Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Australian AV deadlock

Australia has one of the strongest two party systems in the world. So it's amazing that yesterday's election has produced a hung parliament and potential deadlock that makes our election outcome look simple by comparison.

Hung parliaments are historically rare in Australia. I can think of only six previous ones - the 1901, 1903 & 1906 elections when the party system was still in flux with three sizeable groups (Free Traders, Protectionists and Labor), the 1922 and 1934 elections when the Coalition between the Nationalists/United Australia Party and Country Party (now the Nationals) wasn't operating but it was soon assembled afterwards, and 1940 when the Coalition and Labor were neck & neck, with two independents holding the balance of power. The two independents supported the Coalition for a year, but then when Robert Menzies was deposed as Prime Minister the independents deserted and Labor took office without an election. The 1901-1910 period also saw a lot of parliamentary musical chairs as three parties vie for an outcome.

This time round the situation could be very messy. Firstly a note on the results figures floating around - these are provisional. Australia counts by the polling station and the formal declaration usually doesn't come for a couple of weeks. In the meantime most results are clear enough but a few knife-edge seats could tip either way, not least because postal votes can still arrive for the next two weeks. (The Australian: Count continuing and state swings notes how in 2007 the initial projection and final outcome varied.)

The second key point is that contrary to the way a lot of the national figures have been presented, one of the Nationals MPs is not going to be part of the conservative Coalition. The Nationals in Western Australia take a different approach from their eastern counterparts and operate as an independent third force focused on the needs of regional Australia. They are willing to work with Labor if it will help their constituents (and their counterparts in South Australia have already done so) and want the federal party to do the same. And if Tony Crook (who ironically defeated the only sitting MP with a criminal conviction) can't get that then he will probably be another independent force.

So the current provisional seat count is as follows:

Labor 72
Liberal/National Coalition 72
Independents 4
Greens 1
WA Nationals 1

Three of the Independents are ex Nationals & sitting MPs re-elected - see Third parties & independents under AV - the Australian experience for more details. The fourth independent is an ex Green candidate and anti-war protester who has won the urban seat of Denison.

So the balance of power rests with a disparate "Gang of Six" on the crossbenches and these six will not all work together as one block. There's also no real clarity over which of the two main parties have at least a plurality - they're equal in seats and the "Two-Party-Preferred" vote is very close and will take to finalise. So there isn't even anything to guide the six towards which party has a stronger democratic basis to form the next government. And whilst the three ex National Independents have publicly announced they will have discussions amongst themselves about what to do, they're giving slightly different signals about their intentions. And of course even if they do work as a block of three they can't deliver a majority in & of themselves. If the WA National joins them then they could at least offer a two vote majority but of the other two floaters the Green says he will support Labor and the the ex-Green independent would probably do the same, though he also wants a redress of the way federal funding goes in his state.

Advocates of hung parliaments and coalitions are fond of claiming that hung parliaments are good for countries because they produce compromises. But I don't think Australia is going to have that in pursuit of a majority. Instead it's likely that whichever party forms a government will do so by pumping extra federal spending into the various crossbenchers' constituencies. It's a great advert for hung parliaments isn't it?

Friday, August 20, 2010

Third parties & independents under AV - the Australian experience

Tomorrow the Australians will be electing a new parliament, doing so with the Alternative Vote that we will soon be considering here in the UK. Many of the individual election results will provide examples and points of argument, but one contest in particular is attracting attention, that for the Division of Melbourne, focused on the city's central business district. This is because there is a prospect of a third party making a breakthrough into the House of Representatives, traditionally a very two party place (the Liberal-National Coalition is basically one party in this line of argument). Now people like Antony Green are asking Can the Greens Win Melbourne? Tomorrow evening we will find out. (Unless of course it's really close and we have to wait longer for postal votes and recounts.)

With a coalition in the UK and so many smaller parties in the Commons people are naturally wondering if the introduction of AV will continue the trend or instead reverse it - indeed some Labour members have declared they will vote for AV precisely because of the limited success of third parties and independents in Australia. I am doubtful whether direct comparisons are meaningful in this regard, not least because Australia's elected Senate has given third parties an alternative target, but it seem a good time to look at the success rate of third force elements in Australia.

1949 is the best watershed to pick in Australian electoral history as it saw a change of government (with the victorious Coalition holding power for no less than 23 years) and a significant increase in the House of Representatives, whilst the party system has predominantly stayed the same since then. So what has been the record of the Alternative Vote in electing third parties and independents since then?

Very few is the answer. Only one federal general election since then has seen any MPs from a "third force" party elected at all, and that was in the circumstances of the 1987 election when the Liberal-National Coalition split and the Nationals fought as an independent force. I don't think this one really counts at all.

Only one other third party MP has been elected in the last sixty-one years, and that was Michael Organ who won the Cunningham by-election for the Greens in 2002, taking the seat from Labor. But this was a by-election in which the governing Liberal-Nationals did not stand a candidate whilst there were many minor and independent parties who directed preferences (via "How To Vote" cards) to Organ. He won despite having polled barely 23% of the first preferences. In 2004 it was a return to normal with the Liberals running a candidate who pushed Organ into third place whilst Labor regained the seat.

And that's it for third parties, although we wait to see if that changes at the weekend.

What about independents? Well in 1949 Lewis Nott (who had served as a Nationalist MP in the 1920s) won the Australian Capital Territory division with the help of Liberal transfers, but MPs for the territories did not have full voting rights at the time and this was not as significant a victory as a full voting seat. Nott was defeated in 1951.

The next successful independent was Sam Benson in 1966. He was a sitting Labor MP until expelled from the party for his support for the Defend Australia Committee, a predominantly right-wing body. He polled third but was elected thanks to Democratic Labor Party transfers getting him over the Liberals, in turn getting him over Labor. On both occasions the transfers were over 90% in his favour - a tribute to the effectiveness of How To Vote cards. Benson served one further term before retiring.

No more independents were elected until 1990, when Ted Mack was elected for North Sydney. Mack was the first of several independents who had built up a political profile at other levels of government, first serving as an independent member and then Mayor of North Sydney council. On the back of his profile he then won a seat in the state parliament as an independent. In 1990 he ran for the federal parliament and topped the first preferences, then took Democrats and Labor transfers to defeat the sitting Liberal. Mack was re-elected in 1993 and served until 1996.

Another independent was elected in the same parliament. Phil Clearly was the first independent in the period who did not have a previous political record. He was a former Australian rules football player and coach. In 1992 Bob Hawke resigned from parliament and the resulting Wills by-election attracted 22 candidates, mostly independents. In a crowded field and a high profile election Clearly took a third of the vote and benefitted from most other candidates' transfers. Clearly was subsequently disqualified for being a Crown employee when elected but won the seat again in the 1993 election. He lost in 1996 when boundary changes weakened his position and Labor retook the seat.

The 1996 election saw no less than five independents elected, all of whom can be easily categorised:

Ex Liberals:

* Pauline Hanson was selected as a Liberal candidate in a safe Labor seat but expelled from the party after she gained national fame from calling for the abolition of government assistance for indigenous Australians. She was expelled from the Liberals, but too late for the ballot papers to be changed; however her national fame saw her take nearly half the first preferences and achieve a two-candidate preferred result of 54.7%. She subsequently formed One Nation but was defeated in 1998 due to a combination of boundary changes and the mainstream parties directly tackling both One Nation and the roots of its support.

* Allan Rocher, a sitting Liberal MP who was defeated for renomination (in Australian parties sitting MPs can be directly challenged for nominations) but stood as an independent and held the seat, largely by outpolling Labor and then taking the latter's transfers to defeat the Liberals. He was defeated in 1998.

* Paul Filing, another deselected Liberal MP who held his seat as an independent, though this time using Liberal transfers to beat Labor, before being defeated in 1998.

Ex Labor:

* Graeme Campbell, a sitting Labor MP expelled for support for various far right causes and organisations. He absorbed Liberal transfers to defeat Labor, subsequently forming the "Australia First", a fringe nationalist party. In 1998 he was defeated.

Independent "celebrity"

* Peter Andren, a broadcaster who won Calare from the Nationals after a tight three-way contest in which Andren ultimately benefited from Labor transfers. Andren was the only one of the five independents to retain his seat in 1998 and served until 2007 when the regular scourge of independents, boundary changes, put his parliamentary future in doubt. He announced he would stand down from the House of Representatives at the 2007 election and instead stand for the Senate; however he abandoned his plans when diagnosed with cancer later that year and died just after the dissolution of the parliament.

In 2001 Andren was joined by two more independents, and since his retirement a third was elected in a 2008 by-election. All three have served up to now and are restanding, and all are ex National Party politicians:

* Bob Katter, a sitting National MP (and former state MP and minister) who left the National Party as he disagreed with it on economic and social issues. In 2001 he polled nearly half the first preferences, easily dwarfing his old party whose transfers joined with One Nation's to helped Katter defeat Labor. Katter's primary vote has since stood at about 40% in both subsequent elections but the bulk of transfers have helped him reach the final two and easily defeat Labor each time.

* Tony Windsor was originally picked as a National candidate for the New South Wales state parliament in 1991, but deselected over accusations about drink driving. Standing as an independent he won and held the seat for ten years, before standing for the federal parliament in 2001 in a normally National held seat. He took nearly half the primary vote and absorbed transfers from One Nation and Labor to defeat the Nationals. At the two subsequent elections Windsor has polled a primary vote of around 60% each time.

* Rob Oakeshott was a sitting National state MP in New South Wales when he left the party in 2002 after a period of disillusionment and disputes about influences in his constituency. He held his state seat as an independent until 2008 when a federal by-election occurred in the wider Lynne seat. Oakshott stood and took the seat from the Nationals with 64% of the primary vote (with Labor not standing a candidate) and most small party transfers.

What does this rundown show? Well of the twelve independents elected in the period most were the products of splits within their party (even if the split was localised to themselves). Only three had no background in a major party and only two had no prior political experience at all. None lacked any public profile at all. Furthermore no less than seven were elected in a single decade (even if one was to be re-elected in the following). By UK terms this is predominantly a collection of independents like Sylvia Hermon and the late Peter Law rather than Martin Bell and Richard Taylor.

And the UK practice and culture will likely be different. Some of the Australian independents were able to get a strong enough personal vote to be elected in their own right, but others only won their elections because they were able to outpoll one of the two big parties and then take that party's transfers to defeat the other. A system of optional preferencing where How To Vote cards are (at least initially) likely to be rare (and the British election law about what can be given to voters going into a polling station differs from Australia's) would have made it much harder for some of these independents to be elected. The Greens would also likely have lost in Cunningham had the Liberals stood a candidate in that by-elections - in the UK there is no real tradition of major parties not contesting by-elections, at least outside of Northern Ireland (and that's a repeat of the general election pattern). So in many regards third parties face an even tougher struggle.

On the other hand as I previously explained one doesn't always need 50% of people voting to win under AV, and there are several already established smaller parties along with a greater floating vote that is willing to go outside the big two, so the third parties and independents would have greater scope for election. It is all swings and roundabouts.

Monday, August 09, 2010

Labour and One Person One Vote

"One Person One Vote" is a slogan that has had multiple uses over the years. It has been used to call for universal suffrage, for the abolition of plural voting and for equal sized constituencies (also called "One Vote One Value" in places). But the basic principle is the same throughout.

So it's interesting to note that at the same time that the Labour Party is running around screaming fake moral outrage about steps to reduce malapportionment in this country, they are also conducting a leadership election where One Member One Vote is noticeably absent. Instead some members will be getting significantly more votes than others. In theory a member could get no less than 32 different ballot papers and cast every single one of them without breaking the rules.

So much for Labour's claims for equality and democracy!

Hattip to Cllr Iain Lindley's Diary: Unequal Votes and Tory Radio: Do Labour MPs advocate stuffing the ballot box?.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Unusual versions of the Alternative Vote

As a slight epilogue to my previous post Alterative Vote: What does 50% mean? I've remembered at least one unusual version of AV from my days of counting students' union elections which had its own definition of 50%.

Back in my days at the University of Kent the students' union (known as "Kent Union") used a version of the Alternative Vote with some quite unusual features. I got the impression that the rules used had been written by someone who either didn't really understand the system or else was trying to impose their own philosophy onto the voters.

By far the most inexplicable rule related to the "Re-Open Nominations" (or "RON") option. In almost all other versions of AV I've seen, RON is treated like any other candidate. But in the old Kent rules someone decided that it was wrong to transfer votes to and from RON - you could either select the RON option or express preferences for candidates but not both. RON's fate was decided in the first round of the count and it merely had to outpoll the candidate with the highest number of first preferences, regardless on the numbers involved. Otherwise all RON votes were set aside and the rest of the election proceeded without it. This nonsense has long since been abolished.

In the rest of the count it was not unusual for a lot of votes for excluded candidates to fail to transfer (or "exhaust") and so the winning candidate could get elected with less than 50% of valid post-RON exclusion votes. And there were even times when a candidate had an unassailable lead before the final two - they might have 45% of all the votes, one opponent 20%, another 15% and 20% exhausted. Under any other AV system they would be declared elected there and then, but for some never explained reason the Kent rules (or the person interpreting them) required the count to continue until the candidate had achieved 50% (even with two or more opponents) or all other candidates were excluded. This could result in pointless additional rounds in a count that added nothing to the outcome.

The idea seems to have been to ensure the eventual winner had the support of at least 50% of those voting (excluding the RON voters) but it made no difference to the outcome and in any case very few people paid attention to the actual voting figures. It also didn't really address what would happen if the winner didn't have the backing of 50% of those voting, and a new election would have made little sense when that very option was on the ballot paper and rejected. In practice in a close final two on transfers the winner indeed lacked 50% but this made no difference anyway.

Fortunately in a subsequent constitutional rewrite attempts to re-invent the wheel were abandoned and standard rules imported.

One other bizarre case came in elections for the University of London Union. These saw frequent problems and frustrations despite (or more likely because of) a permanent returning officer and the rules followed could often change from year to year. In general the ULU rules treated the RON option like any other candidate but in one year someone decided that RON could not be excluded and thus the entire count was run with other candidates eliminated in succession until the last candidate standing, who had significantly more votes than RON. Maybe someone was trying a system to see if the winner was acceptable to all voters, but it's another recipe for a mess, and when it had been arbitarily imposed with no discussion whatsoever it added to the impression that the running of ULU elections was a complete farce. In subsequent elections this impression has not dispersed.

Saturday, August 07, 2010

Alterative Vote: What does 50% mean?

I've recently written a few pieces answering various questions about the operation of the Alternative Vote, including ConservativeHome CentreRight: The Alternative Vote in Australia – what does it produce?. There's another question that's come up a bit, namely:

"Who are the '50%' needed to win election?"

This is actually more complex than it sounds because an awful lot of the comment on this is confusing several distinct definitions. For example Nick Clegg, in evidence to the Commons Select Committee, stated:

" also means that people elected to Westminster know that, through the redistribution of the votes, they have a mandate of 50% or more of people in their community..."
(Quoted in The Constitution Society: Briefing Paper: Alternative Voting, page 3)

Clegg's statement is as confused as much of it. By "community" does he mean:
  1. Every single person living in a constituency, including children, eligible but unregistered adults and ineligible adults (mainly non-citizens)?
  2. Every single adult living in a constituency...?
  3. The full registered electorate, including many "ghost voters" who are still on the register despite having moved?
  4. The "actual" registered electorate, excluding the "ghost voters"?
  5. Voters who turn out and cast ballot papers?
  6. Voters who turn out and cast valid votes?
  7. Voters whose ballot paper is still the count at the crucial stage electing an MP?
  8. Voters whose ballot paper is still in the count at the "Two Party/Candidate Preferred" stage?
(The "Two Party/Candidate Preferred" stage is little known in the UK and in the numerous AV elections I've counted over the years I've never seen it done when a winner is already clear. It involves taking the count all the way to either the last two surviving candidates or the candidates from the two main parties to see the full distribution of support, even when the election has been decided at an early stage.)

Sure some of these are relatively close definitions but there's a big gap between others. Non-voters are a part of the community, but they're not part of the election process and I've not noticed anything in the proposed referendum that's going to change that. Similarly "ghost voters" are effectively out of the process (though get counted in the official turnout statistics). And there's no clear evidence as to whether AV will actually lead to an increase in turnout or what the impact will be on the level of spoilt ballot papers. There will be all manner of claims made in all directions on those points, but the one thing that can be said for sure is that compulsory voting is not on the table.

The crucial "50%" actually refers to a stage in the count when one candidate gets more votes than all other candidates still in the count. If votes don't transfer then a candidate can get elected with less than 50% of all valid votes cast. This isn't just hypothetical. The Australian state of Queensland uses the "optional preferencing" system that the UK will be offered, and although turnout is compulsory you can still get members of the Legislative Assembly elected with less than 50% of the vote. In the last state election 16 of the 89 seats were won with this - and that's when the votes are transferred all the way to the Two Party/Candidate Preferred. (Psephos: Queensland election of 21 March 2009) There would probably have been many more cases if the Liberal and National parties had not merged and instead fielded separate candidates in many seats.

Closer to home over the years I've been involved with many many AV elections for a large variety of organisations. When there were quite a few candidates (usually four or more) it was quite common for large numbers of voters to fail to use their transfers, with the frequent result that the winner again had significantly less than 50%.

To explain how this works, a constituency might have the following first preferences:

Conservative 40
Labour 35
Liberal Democrat 15
UK Independence Party 6
Green 4

Nobody wins on the first round. Transfers might go as follows:

Exclude Greens

Conservative 40
Labour 36
Liberal Democrat 17
UK Independence Party 6
Non-Transfers 1

Exclude UK Independence Party

Conservative 43
Labour 37
Liberal Democrat 18
Non-Transfers 2

Exclude Liberal Democrat

Conservative 49 ELECTED
Labour 45
Non-Transfers 6

You'll see that the Conservative has won with less than 50% of the total votes cast but it's still more than 50% of the crucial stage. And if turnout is only 60% of registered voters then the winner has the support of only 29.4% of voters on the crucial round, 24% of first preferences and an even lower proportion of the entire population.

These figures are rather different from the image being thrown about by some AV supporters that the system is going to result in MPs suddenly having huge mandates and the support of the "majority of the community". The choice at the forthcoming referendum is not so clear cut as it may first seem.

Friday, August 06, 2010

Adolf Hitler in care

A lot of people have at some time or another come to dislike their name for whatever reason. But some have it even worse than others as they have been given really bizarre names. Who would want to be named "Number 16 Bus Shelter"? (I'm not making that up - it is the real registered name of a child in New Zealand. BBC News: NZ judge orders 'odd' name change)

Sure people can legally change their names, but by their time they are aware and able to do it themselves the damage has already been done. Such is the case for the very young "Adolf Hitler Campbell" and his siblings "JoyceLynn Aryan Nation" and "Honszlynn Hinler Jeannie". All three have been taken in care and their parents denied custody by a US court. (BBC News: US court denies parents custody of Hitler and his sisters) There appear to be additional reasons for the decision but it's clear their names are going to expose them to ridicule and bullying long before they can change them, if they so wish.

It may be unfashionable to say it, but there are times when parents don't know best and shouldn't be allowed free reign when their decisions can have serious detrimental effects for their children's lives. This is one of those times.

But as well as the parents there are others also complicit in this. Who allowed these names to be registered in the first place?


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