Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Submission on Proposed Changes to Local Government Elections in Tasmania

 This is an old article that has been updated.  For the update scroll to the bottom.

You can see what this is all about over here.  Thought I would post my submission publicly just for the interest of anyone who might want to read it.  I believe it's pretty self-explanatory in conjunction with the discussion paper available at the link.  Might wish it was more deluxe and polished but I just don't have the time!  I have not canvassed all the issues raised in the discussion paper; eg my submission does not canvass whether or not Tasmania needs "Get Clover" laws.

For anyone else wishing to make a submission (especially for the hordes out there just wanting to cancel out mine!), you've got about 24 hours as I write.  Good luck!

[Site update: I've hopefully removed the prove-you're-not-a-bot thing that I believe was previously required for comments.  Any other usability feedback is welcome and can be emailed .]

[Note to later readers: apologies for the poor paragraphing in this piece; it's a strange formatting issue with just this article that I haven't yet been able to repair.]

Dear Local Government Office,
I am writing to provide comments on some of the contents of the Discussion Paper on proposed changes to Local Government in Tasmania (http://www.dpac.tas.gov.au/divisions/lgsem/proposed_changes_to_local_government_electoral_arrangements).

I am writing as an interested member of the public with no electoral or employment connection to any council. I have experience relevant to the conduct of Tasmanian local government elections as a scrutineer at all Hobart City Council distributions of preferences since 1988. Also I am known as one of the state’s most experienced psephologists, for instance through my articles published on the website Tasmanian Times. (I have recently moved to my own website.) I have written many articles statistically analysing local government elections and council voting patterns, as well as conducting live commentary on council elections, and have been involved in many council election campaigns.

My comments are as follows:
1. “Compulsory” Voting In General

I oppose compulsory voting in Tasmanian local government, whether it is conducted on an opt-in or mandatory basis.

It is very disappointing that among the arguments canvassed for and against introducing compulsory voting, it is not even mentioned that compulsory voting imposes a restraint on the liberty of citizens, increasing the already excessive regulation of their lives and adding another offence for which they can be fined. In my view, this disadvantage of compulsory voting is much more significant than all the arguments for or against compulsory voting that are actually canvassed in the paper combined. As far as the discussion paper goes in this direction is to suggest that it may be unnecessary to force people to vote.

Given that the Dual Representation section contains “There is an argument that citizens should therefore have the right to be represented in multiple levels of government by the same person, if they choose to do so”,the section discussing compulsory voting should certainly have contained something like “There is an argument that citizens should have the right to not vote in council elections, if they choose not to.”

I believe (but cannot prove) that compulsory voting in local government will lead to a decline in the consideration level of the average vote, by forcing people to vote who currently do not vote because they feel they do not know enough about the issues. An advantage will be given to those candidates who are most effective at harvesting the votes of the apathetic voter. Whether or not this leads to an increased party-politicisation of local government (and I suspect that it will) it may also lead to an increasing success rate for candidates who have high profiles, including local-celebrity candidates and incumbents.

The discussion paper’s claim that “Generally the interstate experience has been that the level of politicisation of local government varies considerably and does not appear to be directly linked to whether voting is compulsory” is a claim that requires detailed analysis, in particular of before-and-after experiences, before it can be accepted as fact.

The discussion paper is in my view correct that voting fraud is not a significant issue in the current system and would also be unlikely to be one under a compulsory system. The supposed integrity issue of increased informal voting should be ignored given that it can be argued that at present nearly half the electorate does the same thing as voting informally by simply not voting at all.
I disagree with the claim that compulsory voting would lead to a much greater mandate. A voter who declines to vote is effectively mandating whatever the remaining voters decide. It is no surprise that this is most common among young voters who are generally more transient and less involved in the issues canvassed by local councils, and therefore less likely to have a serious interest in local government concerns.

I reject the view that compulsory voting will create significantly greater interest in local government. If this view was valid then compulsory voting would have succeeded in creating a high level of interest in state government but this is patently not the case. A stark example was provided in a September 2012 Daily Telegraph – Galaxy poll in which 38% of NSW voters were unable to correctly name the incumbent Premier, Barry O’Farrell, who at that time had been Premier for a year and a half.

The impact of a decision on “the case that Local Government is an equal sphere of government” is irrelevant since there simply is no case even with that “strengthening” – local government is clearly not equal at present and much more will be required to make it so than just changing the voting system. There is a view that local government should be made an equal sphere of government but this is a matter that will require constitutional change at a federal referendum and that can be advanced irrespective of the outcomes of this debate.

The claim that local government should fall into line with state and federal government is an argument from conformity. However if the same argument was made with regard to the state and federal systems, it would be seen that they are out of line with most major democracies. I would prefer to see local government set a good example to state and federal government by resisting the temptation to conform to a system Australia has no need to have in the first place.

I agree that there is confusion between council and Legislative Council elections. However, I do not think this confusion is solely caused by differences in electoral systems. Other causes include the confusing name of the Legislative Council, the low public profile of Legislative Council elections, and the frequency of candidate overlap between the two.

Finally, so-called “compulsory” voting is not genuinely such. The fines imposed are so small and plausible excuses so readily accepted that the compulsion involved is only a major issue for voters who are poor and honest. Others may simply pay fines as a way of buying the right to not vote.

2. Opt-in Compulsory Voting proposal

The opt-in compulsory voting proposal, while obviously created by a desire to placate both sides of the compulsory voting debate, is a bad idea. I agree with the discussion paper’s arguments about the difficulties this would cause. I add that if the opt-in system caused voters to feel forced to vote when they were actually not thus forced, then the mandate created by the election is undermined through votes having been cast on a false pretext. Close results would be subject to claims that the winner may not have won had only those voters who wanted to vote done so.

It is also strange to have an opt-in model that would create inconsistencies between adjacent councils, being advanced as part of a proposal for a reform supposedly based on consistency. It is reminiscent of the disfunctional localised hodge-podge of electoral arrangements seen in the USA as a result of excessive devolution to lower levels of electoral organisation.

Therefore the opt-in model should be rejected and the State Government should simply make a decision covering all councils one way or the other. Although I am opposed to “compulsory” voting I would prefer it be introduced in all councils, than introduced arbitrary in some and not in others.

3. All-In All-Out 
I have mixed views about proposals to introduce all-in all-out elections. Some aldermen I have spoken to certainly express great frustration about the impact on “operations and strategic planning of councils” of the current term. However, concerns about AIAO include:

* The doubling of the number of candidates to be elected, if elected on the same boundaries as now (see “Districts and All In All Out” below), will indeed lead to a significant increase in the rate of unintentional informal voting. Under the current provisions, a voter voting to elect 12 candidates in a field of, say, 35, would need to correctly number all the numbers from 1 to 12. It is rather disquieting that a voter could be disenfranchised if they accidentally include, for instance, the number 11 twice. This could be resolved by allowing a less strict understanding of formality, so that, for instance, if a voter had filled out at least 12 squares but made an error, their vote would count to the point at which the error was made, and then exhaust.

* The lowering of the quota would result in an increased chance of fringe candidates, with small but devout followings, being elected to councils, perhaps with only 3-4 percent of the primary vote in some cases. I am not sure this is a good thing.

* The complete replacement of councils every four years, and the generally low level of media attention to council elections and issues, could mean that councils sometimes over-represent the sentiments of voters based on a short-term issue that happened to be raising concerns at the time of the election. I am not sure this is a good thing. The current system provides more insurance against this happening.

I also agree that the issue of resignations and frequent recounts (over the longer council terms) is concerning in AIAO. Hare-Clark recounts in councils that are running out of available candidates lead to some peculiar outcomes as it is, including the recent recount in which retiring Hobart alderman and former Lord Mayor Rob Valentine was replaced by John Freeman, who he defeated to gain the position in the first place and whose politics were quite different to Valentine's. This happened because the only other candidates contesting the recount were minor Tasmanian Greens candidates with very low profiles, so there was no candidate who could be considered likeminded to Valentine contesting. AIAO increases the chance even of a candidate elected at a recount themselves resigning, which could lead to even stranger recount outcomes.

4. Districts and All In All Out: A Proposal

Proposals to divide councils into districts (I suggest the word “wards” not be used as it has anachronistic connotations) should be treated with very great concern. Districts that contain relatively few councillors will deliver election outcomes that are less proportional and that disadvantage significant minority opinions, including Green candidates. To split Hobart with its twelve councillors into four districts of three, for instance, or six districts of two, would be an outrage against proportionality, which would undermine the value of using the Hare-Clark system.
However, it is possible that the use of districts, if done properly, could remove problems associated with AIAO (including formality and count complexity issues). The one way in which this could be done without creating proportionality issues would be to divide each municipality into two halves, each with the same number of councillors and the same number (+/- a few percent) of electors.

(If this is combined with round-table election of Deputy Mayors, and it is desired to avoid ties, then an option would be to give one district one more councillor than the other, and adjust the number of electors in each accordingly.  For instance Hobart with 12 councillors could drop one councillor and have a six-member district and a five-member district.)

The net impact of splitting each council into two even districts would be that the election for each district would have the same number of elected councillors as the current counts (and hence be similarly proportional), possibly a similar number of candidates as at present, and in most cases a slightly lower number of votes to count. Probably, each district would require slightly less effort to count than each current council count, meaning that the overall effort required in counting the elections under AIAO would be slightly less than twice the effort required for the elections at the moment. Since the elections would now be held every four years instead of every two, splitting each municipality into exactly two districts would maintain much of the character of the existing elections and counting, without creating monster counts that are a nightmare for electoral officials to conduct.
I believe that this is the only form of district proposal that deserves any consideration at all, but that it should be considered seriously if AIAO is to be adopted.

5. Round table election of Deputy Mayors

I agree that the current system creates a great dilemma for councillors who have to choose between running for Deputy Mayor and running for Mayor. A good example of this dilemma was the situation of then-incumbent Green Deputy Mayor of Hobart, Helen Burnet, who decided to run for Lord Mayor, lost narrowly, and therefore held no leadership position. Had she recontested her deputy leadership she may have retained it. Then again, under round-table elections, there is no way Burnet would have been elected deputy by her own council in the first place, and an advantage of round-table elections is that situations where the Deputy does not represent the majority viewpoint of a divided council will be reduced.

An option is noted “that the second placed candidate in the mayoral contest could automatically become the deputy mayor”. I oppose this option completely. Firstly it would frequently lead to a mayor’s main opponent being installed as their deputy, which would create tension on councils. Secondly, in order to try to prevent that situation, very popular mayors might convince councillors who support them to also run in order to try to squeeze the opponent into third place. Voters would be left with a strategic dilemma in deciding who to vote for.

I also agree that having the same candidates run for both Mayor and Deputy Mayor would be too confusing.

Dr Kevin Bonham
30 October 2012


Update (30 May 2013):  The Local Government Amendment (Elections) Act 2013 arising from the above process has just passed the House of Assembly again, upon being returned with amendments by the Legislative Council. 

The version initially passed by the House of Assembly had the following features concerning future local council elections:

* Compulsory voting
* All-in-all-out for councillors
* Four-year terms for mayors and councillors
* Double-dipping (holding seats at both state and local level) banned
* Plus the Government will defer elections until October 2014.

Compulsory voting was rejected by the Legislative Council in the committee stage.  At this stage the full Hansard is not available so it is not clear to me who (if anyone) was supporting it at that time, but even from the earliest speeches and the second reading voting patterns it would have been clear it did not have the numbers.

In the end even with compulsory voting removed the vote on both the second and final readings was quite close (7-5):

In favour: Farrell (ALP), Dean, Hall, Harriss, Valentine, Forrest, Finch
Against: Goodwin (Lib), Hiscutt (Lib), Mulder, Rattray, Taylor
Did not vote: Gaffney, Armitage (both holding seats at both levels presently and hence conflicted)

This is the first vote on a major issue I've noticed recently that has had a really distinctive voting pattern.  Although those from the "left" of the Council who voted uniformly backed the bill, the "right" of the Council split.  It is especially interesting that Ivan Dean voted for the bill given that he was briefly both Mayor of Launceston and an MLC and hence a former double-dipper.

I am very pleased that compulsory voting was rejected, for the reasons outlined in part 1. I noticed that Michelle O'Byrne described this as a missed opportunity to end the debate about this matter.  I believe it is better even that a debate continue forever than that a bad decision be made for the sake of ending it.

I remain concerned about some aspects of all-in-all-out for larger councils, especially the risks of an increase in unintentional informal voting. Hopefully this can be addressed between now and the elections, for instance by introduction of a Senate-style system allowing more leeway for error within the designated number of squares.  Someone should not be disenfranchised because they submit a vote which skips or doubles their twelfth preference.

Rene Hidding took issue with the way in which councillors were (quite avoidably) having their terms either extended or reduced by a year depending on when they were elected, but given that we have even seen state governments sacking whole councils in the past, it seems that local government is not going to escape from a subordinate easily-tampered position any time soon.  There was little outcry in the late 1990s when elections were postponed allowing many councillors to serve five year terms instead of four.

The above submission did not cover four year terms for mayors.  I believe this is a beneficial reform.

I also did not cover the ban on double-dipping, a change particularly dear to the Greens.  Kim Booth in particular saluted the end to the "contagious pernicious malady of double-snout-troph syndrome".

I'm not greatly fussed about this one since as things stood, if electors chose to be represented at two levels by the same person (and hence to have a representative who was conflicted), that was up to them and their problem.  In many cases they discovered this soon enough and hence did not choose it for long; in other cases the arrangement was only transitional.  But I don't think it is ideal that politicians on already substantial notionally full-time salaries could draw a second that was also notionally full-time, and the longer-term hogging of local positions by occasional state MPs acted as an obstacle to the building of new leadership talent.  I'm hoping this reform - whatever its merits or otherwise - will lead to a little bit less of the parish-pump super-mayor style campaigning often seen in LegCo elections, and more of what we saw this year, in which LegCo elections are contested on the state issues on which Legislative Councillors have such a crucial say. 

It is likely we will now see all-in-all-out Local Government elections next October.  With roughly similar rates of voting but more candidates and relatively small quotas these will be exciting contests to cover. Should all go according to plan, I will be running detailed coverage of Hobart City Council elections in September and October 2014.

1 comment:

  1. This is a fine submission so worthy of publication on Tasmanian Times also.