Dare to dream of democracy

One of the most interesting suggestions that came out of last week’s NT Governance Summit was one by the ABC’s Antony Green proposing that the Territory might consider adopting a version of the New Zealand system of “top up” nationwide seats elected by proportional representation, in order to correct the frequent drastic imbalance between votes and seats that often occurs in Territory elections.

I have previously mused about the possibility of adopting a completely different system of multi-member seats with those members elected by proportional representation. That is the system that applies in the other two small Australian polities, namely Tasmania and Australian Capital Territory. However, Territorians have been accustomed for over 40 years to a system of single-member seats with roughly the same boundaries as now, and I suspect there would be significant opposition to wholesale change. Moreover, as former Country Liberal Chief Minister Steve Hatton observed, there are substantial advantages to having small local electorates of only five or six thousand voters, because the local MLA can get to know a lot of them and provide excellent service.

Nevertheless the frequent imbalance between votes and seats is a significant problem that really needs to be addressed. Between 1974 and 1977 the Labor Party had no seats at all despite winning more than thirty percent of the primary vote. Between 1983 and 1990 Labor held just six seats out of 25 despite winning between thirty-five and forty percent of the primary vote. At the 2005 election the CLP won just four seats out of 25 despite winning 35.7% of the primary vote, and in last year’s 2016 election the CLP won just two seats out of 25 despite winning 31.8% of the primary vote.

There are two obvious and serious problems with that situation. First, a Parliamentary Opposition with so few MLAs is almost incapable of providing effective opposition to the government of the day and subjecting its legislation and executive action to proper scrutiny and accountability. Secondly, with so few members the Opposition does not have sufficient personnel developing political and parliamentary experience to provide a competent government when the political wheel turns, as it always does. Of course, the new Ministers will no doubt have the support of a competent Public Service and hopefully some experienced political advisers as well. But the fact remains that they will be parliamentary “learner drivers” for quite a while. It is an unsatisfactory and somewhat undemocratic system, as I argued recently[1]in an article titled Gunner’s Faceless Men.

The New Zealand electoral system seems to offer a workable way in which the Territory’s frequent serious imbalance between votes and seats could be cured without wholesale scrapping of our existing system of small single-member seats. Wikipedia describes the system as follows:

[I]n 1994, New Zealand officially adopted mixed-member proportional representation (MMP) as its electoral system. Its defining characteristic is a mix of members of Parliament (MPs) from single-seat electorates and MPs elected from a party list, with each party’s share of seats determined by its share of the party vote nationwide. …

Under MMP, New Zealand voters have two votes. The first vote is the electorate vote. It determines the local representative for that electorate (geographic electoral district). The electorate vote works on a plurality system whereby whichever candidate gets the greatest number of votes in each electorate wins the seat. The second vote is the party vote. This determines the number of seats each party is entitled to overall – in other words, the proportionality of the House.

Thresholds: There are two thresholds in the New Zealand MMP system. The first is that any Party which receives 5% or more of the Party vote is entitled to a share of the nominally 120 seats in the House of Representatives – even if the Party does not win a single electorate seat. For instance in the 2008 elections, the Greens failed to win any electorate seats but won 6.7% of the party vote and thereby earned nine seats in Parliament.

The second threshold is that any Party that wins one or more electorate seats is entitled to additional (list) seats in parliament even if it doesn’t win 5% of the Party vote. In 2008, the ACT Party won only 3.6% of the Party vote. But ACT got a total of five seats in Parliament because an ACT candidate won the Epsom electorate; this has been called the “coat-tailing” rule. But the New Zealand First party which got 4.07% of the list vote or below the 5% threshold was not returned to parliament in 2008.

Seats in parliament are allocated to electorate MPs first. Then Parties fulfil their remaining quota (based on their share of the Party vote) from their list members. A closed list is used, and list seats are allocated by the Sainte-Laguë method, which favours minor parties more than the alternative D’Hondt method. If a Party has more electorate MPs than proportional seats, then it receives an overhang. If the Party does not have enough people on its list to fulfil its quota, then there is an underhang.

If the Territory adopted MMP, I suggest we should instead adopt the Senate system of proportional representation, which tends to favour major parties to some extent rather than really tiny parties as the exotic New Zealand counting method is said to do. It would nevertheless still provide a realistic opportunity for small parties like the Greens, 1Territory, One Nation or a revived First Nations Party to win seats if they put in a reasonably respectable electoral performance. For example, the Greens secured 4.3% of the total primary vote at the 2008 elections, not far short of the point where they would be guaranteed a single seat under NZ-style MMP.

On the other hand, at the 2016 Territory election no minor party even went close to securing the five percent total vote required to win a seat under MMP.  As far as the two major parties are concerned, application of the MMP system to the 2016 Territory election figures would certainly have redressed the drastic imbalance between seats and votes delivered by the current system.

I don’t understand the New Zealand MMP system well enough to attempt a precise calculation, but it is clear that the CLP would have gained enough additional MLAs to form a viable Opposition while Labor would still have enjoyed a strong majority.

Personally I would favour a system where the existing number of 25 single-member constituency seats is reduced to 19 (the number of seats that actually existed in the Territory up until 1983) with an additional 12 “top up” MLAs elected by all Territorians voting as a single electorate by Senate-style proportional representation. That would make a Legislative Assembly with the total number of 31 MLAs, not ridiculously higher than the current situation.  Exactly how strong Labor’s majority ended up being would depend on how many of the existing five Independent MLAs managed to secure election to one of the 19 remaining single-member constituency seats.  My best guesstimate of what the 2016 election votes would have resulted in given that system is ALP 18; CLP 13; Independent 3 (MMP can result in slightly more than the usual 31 seats in some situations because of “overhang“).

In a less lopsided election with a two party preferred vote of (say) 54/46 to ALP,  with ALP wining 10 of the 19 single member seats, CLP 6 and Independents 3, MMP would result in a final result of ALP 16, CLP 14 and 3 Independents.

This seems to me to be an eminently fair and workable system. The problem with it (or at least it would be seen as a problem from the viewpoint of the two major parties) is that in New Zealand neither of the two major parties has achieved majority government in its own right since MMP was introduced in 1994. You can see why from the second of the guesstimate scenarios described above.  It would certainly be possible to tweak that system in various ways to increase the probability of a major party with a solid 2PP vote also achieving a solid working parliamentary majority in its own right, while still ensuring a workable Opposition and giving minor parties a reasonable chance of getting a member elected.

Nevertheless I wouldn’t be holding my breath for either of the two major parties to embrace MMP willingly in the near future, in case it forces them even occasionally to temper their addiction to elective dictatorship with government based on deliberation, constructive collaboration and compromise. Still, it can’t hurt to dream.

Further thoughts – We could also look at adapting some version of reserved Maori (Aboriginal) seats from the NZ system as one of the ways of securing the trust and confidence of Aboriginal Territorians in a process towards statehood involving eventual “patriation” of land rights and a treaty or charter of rights underpinning enforceable rights to Aboriginal law, language and culture.  Along with the existing system which consistently returns 6 or 7 Aboriginal MLAs, MMP would likely add another couple to that,  so that an additional (say) 5 reserved Aboriginal seats elected by Aboriginal Territorians by proportional representation would likely mean something like 13 seats out of 36 would have Indigenous MLAs.  They would be unlikely to vote for any Bill threatening Aboriginal rights.

If the new state’s constitution also required a Legislative Assembly super-majority of (say) 70% to secure passage of any such Bill then that would give Aboriginal people a greater security of protection of their fundamental rights than applies at present with the requirement for Senate approval for land rights changes because the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act is federal legislation.  The Howard government had no trouble securing a majority in both Houses for its Emergency Response legislation, which largely suspended land rights in NT Aboriginal communities for 5 years for reasons that were as much a desperate attempt at a partisan electoral “wedge” as a bona fide response to a real problem.  That sort of cynical stunt would not succeed in a future NT state with a constitutional structure like the one discussed here.

Again I won’t be holding my breath for changes like this either, but the stern reality is that the Territory cannot make constitutional progress nor achieve its full economic and social potential without grasping this nettle and embracing significant reform.


1 in an article titled Gunner’s Faceless Men
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Richard Lung
Richard Lung
5 years ago

Be careful of what you dream for. Even this dreamer touches on one of the problems of the Mixed Member Proportional system. There may not be enough seats in the legislature, without increasing their number, for the proportional count to compensate for the disproportionate single-member districts. That is why Germany uses a straight closed list system for its Euro-elections. This inconsistency is one of many reasons that MMP cannot apply to elections in general, and is an unscientific theory of choice. Whereas the single transferable vote or quota-preferential method or Hare-Clark system works at every level of government in Ireland… Read more »

Richard Lung
Richard Lung
5 years ago

So, the broad and easy way should be chosen, rather than the hard and narrow path.
The Gospels stand corrected.
The Richard report on the Welsh assembly elections by MMP (there called AMS) was shunned by incumbent politicians because MMP is incumbents PR, and the report had the temerity to say so: AMS denies voters the fundamental democratic right to reject candidates.
The report recommended change to STV, which does not defeat the purpose of an election with safe seats; a genuine election, not a hypocritical election.