Saturday, June 13, 2020

Legislative Council Voting Patterns 2016-2020

Advance summary:

1. This article presents a revised analysis of voting patterns in the Legislative Council (the upper house of Tasmanian Parliament) based on contested divisions involving the current MLCs in the last four years.

2. Although there is a degree of independence in all Legislative Council voting (except among caucusing party MLCs), the Council continues to have a clearly defined "left wing" consisting of the four Labor Party MLCs, and independents Mike Gaffney, Ruth Forrest, Kerry Finch, Rob Valentine and Meg Webb.

3. The two Liberal MLCs and independents Ivan Dean and Robert Armstrong belong to a similarly clearly defined "right" cluster.  Independents Tania Rattray and Rosemary Armitage do not belong to any cluster but currently side somewhat more with the right cluster than the left cluster.  

4. A possible left-to-right sort of the Council is Webb, Valentine, Forrest, the four Labor MLCs (Farrell, Lovell, Siejka and Willie in no particular order), Gaffney, Finch, Armitage, Rattray, the two Liberal MLCs (Hiscutt and Howlett in no particular order), Armstrong, Dean.  However Webb's placement is unreliable because of limited evidence.  

5. Going into the 2020 elections, the left holds an absolute majority in the Legislative Council, normally meaning that the government needs the support of Labor or at least two left independents to win votes.  This will remain the case, the question being the size of that majority.


There has been excellent news for election junkies and for Tasmanian democracy more generally, with the announcement that the 2020 Legislative Council elections for the divisions of Huon and Rosevears will be held on August 1.  These elections were originally scheduled for the start of May, then postponed til the end of May, then postponed to June, July or August and then the subject of legislation that could in theory have seen them held next year.  Fortunately COVID-19 has apparently been kickbooted (someone please tell me where I found that word) from the state as of June 12 and it is great to have these elections back on track.

My original guides for these seats can be found here:


and in the next few weeks I will decide whether to relaunch them or just keep rewriting them to clean up the mess as best I can.  Huon sees the first seat defence by conservative independent and former local mayor Robert Armstrong, while Rosevears is a vacancy caused by the retirement of three-term left-wing independent Kerry Finch.  The government has high hopes of improving its situation by winning Rosevears, where its candidate is a very high profile newsreader, Jo Palmer.  As this article shows, the government's current situation upstairs is difficult.  COVID-19 has seen a great reduction in contested votes and politics as normal, but they'll be back, quite probably very soon.

In most years as a curtain-raiser to the LegCo elections, I put out an article about voting behaviour in the chamber over the last four years.  Last year I did not do this because there had been very few contested votes since the previous year, and the first half of last year was insanely busy.  The most recent prior version was the 2018 version (which links back to earlier articles).  As of 2018 the chamber had eight left-wing MLCs (including four Labor), four right-wing MLCs (including one Liberal), two independents who were centrist to centre-right, and a President who was notionally fairly conservative but never voted.

Since 2018 we've seen one right-wing independent retire and be effectively replaced by a Liberal, and the incumbent President retire and be replaced by an independent who had run a left-wing campaign.  The latter setback for the Liberals was in theory offset by Labor's Craig Farrell taking over as President, but Farrell has in fact said he will use his casting vote along party lines if necessary.  (So far this has yet to be tested.)  So the question is, have changes in the voting behaviour of the existing MLCs helped the government with an upper chamber seemingly stacked against it?  The answer is, not that much.


I've continued to use the same methods as in the 2018 article, but a few comments are in order.  Firstly I've continued to treat the four Labor MLCs as one entity.  While, in theory, a conscience vote could arise where they might not all vote together, that so far hasn't happened.  I can also now treat the two Liberals the same way.  When there were previously two Liberals in the Council, at times they would vote differently, but this has yet to occur since Leonie Hiscutt was joined by Jane Howlett.

Instead of weighting the figures by agreement with different Labor or Liberal MLCs, which would create a bias towards recent data, I've simply extracted a "Labor" position from Josh Willie's votes, or where Willie was absent, Craig Farrell's.  For the Liberal side I've used Leonie Hiscutt's votes since Hiscutt has not missed any division attended by Howlett.

I again use only the last four years of data and I only use recorded divisions with at least two votes (including pairs for absence) on either side. Where an issue generates multiple divisions on the same day, I ignore any of the divisions that are repeats of the earlier ones.  Where an issue generates identical divisions across different days, I count both.  However, in this term, there was one issue (marriage law amendments relating to transgender issues) that accounted for 12 of the 88 contested divisions, including six different division patterns on the one day.  All these different patterns had the government plus Ivan Dean on one side and Labor plus all the left indies who were present on the other.  The differences between the votes came from various combinations of Robert Armstrong, Rosemary Armitage and Tania Rattray, and also from absences.

I've added 36 contested divisions since the last report.  Of these, the marriage law amendments issue was the only one to generate more than two votes.  The rest were quite eclectic and did not include a lot of obvious partisan culture-war issues.  I do not treat substantive and procedural issues separately as there are relatively few purely procedural votes and I believe that frequently the reasons for procedural motions are political anyway.

Agreement matrix and left-right sort

This chart shows how often the Legislative Councillors agree with each other on contested votes.  For instance, the chart shows that Forrest and Rattray currently agree 46% of the time.  As usual I've highlighted agreement scores over three-quarters in red and dark blue, and scores close to that mark are highlighted in orange and pale blue.  Given that I've removed all the 100% agreement scores for party MPs with their own party, the highest remaining agreement scores are 85% for Forrest/Webb, 85% for Armstrong/Dean, 82% for Forrest/Labor and 81% for Gaffney/Finch.  The lowest are 13% for Webb/Armstrong, 18% for Valentine/Armstrong, 19% for Webb/Liberal and 20% for Gaffney/Dean.  However, Meg Webb has only attended 16 contested votes, 4 of which were on the same issue, so there is not really that much data for her yet and these results may be unreliable.  (Indeed Armstrong was absent on a vote where Webb sided with Dean and Rattray, so might well have voted with her on that had he been present.)

The "score" figure is an indicator of how strongly each MLC falls on one side of the left-right divide or the other, red/orange for left and light/dark blue for right.  The score figure is the average agreement with whichever cluster the member agrees with most (counting Labor and Liberal each as one) divided by the average agreement for the other.  The higher, the stronger the pattern. 

(Note and see comments: "strongly" doesn't mean extreme; it just means there is clear evidence that an MLC is very much on one side rather than the other of this chamber, which seems to run from slightly to the left of Labor to slightly to the right of the Liberals, with no far-left or far-right elements.)

The matrix shows two obvious clusters.  The left cluster consists of Labor and five independents - most pairs from this group agree with each other on more than 75% of contested divisions, and the rest are close.  The right cluster consists of the Liberals, Dean and Armstrong.  Armitage doesn't have a strong tendency to agree or disagree with anyone, and Rattray's highest agreement score is 72% with Armstrong.  Both Armitage and Rattray in the last four years have voted substantially more often with the right cluster than the left cluster, which hasn't always been the case in the past.

As noted above there really isn't enough data to place Webb reliably yet so her ranking to the left of Valentine and Forrest should be treated with a lot of caution.  Nonetheless I expected that Webb's voting pattern would be similar to Forrest.  Gaffney and Finch, while clearly part of the left cluster, are more likely to agree with the conservatives than the other seven left MLCs are.  On the right side, both Armstrong and Dean place slightly to the right of the Liberal Party.

In the past I have posted a 2D principal components analysis graph of the above but this time I made it then decided that it didn't actually say anything, so sorry for those looking for some image content, but I haven't posted it.  The left-right axis explains a massive 82% of the variation in voting patterns.  The second axis just picks up the most unaligned voter it can find (Armitage).   Possibly voting agreement percentages wouldn't show it anyway, but there's no evidence of there being a particular kind of commonly-occurring issue that breaks the left-right stereotypes in a particular way,  Rather there are a lot of different issues that do so, each in their own individual way.

The presence of nine left-wing MLCs means that the government doesn't get its way on contentious matters very often.  Since Labor won its fourth seat the government has prevailed on just 13 out of 42 contested divisions.  Even after removing the marriage law amendments, it is still only striking at 43%.  The Labor block of four makes Labor very powerful in the Council, because cases of the government prevailing with Labor voting against it are so rare.  Since Labor won its fourth seat the government has won divisions with Labor on the other side just four times:

* A division on sentencing in 2017, supported by all the independents then in the Council except Valentine and Forrest.
* A vote on bikie insignia in 2018, supported by all the independents then in the Council except Gaffney and Valentine.
* A vote on a work cover amendment in 2019, supported by the right independents and Gaffney with Forrest absent
* A vote on a burial and cremation bill in 2019, supported by the right independents and Finch and Webb.

Slim pickings indeed, but the good news for the government is that, unlike the independents, Labor can sometimes be wedged into supporting things.

Because the left holds nine seats in total, even a government win in Rosevears and an Armstrong retain in Huon would still leave the left with an 8-7 majority.  However that would improve the government's prospects, because it would give it seven votes on the floor whenever it had the support of all the right-wing and centre-right independents.  That would then enable it to win votes if just one left independent voted with it, or even if one of the left MLCs was absent and not paired.  In the latter scenario, the government would win 7-6 on the floor, and President Farrell's potential willingness to vote against it would be irrelevant as the casting vote is used only to break ties, not to create them.  While the current elections are significant in terms of how difficult working with the Council is for the current government, they will not change the fact that it is difficult.

There is one more Legislative Council session before the election and I may update this analysis after it if anything changes.


  1. Checking terminology. a page search for the word 'strongly' shows no entries except on the table, where it appears as 'strongly left'.

    Can you give the term 'strongly left' some context?
    It's puzzling to me, as I never classified Rob Valentine as strongly to the left.

    1. Just means that they have a very clearly left voting pattern in the context of the Council. It doesn't mean far left. There are no Greens for comparison but being slightly left of Labor suggests that Forrest, Valentine and Webb would fit somewhere between Labor and the Greens if there were any Greens. I think Valentine has been more obviously left-wing as a Legislative Councillor than when he was Hobart Lord Mayor, but that it doesn't stand out because his style is more amiable than, say, Andrew Wilkie's.

  2. Cheers for the explanation.
    I'm wondering if the words progressive and conservative are suitable, in place of strongly [winged]. Maybe not, but?

    Inclusion of parties - a separate category to the individuals at the core of the table.

    How is the 'score' calculated?

  3. "Score" is much the same as it was in the 2018 edition but I've added an explanation just above the table.

    I dislike the term "progressive" used by many in the left and prefer to avoid using it. It implies that the left has a monopoly on a project of progress in politics when in my view there are many competing and complementing visions of political progress, and so-called "progressive" politics often gets in the way of what others would consider progress. "Conservative" can at times be problematic too, because various strands of right-wing politics can be reactionary, authoritarian or capitalist/libertarian, all of which are different to true conservatism.

    If my analysis found that there were multiple cross-cutting voting patterns that resulted in several small clusters of MLCs rather than two clusters then I would be more reluctant to use "left" and "right". But this has never yet been the case.