baton-change in Victoria?

A Victorian Coalition MP (who is under investigation for misuse of parliamentary resources) has resigned from the Liberal parliamentary party. The numbers in the legislative assembly are now Coalition 44, Labor 43, Independent 1. There is a by-election for the seat of Lyndhurst on 27 April.

Victoria has a fixed term parliament and it is absolutely unclear which way the new independent will vote should Labor win the by-election. It is also absolutely unclear if the resigned MP will be able to remain in parliament after the investigation is concluded.

It really seems to me that if the assembly is where the government is formed, there need to be an odd number of members.

28 thoughts on “baton-change in Victoria?

  1. Apparently, during the negotiations over reforming the Upper House a decade ago to introduce PR, Labor was prepared to offer seven-seat regions (five of them, making a Leg Council of 35). Presumably this would have allowed, say, either 17 or 19 Assembly districts within each Council regions, making a Lower House of either 85 (-3) or 95 (+7, but the overall parliament would have been only 130, down 2 seats from the previous 88-44 arrangement).

    But one or more of the country Independents refused, on the ground that it was non-negotiable that the Assembly had to remain the same size, at 88 seats.

    No, I don’t understand why either. You would think Labor would have learned its lesson from the Nunawading fiasco in 1985…

  2. ‘… Returning Officer Kathleen Leonard drew ALP candidate Bob Ives’ name by lot to break tie in Victorian Legislative Council province of Nunawading. “Had Leonard decided to exercise her legal right to make a casting vote and had she voted Liberal, the Upper House would itself have been tied. Labor would then have been forced [sic] to provide a President of the chamber and the government would thus have failed in its attempt to gain control of the Council.. [Labor Premier John] Cain thinks differently. “Australians are gamblers,” he told a press conference last week. “You flick a coin and you cop the result.” Only time will tell. Whenever contentious legislation is rammed through the Upper House, Cain is likely to be reminded that his legislative authority rests on the picking of a name out of a box…’

    – Tim Duncan, “An electoral dilemma right out of the box,” The Bulletin (26 March 1985), p 42.

  3. The premier just resigned. The Liberals have a new leader. The media is describing the new leader as the premier but that depends on the governor’s view of his capacity to form a government without a majority in the assembly.

  4. Actually, should not have said ‘snap.’ What I meant is ‘early,’ meaning if the government falls, can there be a new election?

    If they’re deadlocked at 44, would the Speaker not cast the deciding vote in favor of whichever government the Governor appoints?

  5. Wouldn’t the Speakership (a concept I do not agree with in any system I am familiar) make an even numbered assembly a better idea? Since the Speaker doesn’t really count, any situation without a vacancy means that an odd number of MPs are divided between the usual two-party set-up.

  6. Reading what I have written, I feel I need to make myself clear. I have a problem with a Speaker who is elected but cannot vote on behalf of his constituents and who is supposed to be neutral while being selected by partisan means. I think either appoint a truly neutral speaker from outside of parliament or allow the moderator a normal vote while maintaining neutral moderation.

  7. There is provision for an early election if the assembly votes no confidence and a government cannot be formed.

    The complication is that Baillieu has resigned. The new Liberal leader must satisfy the governor that he has the confidence of the assembly before he receives a commission to form a government. At minimum, I’d expect the governor to require an early vote of confidence.

    From a quick look at Australian House of Representatives Practice, there are a series of conventions on how the speaker’s casting vote should be used. The most important of them is that the speaker should preserve the status quo ante. What that means in relation to votes of confidence seems to be an open question. No doubt a whole lot of ink will be spilt on it in the next couple of weeks.

    There may also be some excitement if the new Liberal leader cannot secure confidence about whether he should be granted a dissolution or prorogation.

  8. New Zealand changed from Speaker-only-votes-to-break-ties model to Speaker-votes-normally when MMP came in (sensibly, otherwise it’s not proportional, is it!).

  9. Errol, good point indeed!

    Like Mark, I have always found the notion of an elected MP becoming Speaker and then not (usually) voting as very odd.

    If one wants a “neutral” speaker, it does seem that the person should be either a retired MP who enjoys respect across the aisle, or else a judge or civil servant.

    Otherwise, the speaker should be a full voting member.

    I suppose it should be added that the US model is utterly different from the Westminster model we are discussing, inasmuch as the US House Speaker is the majority party’s top official in the chamber.

  10. As distasteful as it might be to them, couldn’t the Coalition just appoint Shaw as Speaker to have a one-seat majority?

    Barring that, it seems you have a situation where the government appointing the Speaker results in the government losing most votes.

    Is it permitted to appoint a Speaker from outside the House?

  11. Chris, I don’t think it is, but is it possible to appoint a speaker from the opposition? I mean, the speaker is dragged to the chair either way…

  12. The “Speaker does not vote unless other Members are equally tied” rule worked all right at Westminster, where the Commons has always had a large number of seats (I think it’s always been over 600 in the 20th century) and governments almost never come down to a one-seat majority. (Even if they need to put together a coalition or Lib-Lab pact, such a deal usually leaves them with a wider margin over the opposition).

    By contrast, every Australian lower house (including those with SMDs) has seen govts with one-seat margins at least once, and in some cases twice, in the past two or three decades.

    If you want to see a truly silly result of the above rule, see the Marquet case from 2002 http://tinyurl.com/6skcprg:

    1. Constitutional bill needed absolute majority of WA Legislative Council to pass.

    2. Council President plus 17 other MLCs (out of 34) supported it, against only 16 who opposed it. 18 out of 34 (52.94%) of MLCs favoured the Bill.

    3. But President could not vote unless the other MLCs were tied.

    4. And the other MLCs were not tied – 17-16 is not a tie.

    5. But 17 out of 34 isn’t an absolute majority either.

    Catch-22!

    A more sensible rule (modelled on Papua New Guinea) would be:

    1. The Chair can only vote –

    1.1 after all other members have voted or abstained, and

    1.2 if the Chair’s vote will change the result.

    2. If, after the Chair has either voted or abstained, the numbers are equal, the motion or bill is deemed defeated.

  13. I agree about the silliness of depriving the speaker’s electorate of a vote in the parliament. The presidency of the senate has a much better reputation for impartiality, and the president gets to vote on all matters. A simpler rule would be that a motion needs a majority and motions that do not get a majority fail. Tied motions would then be a subset of motions that do not get a majority. Although there is that fun Swedish rule of resolving ties by lot.

    It would be less of a problem if Australia did not have such very small parliaments. The Victorian legislative assembly has 88 members for a population of 5 603 100. the Taagepera number would be 178.

    Denis Napthine, the new leader of the Coalition, has been commissioned to form a government.

  14. NB also that “if Chair’s vote will change the result” does not require an equality/ 50-50 tie. Eg, if a two-thirds majority is required, and the numbers stand at 66-33, the Chair can vote, but should only do so if s/he plans to turn this into 66-34 and so defeat it. Vice versa if the numbers stand at 65-33 – only if s/he plans to vote Yes. As far as possible without reversing control of the chamber, the Chair should avoid voting.

  15. Maybe it’s novel for Australia, but opposition speakers have occurred several times in Canada. The last speaker, Liberal Peter Milliken, was re-elected speaker when the Conservatives won their minority government.

  16. Opposition speakers have been very, very rare. Crossbench speakers have been quite common, specially where the government of the day is in a minority. The last NSW parliament had a cross bench speaker,on the government’s nomination, even though the government had a large majority in the assembly.

    The senate has a practice of always electing a government senator as president. Ditto the presidents of the legislative councils. The president of the senate votes like every senator and tied votes fail. The president of the senate has been both less powerful and much,much less controversial than the speaker. PR chambers are just gentler places than AV/FPTP chambers.

    The present house of representatives has had 3 speakers due to the extraordinary ability of the Gillard government to score own goals. While one of them came from the opposition he sat on the crossbench after accepting the speakership. Australia has a rather invidious practice of suborning opposition MPs by offering them the chair or deputy chair.

    As far as I know no Australian chamber has seen the re-election of a previous speaker after a change of government. That is probably related, again, to the small assembly sizes.

    Tasmania once had an odd rule that in a tied assembly the party with a majority of the popular vote would form the government and the opposition would provide the speaker, but I do not know if it ever came into play. The more obvious solution of an odd number of members seems not to have occurred to the Tasmanians, perhaps because of the tendency towards small assemblies.

  17. @ Alan, The Tasmanian theory that they popular vote winner should govern in the event of equal seats came into play after the last state elections in 2010. Labor and the Liberals both won ten seats and the Greens took five. (FWIW, the polling in all five electorates was 2-2-1)

    The incumbent Labor premier went to the governor and offered his resignation, as the Liberals had more votes. The governor refused his resignation and issued an open letter (http://tinyurl.com/aol8vy8) where he basically stated that:

    1) The most votes “tiebreaker” doesn’t really work in Tasmania’s parliamentary system AND

    2) He could not follow any advice to appoint a Liberal government because he had no confidence whatsoever that a Liberal government could survive in a chamber where Labor and the Green held 60% of the seats.

  18. @Mark R

    I was not talking about a convention, which was what was followed in 2010. I have cited the governor’s letter on this blog a number of times.

    The Tasmanian constitution was actually amended in 1954 to provide that if the opposition refused to provide a speaker in a tied assembly the government party would get an extra MHA from the speaker’s (multimember) electorate.

    The Tasmanian Constitution Act 1954 was repealed (I think, Tasmanian legislative histories can be hard to find online) when the assembly was expanded to ensure an odd number of member in 1959.

  19. I move the following amendment to the gentleman @16:

    2.2 In an election for Chair or Deputy Chair, where two candidates are equal lowest, the Governor, or a nominee of the Governor, shall cast the deciding vote between them.

    2.3 In an election for any other position(s), where two candidates are equal lowest or equal highest, the Chair shall cast the deciding vote between them.

  20. Charles Richardson’s column at Crikey.com (which probably should be on the F&V blogrolll as he often discusses electoral and parliamentary processes and tactics) discussing Mr Shaw with a G:

    “… With the departure of Ted Baillieu, it’s a good time for a fresh look at one of his key moves as Liberal leader?—?the decision to preference Labor ahead of the Greens across the board at the last Victorian election.

    If those preferences had gone to the Greens instead (as they had in past elections), they would in all probability have taken three of Labor’s inner city seats: Brunswick, Melbourne and Richmond. Three fewer Labor MPs in the current Legislative Assembly would make a big difference to its dynamic.

    That’s not to say the Greens would be terribly sympathetic to the current government, which has taken some decisions (alpine grazing, wind farms) that outrage Greens’ supporters. But their presence would give new Premier Denis Napthine some additional options. With relatively poor polling and limited resources the Greens would not be keen on an early election, and they might have been open to some sort of deal (maybe one of them taking the speakership) that would keep the Coalition in power.

    Even more so, one might think, since the alternative is having a government in hock to Geoff Shaw, a fundamentalist whose positions are the antithesis of everything the Greens stand for….”

    – “The Victorian Premier might wish he had some Greens around” (8 March 2013), http://tinyurl.com/ct4qbu7

  21. PS: Before anyone adds Crikey to the blogroll, I should add a caveat that they have a very odd and counter-intuitive policy that their web content is free for the first days, and after that becomes paid-subscriber only. Not sure why they’ve reversed the normal rule of webonomics that people pay money for new news/ opinion hot from the press but that, to answer Mick Jagger’s question, “who wants yesterday’s papers”, the usual answer is “Only academics looking for money quotes for a refereed journal article….”

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