Saturday, May 28, 2022

Tasmanian Government Agrees To Increase Size Of Parliament

This Wednesday there was a surprise in Tasmanian parliament with the Premier, Jeremy Rockliff, announcing that his Government would introduce a Bill later this year to restore the House of Assembly to 35 seats.  

Unlike most states and the federal parliament, Tasmania has an "upside down" system with the House of Assembly (lower house) elected by the Hare-Clark system of (more or less) proportional representation, while the Legislative Council (upper house) has single-member seats, elected on a rotating basis.  Tasmania has used Hare-Clark statewide since 1909, always with five electorates that match the state's five federal seats.  

The state elected six members per division from 1909 to 1956, but the death knell of that system was sounded in 1955 when the election that year produced a 15-15 Liberal-Labor tie.  An unsatisfactory system in which the loser of the primary vote (in this case the Liberals) provided the Speaker in order to enable the winner to govern was tested to its limits when Labor's Carrol Bramich defected to the Liberals, giving the Liberals a floor majority.  The Cosgrove Labor government secured a dissolution (aided by the Liberals having let the House adjourn rather than using their numbers to take control of it as they might in theory have) but the result again was 15-15.  From this point on, the state used 35 seats.



The idea of reducing the size of Parliament came to a head in 1993.  The salaries of politicians had fallen well below levels elsewhere and had not increased for some time. The Groom Liberal government intended to increase salaries by 40% but sweeten the deal by reducing the number of politicians.  The former part was easy and the latter part was hard, and the two proposals got uncoupled. Community outrage at the 40% pay rise ran all the way to the 1996 election, and was one of two factors (the other being industrial relations) that appeared to be most prominent in the government losing its majority.  The issue continued to run through the next parliament, in which an uninspiring and peculiar model for 4x7 seats with one side "enabled to govern" failed to catch on.  

The problem was it wasn't possible to reduce the size of parliament and retain the existing five electorates without also reducing the number of seats per electorate, which affected proportionality to the disadvantage of the Greens based on their vote share at the time.  The Liberals found themselves wedged into adopting Labor's preferred model and, not entirely reluctantly in view of having not enjoyed minority government with very minimal Greens support, agreed to switch to 5x5.  This was obviously seen as an attempt to reduce the power of the Greens and make majority government more likely, following two turbulent minority parliaments in nine years. 

If voters were outraged by this decision, they didn't show it at the 1998 election at which the Greens went backwards in vote share and won only one out of 25 seats with a vote that would have given them 4/35 in the previous system.  Labor won a majority with 14/25 seats off a primary vote of only 44.8% and a primary vote lead of only 6.8%.  

Restoration of the parliament to 35 seats has been proposed ever since the parliament was shrunk, and has attracted in-principle cross-party support in the past without occurring (eg in 2010).  The 25 seat system has been criticised for several reasons, some of which I comment on in detail below:

1. Disproportionality

In general a district magnitude of seven members leads to more proportional outcomes than a district magnitude of five, and also more competitive outcomes.  I have a running article on this site that gives 25 seat vs 35 seat outcomes for all the elections from 1989 onwards (updates for recent elections at the bottom.)  

I don't even remotely agree with claims that the 25-seat system is comparable to gerrymandering or malapportionment (we have many Houses in Australia that are not proportional at all but are nonetheless elected via a one-vote one-value system without geographic bias), but it is nonetheless a more granular and brutal version of Hare-Clark than 35 seats.  The interesting thing is that since doing its somewhat intended job by nearly wiping out the Greens and allowing a majority government in 1998, the 25-seat system has generally not produced results that were much different to the 35-seat system.  There is, overall, a case that it makes majority government slightly more likely, but there is not a lot in it.  

To be contrarian on this, there's an argument that this only really matters to the Greens among established parties, and only because it saves them from getting wiped out of parliament or knocked down to a lonely one MP again if their vote is at the low end.  For the last few decades Tasmanian voters have often produced lopsided results by voting strategically for whichever major party looks like winning, to stop the Greens from sharing power.  Thus the results don't really reflect the proportional primary vote support that either party would get in a single-seat system.  

Also, proportional representation in a three-party system does not necessarily mean proportional power - the third party becomes very powerful in a situation where a minority government wants to remain in power and knows that if it goes to an election it will lose it outright.   (This is the essential difference between Tasmania and multi-party parliaments in Europe where majority government is simply impossible and so the imperatives for instability are weaker, and that's why the 'but look at all these minority parliaments that do just fine' argument as applied to Tasmania is missing something.)

2. Disadvantage for independents / fourth parties

Until Kristie Johnston's victory in Clark in 2021 there had been no independent or fourth party victories under the 25-seat system in six elections. The disadvantage for independents was not clear cut, since Andrew Wilkie very nearly won in 2010 and it's not clear that any fourth party would have won on the same vote shares in the 35-seat system. (Wilkie would not have got close, and there would have been chances for Tasmania First in 1998, Palmer United in 2014 and Jacqui Lambie Network in 2018). However the daunting quota may have discouraged others from even trying.  

In 2021 there was an upsurge in fourth-party/independent voting (perhaps a precursor of things to come federally!) and an independent finally won, albeit a very popular local mayor.   Under the 35-seat system there would have been at least two independents (Johnston and Sue Hickey in Clark) and perhaps a third (Craig Garland in Braddon).  

There is the potential for improved chances for independents and fourth parties to lead to minority governments that are less turbulent (or as in 2010-4 seen as illegitimate) than in the past, and maybe if Tasmania gets an independent-supported minority government soon a lot of the heat will go out of the majority/minority debate.  We have seen in other states that minority governments supported by independents have been successful and often re-elected with large majorities. Minority governments supported by the Greens are extremely successful in the ACT but have always been crushed in Tasmania, largely because there are always issues here (whether it's logging or poker machines) that put the Greens on one side and the majors on the other.  

3. Overburdened MPs and burnout

Burnout has been cited as a factor in several recent resignations, most notably that of the previous Premier, Peter Gutwein, who also briefly needed medical treatment for exhaustion during the pandemic.  With the reduction of Cabinet from ten Ministers to nine has come an increasing overload of portfolios on Ministers, some of whom are juggling four or five ministries (some of which may conflict with each other.)

I looked at the rate of mid-term resignations under the 35-seat system and under the 25-seat system.  Between 1976 and 1998 the average resignation rate was 2.6% of members per year.  Between 1998 and 2022 it rose to 3.7% of members per year.  That alone is not significant and could be explained by politicians having more competing life priorities these days (resignations increasingly citing personal reasons).  However, what is notable is that government resignations appear to have become more common - in the first period 9 government, 8 opposition and 3 crossbench MPs quit, and in the second period it was 14 government, 5 opposition and 3 crossbench MPs.  Allowing for the smaller parliament size in the second period that amounts to more or less a doubling in the rate of mid-term government resignations.

None of this is entirely new (in 1979 the Premier, Bill Neilson, resigned citing nervous exhaustion) but there is also a feeling that modern political life is more hectic and the workload is greater and more complicated.    Raising the ministry from nine to ten MPs again might be a solution, but the objection would be ...

4. Lack of backbenchers

A majority in the Tasmanian House of Assembly is 13 members.  If a government has 13 seats and provides nine ministers from the House, plus a Speaker, then that leaves only three backbenchers.   This is problematic because the committee system does not work as well, because the executive is not really held accountable to the governing party, and because there is a shortage of replacement talent should ministers need to be replaced.

To some degree, I think the talent pool problem is exaggerated.  Each major party currently has four members of the Legislative Council, meaning that the current government has 17 MPs to draw on, and seven backbenchers after providing the Speaker.  I don't remember hearing nearly as much about shortage of potential ministers under the Rundle government (17 MPs) or the Field government (14) - and those governments were providing ten Ministers not nine.  That said, there were no shortage of anonymous seat-fillers who were not close to ministerial material in majority governments in the old 35-seat parliaments.  If a government can't form a decent nine-person ministry from 17 MPs, this might just indicate that the political talent pool in Tasmania is shallow generally.   However, the burnout problem interlocks with the backbench talent problem because a higher rate of government MPs resigning means more MPs at any one time who are inexperienced.  Of the 17 current Liberal MPs, seven have less than five years' experience.  Four first appeared in the Assembly via countbacks in the last three years.

5. Reliance on advisors

The heavy load on Ministers and backbenchers in the smaller Parliament means that Ministers are more reliant on advisors.  This increases the costs of governing, offsetting cost savings of the reduced size of parliament.  

6. Lack of intra-party competition

One of the great merits of Hare-Clark is that there are no safe seats in which party hacks with good support within their parties can be re-elected forever.  MPs compete against candidates from their own parties and dead wood gets kicked out.  This was best illustrated at the 1986 election.  Robin Gray's Liberals retained government with an unchanged 19-14-2 majority but 13 of 31 recontesting major party MPs lost their seats to inter-party contests.  At the other extreme, under the 25-seat system, in 2006 all 23 recontesting major party MPs were re-elected.

In the life of the 25-seat system, 10 MPs have lost to within-party contests in six elections, but half of these involved MPs first elected on recounts.  Getting in on a recount is a commoner path to parliament now than winning a within-party contest (which provides a strong incentive to have a go since just being a major party candidate means you have some chance of ending up in parliament at some time in the term), but this is unsatisfactory as it means more MPs are there more by virtue of preselection, not by virtue of strong electoral appeal.   We've seen cases where everyone on a major party ticket in a seat made it to parliament during the term, and in theory this raises the prospect that a party might run out of candidates.  (The party can then allow a single-seat by-election or let the recount go ahead). 

7. Increased chance of one-seat majority

We've seen one-seat majorities in the last two parliaments, one of which was at times unstable.  One-seat majorities leave governments on tenterhooks and prone to any sudden defections.  Just by virtue of there being fewer MPs they seem to be more likely in the 25 seat system.

Model

At this stage the simplest approach to increasing the size of Parliament is to go back to 5x7.  This allows for more diverse and accurate representation while still maintaining a local factor.  Switching to 7x5 is possible and we could have lots of fun finding seven new division names, but it would detach the state seats from the federal seats, which would be inefficient, administratively burdensome and likely to confuse voters.  The main argument for it would be increasing the chance of a government majority, but the difference in chance is not great anyway (and some will consider that an argument against).  

Another possibility would be to top up the existing 5x5 system with ten seats elected by a different method like single-member preferential (advocates for increasing the chance of majority government have sometimes supported something like this).  But quite aside from unnecessarily and confusingly obliging voters to vote twice for the same House, this would have the downside of giving different MPs different levels of mandate depending upon how they had been elected.   We may see other proposals.

I am concerned about a possible increase in informal voting in the 5x7 system (see Unintended Informal Voting in Tasmanian State Elections).  At present voters must number the numbers 1-5 once and once each without error for their vote to be counted.  It's a standard result from both federal and local council elections that under strict compulsory formality rules, more boxes to number means more informals.  The baseline informal rate in Tasmanian state elections is volatile, but the unintended informal rate dropped sharply in 1998 with the switch to the 25-seat system. 

I would prefer a switch to the ACT's savings provision in which voters are instructed to vote for at least as many candidates as vacancies but in practice anything with a unique 1 is accepted (but downweighted in surplus distributions).  However there appears to be TEC opposition to this (see link above), and I was also verballed in the last report of the stalled Electoral Act review which said that I had said the ACT system causes increased exhaust.  That was something I hadn't said and am not convinced is even true, since the ACT system encourages minor parties to not run full slates of candidates, which encourages micro-party voters to pass their preferences to larger parties.

At the very least I would want to see a transitional savings provision for a few elections so that votes that were formal under the old system (1-5 and stop) are still formal, at least until we see how many such votes there might be.  I am also concerned that if it is 1-7 and stop without savings provisions, some voters might confuse it with the Senate system and stop at 6 not 7.

The major parties have a combined majority (but not a floor majority) in the Legislative Council so anything they can agree on is highly likely to pass the Legislative Council.  After 1998 the Greens may well be wary of this, in case the majors decide they'd rather go with 7x5.  Of the issues above, 7x5 addresses issue 2 to some degree (more smaller seats could also mean more independents), issues 3, 4, 5, and 7, issue 6 not much and issue 1 not at all, while 5x7 would address all the criticisms.  

Aboriginal Seats

There is also a proposal to add two dedicated seats for Aboriginal people - see a sample of Michael Mansell's argument for it here. The same joint committee that supported the return to 35 seats also endorsed this concept in principle, without endorsing a specific model.  The two seats would be elected statewide a la the NT and ACT Senates (but using Hare-Clark presumably) and eligible voters would be able to choose to vote on either ballot.  For sure these seats would affect the proportionality of Hare-Clark - slightly but perhaps crucially in terms of their potential to sway close results.  

I'd expect they'd also be very inconsistent with one vote, one value, but I don't have enough information yet on the likely size of the special roll for these seats or the criteria for enrolment.  (And yes, Tasmania's Senate allowance is also massively malapportioned, but I'm one of those who'd like to see that fixed - no chance of that happening though.)  Special purpose seats are something New Zealand's MMP system (which I otherwise can't stand) integrates very well but it is harder to seamlessly insert them in Tasmania's setup.  There has been very little Aboriginal representation within Parliament in Tasmania's history, with only a couple of known cases.  

Legislative Council

When the House of Assembly was reduced from 35 to 25 seats, the Legislative Council was also reduced from 19 to 15.  There has been no word on whether the Council will be restored.  If so it will be interesting to see how the timing is managed given the need to add four members and the current system of staggered elections.

I expect that I will comment further as the debate develops.  


2 comments:

  1. Would the independent MLCs push for the Legislative Council de-shrinking as a condition for Assembly de-shrinking? It could increase the potential for MLC minister numbers (although 2 MLC ministers would be perfectly reasonable with the current number of government MLCs, I would have though).

    Would/Should the Cabinet be expanded to 11 with parliamentary expansion? Instinctively an odd number seems better to me and it would likely help the cabinet burnout issue, however, I am not an expert on cabinet internal dynamics.

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    1. Would seem a case for expanding Cabinet to 11 given that the upper house is also now a source of possible Ministers. There hasn't been much perception I've seen that the size of LegCo is really an issue, but it could come up. (We don't have joint sittings here except to appoint Senators.)

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