Election season is upon us, with the Northern Territory elections on Saturday returning the Labor government. ACT is next.
Elections offer many opportunities for governments and oppositions, for political parties, for candidates, for voters, for issues and for community lobby groups.
The ACT electoral system offers a special variant of these opportunities quite different from all other jurisdictions except Tasmania. The Hare-Clark system of proportional representation divides the ACT into five multi-member electorates with five members each, rather than the usual single-member electorates used for the federal House of Representatives and most state lower houses of parliament.
The ACT system limits, but does not eliminate, the power of the major parties to effectively install party candidates into parliament through safe single-member seats. Instead, the major parties can only preselect five candidates in each electorate, from which two or three will generally be elected. Sometimes only five eligible potential candidates come forward from a party anyway, so the power of the parties over candidate selection is lessened even more.
In theory, the five candidates from each major party in each electorate have an equal chance of being elected. This depends on the central administration of each party supporting each candidate equally during the campaign. But that does not happen, of course. Sitting MPs have an inbuilt advantage as they are better known, better resourced and have full-time jobs as MPs.
The party administration also quite naturally gives preference in their advertising to the party leaders, who generally have a higher profile and are already better known in the community. It is not a level playing field. New candidates for each party have it tougher than incumbent candidates. As a consequence, the number of fresh faces after each election, apart from those filling vacancies left by retirements or winning a seat from another party, is often limited to one or two.
Candidates seeking to overturn incumbents from their own party face a problem. The parties like to present a united front to the electorate, based on a common set of policies. They recognise what individual candidates can do to build the image of the party within their electorate, but they certainly do not want internal deviations from their major policies.
What are individual candidates left with to run their own campaigns? Apart from tinkering around the edges or raising questions of priorities, candidates are left to build their own profiles based on their personalities, professional experience and community ties. Their ability to stress their independent and distinct persona is constrained. Unlike Tasmania, the tight ACT geography, with small electorates, also limits the ability of candidates to campaign on where they come from within the electorate.
They cannot directly campaign against their fellow party candidates but only against their opponents from other parties or independents. This is despite the fact that their best chance of being elected might be to win a position already held by their own party, especially if the party already holds three of the five seats in that electorate.
This is where voters and lobby groups enter the picture. Theoretically, a big advantage of the Hare-Clark system of proportional representation over single-member electorate systems is that voters and lobby groups have a choice not just between the major parties but within major party candidates.
Faced with multiple candidates from the one party, most voters will have no idea about any of them other than what they know about the party brand. The distinction will come mostly from name recognition, which will flow from their pre-existing profile supplemented by media coverage, advertising, doorknocking and community gatherings.
Candidates who want to distinguish themselves from their party colleagues can fall back on their general characteristics. One obvious one is the promotion of gender diversity in the Legislative Assembly. Others might include other forms of diversity, including ethnic or faith background and disability.
Another option is to present themselves, or be presented, as the candidate supported by a special lobby group. Here there are many possibilities. The ACT contains a variety of lobby groups related to issues. A short list would include trade unions, business groups (including developers and retailers), community progress associations and suburban action groups, conservationists, public and private education, churches and faith groups, protectors of Lake Burley Griffin and defenders of nature reserves.
Many of these lobby groups will prefer one side of major party politics over the other, but they may also like to shape each side towards their own approach to society. For instance, they may back the Liberals but would like them to be less socially conservative and more liberal; they may back Labor or the Greens but prefer them to be less socially progressive and more old-school.
For lobbies to link with individual major party candidates, both they and the candidates will need to be brave and push the boundaries. Opportunities also bring dangers for them, because once the link is known there will be backlash from those who have other agendas. Splits within the major parties may emerge, to the detriment of the common cause.
Within the Hare-Clark system, the ACT election contains two distinct elements. The first, business as usual in any election, is the contest between Labor, the Liberals and the Greens to form either a Labor, Labor-Green or a Liberal government. Independents and other parties, although currently unrepresented, are also trying to enter the Assembly.
The second element, often overlooked but of special interest in the ACT because of the Hare-Clark system, is the question of who represents the main parties. This system offers a wider choice than usual for voters and lobby groups, though these opportunities are difficult to grasp.
- John Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University.