Steve Bracks has been the ultimate do-nothing Premier, because he doesn’t control either House of Parliament. But in this exclusive analysis for Crikey, our resident political philosopher, Charles Richardson, reveals this may all change, because Labor can win control of both houses in its own right at this year’s election.
But what Hillary does not consider is the very real chance Labor could win a majority in the Council in its own right. It is a prospect the ALP will play down, for fear of inviting a Coalition scare campaign warning of unions running riot in the streets as Labor gains unlimited control of the State.
But it is a political Holy Grail that will have Labor salivating, and may well influence the tactics adopted by the other parties.
The electoral system for Victoria’s Legislative Council is not complex, but it is the only one of its kind left in Australia and can easily trip up the unwary. A brief explanation is in order.
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There are 22 Legislative Council provinces, each consisting of four contiguous lower house districts. Each province has two members (for a total of 44), one of whom retires at each election. Each member therefore serves for two Legislative Assembly terms (i.e. between six and eight years). Elections are always for single members, and the voting is just simple (compulsory) preferential.
If two members have to be elected at once, because a sitting member has retired mid-term, then two elections are held simultaneously for the same province – each voter gets two Council ballot papers. (Although, as Hillary points out, when there has been an intervening redistribution the regular election and the by-election will be held on different boundaries, leading to awful voter confusion.)
What all this means is that when working out what a party needs to win to get a majority, you need to start with the number of provinces it won at the last election. That is more important than the number of seats it currently holds, because the latter number depends in part on what happened at the election before last.
Labor currently holds 14 seats in the Council: it won five provinces in 1996 and eight in 1999, plus one at a by-election. So on the same results with the same boundaries, it would expect to hold 16 seats after the next election: two for each of the eight provinces won at the last election (Ballarat, Chelsea, Doutta Galla, Geelong, Jika Jika, Melbourne, Melbourne North and Melbourne West).
But because the boundaries have changed, Labor is slightly better off: one province (Waverley) that the Liberals won last time is notionally a Labor seat on the new boundaries. So Labor’s starting figure – what it will hold if it just repeats its 1999 vote – is 17 seats.
A majority is 23, so Labor needs to win six more provinces to win a majority in the Council this time around. But to win a majority at the following election, it only needs to win three provinces this time, provided it can hold them in 2006 – since each province is worth two seats. (In fact it could afford to lose one of them in 2006, because if its vote holds it will win the other seat for Waverley province.)
The way Labor is travelling in the polls, winning three provinces looks an easy target, and winning six is quite conceivable. The most vulnerable provinces are as follows (I am using Antony Green’s figures for the new electoral boundaries):
Dandenong-Berwick area. The Liberals just scraped in last time, and the new boundaries have improved it only slightly. This looks like a certain Labor gain.
This province alternates between Liberal and National Party, although Labor almost won it from the Liberals in 1999. This time it is the National Party member’s turn, but the Liberal Party will also be contesting. Labor is unlikely to get anywhere near as big a swing as last time, but it must still have a chance.
CENTRAL HIGHLANDS 5.2%
This province stretches from the outer northern suburbs to Benalla. Labor got a big swing in 1999, but it then gained more ground in the Benalla by-election, so there is still scope for improvement. A rough possibility for Labor.
Inner south-eastern Melbourne; traditionally safe Liberal territory, but if things are as bad for them as the polls say then they could be in trouble. The sort of seat where Green preferences will be vital.
Labor didn’t contest this seat in 1999, so the margin is calculated on the basis of the Democrat vote. In reality it is therefore probably a bit safer than it looks, but if the swing is on in the suburbs Labor has to be given a chance.
This is classically swinging territory in the outer eastern suburbs, where Labor expects to pick up a lot of ground. They probably have a better chance at this than in Monash or Templestowe.
Middle eastern suburbs, stretching from Blackburn to Rowville. Seven per cent is usually a pretty safe margin, but with the polls showing a 10% swing to Labor in the metropolitan area a seat like this is within range.
That’s seven possible gains for Labor, and they only need six. For a majority in 2006, Labor would only need to win Eumemmerring and Gippsland at the next two elections, plus one other province – say, Silvan – at one of them. This does not look a difficult task.
Does this mean reform of the Legislative Council is likely to happen? Not necessarily. If Labor wins control of the Council under the existing system, or realises that it is likely to in the near future, then its enthusiasm for reform is likely to diminish sharply. In the other states where Labor governments reformed the Legislative Council, they did so because the old systems were rigged against them. Proportional representation was clearly a much better option for them.
But Victoria is not like this. Victoria’s upper house may be odd, but since 1984 it has not been stacked in favor of the conservatives: Labor has just had trouble winning elections, partly due to bad luck (in 1999 it lost three provinces by tiny margins). Faced with the chance of controlling both houses, Labor may very well abandon any idea of proportional representation in Victoria.
This poses a dilemma for the minor parties, particularly the Greens. To get upper house reform, they want Labor to do well enough to (a) be returned to government, and (b) break the Liberal Party stranglehold on the Council. But they cannot afford to have Labor do too well. In those provinces that might give Labor control of the Council, it could make more sense for the Greens to direct preferences to the Liberals.
This is particularly so since the Greens have ambitions to win some hitherto safe inner-suburban Labor seats in the Assembly. To do that, they will need Liberal Party preferences, and it makes sense to think that the Liberals will want something in return. Victoria may be in for an interesting election after all.
Charles Richardson is a freelance philosopher and political analyst who, like many otherwise intelligent people, used to work for the Kennett Government.