Thursday, October 16, 2014

State Liberal Conference Attacks Hare-Clark System

 Advance Summary:

1. Recently the Tasmanian state Liberal conference passed a motion calling for investigation into alternatives to the Hare-Clark system.

2. The limited evidence available suggests that the arguments advanced for change were based on false attacks on the accuracy of the system and inapplicable analogies with the grossly defective Senate system.

3. In fact the problem some Liberals have with Hare-Clark is that as a converter of vote share to seats it is too accurate for their liking, and by being so increases the chance of minority government.

4. Minority parliaments in Tasmania are often unstable because of the inverted nature of Tasmania's two-house system, compared to other states in which the proportional system tends to be used in the upper house.

5. Claims that the government needs to strike in this term on this issue are far-fetched given both the size of the government's buffer and the fact that the last major electoral system change was bipartisan and happened in a hung parliament.

6. Indeed a switch to single-member seats in the current environment would not improve the government's chances of retaining its majority in 2018, and would actually increase the chance of it losing outright.


Recently the Tasmanian state Liberal Party conference narrowly passed a motion calling on the new state Liberal government to investigate alternatives to the Hare-Clark system for state Lower House elections.    However, the Government has stated that it will not be "reviewing or changing" the Hare-Clark system.

In discussing the internal proceedings of a state party conference I am basically limited to what has been reported in the limited media coverage available so far.  While it is good that the Liberal Party opens its conferences to the media (at least, it puts them ahead of the Greens), this is one issue where I think it would be beneficial if anyone who thinks they have anything significant to say says it more openly and in full.

So I am going to post the quotes and paraphrases available in the media on the issue, and if anyone who spoke at the conference would like to provide more detail on their views and statements, they are more than welcome to do so (if posting a comment is too difficult, feel free to email it to me and I can host it.)

I have tried to distinguish between direct quotes and claimed paraphrases. Media paraphrases of the comments of public figures are not always accurate.

Comments on the motion attributed to Liberals

Sources: The Mercury, ABC, The Examiner, The Examiner,  The Examiner

Comments attributed to the motion, said to be moved by West Lyons and South Esk branches: 

"It is a system that can and has been manipulated, especially by minority parties and independent candidates".

"Election results have not accurately reflected the wishes of voters."

"Therefore, in the interests of fair and accurate representation, the system must be changed"

The Examiner paraphrases the motion as stating that the system is not well understood by voters.

Comments attributed to Richard Chugg, former state President and member of one of the branches moving the motion:

"The change must be made while the opportunity exists to do so"

"The state has been saddled with impotent, dysfunctional governments cobbled together for political expediency"

"Hare-Clark may have served this state reasonably well in a bygone era, but it is playing a large part in the untold damage to the state by denying governments of the day the opportunities to properly govern"

"It has become abundantly clear over the last several decades that the Hare-Clark system is not serving Tasmania well"

"The Liberal Government of the moment has an unprecedented opportunity [to?] effect change because of their majority, and it's unlikely that in the future we'll enjoy the same advantage that we currently do"

Comments attributed to Rumney "Independent Liberal" MLC Tony Mulder:

"I have great problems with the proportional voting system.  It produces a result where the Greens still get elected on 15 to 16 per cent"

"If you want to know how bad it can get, you only have to look at Jacqui Lambie - who got 4% [sic] of the primary vote but because of a proportional representation system and a capacity to control the preference flows, ends up with a seat in Federal Parliament"

"We need to get back to single member seats"

Comments attributed to Denison Liberal MHA and Speaker Elise Archer:

The Mercury paraphrases Elise Archer as suggesting the system requires tweaking but that the motion should urge the party to investigate rather than (at this stage) initiate review.

The Examiner paraphrases Archer as saying that the system is too complex even for candidates and quotes her as saying "Every time I run in [an election], I find out something about it that I didn't know the last time I ran".

Comment attributed to state director Sam McQuestin:

"We won't be the only party to discuss Hare-Clark - I'd expect Labor to have a chat about it following the election"

Comments attributed to state president Dale Archer:

"If I could state the obvious, the Hare-Clark system has just delivered a resounding victory to the Liberal Party at the March state election"

Comments on the motion attributed to others

Press release by Kim Booth, MHA and Greens Leader:

Kim Booth's press release can be read in full on Tasmanian Times.

Booth argues that the "whining and ridiculous complaint that Hare Clark favours the Greens is utterly absurd".  He argues that Hare-Clark delivers "the electorate's vote almost as exactly as possible" through "a sophisticated mathematical system".

He also says:

"The other beauty of Hare-Clark is that it does away with the need of preferences between parties and candidates, protecting Tasmania from the bizarre preference outcomes which has [sic] caused voters great frustration and anger in other jurisdictions"

Booth goes on to suggest the Liberals intend "gerrymandering a system that would lock them into power permanently" and points out that no policy to alter Hare-Clark was taken to the last election.

Comment attributed to Michelle O'Byrne, Labor MHA:

"There may be a point where the Tasmanian population is large enough that you would move to single-member electorates - I don't think we're there yet."

The Examiner paraphrases Michelle O'Byrne as saying the system is serving Tasmania well.

My comments

1. Manipulation

The motion alleges that the Hare-Clark system has been manipulated by minor parties and independents.  It would be very nice to know what those making this claim are getting at.  It may be that the claim is just extremely badly expressed, but whatever it is, it sounds like nonsense, and a very thin facade of nonsense at that.

In fact, hardly any systems are more difficult for minor parties to manipulate than Hare-Clark, in terms of trying to create unnatural outcomes.  Unlike in the Group Ticket Voting system recently used (hopefully for the last time) in the Senate, minor parties cannot direct the preferences of voters who voted for them.  All preferences are directed by the voter.  Unlike in House of Representatives elections (and many state elections), minor parties cannot effectively "advise" their voters to preference a certain way through How To Vote cards, as these are banned.  Unlike in first past the post systems, minor parties cannot cause major parties to lose by splitting their vote.  And there are all kinds of strange artifacts possible in MMP systems like New Zealand's - most recently, Peter Dunne won a share of the balance of power with his party polling 0.2% of the national vote. 

Independents have, in fact, a poor recent record in Tasmanian Hare-Clark elections.  Historically they've won about 2% of all seats decided under the system, but since 1986 and not counting the proto-Greens, only one independent has been elected at all, and he was a former federal Liberal MHR.

Perhaps the claim is really that Greens and independents have manipulated not the outcome of the electoral system but the parliament it elected them to.  I'll deal with that one later.

2. Could Lambie be elected in Hare-Clark?

The recent election of Jacqui Lambie to the Senate looks like a good stick to bash proportional representation with, since the Tasmanian Senator is a constant embarrassment.  In fact, Senator Lambie was elected with 6.47% of the primary vote (including ticket votes), or 0.453 of a Senate quota.  Not 4% as stated.

So her vote was not exactly a case of snowballing upwards from very little, but a key point in Mulder's comments is "capacity to control the preference flows".  That capacity exists in the Senate, and even if the Palmer United Party were not actually all that good at it, their unexpectedly high primary vote in the state and deal with the Greens were just enough to get them home over the Liberals without their run being snuffed out by a preference-harvester. In Hare-Clark that capacity to control flows does not exist, and so Lambie's win is hardly a precedent for Hare-Clark.

And if anyone is asking if a party or independent with the same total as PUP in the Senate (6.58%) could actually win a seat in a Tasmanian state Hare-Clark election, the answer is that a vote total that low has actually never won, and under the current quota they're not that likely to ever do so.  There have been just three cases in 105 years of between 7 and 8% being enough for an independent to win a seat (Benjamin Pearsall, George Gray and Bruce Goodluck, all in Franklin, and all with a lower percentage hurdle to jump than now.)

Another important part of the reason that Lambie got elected to the Senate was that there were so many micro and minor party candidates who seemed to be in the running that it was hard for anyone wanting to run due diligence checks on candidates to know who to focus on.  Because PUP's preference flow was so ordinary, it wasn't until their vote surged very late in the campaign that they became a chance.  On the contrary in Hare-Clark elections it is pretty easy to identify the parties that have chances and thus narrow the field.

There's more because most of Lambie's votes in the Senate came not because she was well-known but specifically because she was endorsed #1 on a ticket.  At state level, when a party polls around that level of vote, if they have no especially good candidates then the vote tends to scatter within the group with high losses from leakage when candidates within the group are cut out.  We saw this in Braddon where Palmer United polled 7.2% and didn't get near a seat, even getting excluded before the Greens despite outpolling them.  PUP leakage rates were around 20%.

Finally, putting aside theory, there is always practice.  If anyone thinks the Hare-Clark system is likely to elect someone as embarrassing as Lambie to state parliament without due scrutiny, then they should name the last such embarrassing person thus elected.  Here I'd say that there have been some very embarrassing Tasmanian politicians in the last 30 years, but they were generally in the Legislative Council.  It's quite a challenge to remember an MHA who was even close to Lambie-class.

3. Accuracy

The complaint of some Liberals that the system inaccurately reflects the will of the voters is a revealing one.  Their real problem is that the system reflects the will of the voters very accurately on the whole, but a major party usually won't get a majority unless it has quite close to 50% of the vote.  So when some of the Liberals say the system is not accurate, what they actually mean is that it's too accurate, and they don't like it.

There were three elections under the old 35-seat system in which the Greens campaigned statewide (everything pre-1989 is ancient history!).  In these the ALP won 36.2% of seats with 34.7% of the vote, the Liberals won 49.5% of seats with 47.4% of the vote, the Greens won 13.3% of seats with 13.8% of the vote, and others won 1% of seats with 4.1% of the vote.

A similar pattern appeared from 1998-2014 under the 25 seat system: the ALP has won 47.2% of the seats with 42% of the vote, the Liberals 39.2% of the seats with 37.5% of the vote, the Greens 13.6% of seats with 16.1% of the vote, and the combined 4.4% for various others has produced no seats (but one very near miss.)

The pattern (as previously discussed in Tasmanian Lower House: 25 or 35 Seats?) is that the system slightly advantages both major parties compared to the Greens and especially compared to minor parties.  Even when other minor parties have the state vote share to be proportionally worthy of a seat (Tasmania First 1998, PUP 2014) the division of the state into electorates kills their chances.

We do not see in this system any of these things:

* that parties are elected from less than 1% of the vote
* that a party wins a majority statewide although it would convincingly lose the two-party-preferred vote
* that a badly beaten opposition can be left with just a tiny proportion of seats (or even as in some Canadian cases wiped out of parliament altogether)

It is especially amusing that any Liberals would even consider complaining about inaccuracy when, having got very lucky in Braddon, they have just won 60% of the seats with 51% of the primary vote.

4.  Hung Parliaments

It is true that Hare-Clark is more conducive to hung parliaments than single-seat systems, and this is precisely because it quite accurately reflects party support and it is fairly rare for one party to have more than 50% primary support.  Three of the last eight Tasmanian state elections have produced hung parliaments.

However, hung parliaments are not all that rare in single seat systems either.  Since 1989, in 34 single-seat-system state elections, hung parliaments have occurred at seven of them (including at least one in every state) and one state (SA) has had a higher percentage of hung parliaments than Tasmania.  An eighth election was inconclusive with the annulling of one seat result triggering a by-election which caused a hung parliament, and a ninth (Victoria now) has a hung parliament despite that not being the original election result.  

It is true that Tasmanian hung parliaments are "different" because they have tended to involve the Greens.  Because Tasmania has a large pool of swinging major party voters who dislike the Greens, any party that goes into government with the Greens loses the next election outright.  The recent Labor-Green government at least found a way to go full term without collapsing, but at the cost of Labor's worst vote in the history of the system and a pretty bad result for the Greens too.  The further Labor move away from the way in which they handled the 2010-14 coalition, the more they move back towards a repeat of the instability of 1989-92 if they are ever in minority government again.

I don't think the coalition government we just saw was anywhere near as impotent as argued.  The fact is it was one in which the Greens had a significant stake in seat terms and vote terms, having polled more than half Labor's vote in 2010.  Indeed the suspicion for some opponents of the government was that it was all too potent, too Green and too left-wing, and that the Greens' slogan claiming to have "delivered" was too true.

The ultimate problem for the more naive line of Hare-Clark defence is that proportional representation does not equal proportional power.  Rather, in a non-majority parliament, the Greens have power out of proportion to their seat tally.  This bites hard in Tasmania which has a special form of instability because it has only one non-major-party that actually wins seats, and because that party sometimes takes issue positions that are strongly opposed by the other two.  For this reason I've been arguing for many years that Tasmania is not like a European (or NZ) multi-party state and that PR will continue to cause strategic voting, wild shifts in vote share, and from time to time contentious hung parliaments.

This could indeed be fixed by going to a single seat system, but it's important there to be honest that what you are doing is not making the system more accurate, but going to one that is geared for an inaccurate relation of vote share and seats won, in order to increase the chances of majority government.  It's also important to realise that with enough Green and left-indie support in the Hobart area to fairly reliably keep a seat or two in a 25-seat parliament out of major party hands, even a system with 25 single seats would probably still get similar non-majority parliaments now and then.

5. The Upside-Down System

None of point 4 above has anything to do with Hare-Clark per se.  The same thing would have happened had Tasmania's lower house had any PR system worth its name.  It is often argued that, in comparison to the structures in play in Victoria, NSW, SA and WA, Tasmania has come to have its houses upside down.  It is good to elect both houses via completely different electoral systems, to reduce the chance of the same side fluking an undeserved majority in both.  But the mainland states have proportional representation in the upper house.  Nothing can get through both houses without the endorsement of a proportionally represented chamber, meaning that the government of the day needs to command very close to 50% primary support to have a majority in both houses.  However, in the lower house under the single-seat system, the government usually has a majority, or if it doesn't, will tend to be stably supported by independents, who don't tend to have the strong ideological concerns of minor parties.

This balance is why the calls for Tasmania to go to a single-seat system, without any reform of the Upper House at the same time, are so electorally backwards.  A parliament with two houses elected by the same electoral system but using different boundaries and on different schedules would just be silly.  Indeed if such a system maintained the present numbers in each house it could then be argued that the Upper House members, elected from larger electorates and for longer, were more "endorsed" than those in the Upper House.

I would set as a minimum condition for any single-seat Lower House proposal to be taken seriously, that the proponent also explains their model for the Upper House to be converted to proportional representation and provides the names of at least, say, five current MLCs who would support it.

6. Fear Of A 9% Swing

Readers may guess by now that I have a fair amount of sympathy with Kim Booth's spray against the motion.  But I don't think this is really about trying to ensure perpetual Liberal government.  Rather, some Liberals (and there would be some ALP members who would think likewise) would prefer that their party be in government with a majority closer to half the time, and in opposition most of the rest.  Under the current system either major party in government sooner or later seems to end up losing its majority and having to either put the other crew in or else govern with Green support.  The latter is often turbulent and always unpopular, and not much fun for the party in charge.

What is odd here is the idea that this is urgent.  While the Hodgman government won two of its 15 seats rather narrowly, the rest are all on wide margins.  A swing back to Labor of around 9% is required before a third seat becomes likely to fall (Lyons is on about that margin, with the third seat in Bass and second in Denison slightly higher).  While it's possible the Hodgman government would repeat the blunders that caused the first-term Groom government to cop a double-digit swing in 1996, it really shouldn't be hard to avoid.

Also, the major parties have cooperated on changes to the electoral system that partly aimed to blunt the Greens before, and indeed previously did so in a hung parliament setting.  Indeed, Labor would probably have more to benefit from a switch to single-seat than the Liberals would, since this would unlock Green preferences currently tied up in Greens quotas.  At the 2014 election, votes that passed from the Greens to a major party favoured Labor massively (81% as a raw total, 76% as an average of electorate results).  On that basis, if the last election had been run in a single seat system, the result might have been about 58:42 to the Liberals, so a swing of the sort some of them fear could cost them their majority (or even government fullstop) in a single-seat system anyway.

7. But It's All Too Hard!

The Hare-Clark system is indeed complicated.  As PR systems go it is not the most complex, and I'd argue it is much easier to follow than the systems used in the Senate and in the NSW and Victorian Upper Houses (for example).  But all good electoral systems have their tricks.  The idea that ditching Hare-Clark and having a single-member system would get us away from that was shown up by, for instance, the Denison 2010 federal post-count.  The Fairfax 2013 post-count was another extremely complex case. 

Even to take the argument to its extreme, everybody understands first-past-the-post.  But the strategic considerations of whether to run in an electorate in first-past-the-post, and whether to vote for your preferred party or vote tactically for another, and how to interpret polling data to make these decisions, are often way beyond even the parties (and are precisely why first-past-the-post is such a terrible system).

 The level of incorrect commentary about Hare-Clark reported from this conference is certainly evidence that some Liberal conference attendees don't understand the system.  But I don't think candidates actually needed to understand the complexities that, for instance, caused Braddon to go 4-1 rather than 3-2.  Those complexities arise based on exact levels of vote share, but vote share can't be predicted in advance.  Would anyone have campaigned any differently?

8. In Conclusion

The Hodgman government was right to publicly shut down this unwise recommendation from its party conference.  This is not because options for change should never be considered, but because a reform debate in which those supporting change cannot give the existing system due recognition for its strengths is very likely to be more heat than light and to end in bad solutions.  Jumping to change a system when a party base that doesn't understand it complains about it would have been a very silly look.

If the Hodgman government cannot get itself re-elected with a majority in 2018 then it will have governed in a way undeserving of one under any electoral system.  To start anticipating that outcome and blaming the system for it already is curious indeed.


  1. In terms of delivering representation, the Hare-Clark system does exceptionally well. As you have mentioned, it also does a very good job of culling weaker candidates, both independent and within the parties.

    Delivering stable government, well not so much. What it really needs is a fourth party to provide some balance, and the numbers necessary to see such.

    Yes, there are a couple of technical issues that have been thrashed to death in the Senate debate that could be addressed. But as a working system for a House of Representatives, it is basically unmatched.

    Basically, its the combination of representation with the executive that causes all the issues.

  2. Do you have any estiamate on what the results would be under single-member electorates? It looks like it would be an almost-clean sweep of the state by the Liberals (a few Labor members might get elected in Denison).

    1. Yes it would be pretty close to a clean sweep but Labor would win a few. Likewise if the 2002 result was converted to single-seat the result would have been something like 23 Labor 2 Green and the Libs would have got nothing.

      I haven't spent any time running an accurate simulation on this, because such extreme results as 2002 and 2014 wouldn't actually happen in a single seat system. They result from swings being amplified (or at times, as in 2006, reduced) by a subset of voters voting for whichever party can win majority government. Under a single-seat system this would be a non-issue and most of the time these voters would vote for whichever major party they had a slight leaning to. We might still get these sorts of 58-60 2PP thrashings every now and then, but not every third election. We wouldn't see this swaying pattern where every decade or so a quarter of the voters move from one side to the other (then next decade back again.)

  3. I agree!

    Although I don't have a clue what O'Byrne could mean when she says "There may be a point where the Tasmanian population is large enough that you would move to single-member electorates - I don't think we're there yet."

    What's wrong with keeping Hare-Clark?

    Adding more members per electorate as the population grows would be helpful for more accurate results, but I can see there would be a limit to that before you get crowded ballot papers. The solution is obvious: If the population grows, you just add more electorates! That would happen automatically anyway since the state divisions reflect the Federal HoR seats. More Federal seats, more State divisions under the same excellent system.

    So what on Earth is she talking about?

    1. I'm guessing that what she is getting at is just that a common argument against single-seat systems in Tasmania is that the electorates would be too small, with about 13,000 votes in each. So if someone has a preference for the single seat system but is concerned about electorate size, they might say that if Tasmania's population reaches, say, 800,000, then it might be time to go over to single-seat.

      Of course if someone has a preference for Hare-Clark then there is indeed no such thing as too many people, because you can just keep adding more electorates, as you point out, and thereby get around any problems associated with highly-populated Hare-Clark electorates (at the cost only of having more politicians).

      I took the comment as an attempt to be seen as appealling to both sides of the debate.