Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Legislative Council voting patterns since the last Lower House election

Advance Summary

1. This article presents an analysis of voting patterns in the Legislative Council (the upper house of Tasmanian Parliament) based on contested divisions since the last Lower House election in 2010.

2. This article confirms that voting on such issues in the Legislative Council is quite independent, individual and often unpredictable.  Clusters of members with similar views are few and relatively weak.

3. Despite this, the Legislative Council has a "conservative" lean with all members bar possibly one voting to the right of the sole Labor MLC, Craig Farrell.

4. Furthermore, six members of the Council have occupied positions to the right of the sole Liberal MLC, Vanessa Goodwin.

5. Ivan Dean has been the most "conservative" MLC during this period, with either Farrell or Rob Valentine (very limited data available for Valentine) at the other end of the scale.

6. The voting pattern on contentious issues alone is not a fair reflection of the full behaviour of the Council.  Nonetheless it shows that the LegCo can be expected to, from time to time, behave very conservatively on major issues.


In my previous article I looked at the Legislative Council's claimed reasons for rejecting same-sex marriage (at least in the form of the state-based Same-Sex Marriage Bill 2011).  And in another recent article I looked at voting patterns in the Tasmanian Lower House.  When an excerpt from the latter article was posted on TT, the following was posted under (or actually above!) the name of Tony Mulder, MLC for Rumney, who may not have been aware that I no longer post on TT:

"Where democracy on the floor really works is the LegCo where the outcome on any issue is always unknown. The fact that the back room deals occasionally fail on the floor of the LegCo should have democrats applauding. Instead there are perpetual calls to abandon it because some don’t like the decisions!  Can’t have cake and eat it!! How about analysing the number of times the LegCo supports the government and opposition’s position and determine whether the LegCo is really the house of obstruction as claimed."

After that, I just couldn't resist having a look at voting patterns in the Legislative Council, to see what it tells us about the orientation of the Council, whether voting there on contentious votes is predictable, and how "independent" the house of review actually is.   I will note though that the last part of Mulder's assignment didn't greatly interest me, partly because it would actually take a lot of work to match up all the bills, but mainly because I think it's well known that the LegCo only rarely blocks legislation that passes the House.  Even in the current situation, in which there is a minority government in the Lower House which is facing heavy defeat in 2014 based on current polling and which is often argued to lack a mandate because of the circumstances of its formation, the number of bills that are outright knocked back (as opposed to amended) is not great.  The LegCo has a strategic balancing act to play: it has great power, but it has to use it cautiously.  Too-frequent use of that power to veto government bills would lead to widespread criticism of members as closet Liberals, greater public concern about just how powerful the LegCo is, and a greater risk of election defeat for incumbents. 

What I've decided to look at, therefore, is the voting patterns on the floor of the LegCo on those motions that are sufficiently divisive that a division is required and the results of a vote recorded.  Again I've used the Parliament of Tasmania Hansard search engine, and I'm only looking at contested votes since the state Lower House election in 2010 created a Labor-Green coalition government.

Four Legislative Councillors have served in that time who are no longer in the chamber -  Michael Aird (ALP, retired), Doug Parkinson (ALP, retired), Lin Thorp (ALP, defeated) and Don Wing (Ind, retired).  While I have retained data concerning them I am interested here in the voting patterns of the current MLCs.  The most important thing to note here is that Rob Valentine has only been present for nine divisions, and thus any conclusions about Valentine must be treated with extreme care.  Indeed even for the most established MLCs the sample size is 25 divisions - by no means an enormous number but enough to draw some meaningful conclusions.  That said, the results for Valentine thus far do not surprise me greatly.

I have aimed to produce two descriptions of Legislative Council voting patterns - one of them being two-dimensional and the other one being a left-right sort.  This follows the methods used in Your City Council Sorted From Green To Blue (2009-11) , an epic which was probably the only article in Tasmanian Times history so complicated it needed its own methods paper!  Those curious about the micro-details of how I do this sort of thing should read the methods paper PDF attached to that article.  The rest may wish to use it as a cure for acute insomnia.

As with that article, I'm only including those motions on which a division was recorded, and not those on which voting was unanimous or there was just a lone dissenter.  If anything this may present an unduly positive picture of Labor's prospects, as Labor's attempt to get its tobacco company political donation ban through the Upper House was recently stymied 13-1. All the divisions I could find are included, even a small minority that are seemingly mundane procedural motions. 

In two dimensions

The following is a two-dimensional representation of the voting patterns of the fourteen MLCs who usually vote on Legislative Council matters.  (The President, Sue Smith, does not vote unless there is a tie, and habitually votes to preserve the status quo in accordance with convention in such cases.)

For those unfamiliar with graphs of these sorts, a principle components analysis aims to represent patterns in 2D with as little distortion as possible.  Both the angle of different lines to each other and the distance of different data points from the centre are relevant here.  The angles indicate what kind of voting pattern is displayed and the distance indicates how strongly it is realised.  Even if two Legislative Councillors appear opposite each other, if one is close to the centre they will still agree reasonably often.  If two Legislative Councillors are at a similar angle and a similar distance from the centre then it is likely their political views are rather similar.

Key to names: Arm = Rosemary Armitage, Dean = Ivan Dean, Farr = Craig Farrell (Labor), Fin = Kerry Finch, For = Ruth Forrest, Gaf = Mike Gaffney, Good = Vanessa Goodwin (Liberal), Hall = Greg Hall, Harr = Paul Harriss, Mul = Tony Mulder, Ratt = Tania Rattray, Tay = Adriana Taylor, Val = Rob Valentine, Wilk = Jim Wilkinson

(Although thirteen MLCs are independents, some of these have known past party connections.  Gaffney is a past Labor candidate. Mulder is a recent past Liberal candidate who was elected as an "independent liberal". Taylor is a former Labor Party member.  Harriss was a Liberal candidate a very long time ago and Valentine a Green Independent candidate (but not a party member) likewise.

The graph shows that the sole vestige of the once mighty Labor LegCo empire, Craig Farrell, doesn't have a lot of close colleagues on divided votes.  Rob Valentine and Mike Gaffney display vaguely similar voting patterns.  Ruth Forrest and Kerry Finch are shown as having vague leanings in that direction, though neither of them vote with Farrell all that much.

However, rather than the graph showing that the majority of the chamber is actively anti-Labor, a lot of the other arrows go off more or less perpendicular to Farrell's.  And this is because there are a few MLCs, Dean and Rattray in particular, who are shown as more or less diametrically opposed to Farrell.  Several Councillors (Goodwin, Taylor, Harriss, Hall, Armitage, Wilkinson) are shown as close to half-way between the left wing of the LegCo and Dean and Rattray.  These are loosely clustered, except that Taylor is much closer to the centre than the others.

On this basis it would be expected that the Labor position is on the winning side a fair number of times, especially on motions where the likes of Dean don't have the agreement of most members of the loose cluster mentioned above.    And indeed when we look at the percentage of motions for which each member (if present) is on the winning side, it turns out that Farrell is on the winning side 63% of the time.  Here's the full list of how often each MLC is on the winning side of divisions:

Wilkinson 82%, Gaffney and Taylor 80%, Hall 78%, Goodwin and Finch 75%, Harriss 68%, Armitage 65%, Forrest 64%, Farrell and Mulder 63%, Dean 60%, Rattray 56%, Valentine 50% (caution again: very limited data for Valentine).

Not surprisingly it is that loose cluster mentioned above that is most often on the winning side and the Councillors not in that cluster who are most often on the losing side.  This applies not only to those who seem to be at the left and right ends of the spectrum, but also to Tony Mulder, whose voting pattern is the most distinctive in nature of the fourteen, although not as polarised as most.

Left to right sort

I'm not a huge fan of the left-right dichotomy, and not only because I can't find myself anywhere near it.  However, squashing the LegCo's voting patterns onto a left-right line doesn't just further compress information, but in this case clarifies some very useful things already suggested by the diagram above. 
The following is an agreement matrix, which shows the percentage of divisions on which the two MLCs, if both present, voted on the same side.  For instance the table shows that Mike Gaffney and Kerry Finch voted together 67% of the time.  The highest agreement percentages were 88 for Forrest-Valentine (very limited data - 8/9) and Farrell-Gaffney, 81 for Goodwin-Wilkinson and Wilkinson-Hall and 80 for Hall-Armitage.  

The lowest agreement percentages were 13 for Valentine-Dean, 14 for Valentine-Hall (again, very limited data; I would expect these to increase), 19 for Rattray-Farrell and 29 for Armitage-Valentine and Armitage-Forrest.  

A figure of three-quarters (75%) is often used as a threshhold for identifying clusters of voters with similar views in this sort of work.  Therefore I have highlighted agreement scores of 75 and above, and also weakly highlighted those of at least 70.

Lastly I have found a notional "score" for each candidate on an axis from red-2 (left in LegCo terms) through 1 (centre) and back up to blue-2 (right) based on the trial-and-error process discussed in the methods blurb for the TT piece (but without some of the HCC-specific fiddles discussed in that piece).  The idea is to continually juggle the order until an order is found in which ratios show that every MLC is correctly placed based on comparisons with the MLCs above and below them.   I also assigned an "alignment" description for each MLC.  

(I also computed another alignment score based on the average agreement of each candidate with the "left" MLCs vs the "right" MLCs (Finch treated as centre) - a simplistic method that I formerly used to do the same article for Hobart Council - and on that basis have tweaked some of the alignment descriptions slightly.  That method gives exactly the same order except for swapping the following pairs: Gaffney and Forrest, Mulder and Taylor, Harriss and Wilkinson, Armitage and Dean.  The swapping of Armitage and Dean is attributed to one of the faults of that method (it fails to pick up when a candidate is so far to one end that they don't agree with moderates on their own side) and should be disregarded.)

Here's the table: (click for more readable version):

NOTE: Findings for Valentine based on extremely limited data (nine votes, at some of which some other MLCs were absent - treat with great caution.)  See also 4. below re Armitage and Dean.

The following are some observations on the above:

1. The degree of clustering is pretty weak, suggesting voting is quite individual and not very predictable at all.  Based on the three-quarters rule, Goodwin, Wilkinson, Hall and Armitage form what I will call the "main conservative" cluster (MCC) as the average agreement score of each of these with each of the other three is 75 or more.  Harriss, with an average agreement score of 73.5 with this cluster, is at least an affiliate member of the "MCC".  But the clustering is quite a bit weaker than, for instance, the "blues" cluster on Hobart City Council.

2.  There is also something resembling a cluster on the left too, but it is even weaker still since there is no group of three, let alone four, who average 75+% agreement with each other.

3. Mulder has the least variable level of voting agreement with other MLCs, suggesting he is the most unpredictable and one of the least polarised.  (Others with low levels of variation are Taylor, Finch and Goodwin).

4. MLCs Rattray and Dean have relatively low agreement levels with other MLCs generally (this is especially true of Dean).  Dean, especially, does not agree with anyone on more than 64% of divisions.  However unlike Mulder, this is not because their agreement is spread very evenly around the chamber,as they have very low agreement scores with the leftmost members.   While the ratio method I have used gives Dean a very similar score to Armitage, this is artificially influenced by Armitage having a very high agreement level with Hall.  Once this is taken into account, Dean has clearly displayed the most right-wing voting pattern over the last two and a half years. 

With the possible exception of Valentine, there is nobody as close to the left end of the LegCo as the Government's sole representative.  That there are no Greens is no great surprise since the single-member system greatly reduces their chances.  But if the Leader for a Labor Government is either the most left-wing or second most left-wing member of the chamber on divided votes, it is very hard to say it is politically balanced - even if he is the Leader for a Labor government in coalition with the Greens that is therefore more "left-wing" than the average Labor regime.

This picture becomes even clearer when we consider the voting pattern of Vanessa Goodwin.  Goodwin is an endorsed Liberal (considered a moderate by party standards, but not exactly Tasmania's version of Malcolm Turnbull) but on this assessment, five of the other thirteen voting MLCs display voting patterns that are significantly further from her voting position than Labor's, and a sixth marginally so.  So on those issues on which divisions are called, the Legislative Council has a very conservative lean.  As a counter to this, I did mention that a lot of government legislation is approved or only amended and that outright blocking is relatively rare, so it is not as if this pattern shows up all the time.

SSM: The "conscience vote" that fits the pattern

We heard so much from some of the MLCs during the same-sex marriage debate about how they had wrestled with their consciences, how the decision was agonising, how it had cost them sleep and they could have gone either way and so on.  I think a few of them might have been laying that on a bit heavy to avoid offending voters on the other side.  For all that the 6-8 defeat of a bill passed narrowly by the Lower House was packaged as the resolution according to their consciences following massive debate by a largely independent chamber, the outcome was actually one of the most predictable decisions the Upper House has made in this term.  The five at the top of my left-to-right sort voted for, the seven on the bottom voted against, and only Mulder and Taylor, appear slightly out of order on my list - with Taylor's Catholicism, in my view, a likely factor there.  (Note that with a small sample size, the SSM vote itself contributes several percent to a lot of the agreement scores, but this is not enough to change the overall pattern.)

There are a couple of responses that are possible to anything that suggests that on contentious issues the house of review still includes members who make the Liberal Party look almost radical.  The first approach is to say that that is just voter choice at work and if the voters want to be represented by such members then so be it.  The second is to say that there actually is a problem here, because the voters don't know what they're doing.  And the reason that they don't know what they're doing is that Legislative Council elections are often low-profile affairs, often dominated by local reputation and parish-pump issues more suited to local government politics.  Real coverage of state-based issues that are most relevant to the work that the MLCs will actually do, in the lead-up to LegCo elections, is usually uncommon.  

I tend to lean towards the latter view, and think there is a case for reforms that would make Legislative Council elections more high-profile, more competitive and more politically informed. But it is rather pointless for me to recommend any particular reforms right now, since ultimately the only way the Legislative Council can be reformed is if it willingly decides to be so.  Independent MLCs have a strong interest in keeping things the way they are, since a more competitive electoral environment might make it more difficult to beat off political parties.  And at a time when independent MLCs are probably seen by many (even me on very rare occasions!) as the last bulwark against the sillier decisions of the Labor-Green coalition, this is probably hardly the time when talk about reform will gain any traction.  While the voters think that there is little or no disease, the physician hardly needs to "heal thyself".  

Update (2 Jan 2013): minor clarification re former Green candidate status of Valentine.  

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