Legislative Council


November 14th, 2017

On the 14th November, Mark spoke to the Constitution (One Vote One Value) Amendment Bill 2017 and the Referendum (One Vote One Value) Amendment Bill 2017.

The Hon. M.C. PARNELL: I rise, on behalf of the Greens, to speak on this bill and on its companion referendum bill as well. Most South Australians do not fully understand how the electoral system works. That is no criticism of them; it is just that it is a complex system and, apart from having to vote on voting day, most people do not fully understand how it works. However, I think what most people do appreciate is that each person's vote should, as far as possible, be worth the same.

People may have watched old, historical dramas from Charles Dickens' time referring to 'rotten boroughs' and all sorts of 'malapportionment' in various democracies over the years, and most people are quite grateful that we do not have such a system in South Australia. People might know of the Joh Bjelke-Petersen era in Queensland, where certain votes were worth two or three or more times what other votes were worth, and the word 'gerrymander' is understood by a lot of people, the idea that you can put all your political opponents together and construct boundaries in such a way that it increases your chance of getting elected, even though you do not necessarily have a lot of the vote.

In South Australia I think well-meaning people have, over time, tried to create a mechanism to ensure there is electoral fairness and that we do not have a gerrymander, but I do not think those mechanisms work in the modern age. The reason I say they do not work is that South Australia and in fact I think the whole country is moving beyond a two-party view of the world. It may have been in the past that two major parties have attracted 90 or more per cent of the vote in a certain electorate or in a certain election, but that has not happened for a long time. In fact what we have seen, just in terms of recent South Australian history, is that sometimes it is a quarter, sometimes it is a third, and sometimes it is pushing half of people not voting for either of the major parties, either statewide or in a particular seat.

So, the idea of viewing the electoral world through a two-party lens is an anachronism. It is not the way South Australians vote. In the current parliament we have eight opposition members, seven government members and six crossbench members. In the previous parliament it was much easier to work out the sums on the floor of parliament: seven, seven, seven—a third government, a third opposition and a third crossbench. That is the way South Australians have voted in the last several elections, and as everyone in this chamber knows the government of the day has not controlled the upper house, not since the 1970s. South Australians now appreciate that the world is not a two-party world.

When we look at the South Australian constitution, we find that there are curious provisions in there which fly in the face of that recent experience and maintain the fiction that the world can be viewed through a two-party lens. I refer in particular to section 83 of the constitution, which is unfortunately and, in my view, erroneously entitled 'Electoral fairness and other criteria'.

There are three subsections in section 83. The second of those subsections I think is inoffensive. What that subsection says is that when the electoral boundaries commission, after each election, reviews where the boundaries should lie in terms of lower house seats, they need to take into account things that I think are obvious: the population that either exists or is projected in each of these seats; whether there are any communities of interest of an economic, social or regional nature; and the topography of the different seats. In other words, all the things that we would expect and have over many decades expected the electoral boundaries commission to take into account are in section 83(2) of the constitution.

The other two subsections, (1) and (3), I think are seriously problematic in a democratic sense. Section 83(1) basically says that the electoral boundaries commission has to try to structure the boundaries so that if candidates of a particular group attract more than 50 per cent of the popular vote then they will be elected in sufficient numbers to enable a government to be formed. That is the so-called fairness clause. It is the clause that the Liberal Party has, over the last several elections, claimed has failed, because they point out that if you do a simple aggregation of two-party preferred, statewide, you will find that they got over 50 per cent and Labor got under 50 per cent, but the Liberals did not win enough seats, so they did not form government.

I make the point, however, that in many of those lower house electorates in terms of the minor party vote, whether it was the Australian Conservatives, the Dignity Party, the Greens or Mr Xenophon's team, there was a substantial vote for other than the major parties. The idea of saying that at the end of the day everyone must fall on one side or the other of Liberal or Labor makes no sense at all. In fact, there was at least one electorate where the two-party preferred was not between Liberal and Labor; it was between Liberal and Greens. In the seat of Heysen, I think you will find that the Labor and Greens vote was identical in terms of first preference votes, but the official two-party preferred was Liberal and Greens; it was not Liberal and Labor.

The previous parliament has tried to assist the electoral boundaries commission in resolving this problem by requiring of them the impossible. Subsection (3) is impossible to achieve. I will read it as it only has four lines:

For the purposes of this section a reference to a group of candidates includes not only candidates endorsed by the same political party but also candidates whose political stance is such that there is reason to believe that they would, if elected in sufficient numbers, be prepared to act in concert to form or support a government.

I say it is an impossible task. Just think about it: what the electoral boundaries commission has to do a year or more out from the election is, first, make a guess about who is going to run and which parties and which Independent candidates are going to run, so that is guess number 1. Guess number 2 is: 'How many votes are they going to get?', and guess number 3 is: 'Which side do you think they would support if push comes to shove in forming a government?'. They are the three impossible tasks that the electoral boundaries commission has imposed on it, and it is no great surprise that they fudge it. When the job comes they tend to ignore that section because it is too hard to apply.

We only have to think of this current election coming up where Mr Xenophon has said he is going to be running candidates. We have had the Liberals coming out saying, 'We would never join in with a coalition with them.' I have not heard the same from Labor and we have not heard either of the parties say that they will not enter a coalition with the Greens, or with the Australian Conservatives. The fact that the electoral boundaries commission somehow, in order to achieve what is euphemistically and incorrectly described as 'fairness', has to attribute someone as being either Liberal or Labor, and that that is the only way to view the world, is an absolute nonsense.

The position that the Greens have taken is that, when we have a provision in legislation that is a nonsense, we move to get rid of it. So, the Greens will be moving to get rid of section 83(3). Let's not force the electoral boundaries commission to undertake an impossible task. They do not know who is running, they do not know the vote that those people running are going to get, and they do not know which way they lean. In fact, here we are less than five months out from election and we still do not know which way people are going to lean, and we still do not know who is going to nominate because the nominations have not even been opened yet. It is a ridiculous provision and we should get rid of it.

Similarly with section 83(1), the idea that the world has to be looked at through a two-party lens is a nonsense and I am moving to get rid of that as well. What that leaves us with is subsection (2), so the electoral boundaries commission will take into account all of those traditional factors: communities of interest, geography, ease of communication, all of those things will remain. But the predominant factor will be—and this is where the government's bill comes in—that the seats should be of equal size, and that the one vote one value provision is the provision that should prevail. If my amendments are successful, then we will ensure that no one South Australian's vote is worth any more than any other South Australian's.

I cannot just let this bill go with those remarks because I think at its heart the government has asked the wrong question in relation to trying to tinker with a system that is dealing with an imperfect framework. The Greens' preferred model would be to go back to first principles and look at voting systems for the lower house that do deliver true democracy, that they do provide parties with the number of seats in proportion to the vote that they achieved. The Greens are very favourably inclined towards multimember electorates, the sort of electorates that we see in the ACT for example, in New Zealand or even in Tasmania. That means that rather than a winner-takes-all approach, which is a two-party view of the world, if you had multimember electorates you would, I think, in South Australia be guaranteed to have a mixed parliament. You would be very unlikely to get one party to achieve an overall majority.

People throw their hands in the air and say, 'Well, that is a recipe for disaster.' You only have to look at those 'disastrous' economies in Scandinavia. Jeez, they are struggling in Sweden and in the Netherlands and places like that! They do really well with a proportional system of voting which delivers multiple parties who then work in concert to achieve stable government—strong economies, proud traditions of social innovation and they have not had simple two-party systems for many decades. I do not see those economies and those societies as basket cases. They work really well.

I might put in a plug here for members who have not watched the television series Borgen. It was described as The West Wing with subtitles and it does have a number of very excellent scenes in it, including the prime minister arriving at work on a bicycle, which tells you that it has come out of Northern Europe. The point is that you do not have to have a two-party view of the world. If there are other parties involved, they can work together and form alliances, but the fundamental principle is that the people get what they voted for. You do not have a situation where a party could get, for example, 20 per cent of the vote statewide and not win a single lower house seat. That is inherently undemocratic.

Whilst the Greens believe that the government has asked the wrong question, to the extent that we are now tinkering with the system we have before us, the Greens' approach is to support the government bill to make sure that equality of voting members per seat is the predominant consideration. We are moving the two amendments I referred to, getting rid of the two-party statewide clause in section 83(1) and also getting rid of this fiction that the electoral boundaries commission has to judge where non-major party votes will end up. I think it is a fiction and we are seeking to delete those clauses as well.

I particularly address my remarks to my colleagues on the crossbench. The Greens' amendments are not designed for any particular ideological perspective. From a crossbench point of view, if you support the status quo, you are supporting being invisible. You do not really count in the system if you are a minor party or an Independent, so I would hope to have the whole of the crossbench on board with these amendments because, as we have known in the upper house, we have been visible for many decades and we think that in the lower house that should apply as well. Getting rid of section 83(3) basically puts minor parties on the map where they should be and puts a nail in the coffin of the two-party view of the world.

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