Twitter comment – Kevin Bonham, 5 March 2023

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Malcolm Mackerras wrote me an open letter on 21 June 2021. How nice of him. I have only just seen it.

He has this bizarre alternative history in which the Greens and I did everything in our power to kill GTV in Victoria in 2014-8 but were rebuffed. The Greens as best I can determine did nothing.

The funny thing is Mackerras suggests I am an agent of big party machines but in fact his proposal (Hare-Clark) would see major parties win slightly more Senate seats than the current Senate system, by spreading their vote within the ticket.

Open letter – Malcolm Mackerras, 11 June 2021

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Mr Antony Green AO, ABC News
Dr Kevin Bonham, Tasmania

Dear Antony and Kevin,


I write to you in the hope that together we can advance the interests of Australian democracy. We could do that if we were, so to speak, to sing from the same hymn sheet. Regrettably, however, we have not been doing that over the past decade and a half. I have written this as an open letter to post on my website in the hope that at least some people will read it and understand the way proportional representation (PR) systems work in Australia – and how our understanding of that creates differences of opinion between us.

In this open letter I shall use the word “you” frequently to mean “both of you”. I do that because I see no distinction between your thinking on PR questions. You are identical psephological twins in my eyes.

Over the past fifty years there have been three distinguished Australian psephologists. Having been a public psephologist for 65 years I am the senior distinguished psephologist and the oldest. Antony is the second oldest and Kevin the youngest. We three have been the non-politician pace setters for electoral reform in this country. I express it in that way because we must all acknowledge that politicians make electoral laws. Almost all the electoral reformers, therefore, have been members of parliament, men like Andrew Inglis Clark, Ben Chifley, Gough Whitlam, Don Dunstan, Neville Wran, Steve Bracks and Neil Robson.

Non-politician Electoral Reformers

There has been one conspicuous exception. South Australian Catherine Helen Spence (1825-1910) was never elected to any parliament but was a noted advocate for female suffrage and electoral reform. She was the first female political candidate in Australia when she stood unsuccessfully for a seat at the Federal Convention elections of 1897.

It has long been my ambition to be recorded by historians as the greatest Australian non-politician electoral reformer since Spence. I am certainly not that at present. My nomination for that accolade goes to Bogey Musidlak (1953-2017) who was the driving force behind the introduction of the Hare-Clark electoral system in the ACT, a major achievement on his part. My obituary for Bogey, a great democrat, can be found on my website.

Musidlak was the national president of the Proportional Representation Society of Australia from 1994 until his death in 2017. Although I am not a member of the PRSA (and never have been) it remains my view that the Society contains the greatest number of non-politician electoral reformers to be found in Australia today. For that reason, I have always interacted well with them. They have influenced me, and I have influenced them. As you will see when you read below, they and I have formed a position of solid agreement on the appropriate system whereby the Victorian Legislative Council should be elected.

Democrats versus Stasiocrats

I return to the problems I have with both of you. I start by putting in print the way I have been describing you in private conversation. In respect of each of you I have been saying: “he is a pragmatist and a propagandist who panders to the greed of the powerful.” Let me explain what I mean. By “the powerful” I mean the machines of big political parties. They run our democracy. Electoral reform, therefore, is almost entirely driven by them. By “the greed” I refer to the way they design PR electoral systems in such a way as to rig the system in favour of their party’s wanted order of election. That rigging means a system nominally candidate-based can become party-based through the manipulation of ballot paper format. Beginning with the Senate in 1984 that has happened to all our upper house PR systems.

Under my marking criteria I give a high distinction mark of 85 per cent to Tasmania’s Hare-Clark electoral system and a distinction mark of 81 per cent to the ACT variant of Hare-Clark. They are both lower house systems, each with a district magnitude of five.

My objection to all five PR upper house systems is that they are all stasiocratic in character. So, I now find myself using two pieces of psephological jargon. I had best explain these terms before proceeding. The pieces of jargon are “district magnitude” and “stasiocracy”.

To define “district magnitude” is easy. It is the number being elected. For the House of Representatives, it is one. For the Legislative Assembly of New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, Western Australia and the Northern Territory it is also one. For the South Australian House of Assembly, it too is one.

The upper house PR district magnitudes are 12, six and two for the Senate, 21 for the New South Wales Legislative Council, 11 for the South Australian Legislative Council, six for the Western Australian Legislative Council and five for the Victorian Legislative Council.

I don’t know where the term “stasiocracy” comes from. All I know is that I used it often when I was a teaching academic giving a course on electoral systems. When I am asked to give talks on these subjects today it is almost always the first term I define for the audience.

Anyway, stasiocracy means government by the machines of big political parties. That’s essentially what we have in Australia today. Nevertheless, I am willing to describe as “democratic” any system that is genuinely candidate-based. Therefore, in the field of proportional representation I describe the two Hare-Clark systems as “democratic” and all the upper house systems as “stasiocratic”. However, the five upper house systems are not equally stasiocratic. Victoria’s is the least so. It comes quite close to being described by me as “democratic”. That is why I give it a credit mark of 65 per cent.

As I see it the difference between us is that I am a democrat while both of you are stasiocrats. In the field of proportional representation, therefore, your preference is for party list systems while mine is for genuine systems of the single transferable vote. I believe that members of parliament should be directly elected in a system of transferable voting – and “direct election” should be genuine, not under the pretence in which we engage in Australia. There are only 50 politicians in this country who have, in a PR system, been “directly chosen by the people” in a genuine sense. They are the 25 members of Tasmania’s House of Assembly and the 25 members of the Legislative Assembly for the Australian Capital Territory.

Let me give a further example of my thinking. I refuse to accept that Australian senators are directly chosen by the people. That High Court judges say “senators are directly chosen by the people” does not satisfy me. Such a situation, in my view, has come about by a combination of political and legalistic trickery.

These views of mine do not make me hidebound. Over 65 years as a public psephologist and electoral reformer the precept to which I have subjected myself most often has been “Never let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”

Three Recent Reforms of which I have Approved

Let me illustrate by taking the case of three recent reforms to upper house PR systems of which I have approved. By “approve” I do not mean I give these systems high marks. I mean simply that the new system is (or in the case of Western Australia will be) an improvement on the old. It also means I accept that the present, reformed, system is permanent – and the new WA system will be permanent.

The first case is the system that has operated for the NSW Legislative Council at the 2003, 2007, 2011, 2015 and 2019 elections. It has a voter-unfriendly ballot paper, casual vacancies are filled by party machine appointment, terms are too long (eight years) and the undemocratic system of rotation (“staggered terms”) applies. I dislike all those characteristics but still give the system a pass mark of 58 per cent.

You may wonder why, with all those democratic defects, I still give the system that 58 per cent pass mark. My answer is that district magnitude is 21 which means the system is generous to minor parties. They can win seats without being accused of “gaming the system”.

My second example is the system that now operates for the South Australian Legislative Council. The new system passed through the SA parliament late in 2017 and applied first at the March 2018 election. It has all the things wrong with it as has the NSW system – yet I still give it a pass mark of 51 per cent. The reason is that district magnitude is 11. It is, therefore, less generous to minor parties than its NSW equivalent but is reasonably generous none the less.

I should mention that debate in 2017 began with the Liberal Party (assisted by then Senator Nick Xenophon) asserting the wonders of its new Senate voting system. The affected states, the Liberal Party averred, should copy the new Senate system. I objected vehemently to that idea. Had it been proceeded with I would have given South Australia a fail mark.

However, in my conversations with the Labor Party I discovered that the then Labor SA government would refuse to have a bar of that idea. Unless the deceitful instructions for the above-the-line vote were cut out there would be no new system.

Partly because of district magnitude being 11 (compared with only 6 for the Senate) and partly because of the scrapping of the deceitful instructions for the above-the-line vote I was able to accept the new SA system with its 51 per cent mark. I would raise that to 53 per cent if the deceitful instructions for the below-the-line vote were cut out.

So, I had best describe the SA ballot paper further. As a copy of the Senate voting system the words for the below-the-line vote read: “OR Numbering at least 12 of these squares in the order of your choice”. Since it is required by law that a vote 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 for candidates is counted as a formal vote, only one conclusion is available: the purpose of those words is to deceive the voter into believing that any failure to number 12 squares results in the vote finding its way into the pile of informal votes.

You use euphemisms to describe the above. You say that the situation described above was the result of “a strong savings provision” or “generous savings provisions”. You don’t fool me. Still, because the SA Labor government insisted that the equivalent deceitful instructions for the much more important above-the-line vote be scrapped I am willing to give this system a pass mark of 51 per cent. By contrast I give your Senate system a fail mark of 30 per cent. Your system is wholly without virtue or merit of any kind and should not be copied by any state.

The third example of a reform of which I more-or-less approve is the forthcoming reform of the electoral system for the Western Australian Legislative Council. I have made a lengthy and well-researched submission that you have read, presumably. Since my submission makes several concessions to your views, I cannot imagine you would dissent from me to any significant degree.

At the time of writing your submissions to the WA Ministerial Expert Committee on Electoral Reform have not been posted on the website. Nor has mine. However, my submission explains in considerable detail why the mark I would give to my system is only 55 per cent.

You may wonder why I would give a mark of only 55 per cent to a system I propose. The explanation is simple: there is no point in trying for a more democratic system that has no chance of being adopted. It is far more sensible to follow the precept “never let the perfect be the enemy of the good” and content myself that my proposal is likely to be adopted, is an improvement on the present system and is likely to be permanent.

It may surprise you that I am willing to give a reasonable pass mark to a system in which district magnitude is only 9. The explanation is that the present system has beneficial democratic features which are not properly understood. There are no “staggered terms” in WA. Upper house members are elected for terms of four years compared with eight in NSW and SA and six for the Senate. Very important also is the principle whereby casual vacancies are filled. They are filled by recounting votes from the previous election, a correct democratic principle. By contrast, when they die or resign senators and upper house members in New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia are replaced by party machine appointments.

The Unusual Situation in Victoria

It is in respect of Victoria that I appeal most to you. It is here more than anywhere else that your principle-free pragmatism does great harm to Australian democracy. On the one hand you create the impression that your main objective is to drive Glenn Druery out of business. Yet you keep him in business in Victoria by peddling the line that the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment Act 2016 set in place a genuine democratic reform of the Senate voting system.

As you know I hate the Senate voting system of which you are proud part-owners. It is characterised by four contrivances none of which can be justified by any democratic principle. The four contrivances are the thick black line that runs through the ballot paper, the party boxes above that line, the deceitful instructions for the above-the-line vote and the deceitful instructions for the below-the-line vote. You own those contrivances and encourage public acceptance of the thoroughly dishonest Senate voting system. The politicians having set your system in place, you proceeded to lecture the states of South Australia, Western Australia and Victoria that they should copy the Senate voting system that you are so proud to own.

I won’t have a bar of it. But do I have the power to stop you from inflicting on Victorian democracy the damage you have inflicted on Australia’s federal democracy? The answer I give is in the affirmative. As a public psephologist of 65 years standing with a citation on my AO uniquely referring to my “commitment to reform and improvement of the electoral system” I have  vetoed your proposals to replace the present good Victorian system by a bad system designed by you.

Furthermore, I am not Australia’s only respected psephologist. The Proportional Representation Society of Australia is peopled by respected psephologists – and I think I can guarantee to you that the PRSA will join me in vetoing your proposals until you learn to have a few democratic principles to add to your pragmatism. In short, I believe we have the power to veto any pretence at “democratic reform” that retains the contrivances associated with above-the-line voting.

The present Victorian system is good. At this point I should mention another respected psephologist, Chris Curtis. He thinks the present system by which the Victorian Legislative Council is elected to be the best of Australia’s seven PR systems for parliamentary elections. I don’t go that far. In my view Victoria has the third best system. It earns a mark of 65 per cent from me compared with 85 per cent for Tasmanian Hare-Clark and 81 per cent for the ACT variant of Hare-Clark.

Victoria’s system is the best of the stasiocratic upper house systems. The main reason I say so is that Victoria’s is the system most easily converted from stasiocratic to democratic. That should be done during the current term of Victoria’s parliament. If not, then the next term of Victoria’s parliament. Or the one after that.

Victoria’s system has a characteristic that marks it out from the other four stasiocratic upper house systems. Its ballot paper creates an incentive for the voter to vote below the line. In respect of the other four the incentive is to vote above the line. You want Victoria to join the others in that purpose. That is why I assert you want to replace a good system by a bad system.

The machines of big political parties do their utmost to discourage voters from voting below the line. That fact should lead genuine democrats to encourage below-the-line votes. The present Victorian ballot paper does that – which is precisely why I give the system a credit mark of 65 per cent.

The Greens Political Party

The above remarks are directed at you, but most apply also to the Greens political party. The only difference is that I expect a political party to have no principles when it comes to electoral matters. You are different. I expect respected independent experts to have principles. You have none.

The Greens have relentlessly pursued their short-term electoral interests and been quite successful so far. But there is one exception. Victoria rebuffed you and the Greens during the 58th Parliament, the 2014-2018 term. There is every indication that Victoria will again rebuff you and the Greens during the current term, the 59th Parliament.

My suggestion to you and to the Greens is the same: you tried a certain collection of tricks in the 58th Parliament and were rebuffed. You tried the same collection of tricks during the 59th Parliament and were rebuffed again. If you try the same collection of tricks during the 60th Parliament you will surely be rebuffed yet again.

So, why not give genuine democratic principles a try? If you did that there is only one reform you would consider. It is my reform which has the full backing of the Proportional Representation Society of Australia – a body of men and women noted for the fact of their standing on the moral high ground.

Mr. Glenn Druery

You have given the same every indication as have the Greens. Your sole criterion for judging a “democratic reform” is whether it drives Glenn Druery out of business. Having made that observation, I return to something I wrote above. Under the heading “Non-politician Electoral Reformers” I noted the names of a few men who might aspire to the description “greatest non-politician electoral reformer since Catherine Helen Spence”.

I truly think the winner of that title should be Glenn Druery, but that would be a cheeky thing to say. He has, however, driven all this reform of which we write. The machines of big political parties set up certain systems for their own convenience, but he found ways to help minor parties to “game” those systems. That fact drove the big-party machines to an empire strikes back frame of mind. In the process of that striking back reforms have flowed. To Druery lies the credit for driving those reforms. He is a great democrat.

I have only once had a conversation with Druery. At lunchtime on Tuesday 1 March 2016 after we had appeared before the federal Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters then Senator Ricky Muir invited us both to lunch with him and his wife. Druery struck me as being very boastful but then I thought to myself: “You may well be a very unpleasant man, but you sure have much to boast about. After all, we have been meeting this day for the sole purpose of driving you out of business. What greater compliment could we pay?”

Shifting the Needle

You will have gathered that I am very critical of the roles you have played in Australia’s democracy. Let me conclude on a positive note. You played a role in promoting the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment Act 2016. In my opinion that statute replaced a bad system by a worse system. However, it did something important. It shifted the needle on the question of reform of the Senate voting system. For that reason alone, it should be commended – and those who played a part in the process can claim the credit for shifting that needle.

The present Senate voting system cannot be described as “decent”, but the day will come when it is replaced by a decent system. When that day comes historians will commend those who played a part in helping to shift the needle. I believe all three of us will be commended, you for supporting the bill, me for opposing it.

Finally, I note that the adoption of my reforms would have the effect of destroying the business model of Glenn Druery, a permanent destruction. That it not my purpose but the effect would be desirable. My purpose is to ensure that every Australian PR system is democratically respectable.

Yours sincerely

Malcolm Mackerras