A funny thing happened to me late last year, I became a convert to Hare-Clark.
For those who haven’t heard of Hare-Clark, it is the electoral system used to elect the House of Assembly in Tasmania and the Legislative Assembly in the Australian Capital Territory. It is a variant of Single Transferable Vote (the system used to elect the Australian Senate, most state Upper Houses and in many local councils) with a few notable variations.
Unlike a Senate ballot, there is no above the line voting. There are also restrictions on handing out how-to-vote cards near polling booths and the order of candidates on the ballots rotates (known as the Robson rotation). This has led to a situation where all the candidates on a major party tickets end up campaigning against each other like in a primary as well as other parties. There are also no by-elections or appointments by parties to fill a casual vacancy, instead replacement members are elected by a countback.
Like most ALP members, I used to dislike the electoral system. The introduction of Hare-Clark in Tasmania was to undercut the emerging Labor Party and the subsequent addition of Robson Rotation was devised by a Tasmanian Liberal MLA. It is an electoral system designed to anti-party and pro-individual candidates.
This all changed when I was heavily involved campaigning for Yvette Berry, a non-incumbent candidate who won a seat in the multi-member electorate of Ginninderra in the recent ACT election. We outpolled all the other non-incumbent candidates and came within a handful of votes of being the 4th elected candidate. Had it been a list-PR system or had there been a fixed ticket, she may not have been elected but because of everyone’s sheer hard work, we won the last spot and knocked off the leader of the ACT Greens.
The more I think about it, the more Hare-Clark makes sense and is positive for voters AND parties. The reality is that parties as we know them are based on a 20th century model that is no longer relevant. The age of the mass party with large active geographical centred branches as we knew them is over and isn’t coming back. Our lives are not so geographically concentrated and people do not have the time to attend multiple meetings and endure time consuming processes that do not create meaningful outcomes. Even where rank-and-file preselections occur, those party branches are often not representative of the wider population. It creates an inward looking, rules focused culture and unrepresentative party. It is not healthy for a political party or democracy more generally.
What Hare-Clark does let is party members retain the ability to choose a slate of candidates while giving the voters the choice of who they feel best represents the party. It combines rank-and-file preselections with what is effectively a party primary. It also enables proportionality so candidates who may not initially control a bloc of preselectors or have a campaign machine can become preselected and have a chance to convince voters. It would be far preferable to the “community preselections” which are being promoted by some within the ALP as an existing local machine will still be needed.
Rather than focusing energies on fighting internal battles over preselection, the focus is outwards. To be successful, more energy will need to be spent on convincing voters and campaigning in the community than on controlling the party machinery. It actually promotes cultural change that political parties in this country need. Factionalism, while it still exists, would be more focused on getting candidates with shared values elected rather than just about getting preselection in the first place. It is no surprise that the healthiest branches of the ALP are in the jurisdictions with Hare-Clark (Tasmania and the ACT).
An added benefit of Hare-Clark is that when parties refuse to renew their parliamentary wing, the voters will do it for them. The 2010 Tasmanian election saw the loss of two incumbent Ministers and election of new MLAs such as Rebecca White and David O’Byrne who ran strong grassroots campaigns. Each of the last three ACT elections have also seen new MLAs elected, helping to renew the incumbent ACT Labor Government.
Most importantly, Hare-Clark also provides a level of accountability that the current STV electoral system does not. Controlling the party machine will not guarantee election under Hare-Clark. The scandals around Obied and MacDonald in NSW have shown how corruption can easily take root in a STV with party tickets such as the NSW Upper House. It’s unlikely Eddie Obeid would have been elected under Hare-Clark because it would require him to campaign and it would have allowed the voters to toss him out even if he controlled enough of the party to be preselected again. Proposing Hare-Clark for the Upper House (and even local councils) might even be a good way of showing that NSW Labor is committed to change.
I stress that it is important to maintain party lists if there will be restrictions on how-to-votes. Without this, the party primary element is removed. In Tasmania, there are no party columns which undermines the party primary. Voters may not necessarily know all the candidates and just want to vote for a party, regardless of who the candidates are. They may be confused as to who is a Labor, Liberal, Green or independent candidate. Without a party column, their votes may not reflect who they actually wanted to vote for.
Hare-Clark is not without its problems. As no seats are safe, candidates tend to pander to local interests which may be at the expense of the national interest. It is also a problem in large rural and regional areas as unless there are smaller electorates with fewer members, electorates will become quite large and unwieldy and would not have communities of common interest.
Candidates may also seek to cannibalise their own party vote by targeting what is seen as traditional areas that vote for their party and not campaign across the entire electorate. Non-incumbents may also base their campaign around knocking off a sitting member. It can lead to quite heated intra-party contests between candidates that do not focus on engaging with voters who are not seen as part of the traditional base.
On balance, the benefits of introducing Hare-Clark far outweighs the potential problems. It is good for voters because it gives them a say, good for parties because it encourages the cultural change they need and good for democracy because it makes candidates more accountable. It’s time to stop worrying about keeping control and embrace Hare-Clark.