At the 2004 election, the Stanhope Labor government became the first ACT administration to be elected with a majority, winning nine of the 17 seats in the Legislative Assembly. As a result, the Stanhope government is the first in the ACT’s history to be able to pass legislation without having to compromise on amendments put up by the Opposition or the Assembly cross-benchers.
One bill where this will be important is the Electoral Legislation Amendment Bill, introduced in August 2007. This bill, soon to be debated in the Assembly, includes a provision to change the way non-party candidates appear on the ballot paper. If passed it will become harder for Independents to be elected to the ACT Legislative Assembly.
The Hare-Clark electoral system has many similarities to the Senate, the main difference being a ballot paper that is designed to weaken the power of parties to determine who is elected. Like the Senate, candidates appear on the ballot paper grouped in columns, but there is no group ticket or ‘above the line’ voting. A special printing process is also used to vary the order candidates appear within groups on each ballot paper. This removes the advantage of appearing first on a party ticket by spreading straight party votes across all candidates in a group. The ACT also bars the distribution of how-to-vote material outside polling places, another measure that weakens a party’s ability to determine which of its candidates are elected.
Like every other state and territory, the ACT has a system of registered parties, registration requiring a party to prove it has 100 members. There are currently five registered parties, the Labor Party, the Liberal Party, the ACT Greens, as well as two minor parties in the libertarian Liberal Democratic Party, and Free Range Canberra, a party that campaigns against battery hen farming. The Australian Democrats were de-registered in September 2007, and new parties have until 30 June this year to lodge a registration for the 2008 election.
Registered parties establish their support in the electorate by proving their membership, and are granted the right to put forward the names of candidates without the need for nominators. Independents must lodge their nomination with the names of 20 nominators. Once nominated, two or more candidates are currently allowed to inform the Electoral Commissioner that they wish to be grouped on the ballot.
The proposed changes remove the provision that allows Independents to be grouped on the ballot paper. The Stanhope government attempted to make the same change in 2003, but then lacking an Assembly majority, it was blocked by the opposition and minor parties.
A similar provision was implemented in the Tasmanian Electoral Act before the 2006 Tasmanian election. However, the Tasmanian change was more democratic than the ACT proposal, as it simply applied a tougher test for grouping rather than totally remove the right.
Like the ACT, the Tasmanian Electoral Act requires parties to have 100 members for registration. Only 10 nominators are required for an Independent to nominate, and any Independent putting themselves forward with only 10 nominators will appear in the ungrouped column.
However, one or more Tasmanian Independents can have access to their own column on the ballot paper by applying for grouping, backed by 100 nominators. In effect an Independent, or group of Independents, can have their own group by proving a level of nomination support equal to the membership support required to register a political party.
This is where the proposed ACT electoral changes will disadvantage Independents. Unless Independents lodge a registration for political party status by 30 June this year, they will be forced to appear in the ungrouped column of the ballot paper with all other Independents.
Election from the Ungrouped column is possible, as was shown by Paul Osborne’s election at the 1995 ACT election. (How-to-vote material was still allowed in 1995.) The last occasion in Tasmania where an ungrouped candidate was elected was in 1959, and I am not aware of an Ungrouped candidate ever being elected to the Senate or to any state Legislative Council.
For Independents to receive the same rights as parties in accessing their own group, it seems appropriate that a higher test of support be applied, as is done in Tasmania. Simply grouping all Independents together, whatever their political persuasion or level of support, is unfair to Independents, but above all, deprives voters of ballot paper prompts on like-minded Independent candidates.
The approach adopted by the Stanhope government appears to be an attempt to make it harder for Independents to be elected. A fairer approach would be that adopted by Tasmania, setting a higher hurdle rather than banning like-minded Independents from appearing together on the ballot paper.