ACT News

Cabinet papers: no referendum on new ACT electoral system

The Hawke government initially refused to conduct another referendum on self-government for the ACT because of the likelihood of sparking more hostility about the change, including abusive comments on ballot papers.

Many of the 117 candidates for the first ACT Legislative Assembly stood on anti self-government platforms..
Many of the 117 candidates for the first ACT Legislative Assembly stood on anti self-government platforms.. Photo: Melissa Adams

Cabinet papers released by the National Archives reveal ministers rejected the recommendation from a parliamentary committee for a referendum to gauge the community view on a preferred electoral system.

Ministers decided to persevere with the modified d'Hondt​ (proportional representation) electoral system, despite strong opposition from the Electoral Commission.

The commission warned the system, even with proposed changes, denied electors the option of expressing preferences for all candidates and "is completely alien" to Australian electoral practice.

"This system has the potential not to deliver one-vote value, it is possible under this system for a single independent to be elected with 30 per cent of the vote," the commission told ministers.


The Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters was asked to investigate after the debacle of the first election for the Legislative Assembly, on March 4, 1989.

Many of the 117 candidates stood on anti self-government platforms and the complication of the modified d'Hondt electoral system resulted in the count of metre-long ballot papers taking two months.

Before the election, a referendum showed 63 per cent of the territory's voters were opposed to self-government.

Cabinet wrestled with the issue on September 14, 1990, after the committee failed to recommend a new system.

Having rejected the modified d'Hondt system, the committee failed to agree on which of the two most favoured alternative systems should be recommended: a system of single member electorates using the House of Representatives voting system or a proportional representation system with multi-member electorates based on the Tasmanian Hare-Clark system.

In his submission to cabinet, Territories Minister David Simmons said it would be "inappropriate" to hold another referendum on "two systems previously rejected at the political level".

"Given current community concerns which are unlikely to abate, a referendum could restimulate strong anti self-government statements by the community with a subsequent write-in on the ballot paper which would be difficult to handle particularly if the ballot produced no clear result," he told ministers.

"On the other hand, there may be some criticism that the people of the ACT are again being denied [an] opportunity to express a view on their electoral system.

"The territory experienced minority government until replaced by a coalition in late 1989. There is no inherent stability in the coalition and the possibility exists that the government could collapse, requiring a further election under the existing system. This would be little short of a disaster ..."

Mr Simmons said he had held confidential talks with the opposition on proposed changes.

The d'Hondt system would be retained because it had a high reputation in several Western democracies but complexities added during negotiations in federal Parliament would be dropped.

He adopted some recommendations from the committee, including increased deposits for candidates nominating, minimum requirements for membership of political parties, and tallying votes cast for each party as the first step in counting.

"These arrangements should help dissuade frivolous candidates and parties," his prepared media release said.

"In most circumstances, a clear guide to the outcome of an ACT election should be available on election night."

The prepared ministerial statement for Parliament said the government did not believe it could gain support for single member constituencies or a system under which half the members were elected under House of Representatives rules and half using Senate rules.

It said the d'Hondt system was applicable to the ACT and no referendum would be held, without referring to the chance of stirring up anti self -government hostility.

The Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet accepted there were good reasons for not holding a referendum.

* The d'Hondt system was used again in the 1992 Legislative Assembly election. A non-binding referendum on the electoral system, held with the election, showed 65 per cent support for the Hare-Clark system. It was subsequently used in the 1995 election at which a referendum entrenched it.

Earlier, as the ACT approached self-government, federal cabinet changed its mind after pressure from the Democrats on which electoral model to adopt for the Legislative Assembly.

A previously unpublished study revealed former prime minister Bob Hawke was concerned that granting self-government in the ACT could result in the election of a left-leaning Labor government.

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