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April 12th 2010 print

John Izzard

Stop laughing, this is Tasmania

In the arcane world of Tasmanian politics nothing frustrates the devotees of intrigue and conspiracy more than the state’s magnificent Hare-Clark electoral system.

In the arcane world of Tasmanian politics nothing frustrates the devotees of intrigue and conspiracy more than the state’s magnificent Hare-Clark electoral system. For a short period of time those bag-men and apparatchiks of the Labor, Liberal and Green parties are forced to sit, twiddling their thumbs, while the “voice of the people” is considered. For two weeks, every four years, the political spin-doctors and their masters are forced to wait and listen to what the electorate has to say. 

To those on the mainland of Australia, and to many in Tasmania itself, the Hare-Clark voting system remains a complete mystery. For the various bodies-politic it remains a bloody nuisance, while for those candidates awaiting the final result, it can be the wait of a lifetime. But it is two weeks when possibly the fairest voting system in the world, works its way towards a considered result. 

Unlike the other Australian states, Tasmania has just 5 electoral boundaries, which define both the federal and state electoral districts. In the state electoral system, each of these five seats has five members of parliament. So in an electorate like Bass there can be say two Liberal, two Labor and a Green member of parliament. If you voted say Liberal or Green or Labor it is possible to take a problem or issue to a member-of-parliament belonging to the party for whom you voted. The five member seats, in the five districts, make up a lower house parliament of 25 members. 

The other main feature is the design of the ballot paper whereby the voter is encouraged to vote for candidates of their choice and liking rather than follow a particular political party. How-to-vote cards are banned near polling stations, and are of little use, as the ballot papers themselves have the candidates printed in random order. At a voting place the voter before and you will have the candidates on their ballot paper in a different order. No party or candidate ever gets top of the ticket on all of the ballot papers. 

All of this democratic ingenuity has of course failed, in as much as the man who found himself not preferred by 70% of the Tasmanian electorate has found himself being asked by the state governor, to form a minority Labor government. It’s all a bit like Edward Lear’s “The Owl and the Pussy Cat” going to sea in a pea-green boat. 

The Hare-Clark voting system originated from a concept developed by an Englishman, Sir Thomas Hare, who was trying to minimise “wasted votes” and to ensure that voters considered individual candidates (because of their qualities) rather that candidates on what he called “party lists”. Hare called his system Single Transferable Votes (STV’s). He published his original ideas in a book, Machinery of Representation, in 1857, with the aim to “…end the evils of corruption, violent discontent and restricted power of selection or voter choice.” 

Forty years after Hare published his book, the Tasmanian Attorney General, Andrew Inglis Clark, convinced the Tasmanian parliament to adopt Hare’s concepts in 1909. 

Australia owes more to Andrew Inglis Clark than the Hare-Clark voting system. Indeed few would know that Clark, a self-educated son of poor Scottish immigrants, who fled Scotland for (then) Van Diemen’s Land, became a lawyer, judge, Member of Parliament and the primary architect of the Australian Constitution. In his first term in office Clark introduced 150 ministerial bills, one less than Sir Henry Parkes did during his whole career. During a visit to America, where Clark was smitten by the American Constitution, he met many leading intellectuals, including Oliver Wendell Holmes, whom he befriended and corresponded with for the rest of his life. 

Andrew Clark was convinced that the American Constitution had much to offer Australia and pushed his ideas at the Federal Council meetings of 1888, 1889, 1891 and 1894. He was a Tasmanian delegate and member of the team that drew up the final draft of the Australian Constitution. In all, eighty-six clauses of Andrew Clark’s draft constitution of ninety-six clauses, appear in the Constitution. The one clause he couldn’t get accepted was that “all men must be regarded as equal in the possession of the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”. 

One can only wonder what Andrew Inglis Clark might think upon what today’s politicians have done to build upon his legacy. The political shenanigans, the deceit and the back room deals that have now been done belong to the Balkans, not Tasmania. 

Next they will be up and running again, doing whatever they want to do. As one cynical friend of mine likes to restate, “voting just gives away your right to have a say for another four years”. How sad!