preferences for all candidates. If OPV is deemed legitimate for elections to one house, it is difficult to see the case for not extending it to the other.
A switch to OPV might help reduce the rising incidence of informal voting for lower house elections. The informal vote at the recent poll was just under 5%, a record high for Victoria, and considerably higher than the rate in NSW and Queensland where OPV is available. Previous Victorian Electoral Commission research indicates that the informal vote includes those who just vote 1 and those who fail to indicate any preference. OPV would validate the votes of the former group and conceivably pick up some of the latter who currently refuse to record preferences for candidates whose views they abhor. (For the record, the upper house informal vote was 3.4%.)
In the existing political environment, a switch to OPV would favour the coalition, who could quite easily manage their few three-cornered contests under new rules. By contrast, the Labor-Greens relationship would become even more challenging, with the latter’s supporters free not to preference the ALP at all (ie “just vote Green 1”), if it were seen to have strayed too far from the path of righteousness.
Electoral change is rarely a priority for conservative governments, but a change to OPV for the lower house merits consideration by the coalition: it would almost certainly have won them a larger majority at the recent election. This itself does not make it right or wrong since few electoral changes are party-neutral in impact: OPV just might happen to be good policy.
Paul Rodan is an adjunct professor in the Institute for Social Research at Swinburne University of Technology.