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Independents to be disadvantaged by ACT Electoral Changes

Antony Green 2 April 2008 31

(This was originally posted in full on my ABC website ( but I think it is of most interest to Canberrans.)

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.

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31 Responses to Independents to be disadvantaged by ACT Electoral Changes
amarooresident amarooresident 2:41 pm 09 May 08

Council style government has it’s flaws to. You only have to read the papers to know that there are many disfunctional councils around the place.

Gungahlin Al Gungahlin Al 1:43 pm 09 May 08

Well it has happened. The ACT ALP has passed laws to make it harder for independents to run for government in the ACT, as reported by ABC.

A very disappointing move by Stanhope’s government, and makes it clear where he thinks his biggest threats will be coming from at the election in October – not the Liberals, but independents. It seems clear that he knows that he’ll be back in government, with the only question being whether he continues with a rubber-stamp majority or whether he has a minority and has to negotiate everything.

A sad day for the ACT, in my opinion, and a blow to what was one of the fairest electoral systems in the country.

Headbonius Headbonius 9:51 pm 06 Apr 08

What about Deb Foskey? Damn you all to hell.

ant ant 10:52 am 06 Apr 08

caf said :

Gungahlin Al: Your “group of like minded independents” is dangerously close to benevolent dictatorship – with everyone inside the tent, it’s far too easy to get away with poor decisions and cockups.

Possibly. The local council model would be better, with everyone in it charged with running the city/shire. The council in my area is a bit of a mish-mash, but individucal councillors will stand up and make statements about things they disagree with, or think should be known by all. Even if several councillors collude on things, others will publicise it.

CanberraGreen CanberraGreen 11:42 pm 05 Apr 08

A great post and an interesting conversation. Just wanted to express my appreciation.

caf caf 11:17 am 04 Apr 08

Gungahlin Al: The Government is not the Legislature. The Government is the Executive branch (Ministers and the bureauocracy under them) that performs the day-to-day work of running the place, like signing the cheques and contracts, and administering the laws.

So the people didn’t elect anyone directly to the Goverment – they elected representatives to the Legislature, and the Legislature then appointed a Government.

Additionally, the “adversarial situation” as you put it is quite possible the essential foundation of the Westminster system. It may not be perfect, but it certainly has a good batting average as far as good government goes. The structure of Government vs Opposition (together with a strong media) provides for oversight, to keep the Government honest. Your “group of like minded independents” is dangerously close to benevolent dictatorship – with everyone inside the tent, it’s far too easy to get away with poor decisions and cockups.

Gungahlin Al Gungahlin Al 6:29 pm 03 Apr 08

Given that independents can be a good thing, and serve many local governments well around the country, perhaps it should be called something like the “We promise to disband our party the day after the election party”. (There must be a better way of saying that…)

Then everyone can get on with being independents and keeping the minority ALP government honest (because it seems to me virtually certain that the government will be ALP – just a case of whether Canberra gives them the free rein of a majority again…?).

You know it really bugs me that we call the party from which the Chief Minister (or Prime Minister for that matter) the “Government”. This embedding of the adversarial situation is the antithesis of good government (IMHO). And by definition, all the other people are therefore not the Government. But hang on – the people elected *them* to the government as well.

Having served as a Councillor in one of the country’s biggest and fastest-growing local governments, I’ve seen how a group of independents can work together to improve things. You don’t always agree on individual issues – nor should you. But it is the issue that is at debate – not the person or their party. And you can all sit down after a “vigorous” debate and have lunch, how’re your kids stuff together.

The adversarial situation makes it all about us/them, with the issue a mere side-note. A brief perusal of some Hansard quickly shows you how poorly *that* serves the ACT community!

All aided and abetted by a media built on winner-take-all-contests.

The ACT could and should have the best form of government in this country. Antony has brought our attention to a potential threat. Perhaps it could be the “Antony Green Group of Like-minded Individuals”?

Antony Green Antony Green 4:41 pm 03 Apr 08

To get around the rule, any Independent who wants to run will have to get their friends together and get 100 of them to agree to a constitution and become members of a party. If Josephine Bloggs wants to run, she can have a party name like the ‘Josephine Bloggs Group’, or you can go for a generic feelgood name, like ‘Canberra First’ or the ‘Living Canberra team’.

It effectively flushes out Independent challengers early, because they have to announce they are running by registering a party before 30 June.

The new rule means that if it is true that some group like the Canberra Business Club wants to support Independents, they will have to register some sort of party, or all their supported candidates will end up with the flotsam and jetsam in the Ungrouped column.

Jazz Jazz 4:33 pm 03 Apr 08

beasley said :

Speaking of bygone Independants – did anyone see that photo of Dave Rugendyke (former running mate to Osbourne) on the back page of the Canberra Times last week? I assume from his beard length that he hasn’t touched it since losing his seat. Would make a great Santa.

Actually i understand that Dave Rugendyke does indeed dress up as santa every year and give out presents to underprivileged children. He and his wife have fostered heaps and heaps of kids.

caf caf 4:01 pm 03 Apr 08

S4anta: yes, comment #3 outlined how this can and has been done.

S4anta S4anta 3:40 pm 03 Apr 08

Is there a way of circumventing this by all independants taking a Co-operative approach, similar to the buying power the IGA (Independant Grocer’s Assoc.) has when it comes to buying power versus Coles and Safeway?

ant ant 11:30 am 03 Apr 08

Tempestas said :

…I know the ACT assembly has been blessed with some spectacularly (un)brilliant independents (Craig Duby/Denis Stevenson ring any bells)…

… Being Chief Minister is not really as powerful a Division Head in most Federal Departments …

From memory, Craig Duby was an ASO 3 when he stood for government! But he and the others cleverly ran under the “no self gov’t” heading, and then proceeded to participate in self government with some enthusiasm. I wasn’t taken in, I voted for the Tomato Party (which was the real no self gov’t party, really).

So, what action can be taken to prevent the Chief Min from carrying out this dastardly deed? If he’s not stopped, we’ll have the Wollomi Pine Gerrymander in no time.

beasley beasley 9:41 am 03 Apr 08

Firstly thanks to Antony Green for contributing this story to RiotAct. Hopefully highlighting this stomping of rights by Stanhope is against his own Human Rights Act and is unable to proceed!

Speaking of bygone Independants – did anyone see that photo of Dave Rugendyke (former running mate to Osbourne) on the back page of the Canberra Times last week? I assume from his beard length that he hasn’t touched it since losing his seat. Would make a great Santa.

I-filed I-filed 10:05 pm 02 Apr 08

“we have a way of turfing out under-performing incumbents whilst not necessarily punishing the party they belong to.”

WE sure get punished though – what is Lucy Horodny’s super payment annually – what, 10 or so years after the numbskull was kicked out after a single four-year term as a Green, and a further thirty or so years on the public purse to go? She is still around – does anyone know is she doing anything for the community?

Tempestas Tempestas 8:14 pm 02 Apr 08

That’s a curious result, I know the ACT assembly has been blessed with some spectacularly (un)brilliant independents (Craig Duby/Denis Stevenson ring any bells) as well as some reasonable ones, we have something of a unique problem.

A small number of members doing state and local government functions, no house of review and a population with plenty of opportunities to contribute to the national agenda. Being Chief Minister is not really as powerful a Division Head in most Federal Department, being in opposition or cross benches is hardly making waves either.

So we are not going to ever get the most capable people wanting to put their hats in the ring.

If the current G’bmint tries to make it harder for independents, even less will then try.

Personally I think grouping should be minimised not expanded, the best thing about our electoral system is that we have a way of turfing out under-performing incumbents whilst not necessarily punishing the party they belong to.

Antony Green Antony Green 11:23 am 02 Apr 08

After a bit more digging, I’ve discovered that the abolition of non-party groups was a recommendation of the Electoral Commission. However, the same process undertaken in Tasmania came up with a different recommendation where non-party groups were still allowed but with a higher requirement for nomination, as discussed in my article.

Special G Special G 10:33 am 02 Apr 08

There was the other story about the ANU liberal president changing the constitution to keep him in power. Seems it is done at all levels not just student bodies.

Gungahlin Al Gungahlin Al 9:56 am 02 Apr 08

Crikey – hooked me a bewdy there…

Thumper Thumper 8:49 am 02 Apr 08

You’ve taken it completely out of context.

I recall something about it being in comparison to Iemma.

Gungahlin Al Gungahlin Al 8:30 am 02 Apr 08

There’s a tagline that shouldn’t be forgotten!
“Come to think of it, we should be relieved that we have Stanhope” – Thumper 31/3/08

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