The Tasmanian experience of the Irish electoral system

The following is taken from an article of mine in The Irish Examiner, April 9 2010. It may be of interest considering the Tasmanian experience of PR-STV.

The first thing that struck me about Australian politicians is their responsiveness. Last January I e-mailed a large number of parliamentarians, both past and present, requesting an interview. The next day my inbox was full with responses, most of them positive, and where not, apologetic for not being so.
While we might be tempted to praise Australian politicians for such a level of availability to the people (and not even one of their own), ironically in the Irish context it is a similar level of responsiveness that is a major source of criticism for our representatives. If, for example, Trevor Sargent had not been so willing to intervene with the gardaí on a constituent’s behalf he would still be Minister for Food.
It is becoming a recurrent theme in some media quarters that such constituency representation is a symptom of what is wrong with the Irish political system. A number of years ago Minister Noel Dempsey bluntly stated why: ‘It is not what they (TDs) were elected to do’.
It is also becoming commonplace to hear that the excessive levels of representation (or clientelism) in Ireland are a product of the electoral system, PR-STV (proportional representation by the single transferable vote), which explains why Minister Dempsey has been the greatest advocate of electoral reform within the cabinet.
Some have claimed that the financial mess Ireland finds itself in is because we have a political system that is not fit for purpose. For example, we elect individuals who are masters at fixing potholes. When someone with a greater focus on the macro-picture gets elected (George Lee springs to mind), there is little role for them in the system. To this extent, is the real flaw in our politics the method by which we elect our representatives?
With this in mind, my research fieldtrip to Australia provided an ideal opportunity for comparison as it has been a testing ground for electoral reform. In particular, I was especially intrigued by the case of Tasmania, roughly the same size as Ireland and the only state in Australia using a version of PR-STV to elect its lower house of parliament.
The focus of my time in Tasmania was the recently held state elections. My first observation was that Tasmanians (as do all Australians) vote on a Saturday, which is more convenient than our Friday voting and perhaps more conducive to a higher turnout. Second, voters can cast a vote at any polling station on the island. They are not restricted to a particular school in their locality – as is the case in Ireland; this also has a positive effect on turnout.
Third, I detected an immense level of pride in their electoral system, which they call Hare-Clark (although very much a form of PR-STV), Indeed, the Tasmanian House of Assembly was the first parliament elected by this method, as early as 1909.
All those I interviewed were shocked that we are contemplating the replacement of PR-STV. Such sentiment follows the logic of Professor David Farrell in UCD, who claims that electoral reform may be the wrong answer to the right question. If Ireland wishes to rid itself of pothole politicians and a clientelist political culture, there is little evidence that abolishing PR-STV is the solution.
This does not mean that we have a perfect voting system – none exists – but from an observation of Tasmanian elections there are subtle changes that could be made to improve the electoral process, without the need for radical constitutional reform.
First of all, I was aided in my observation by the Tasmanian Electoral Commission, which is responsible for all matters concerning elections, ranging from voter registration to the setting of constituency boundaries.
In Ireland we split these tasks between the Department of the Environment, the various city and county councils, the Standards in Public Office Commission, the registrar of parties and boundary commissions. A classic Irish solution to an Irish problem, which simply does not work. This is why the government needs to fulfil its commitment to merge all these functions under a single electoral commission.
Although using a similar voting system, the Tasmanian ballot paper is quite different to the Irish version. Candidates are grouped in lists under party names (independents comprise an ‘ungrouped’ category) and voters must cast at least five preferences (equivalent to the number of seats per constituency; note: they believe that any fewer than five seats – as is the case in two-thirds of constituencies in Ireland – is not proportional). Such is the enthusiasm of Tasmanians for Hare-Clark, 45% of voters cast a preference for every candidate. As few as 4% of Irish voters do so.
Further, the alphabetical listing of candidates on ballot papers in Ireland can result in voters blindly following this order, a phenomenon known as ‘alphabetic voting’. This sometimes results in a desire amongst candidates to be near the top of the ballot paper, explaining why at elections Minister Éamon Ó Cuiv drops the ‘Ó’ from his surname.
To resolve this issue in Tasmania, a method of rotating the order of candidates on ballot papers, known as Robson rotation, has been in use since 1979. It necessitates the printing of different batches of ballot papers, where the order of candidates is altered in each batch. This is a fairly logical change, which could be adopted in Ireland with minimal effort.
Because Hare-Clark is a form of proportional representation, Tasmanians believe that by-elections are inherently unfair. Not only is it impossible to allocate one seat in a proportional fashion, but mid-term by-elections result in the election of candidates on a mandate different to the other members of parliament.
Rather than waiting on the parties to call a writ when a seat is vacated – as the electorates of Donegal South-West, Dublin South and Waterford are currently doing so – Tasmania employs a countback method. This involves the recounting of all the votes of the departed candidate to decide the winner (votes are securely stored between elections). In this way, it is only those voters deprived of representation by a vacancy who get to decide who replaces their previously preferred candidate.
Another element of reform concerns the rather technical matter of the distribution of surplus votes. Without getting into the intricacies of this process, in Ireland it is conducted in a rather arbitrary fashion where only the votes that got a candidate elected over the quota (i.e. not all of their votes) are examined for re-distribution. This can result in unusual transfer patterns between candidates, and in some extreme, and admittedly isolated, cases can affect the destination of seats.
The Tasmanians prefer to use the Gregory method of distributing the surplus, which is also used to elect our Seanad. A more inclusive method is Weighted Inclusive Gregory (in use in the Australian Capital Territory), but partly for reasons of cost (it would probably entail the use of electronic counting of votes – not exactly a popular option in Ireland) the Tasmanian Electoral Commission is happy to retain Gregory.
While observing the election count in Tasmania, the size of the parliament, also a subject of discussion for political reform in Ireland, was a notable issue.
In 1998 its lower house was reduced in size from 35 to 25 members, a populist move designed to cut costs (and to curb the rise of the Greens) rather than to initiate genuine reform. The consequences for parliamentary democracy in Tasmania have been quite startling.
With a cabinet of ten, and many ministers holding multiple portfolios, the choice for a sitting premier has been radically restricted to the point that he or she is more reluctant than normal to sack anyone. There is effectively no backbench within the government party and on occasion, the premier has had to appoint ministers from the upper house, the Legislative Council.
While some in Ireland have called for the Taoiseach to do likewise (up to two senators at any one time may be appointed to cabinet), the Tasmanian experiences indicates the dangers for accountability with this manoeuvre. Not being a member of the lower house, these ministers cannot be held adequately to account by parliament, particularly since there is less scrutiny of their activities in the Legislative Council.
What can we learn from Tasmania? First, the value placed on the electoral system is not for its effectiveness in producing a particular outcome, but for its transparency. Second, wholesale electoral reform could be akin to using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. There are many aspects of fine-tuning that could instead be employed.
Third, constituency representation is not sneered at in either Tasmania or Australia, but is seen as the main function of parliamentarians. One Tasmanian Green MP admitted to me that he was first motivated to run for office because of potholes in his locality.
Finally, although strongly devoted to Hare-Clark, Tasmania does not pin its economic fortunes on the electoral system. It is quite significant that the same system that is lauded in one political system is derided in another. Both of us cannot be right. My money is with the Tasmanians.

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