2 April 2008

Independents to be disadvantaged by ACT Electoral Changes

| Antony Green
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(This was originally posted in full on my ABC website (http://blogs.abc.net.au/antonygreen/) 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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amarooresident2:41 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 Al1:43 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.

What about Deb Foskey? Damn you all to hell.

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.

CanberraGreen11:42 pm 05 Apr 08

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

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 Al6:29 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 Green4:41 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.

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.

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

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?

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.

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.

“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?

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 Green11:23 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.

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 Al9:56 am 02 Apr 08

Crikey – hooked me a bewdy there…

Gungahlin Al8:30 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

Or Nohope and not Cid Zeshellac

Not too dry – I was impressed with this article too.

It is just that he doesn’t actually suggest anything we can do about this.

Canberra should rejoin NSW and be ruled by dilemna.

Gungahlin Al1:17 pm 31 Mar 08

Sepi: it’s a mailing list, and in electronic form, allowing effective targeted mailing campaigns. And it gives an unfair advantage to the incumbents. But thus it has always been…

I was very impressed to see a luminary like Antony Green putting the case here on RA that there’s a problem about to hit us. Clearly asking for some help to do something about it. People on RA are quick to criticise both the incumbents and the opposition, but when someone comes pointing out a looming problem that could serve to entrench the situation even further, and prevent greater diversity in candidates, it only garners 6 comments?

Too dry for people? This is the sort of stuff that makes big differences to election outcomes, and it was why GCC put so much time into submissions and appearances before the ACT Electoral Boundaries Redistribution hearings.

I wondering what would they do with the electoral roll?

It’s only names and addresses isn’t it – not demographic info?

Mike Crowther4:04 pm 29 Mar 08

There would appear to be a whole range of disadvantages placed in the way of any Independent who would like to take a tilt. Money, the ability to ‘make announcements’ and ‘open new stuff’ goes without saying. However, the electoral ACT is firmly skewed in favour of parties.

1. Forced grouping: As previously stated, Independents are lumped together. Perfectly reasonable and rational independent candidates can be effectively nobbled by being forced to appear in column with someone (possibly a stooge) who say, advocates lowering the age of consent to twelve. Forget donkey votes, such candidates are sunk through guilt by association.
2. Security: An Independent candidate must have their residential address on all electoral material. (Box numbers and electoral office addresses are not sufficient). Party candidates may use their parties registered office. One of the current Stanhope hopefuls is a former Federal Police Officer. I wonder whether he would be as keen to stand if he knew his family’s address had to be placed into every letterbox in his electorate?
3. Research: Any member of the public may ‘look’ at the ACT Electoral Roll. They may not create a copy nor take notes. However, an electronic copy is provided to all sitting MLA’s. Is there anyone naïve enough to believe that a sitting MLA would not grant access to this information to one of their political staffers, nominated for pre- selection?

They’re playing with double headed Pennys.

Antony Green10:25 am 29 Mar 08

A couple of responses. Having your own group is better than getting stuck with every other Independent in the ungrouped column. The ungrouped column always includes a smattering of dateless and desperate candidates who run time after time. Who wants to get listed with them. And if you were a high profile Independent with your own 2-person group, you would have a one in two chance of appearing at the top of the column. If you get lumped in with numerous other Independents, you appear at the top of the list less often.

Second, I’m interested in what I call the ‘No Aircraft Noise’ phenomena. The 1995 NSW election was held 4 months after the opening of the third runway at Sydney Airport. No Aircraft Noise was formed in the four months between the runway opening and the election, and frightened the tripe out of the Labor Party. Since then, NSW electoral laws have been amended to force parties to be registered twelve months ahead of the election, a provision which has also been unfairly extended to local government. The provision was agreed to by all parties, major and minor, none of whom had an interest in new parties harnessing emerging issues late in the election cycle.

The relevance of this to the ACT is that a high profile Independent wanting to announce their name late in the election cycle, is now going to have to do it earlier and register themselves as a group, or they will find themselves shoved into the ungrouped column.

I think it is valid to be concerned that the current provisions make it too easy for Independents to group together and add columns to the ballot paper. But I think it is fairer to adopt the Tasmanian approach, where the hurdle for a group is set higher rather than just being removed altogether.

The point of grouping is to give voters an idea that candidates are associated with each other. Removing the right of like-minded Independents to group will leave voters less informed than if grouping continued to be allowed.

Jonathon Reynolds2:00 am 29 Mar 08


Having had first hand experience in the actual registration of a political party (The Gungahlin Equality Party which subsequently became the ACT Equality Party, before the eventually deregistration mid 2007), the actual process is not as onerous as it would first (legislatively) appear.

Whilst Jon Stanhope may hold a belief that removing the ability of Independents to be jointly grouped on the ballot paper with diminish their ability to pull a sizable vote; in reality there was no tangible benefit to the current “independent grouping” as the candidates did not get any benefit of having a party name or identifier at the top of their column on the ballot paper in order to guide voters. I’m sure you may be able to refute this as you have probably pored over the electoral results in far greater depth than I ever cared to do, but from my observations, “un-named” grouped independents had to rely heavily on candidate name recognition in order to attract preferences from voters.

To get around this problem at the last election we saw the formation of two new party constructs: “Helen Cross Independents” and “Harold Hird Independent” for candidates that wanted the benefits of presented on the ballot paper in a party format but in reality were in effect running themselves as independent candidates. In each case the “party” ran two candidates – the primary name and a lesser known secondary candidate used to secure a separate column on the ballot paper.

Whilst not supporting the currently tabled proposed amendments to the Electoral Act, the change may largely work in favour of the independents and against the ALP.

I feel that the upshot from the proposed changes is that we may see the independent candidates coalesce and come together to form new party constructs. Albeit with the wording of the Electoral Act they won’t be able to use any portion of the word “independent” anywhere in their name. There is a strong possibility the Independents with similar underlying ideals or political beliefs could be drawn together.

Additionally if an independent previously had problems scratching together their 20 nominees individually, pooling resources to form a party construct may put them in a much stronger position (For Example: Independent A may only have 5 nominees, Independent B may have 15 nominees, whereas Independent C may have as many as 50 potential nominees, leaving only an additional 30 nominees to be found to reach the magic 100 number for party registration).

Another point to remember is that once a group of coalesced independents achieve party status they can use this to their benefit on the ballot paper territory wide, as they will get a named column in every electorate. If they are on message and also pick a party name that resonates with the voters they could be on a winner.

The question that will need to be asked is do the already identified (and prospective) independents have the maturity, sense and ability to accept compromise in order to be able to work together for their own benefit? Having had responsibility for fielding candidate teams at two previous elections myself (where the candidates were members of the same party by choice), I can assure you that keeping candidates focused and on message at times can feel as frustrating as attempting to herd cats (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1SmgLtg1Izw).

I wonder what Stanhope the Desperate will try next? Giving every Wolomi Pine in the territory a vote? He’d better hold the election soon then, as the buggers are all busy dying. That arboretum is symbolic of this government.

Perhaps changes to the electoral process should only be enacted in the election after next, in effect allowing a referendum on the changes.

I believe the current council is utterly malodorous, and likely to stoop to new lows to stay in power. We should have an opportunity to rebuff these changes before they are used to assist the encumbents.

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