Westminster could learn a lot from the Australian Capital Territory 

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Posted on the 21st October 2020

This is a guest post by James Skibinski, a Data Science student at the University of Sydney with a second major in Economics. He is involved in New South Wales politics on a grassroots level and has interned with a leading advocacy group. He tweets @SkibinskiJames.

Australia’s capital has voted and the votes are still being tallied. With two of the 35 Legislative Assembly seats still undecided, the results are as follows: 10 for Labor, eight for Liberal and five for Greens, whose seats increased by three on their 2016 result. How did a minor party like the Greens perform so well? Could Australia’s capital show the rest of Australia and Westminster how to be fairer and more representative?

In Australia, in federal and most state elections, we use the Alternative Vote to elect members to the House of Representatives. It is a preferential system like London’s Supplementary Vote, but we number every candidate. There is no vote splitting and most voters are at least somewhat satisfied with their choice. It still results in a two-party system, but at least you can show your support for the little guy without letting in someone you dislike. For a long time, I did not believe there was a better system but my experience in the Australian Capital Territory elections has changed my mind.

HareClark – a capital idea

The Australian Capital Territory (ACT) uses a different voting system to many of Australia’s other states and territories (except Tasmania) in their parliamentary elections. It uses Hare-Clark – a form of the Single Transferable Vote (STV). The territory has five electorates, each electing five members for a total of 25 members of parliament. Voters in each electorate are given a ballot paper with candidates grouped by party (or like-minded independents) and are instructed to rank the candidates in order of preference.

Unlike in some other states and in federal Senate elections, there is no ‘above the line’ voting. This practice, where a voter selects a pre-registered group or party ‘above the line’ on a ballot paper, allows voters to essentially ‘autofill’ the ballot in the order set by the party.

It’s not compulsory to vote in this way, with some voters choosing to vote ‘below the line’ and make individual preferences, but the vast majority of voters do. As a result, if a candidate is top of the ticket for a major party, they are almost guaranteed a seat. In the ACT, this isn’t the case and. I watched with amazement as incumbent MPs were defeated by members of their own party.

Political allegiances aside, I was delighted to see such a diversity of parties. The ACT is now a three-party state, one of the only in Australia. The other three-party state is Tasmania, the homeland of Hare-Clark.

It’s all about the transfers

Another key difference between Hare-Clark and other forms of STV is the way it’s counted. Hare-Clark reallocates preferences using the transfer value. If a candidate exceeds its quota (the number of votes they need to get elected), some of the votes need to be assigned to their second (or later) preference. But whose votes transfer and whose don’t? Unlike some systems of STV, like that used in the Irish Dáil where they randomly select a proportion of the ballots to reassign, Hare-Clark assigns a fractional weight called the ‘transfer value’ (proportion of votes in excess of the quota) to the preferences for all the ballots. This prevents luck of the draw from swaying elections and removes the element of randomness present in the final result.

My experience in ACT has shown me the benefits of using Hare-Clark STV in our legislative elections. Whereas Alternative Vote allows voting for a minor party you love without harming the prospects of a major party you like, Hare-Clark allows you to elect a minor party you love. Instead of a plurality of people being satisfied with the result, almost everyone is happy. The beauty of Hare-Clark is that not every constituency needs to elect the same number of members. Instead of electoral boundaries always changing to keep up with population changes, we can instead add or take members from seats as necessary.

I strongly encourage Westminster to adopt Hare-Clark STV. The advantages are undeniable: proportionality improves representation; preferentiality prevents vote-splitting; and multi-member constituencies mean boundaries that make sense.

Image by Patty Jansen from Pixabay

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