Report of the Electoral Matters Committee

ParlVicThe Parliament of the Australian state of Victoria’s Electoral Matters Committee released the report of its Inquiry into the future of Victoria’s electoral administration. It’s a lengthy (144 pages) report, and much of it deals with the nitty-gritty of voting in the State of Victoria. Chapter 3, however, might be of more general interest to Canadians who advocate for the adoption of the preferential ballot (aka the ranked ballot, or the Alternative Vote).

There are two different voting systems used in the State of Victoria. Full preferential voting is used to elect Members to the Legislative Assembly, while single transferable vote (STV) is used to elect the upper chamber, the Legislative Council.

Full preferential means that for a ballot to count, what is known in Australia as a formal ballot, the voter has to rank, in order of preference, every single candidate listed on the ballot. If the voter fails to do so, theirs becomes an informal ballot and is not counted – what we here in Canada would call a spoiled ballot.

While one of the main concerns about voting here in Canada is undoubtedly the issue of voter turnout, this is not the case in Australia, which has compulsory voting. Instead, the main concern around the use of full preferential is the increase in the number of informal ballots. This isn’t a phenomenon limited to the State of Victoria; the rates of informal voting are increasing in most Australian jurisdictions, both at the state and federal level.

At the 2010 Victorian state election, the rate of informal voting for the Legislative Assembly was 4.96%, which means that just under 5% of the ballots cast couldn’t be counted because they hadn’t been filled in properly. This is the highest rate of information voting ever, and a 50% increase over the 2002 election. While I can understand why this trend would worry people, when contrasted to Canadian elections which see a voter turnout barely topping 50% at times, I can’t help but see this as a relatively mild concern. Yet, it is a problem, and Chapter Three of the report looks at ways to try to reverse this trend.

Long story short, the Committee put forward the following recommendation:

Recommendations 3.1: The Committee recommends the Victoria Government amend the Electoral Act 2002 (Vic) to introduce a system of optional preferential voting (OPV) for Victorian Legislative Assembly elections. In drafting these amendments the Victorian Government should examine the model of OPB used in NSW and Queensland.

Both New South Wales and Queensland use what the report calls “full” Optional Preferential Voting (OPV). Electors in NSW and Queensland have the choice of voting for one candidate, more than one candidate, or all of the candidates on the ballot paper. In other words, they don’t have to rank every single candidate on the ballot paper; they can rank only their first choice, or rank as many or as few as they please. Both states have lower rates of informal voting than Victoria; the rate for the 2011 Legislative Assembly election in NSW was 3.2%, while the rate in the 2012 Queensland Legislative Assembly vote was 2.2%.

While the rate of informal voting (spoiled ballots) might be better under full OPV, it has other problems associated with it. The report does reference these. The most glaring one, to me at least, is that because voters can choose to rank only one candidate on their ballot, there is a risk that full OPV becomes a de facto First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) system. And indeed, there is evidence that this is happening. In 2011, the Queensland Attorney General reported to Cabinet on Queensland’s OPV voting system and noted that in the 2009 state election, 63% of ballot papers were marked “1″ only. At the 2006 election, the rate was 62%. Up until 2001, the rate had been significantly lower – only 20.7% in 1995, for example.

Why does this matter? As I have explained in numerous past posts on this topic, the only advantage any type of ranked ballot has over FPTP is that it is supposed to eliminate candidates being elected without majority support. As we all know, under FPTP, it isn’t unusual for candidates to win with minority support, meaning, they receive less than 50% of the votes cast. A majority of MPs in both the UK and Canadian Houses of Commons were elected with less than 50% support – often a lot less.

There is significant support for adopting preferential voting in Canada – both federally and more recently, it has been proposed for municipalities in Ontario. I don’t think anyone in Canada is proposing full preferential – requiring voters to rank every single candidate on the ballot paper – at least, every single discussion I have seen on the topic here in Canada refers to optional preferential. However, I have also never seen anyone address this reality about OPV – that not all voters will bother to rank candidates, and if most ballots are marked with “1″ only, then we’ll still be stuck with essentially a FPTP system.

Another problem with OPV is that it favours the candidate in first place on the first count. Or as Antony Green put it: “Optional preferential voting makes it easier for the candidate leading on first preferences to reach 50% of a shrinking pool of votes in the count, and harder for a second placed candidate to come from behind and win.” This again reinforces the FPTP-ness of OPV.

Full preferential is problematic in its own right, however. Most ballot papers here in Canada have more than 3-4 candidates on them. While it might be easy enough for most voters to rank candidates from the big parties, how do you then rank independents and candidates representing fringe parties you may never have heard of? Or take the mayoral race for the City of Toronto – while only a handful of candidates get any real media coverage, there are over 40 candidates actually running for mayor at time of writing. Who on earth would even want to attempt to rank all of them in some sort of order of preference?

While the Victoria Electoral Matters Committee is favouring OPV, I think my preferred option would be Modified OPV, as used in Tasmania. It’s sort of a hybrid of full and optional preferential. In Tasmania, for a vote to count, the voter has to rank at least five candidates. They can rank more than five if they want, but the rest are optional. I think this would be a good compromise for any jurisdiction in Canada that might adopt preferential voting. It would ensure that the system doesn’t resort back to a de facto FPTP system, but at the same time, wouldn’t force Canadians into making (too many) “artificial” choices. Note – I’m not 100% beholden to the number five – but I wouldn’t go any lower than 3 and think it might be best if it were more than three as that might have unduly negative consequences for minor parties.

If you’re interested in the Electoral Matters Committee report, it can be downloaded here.

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Australia might be headed for a double dissolution

Australia-VotesAustralia, like Canada and the United Kingdom, has a bicameral parliament, meaning it consists of two Houses, the lower house, the House of Representatives and the upper house, the Senate. Unlike Canada and the United Kingdom, however, Australia’s upper chamber is elected.

The House of Representatives normally lasts no more than three years. Senators, however, are elected for six-year terms. This means, that, under normal circumstances, when the House of Representatives is dissolved every three years for a new general election, the Senate continues to exist as Senators remain in office until the completion of their term and only half stand for election at any one time.

The most recent general election in Australia occurred on 7 September 2013. The House of Representatives was dissolved, and 40 of the 76 Senate seats were also contested.

Australia’s Constitution does allow for dissolution of the Senate, but only under very specific circumstances. This provision is called a double dissolution.

Double Dissolution

In Australia, as is the case in Canada and the United Kingdom, legislation must pass both Houses of Parliament before it can receive Royal Assent and become law.

In the UK, once a bill has passed third reading in both Houses, it returns to the House where it was introduced for the second House’s amendments (proposals for change) to be considered. Both Houses must agree on the exact wording of the Bill.

If the Commons makes amendments to the Bill, the Lords must consider them and either agree or disagree to the amendments or make alternative proposals. If the Lords disagrees with any Commons amendments, or makes alternative proposals, then the Bill is sent back to the Commons. A Bill may go back and forth between each House until both Houses reach agreement. This is usually referred to as the “ping pong” stage. In exceptional cases, when the two Houses do not reach agreement, the Bill falls. If certain conditions are met, the Commons can use the Parliament Acts to pass the Bill, without the consent of the Lords, in the following session.

The process is similar in Canada. The Senate often makes amendments to bills, some of which involve corrections to drafting errors or improvements to administrative aspects. The House normally accepts such amendments. If the House does not agree with the Senate amendments, it adopts a motion stating the reasons for its disagreement, which it communicates in a message to the Senate. If the Senate wishes the amendments to stand nonetheless, it sends a message back to the House, which then accepts or rejects the proposed changes. If an agreement cannot be reached by exchanging messages, the House that has possession of the bill may ask that a conference be held, although this practice has fallen into disuse, with the last one occurring in 1947. Over the years, the exchange of messages and the appearance of Ministers before House and Senate committees have considerably reduced the need for this procedure. If no agreement between the two houses is reached, the bill remains on the Order Paper where it dies at the end of the session; no new bill may be introduced in the Commons on the same subject matter and containing similar provisions.

As stated, the Canadian Senate and the UK House of Lords are not elected bodies, therefore, these upper chambers will tend to recognize the primacy of the elected chamber. In Australia, because Senators are elected, the situation is more complex.

When the government does not have a majority in the Senate a situation can arise that the two Houses disagree over proposed legislation. In most cases compromises are reached and amendments are made by one or the other House until the bill concerned is in a state acceptable to both.

However, there have been occasions when no agreement could be reached between the two Houses. The Constitution provides the double dissolution mechanism as a means of breaking a deadlock between the Houses when such compromise is not achieved.

In effect the legislation may be put to the people, presenting the electorate with the opportunity to change the composition of the Senate following a full Senate election. There is also of course the possibility of a change in the composition of the House (i.e. a change of Government)—the deadlock may be broken in either direction.

If, after a double dissolution and elections for both Houses, the Houses continue to disagree on the same bill, the Governor-General may convene a joint sitting of both Houses to enable the members of both Houses to vote together to resolve the matter. The House of Representatives has almost twice as many Members as the Senate, consequently a joint sitting is likely to see the will of a majority of the House overcome Senate resistance.

There have been only six double dissolutions; the last occurred in 1987.

Current Situation

The Liberal/National Coalition campaigned on a promise to (among other things) repeal the previous Labor Government’s carbon tax. After forming the Government following the September 2013 election, House of Representatives passed the Abbott Government’s legislation to repeal the Clean Energy Finance Corp. on 21 November 2013. The Senate rejected the bill on 10 December 2013. Three months have now passed, the the bill is scheduled to be re-introduced in the House of Representatives on 27 March 2014. If the Senate again refuses to pass the bill, the Prime Minister will be in a position to advise the Governor-General to dissolve both Houses. The Coalition had indicated even before the September 2013 election that it would trigger a double dissolution if it was prevented from repealing the carbon tax.

These are the steps which must take place before a double dissolution is possible.

Double dissolution

  1. The House of Representatives passes a bill and sends it to the Senate.
  2. The Senate rejects the bill, or fails to pass it, or passes it with amendments to which the House of Representatives will not agree.
  3. After an interval of three months (but in the same or the next session of Parliament), the House of Representatives passes the bill a second time and sends it to the Senate again. The bill reintroduced must be the original bill, except that it may be modified by amendments made, requested or agreed to by the Senate.
  4. The Senate again rejects the bill, or fails to pass it, or passes it with amendments to which the House of Representatives will not agree.
  5. The Prime Minister may now advise the Governor-General to dissolve both Houses. Once the preceding conditions have occurred, whether and when to advise a double dissolution is a matter for the Prime Minister. There is no constitutional necessity to do so, or to do so within any period of time.However, a double dissolution cannot occur within six months of the end of a three year term of the House of Representatives.
  6. Elections are held for both Houses.

Joint sitting

  1. In the new Parliament the House of Representatives passes the bill again and sends it to the Senate. The bill may be reintroduced with or without amendments made, requested or agreed to by the Senate. There is no constitutional necessity to reintroduce a bill that was the cause of the double dissolution.
  2. The Senate again rejects the bill, or fails to pass it, or passes it with amendments to which the House of Representatives will not agree.
  3. The Prime Minister may now advise the Governor-General to convene a joint sitting of the members of both Houses.
  4. The joint sitting votes on the bill as last proposed by the House of Representatives and on any amendments made by one House and not agreed to by the other. To be passed, amendments and the bill (as, and if, so amended) must be agreed to by an absolute majority—i.e. more than half of the total number of the members of both Houses.

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On forcing out a party leader

As touched on in my first post on the Reform Act, some critics of the bill argue that formal rules establishing a procedure by which a party caucus could initiate a vote of confidence in, followed by the possible removal of, its leader aren’t necessary since caucuses already have that power. Alice Funke, for example, writes:

there is nothing in the law currently preventing party caucuses from doing this very thing now, and indeed they have done so frequently in our current system: Joe Clark was pushed into a leadership review, Michel Gauthier was pushed out as leader by the Bloc Québécois caucus, a good part of Stockwell Day’s caucus left him and the Canadian Alliance and joined the remainder of the Tories instead. And a significant group of Paul Martin backers were hatching plots to oust Jean Chrétien as Liberal leader and Prime Minister.

Today on Twitter, Ms. Funke linked to this article which describes how the British Columbia Social Credit Party caucus forced their leader (and at the time Premier) Bill Vander Zalm out in 1991.

It is certainly true that even without formal guidelines or rules in place, a caucus can exert enough pressure to force a leader to resign, or at least agree to a leadership review at a party conference, but the process can be a lengthy, messy and often very public one which can end up being quite detrimental to the party in the long run. One only needs to think of the Chrétien-Martin divide which hurt the Liberal Party of Canada long after the fact, or the Blair-Brown divide which similarly plagued the UK Labour Party.

The Vander Zalm case is, in fact, a good example of why specific rules would be a good idea. Because the party itself did not have a process in place to allow the caucus to trigger an internal leadership vote of confidence, the party members had to resort to using a parliamentary procedure to achieve what they could not: they planned to table a motion of non-confidence in their own government. Ultimately, the motion wasn’t needed as Vander Zalm was found guilty of violating conflict guidelines and stepped down voluntarily.

There are a number of problems in using this example to prove that caucuses don’t really need formal rules to trigger for possible leadership change. First of all, simply put, I can’t help but think that this is a misuse of the Confidence Convention. The SoCreds were unhappy with their leader, not the fact that their party formed the Government. Confidence of the House is given to a Government; who heads that government is an internal matter for the governing party to decide. Related to this, this option is one that could only be used by a party that formed the government. Opposition parties cannot move want of confidence motions in the House against themselves or their own leader – they can only move want of confidence motions against a sitting government. Consequently, an opposition party unhappy with its leader can’t go this route.

Another problem is that it isn’t necessarily guaranteed to result in a change of leadership. As I explained in my previous post, the tradition in Canada for governments which lose confidence votes is not to resign, but to seek dissolution and trigger a new election. In the article, it appears as if the Social Credit caucus kept the Lt.-Governor informed of what was transpiring, explaining that they planned to “withdraw majority support from Vander Zalm and delegate it to another of their number.” And apparently the Lt.-Governor agreed that he would ask Vander Zalm to resign rather than agree to a dissolution. But what if the Lt.-Governor had not agreed to listen to the caucus? What if the premier had decided to pre-empt his caucus and seek a dissolution and new election? To put it simply, the party should not have had to go this route; if they were unhappy with their leader, they should have simply been able to resolve that internally without resorting to moving a want of confidence motion in the Government.

I am not a constitutional expert, but a lot of this sounds like involving the Crown in the internal machinations of a political party and that makes me somewhat uncomfortable. As per House of Commons Procedure and Practice, 2nd ed., “no act of the monarch (or Governor General as the monarch’s representative) is carried out without the formal advice and consent of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.” There is no mention of carrying out the advice of a party caucus. I will leave that issue to persons better qualified to comment on.

Many critics of the Reform Act worry that an empowered caucus will lead to chaos, with party leaders being shown the door on a regular basis. Is this necessarily what happens?

In Politics at the Centre: The Selection and Removal of Party Leaders in the Anglo Parliamentary Democracies, William Cross and André Blais compare leadership procedures in Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand and the United Kingdom. It is important to know that of these five countries, Canada is the outlier, the only one where political parties have no specific entrenched procedures available to caucuses to challenge their leader. Chapter 5 looks at how and why party leaders’ tenure in office ends. This normally occurs in one of three ways: the leader resigns (either voluntarily, or under pressure), they are forced from office, or either they, or their party, die.  Cross and Blais examined the departures of 110 leaders between January 1965 and January 2008 and found that most (76%, or 84 of 110) resign, and the majority of those who resign (59, or 54%), did so under pressure. It probably goes without saying that most of these leaders who resigned under pressure did so to avoid being forced out. (p. 97)

What we are most interested in, however is how many leaders were actually forced from office. Over the 43-year period studied by Cross and Blais, only 17 leaders in those five countries were forced out: New Zealand 5, Australia 7, the UK 3, Ireland 1, and Canada 1. The Canadian case – John Diefenbaker, is the only one removed by “a process involving the extra-parliamentary party.” (p. 106) Additionally, it is important to note that most of these forced leadership changes occurred among opposition parties. During that same time frame, only 3 sitting Prime Ministers were forced out by their own caucus – Margaret Thatcher (1979-1991) in the UK, and Bob Hawke (1983-1991) and John Gorton (1968-71) in Australia. (p. 98) Thatcher had been in power since 1979, but by late 1990, the Conservatives had been trailing Labour for 18 months in the polls. These same polls showed that a change in leadership would give the Tories a lead over Labour. Bob Hawke’s popularity had been in decline from the late 80s, and while he led Labor to a narrow re-election in 1990, his party lost faith in his ability to counter the resurgent Liberal Party. John Gorton simply proved to be a poor choice for leader, and in his first general election as Prime Minister (1969), saw the Coalition’s 45-seat majority over Labor that he had inherited reduced to only a 7-seat majority. He was forced out as leader of the Liberal Party not long afterwards.

These examples demonstrate two important points. First, the caucuses of parties that are in government aren’t likely to force a leader (and Prime Minister) out if the party is doing well in the polls. The three Prime Ministers forced to resign by their caucuses were forced out due to declining polls or poor election results. The second point is that it is parties in opposition which are more likely to force a leader out, and these are the parties which would not be able to use the want of confidence approach to leadership change described in the Vander Zalm piece or as postulated by Dale Smith.

Of course, Cross and Blais’s research does not take into account the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd leadership spills of 2010-2013, but even by Australian practice as described in Politics at the Centre, that chapter was an anomaly. And as I stated in my earlier post, Labor has now changed its rules governing challenging a sitting leader; consequently, we will never seen anything like that occur again.

I admit that I still don’t quite understand the arguments of those who insist that formal rules for triggering a leadership change aren’t at all needed. I think Canadian political parties would benefit from having formal rules in place. Is the process outlined in Chong’s Reform Act the best way to proceed, perhaps not. I am not comfortable with these rules being incorporated into the Elections Act; I think they should be adopted by parties and included in party constitutions. And I certainly fail to understand how anyone can insist that the confidence convention is a viable option for parties to effect leadership change. It isn’t, and even if it were, it would only work for a party in government. Parties in opposition would be left with no clear options. Hopefully this short international context I’ve provided will help calm a few fears. The process isn’t abused by political parties. It doesn’t result in political chaos. If anything, it might avoid it.

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Voter gender bias towards female party leaders

“The reaction to being the first female prime minister does not explain everything about my prime ministership, nor does it explain nothing about my prime ministership. It explains some things and it is for the nation to think in a sophisticated way about those shades of grey.” – Julia Gillard, 26 June 2013, farewell press conference

GillardRuddAustralian elections expert Antony Green has written an extremely fascinating article exploring the gender bias behind support for the Australian Labor Party (ALP). As you may recall, the ALP recently underwent another leadership spill which resulted in Prime Minister and party leader Julia Gillard being dumped by her party in favour of former party leader and PM Kevin Rudd.

During Gillard’s term as party leader and PM, gender because a prominent issue in Austrlian politics. As Green notes:

That opinion polls tended to show Mr Abbott polling less well among female voters was another factor in bringing gender into the general political debate.

Labor regularly highlighted Mr Abbott’s polling with female voters and the Liberal Party’s decision to feature Mr Abbott more often with his family and with his female colleagues and candidates suggested Liberal Party polling revealed something similar.

And of course, there was that now-famous attack on Abbott by Gillard in which she accused him of being a misogynist. That video went viral thanks to social media, garnering over 2 million views (at time of writing).

But what new polling is showing is that while the Liberal Party is less popular with women, Labor under Gillard was much popular with men:

On July 16, after the change of Labor leadership, the Australian featured a special analysis of Newspoll looking at the shift in gender voting with the change in leadership.

The article pointed to Labor’s support among women having lifted from 34 per cent to 38 per cent with the change of leadership. The article’s headline was all about Rudd being more popular among women than Gillard, the story re-visiting the misogyny and gender debate.

What I thought more revealing in the Australian’s table was the shift in the male vote after the change of leadership. Labor’s vote among men rose 7 per cent from 28 per cent to 35 per cent.

Before the change, a Fairfax Nielsen poll published on June 16 had highlighted a slump in Labor support among male voters; Labor slipping from its traditional position of polling more strongly among men than women had been evident earlier.

For all the talk of Mr Abbott’s problem with female voters, not nearly as much attention was paid to a clearly evident problem that Ms Gillard had with male voters, the other dimension to a gender gap in voting.

The leadership spill occurred on 26 June 2013, and the above poll would have been conducted days afterwards. Labor’s policies did not change overnight following the leadership change, therefore it is fairly safe to conclude, as Green does, that the increase in support for the part among male voters was entirely due to the change in leadership. The question remains, of course, did men simply dislike Gillard as a person, or did they dislike her specifically because she was a woman? That we will never know.

Political opinion polls conducted in Canada frequently single out the differences between male and female support for certain political parties, and sometimes for the party leaders as well. However, very little analysis is devoted to these differences, or to the fact that certain parties consistently poll better with one gender. If any analysis does focus on this, the difference in support by gender is attributed to policy – the party in question has policies which appeal more to male voters and less to female voters. It isn’t surprising that no attention would be given to the gender of the party leader since, barring a precious few exceptions, party leaders in Canada (at the federal level at least) have been overwhelmingly male.

There have been only four female leaders of major federal parties since 1867. The Liberal Party has never had a female leader, the Conservative Party (back when it was the Progressive Conservative Party) has had one, and the New Democrats (NDP) have had two. The Green Party is currently led by a woman, who is also the party’s only elected MP.

The NDP had two consecutive female leaders, Audrey McLaughlin (1989-1995) and Alexa McDonough (1995-2003). The party’s performance under their respective leaderships wasn’t stellar, but it isn’t possible to know to what degree gender bias may have been a factor. McLaughlin assumed the leadership from Ed Broadbent. Following the 1984 election, several polls afterward showed that Broadbent was the most popular party leader in Canada. Broadbent was the only leader ever to take the NDP to first place in public opinion polling, and some pundits felt that the NDP could supplant the Liberals as the primary opposition to the Progressive Conservatives. Nonetheless, he was not successful in translating this into an election victory in the 1988 federal election, since the Liberals reaped most of the benefits from opposing free trade. However, the NDP elected a party record 43 seats in that election, a record unchallenged until the 2011 election. The party’s first election under McLaughlin’s leadership (1993) was a disaster; the party was reduced to 9 seats, losing official party status. Things improved only marginally under McDonough – the party won 21 seats in the 1997 election, but then was reduced to 13 in the 2000 election.

Where the party’s misfortunes due to having female leaders? As Prof. Alan Cairns states in his paper, An Election to be Remembered: Canada 1993, it is impossible to know. In the 1993 election, two parties had female leaders: the NDP’s McLaughlin and the incumbent Progressive Conservatives were led by Kim Campbell:

The potential effect of this on their party’s support was unknown. Although McLaughlin suggested there was an anti-feminist backlash, this was discounted by most observers.

There were a great many other factors at play in the 1993 election which impacted the NDP’s fortunes. The PCs under Campbell’s leadership had a disastrous campaign, and the party itself was extremely unpopular after two terms in office, and it was decimated at the polls, reduced to only two seats. That result had very little to do with having a female leader.

Getting back to Australia, and Antony Green’s excellent article (please do read it in full!), the evidence is quite clear that male gender bias against Julia Gillard played a major factor in Labor’s polling:

In summary it is clear that in changing leader, Labor received overall support among intended Labor voters, received greatest backing for the change from among Centre voters, and received overwhelming backing from male voters – with little evidence of a major backlash among female voters.

(…)

Whether Labor’s problems were caused by sexism in the electorate, sexism by Ms Gillard’s opponents, sexism in the media, or missteps by Ms Gillard herself, clearly Labor couldn’t allow the impasse on the leadership to persist.

Labor’s bounce in the polls after the leadership change has subsided, and the Coalition are still favourites to win the election.

But Labor is still polling better than before the leadership change, and the Vote Compass data reveals that the story is not about Tony Abbot and female voters, but male voter attitudes to Julia Gillard.

This is obviously an area which requires more study, but until female party leaders are more commonplace, such study won’t be possible.

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Australia General Election 2013

Australia-VotesA federal election has been called for 7 September 2013. Below I will post links to sites which may be of some use to those following the parties and issues. This post will be updated as more interesting links come to my attention, so please check back often. And if you know of a site which should be listed here, please let me know in the comments, or by using the contact form.

Vote Compass Australia 2013

Not certain which party to vote for? Vote Compass is an interactive electoral literacy application developed by Canadian political scientists and run during election campaigns. It offers an accessible framework for learning about party platforms, stimulates discussion on a wide variety of election issues, and encourages democratic participation within the electorate. Based on an individual’s responses to a series of propositions specifically developed for a given election, Vote Compass generates a real-time analysis of how one’s views compare to the platforms of each political party vying for office. This analysis is powered by an open database which contains a public record of each party’s stand on the issues included in Vote Compass. Vote Compass has been in use in Canada for federal and some provincial elections for a few years now, and an American version was commissioned by the Wall Street Journal for the 2012 US presidential election. The Australian edition was commissioned by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Antony Green’s Election Guide

Antony Green covers pretty much everything you might want to know about the 2013 election – each federal electorate, including the candidates, an election calculator to predict the election outcome by applying a uniform swing, and electoral pendulum to find out which electorates are the most marginal – and the safest. And of course, there is Antony’s blog, which is always worth reading.

The Australian Electoral Commission

The Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) is responsible for conducting federal elections and referendums and maintaining the Commonwealth electoral roll. The AEC also provides a range of electoral information and education programs and activities. Everything you need to know about the upcoming election can be found on their website, including how to make sure you are registered to vote, and how to complete your ballot paper for both the House of Representatives and the Senate elections.

Policy Platform Comparisons

ABC – Policies: Where the Parties Stand

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) provides an analysis of the parties’ positions on key issues, e.g. the economy, asylum seekers, education, etc. They point out where the main parties agree as well as where they diverge.

Sydney Morning Herald Overview of Party Policies

Not a side-by-side comparison chart, but the SMH looks at the major policy positions of each party, grouped together under key subject headings such as the Economy, Education, Health, etc.

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Despite leadership spills, party discipline in Australia is still strong

Back in 2012, I wrote a post about an attempted leadership spill in Australia, as former Labor Party leader Kevin Rudd challenged, unsuccessfully, the leadership of Julia Gillard, who herself had challenged – successfully – Rudd’s leadership prior to the 2010 general election. Of course, if you follow the news at all, you will know that Kevin Rudd again challenged Ms. Gillard’s leadership at the end of June, this time successfully, and is now, again, both leader of the party and Prime Minister.

Such leadership changes are possible in Australia because it is the party caucuses which choose their leaders, as I explained in that 2012 post. Because the caucus can withdraw its support from the leader and cause a leadership change, this, in theory, makes the party leadership more responsive to its backbenchers. This contrasts quite sharply with how party leaders are selected in Canada, by party members at large. Because a Canadian party leader doesn’t owe his or her position solely to their caucus, they can exert more control over the caucus, justifying their actions by claiming a wider mandate.

Some in Canada admire the Australian method of choosing party leaders, seeing it as a means of “fixing our parliamentary problem“. That Macleans editorial posits that:

Putting leadership decisions in the hands of an elected caucus inevitably strengthens the position of backbenchers by giving them real clout. This is significant for Canada, since the biggest problem with our current system is the dramatic centralization of political power in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). Individual MPs have become entirely emasculated.

(…)

Putting leadership-review abilities in the hands of backbenchers would dramatically alter the Canadian power dynamic. Backbench priorities would suddenly have real weight. And rather than the PM simply skipping town, it would have been possible under the Australian system for MPs to demand a more fulsome and immediate answer from their leader. The Prime Minister would suddenly be accountable to his caucus. As things stand now, power goes only one way: from the PMO down.

While this argument might have some merit, it ignores a key point. In Canada, no one can be a candidate for a political party unless the leader of that party signs off on that person’s nomination papers. Every single MP in the House of Commons owes their place there in large part because their party leader signed their nomination papers. If they run afoul of the party leadership during the course of the parliament, odds are that their nomination papers won’t be resigned. That fact inspires its own warped loyalty. Yes, a prospective new party leader could promise any caucus members who supported him or her in a leadership spill that they would be kept on as the party’s candidate in the next election, but this wouldn’t necessarily be guaranteed. This potential uncertainty might make if more difficult for backbench MPs to decide to back a leadership challenger, or even push for a change in leadership.

There is another assumption, implied in the Macleans piece, that this power Australian caucus members have vis-à-vis their party leader must make for more independent, less whipped MPs. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case. Australian party discipline is as strong in every other way as it is here in Canada. From a 2010 article from the Sydney Morning Herald (sadly no longer online but I have scanned a copy of it):

Party discipline in Australia is much tighter. The Labor Party, after splitting in its early years, introduced the cast-iron discipline that it still enforces. You must vote as caucus directs. Labor members delight in praising dissenters on the Liberal side, (…), but there are never any Labor dissenters.

Faced with a party of this sort, the Liberals too have to run a tight ship. There are dissenters but they are unusual and newsworthy. There are spoken of as “crossing the floor”. In Britain, that term is used not for voting with the other side – which is common enough – but for joining the other side.

(…)

Grown-up people are handed prepared questions to put to ministers in question time so that ministers can say how good they are and how appalling the opposition is. Even in the Australian Parliament, question time used to be an occasion when backbenchers asked real questions of their own ministers. Now it’s a party slanging match, a total disgrace.

So while Australian backbenchers can initiate a change in their party leadership, that’s pretty much the only freedom they have. The Labor Party, for one, makes its members sign a pledge that they won’t vote against the party line:

The ALP has a formal pledge which binds all Labor members to support the Party Platform and accept the collective decisions of the Caucus. The colonial labour parties first adopted the pledge in the 1890s.

(…)

The rules of the Australian Labor Party make it clear that the Federal Parliamentary Party has the authority in properly constituted Caucus meetings to establish the collective attitude of the Parliamentary Party to any question or matter in the federal parliament, subject to:

no attitude being expressed which is contrary to the provisions of the Party Platform or any other decision of  National Conference or National Executive

While the Liberal and National parties don’t have a similar pledge, they both expect that their members will support party policy. Voting against party policy is to be regarded as an exceptional act.

Would empowering party caucuses with leadership-review abilities really fix Canada’s parliamentary problem? I doubt it. It isn’t one single problem plaguing our parliamentary system. Perhaps it might improve some things somewhat, but the reality is that our parliamentary problems are many and run much deeper. And as politics in Australia shows us, party discipline is still pretty iron-clad – right down to controlling how MPs vote and what they get to ask in the House. Spilling a leader doesn’t change that reality.

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Some interesting links and websites

Apologies for the lack of blogging, but real life has been rather busy of late. However, in the interim, here are some links to interesting reports, sites, etc.

UK LINKS and SITES

Communicating statistics – Not just true, but also fair

The UK House of Commons Public Administration Committee has released a report recommending that departmental press officers and government statistics staff should work together much more closely to ensure that press releases give an accurate and meaningful picture of the truth behind the figures. As the Committee Chair, Bernard Jenkins, MP, explained:

“Politicians tend to promote the statistics that best present their case. Finding the whole truth about government statistics is not always easy, and it should be. The numbers may be perfectly true but the act of selecting certain numbers distorts the true picture. This is important when those numbers are being used to justify a particular policy, a particular apportioning of resources. In some cases, spinning reduces the story behind the statistics to such an extent that the picture is no longer true.”

Number10 website revamp

The official website of the Office of the UK Prime Minister has been undergoing a revamp. It now features a very interesting and useful history section. This includes a blog on the history of government written by guest historians, and a detailed history of 10 Downing Street – the official residence of the Prime Minister.

History of Parliament website

The History of Parliament website will appear to anyone interested in the history of the UK Parliament. From the site’s About page:

The History of Parliament is a research project creating a comprehensive account of parliamentary politics in England, then Britain, from their origins in the thirteenth century. Unparalleled in the comprehensiveness of its treatment, the History is generally regarded as one of the most ambitious, authoritative and well-researched projects in British history.

It consists of detailed studies of elections and electoral politics in each constituency, and of closely researched accounts of the lives of everyone who was elected to Parliament in the period, together with surveys drawing out the themes and discoveries of the research and adding information on the operation of Parliament as an institution.

AUSTRALIA LINKS and SITES

UK newspaper The Guardian has launched an online Australian edition (it also has a US edition). There is a subsection dedicated to this fall’s general election, and a very interesting look at political donations in Australia.

The always excellent Antony Green provides a very handy guide to upcoming Australian elections, both national and state.

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Politicians still don’t understand the internet

Just over a year ago, I wrote a post outlining how far too many politicians simply don’t understand the internet in general, and social media in particular. Sadly, the situation hasn’t improved much.

Recently, a point of privilege was raised in the provincial legislature of the Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador, over one Member’s alleged membership in an anti-government group on Facebook. Several comments on the group’s page involved death threats against the Premier of the province. In his point of privilege, the Government House Leader noted that the Facebook group had a membership list and among the listed members was the MHA for St. John’s Centre. The Government House Leader argued that online, as in public, one would join a group “because you support the values and you support the objectives of the group and you support what the people of the group are doing.” He added:

I submit to you, Mr. Speaker, that the group and the members of that group of which there is a member sitting in this House today, who is endorsing and supporting that – threats to her [the premier's] life and threats to her home, implicit in that are threats to her family, to her children and her grandchildren. Mr. Speaker, that, in my view, is reprehensible and totally, totally unacceptable.

The Government House Leader finished by calling on the House to suspend the Member for St. John’s Centre because of her public support for and participation in the Facebook group and its activities.

The Member accused was not given an opportunity to speak. The Speaker recessed briefly, then returned with a ruling in which he reminded Members that should they choose to engage with social media, they had a responsibility “to use them wisely” and that they should hold themselves “to a higher standard than would be accepted and acceptable for the general public.”

He did admit that, upon examining the Facebook pages in question, while the Member for St. John’s Centre was listed as a member, it was impossible to determine “how this participation was initiated and accepted” nor was there any evidence that she made any comments on the site that would connect her to the offensive statements:

It cannot be clearly and unequivocally stated that the Member for St. John’s Centre was herself carrying out an implied or actual threat; therefore there is no prima facie case of privilege.

Despite this fact, the Speaker still found a contempt against the House and asked the Member to apologize, which she refused to do: “I will not apologize for something that I have not done. I am sorry; I cannot apologize to the House.” She was asked twice more times to apologize and refused to do so each time, forcing the Speaker to suspend her for the remainder of the day.

Then, a week later, the Speaker in turn apologized to the Member, noting that after having the finer points of how Facebook actually works explained to him – notably that individuals can “find themselves attached to a group without their explicit consent”, his finding of contempt was “erroneous”.

This is not the first ruling the Speaker has made on a matter involving social media. Almost a year ago, a similar point of privilege was raised in the House of Assembly, this time over a comment made on Twitter. A Member had tweeted the previous night, after the House had adjourned, that another Member – whom he did not identify – had lied in the House during that day’s debate.

As in the case above, the Speaker heard the point of privilege and then ruled immediately. The ruling was somewhat contradictory. On the one hand, the Speaker seemed to accept, or at least recognize, that comments made outside of the House are beyond the Speaker’s power to act on. He stated that had an accusation of lying been made in the House during debate, he would have immediately demanded that it be withdrawn. If the Member had made the comments while outside the House, perhaps on an open line radio program, it would have been regrettable, but the Speaker would not have been able to act on it since it was outside of his jurisdiction – in other words, not a proceeding of parliament. However, the fact that the tweet was made after the House had adjourned seemed to be the only factor preventing the Speaker from acting:

had this accusation of lying been sent while the House was sitting so as to escape being sanctioned for unparliamentary language while still making the accusation, I believe it would be a prima facie case of privilege.

In other words, had the tweet been sent while the House was sitting, even if the member himself made it from outside the Chamber, the Speaker would have found a breach of privilege, meaning he would have considered the tweet a proceeding of parliament.

A number of Speakers in other jurisdictions have been called upon to rule on comments made on social media, or have issued statements on the use of social media by Members. In these cases, the general consensus is that anything said on social media is not part of proceedings of parliament, therefore the Chair should not be expected to rule on allegations of improper conduct on social media. Also, comments made on social media are not protected by parliamentary privilege, consequently, Members should conduct themselves accordingly.

The Newfoundland and Labrador social media incidents are reminiscent of a Twitter-related incident which occurred in the Legislative Assembly of the Australian state of Victoria in November 2011. In that instance, a Member had made critical comments about the Speaker on Twitter, and those tweets were then brought to the Speaker’s attention. The Speaker demanded that the Member in question apologize, but wouldn’t specify what the apology was for because he didn’t want to read the offending comments into the official record. The Member consequently refused to apologize. The ensuing debate was quite spirited and raised some important points, including:

  • If the Speaker ruled on a comment made outside of the chamber, that would set a precedent;
  • There weren’t any standing orders or previous Speaker’s rulings what would support the Speaker’s position. Forcing members to apologize every time they offended another Member on social media would set a dangerous precedent;
  • The Speaker couldn’t seek an apology since the comment wasn’t made in the House. Had it been made in the House, he could ask the Member to withdraw the comment;
  • Demanding a Member apologize for something without specifying what the Member must apologize for would again set a precedent;
  • Without knowing the seriousness of the alleged insult (since the Speaker wouldn’t explain), how could appropriate sanctions against the Member be applied?

The matter ended up referred to the Legislative Assembly’s Standing Orders committee, which released an interesting report in December 2012 on the use of social media in the Legislative Assembly and reflections on the Speaker, which you can read here.

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The preferential ballot favours the party with the most first preference votes

I have written several posts looking at the growing popularity of the preferential ballot/the alternative vote (AV) here in Canada – see this recent one, for example. I even attempted a redo of the 2011 Canadian federal election using the preferential ballot rather than our current FPTP. As I explained in that post, and in others, the big problem in attempting to forecast how the election would have played out using AV was the absence of data concerning voters’ preferences. Some polling firms would (and still do) regularly ask people which party was their second choice, but no one ever looked at voters’ potential 3rd, 4th, etc. choices.

However, a new poll by Abacus Data has done just that. According to Eric Grenier, in this article in the Globe and Mail, the poll asked respondents to rank seven parties from 1 to 7 (in other words, it used full preferential rather than optional preferential). I cannot find this data on the Abacus website. Mr. Grenier examined the numbers and posits that using a preferential ballot “would limit the ability of the Conservatives to win elections”:

With a preferential ballot, however, the Conservatives would come out further ahead. They would lead in 147 ridings on the first ballot (after distributing the marginal support for the smaller parties), compared to only 108 for the New Democrats, 76 for the Liberals, four for the Bloc Québécois, and three for the Greens (primarily due to an anomalous result in the poll in Atlantic Canada).

The Conservatives would have majority support in 60 ridings and win those automatically, while the NDP would win 23 seats on the first ballot and the Liberals 11. But that Tory advantage would disappear once the instant run-off was conducted.

The Conservatives would lose their first ballot lead in 30 ridings, and be reduced to only 117. The New Democrats would move ahead in 18 more seats and take 126, while the Liberals would win 17 more ridings and increase their total to 93. The Greens would hold on to two of the three seats in which they led, while the Bloc Québécois would lose all four.

I am not entirely certain how he comes to that conclusion. The last paragraph quoted above is particularly confusing to me.

Despite Mr. Grenier’s assertions at the outset of the article that the preferential ballot “is used in many jurisdictions around the world”, the only really comparable example available to us is Australia. Full preferential (where voters have to rank every single candidate on their ballot for the vote to count) is used at the federal level to elect the House of Representatives, and in some states, while a couple of states use optional preferential, where voters can choose to rank as many or as few candidates as they want. Indeed, many opt to rank only one candidate and optional preferential becomes a de facto FPTP ballot. This is what happened when AV was used in some provinces here in Canada in the past.

What Mr. Grenier seems to overlook is that the preferential ballot, in particular optional preferential, always favours the party which receives the most first preference votes – at least going by Australia’s long history with this form of voting. Grenier rightly notes that the Conservatives “would have majority support in 60 ridings and win those automatically”. However, things are a bit more complicated after that. Going by Australia’s experience, Conservative candidates would not, as Grenier posits, “lose their first ballot lead in 30 ridings” based on second preferences. It all depends on how close those Conservative candidates are to the 50%+1 needed to win the seat under AV. The closer they are to that mark, the fewer votes transfers they require. Consequently, a Conservative candidate with 45% of the vote on the first ballot count, would most likely still win the seat because they need far fewer votes to boost them over the 50% mark. Even if they were further from the 50% target, say at 40%, but the 2nd place candidate was well behind, say at 30%, the Conservative would still most likely win. Only in instances where two candidates were quite literally neck and neck on the first ballot count would the outcome be up in the air.

Readers interested in preferential voting should regularly read Antony Green’s Election Blog. Green is an Australian elections expert who blogs about both federal and state elections in that country, which, I reiterate, is really the only jurisdction at all comparable to Canada which uses the preferential ballot. As Green explains in this post:

At the 2010 Federal election, 64 of the 150 seats were won by a candidate with a majority on first preferences, and a further 75 won by the highest polling candidate at the start of the count after the further distribution of preferences. Optional preferential voting would have had little impact on these 139 contests.

However, in the 11 contests where the candidate leading on first preferences did not win, optional preferential voting could have changed the result.

(…)

The lesson here is that optional preferential voting always advantages the party with the highest first preference vote.

In other words, in the 2010 federal election in Australia, a majority of seats (139 out of 150) were won by the candidate who was ahead after the first count. Sixty-four were won by a majority on the first ballot, and 75 were won on subsequent ballots – by the candidate who’d been in first place on the first count. That is using full preferential. Only in 11 instances did the candidate who’d been leading on the first ballot fail to actually win the seat. Had optional preferential been used instead, in only 3 cases would the candidate in the lead after the first ballot have failed to win.

It is good that a polling firm here in Canada has finally started to explore voters’ preferences beyond their 1st and 2nd choices, but I don’t think Mr. Grenier fully understands how AV tends to play out – at least based on what happens in Australia.

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Preferential voting isn’t the solution some think it might be

There have been a growing number of columns and articles in various Canadian media over the past few months bemoaning the state of our parliamentary democracy and proposing various changes which might improve the situation. More often than not, electoral reform is mentioned – either in the column itself, or by a reader commenting on the piece.

There does seem to be a growing recognition or acceptance that the First-Past-the-Post voting system doesn’t quite work the way people would like. I won’t say it doesn’t work the way it should because it works exactly as it should. It simply isn’t the ideal system for multi-party democracies.

Inevitably, in these discussions, someone proposes some form of proportional representation, usually Mixed-Member-Proportional, where most MPs would be elected the usual way, but then each party’s numbers would be topped up with list MPs to more closely reflect the party’s actual percentage of the vote. And also inevitably, many other people chime in denouncing any form of PR because it leads to coalition government which is of course completely unstable – just look at (insert name of favourite basketcase country here).

The voting system change that seems to garner (or be garnering) the most support is the very one the UK rejected in the 2011 referendum – the Alternative Vote (AV), or preferential voting. As I’ve explained in the very, very many posts I wrote during the lead-up to that referendum, under AV, voters rank the candidates in order of preference. To be elected, a candidate has to get over 50% of the votes cast. If no candidate tops 50% after the first count, then the candidate with the lowest vote total is dropped from the ballot and the votes for that candidate are redistributed based on the second preferences indicated by voters. This process continues until someone ends up with over 50%. See this post I wrote back in 2011 to explain to British readers how the vote would work.

AV isn’t used in a lot of places. Australia is the best example available of a western democracy which uses it. At the federal level, they use “full prefential voting” to elect the House of Representatives (a completely different system is used to elect Senators – see this handy guide to voting systems used in Australia). That simply means that voters have to rank every single candidate on the ballot. I believe they can leave one candidate unranked, and that will be counted as their last choice, but if they leave more than one candidate unranked, the ballot is rejected. At the State level, some states also use full preferential to elect their Legislative Assemblies, while others use “optional preferential”. Under this variant, voters can rank as many or as few candidates as they want – this was the model proposed in the UK. Under optional preferential, voters can treat their ballot as a FPTP ballot if they so desire – voting for one candidate and one candidate only.

The Alternative Vote appeals to many because it is fairly simple (not quite as simple as FPTP, but certainly far less complex than other voting systems out there), and it would address the issue of MPs being elected with minority support. As I’ve also repeatedly blogged, the majority of MPs in Canada win their seat with less than 50% of the vote cast in their riding – sometimes a lot less. AV would put an end to that, in theory, at least.

It is really important to understand that this is the only advantage or benefit AV has over FPTP. In many ways, it can lead to even more distorted results than FPTP currently does, e.g. a single party winning even more seats than it might have under FPTP. It is not at all proportional, so it won’t put an end to majority governments formed by a party with much less than majority support, meaning many voters will continue to feel as if their votes don’t count.

Each form of AV also presents other problems. Full preferential, where a voter would have to rank every single candidate on the ballot paper, would force many – probably most voters -  into making what can only be described as artificial choices. Some voters simply don’t have a second choice – they vote for one party and one party only, and would have no desire to even attempt to rank any other candidates. Other voters might have an easier time ranking the two or three major parties on the ballot, but here’s the big problem. Most ballot papers in Canada have several candidates listed, often as many as 10 or so. Apart from the candidates representing the three or four major parties in the country, there are also a large number of candidates representing fringe parties most people have never heard of, as well as candidates running as independents. Leaving aside the one-party-only people, for everyone else, it would be a very trying experience, if not even a complete joke, to try to rank the fringe and independent candidates. And never mind trying to rank candidates you’ve never heard of, what about having to rank candidates you dislike equally? Think about this for a minute, about how many candidates were actually listed on your ballot the last time you voted. Now imagine having to rank every single one of those individuals in order of preference in order for your ballot to count.

So go with optional preferential – problem solved. Indeed. But let’s remember that the only advantage AV has over FPTP is that it is supposed to ensure that the MP elected is elected with over 50% support in that riding. While most think that means “50% of the votes cast”, if you’re using optional preferential, what you end up with is someone elected with 50% of the votes still in play, which may be a very different number from the total number of votes cast. Under optional preferential, voters can choose to cast their vote for one candidate only, and indeed, many do just that. This is a phenomena known as “plumping”. Optional preferential has been used in Canada in the past, in three different provinces, and I have a post looking at what happened in those provinces during the time they used optional preferential. As you can see, the plumping rate was quite high – sometimes over 60%. That means only a minority of people were actually ranking more than one candidate. I am willing to guess that at best, most voters who do bother to rank will rank only two or three candidates. If the majority of ballots can’t be transferred after the first count, the one advantage AV has over FPTP pretty much disappears.

As well, optional preferential can end up costing parties seats because of voters treating their ballot as a FPTP ballot. See this post by Australian elections expert Antony Green on the recent election in Queensland. There is also evidence that optional preferential disadvantages smaller parties (and independents) – just as FPTP does. As Green points out in this post, wherein he re-does the 2010 Australian federal election using optional preferential rather than full preferential, “optional preferential voting always advantages the party with the highest first preference vote.”

It may interest some proponents of AV to know that the State of Queensland is currently conducting an inquiry into its electoral law, and an important focus of that is whether optional preferential should be retained (discussion paper PDF here). From page 37 of that discussion paper (emphasis added):

A key issue with OPV is that it has the potential to become a de facto ‘first past the post’ system. Preferences can be quickly exhausted where a large number of voters choose to vote ‘1’ only. This is particularly problematic where a large number of candidates are contesting a seat. In such a circumstance, it would be possible for a candidate to be elected with only a small proportion of the vote, which could leave the majority of the population unrepresented.

As part of its analysis of a survey of ballot papers from the 2009 state election, the ECQ found that approximately 63.03% of ballot papers were marked ‘1’ only. At the 2006 election, 62.15% of surveyed ballot papers fell into this category. Up until the 2001 election, the number of ballot papers marked ‘1’ only had been significantly lower (20.7% in the 1995 election).

Meanwhile, others in Australia are calling for a move towards proper proportional representation.

While I agree with most that AV/preferential voting might be the easiest electoral reform to implement here in Canada because it isn’t that different from FPTP, there are some very important issues associated with it that need to be carefully considered. It won’t be the panacea many seem to think it might be.

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