NSW Nats break with Liberals (to a degree)

Interesting comment to a thread on AV from Tom Round, and which I wanted to “promote” to where it would be seen from the front gate of the virtual orchard:

The NSW Nationals have just announced that they are moving to the crossbenches, ie breaking their coalition with the Liberals in our oldest State Parliament, over a ban on shooting koalas.

However, it’s still a good deal tighter than a supply-and-confidence non-aggression pact because the Nats have not yet handed in their Ministerial portfolios.

(Tom also included what he called a “NSFW” addendum, but I will let you go to the original comment for that.)

Australian fires

I have a lot of readers and regular commenters in Australia. I actually don’t know where most of them live. I just wanted to take a moment to say that I hope you are all safe. Being a Californian, I know that, even if you do not live in direct harm’s way, the smoke and the accompanying weather can make life difficult during these emergencies. Be safe, and be well.

Australia 2019

The Australian 2019 general election is 18 May. In fact, as I enter this text, it is only about an hour and half before polls open in the eastern part of the country (thus about 14.5 hours before they close in the west), even though it’s midday Friday where I am. So, for now I will leave the task of discussing election day and the early results to my several capable Australian commentators, as well as anyone else who wants to chime in.

I recommend this background piece in Inside Story on the history of Australian election results. Also this piece by Antony Green on calculating swings.

Is AV just FPTP on steroids?

In debates over electoral systems in Canada, one often hears, from otherwise pro-reform people, that a shift to the alternative vote would be worse than the status quo. It is easy to understand why this view might be held. The alternative vote (AV), also known as instant runoff (IRV), keeps the single-seat districts of a system like Canada’s current first-past-the-post (FPTP) system, but replaces the plurality election rule in each district with a ranked-ballot and a counting procedure aimed at producing a majority winner. (Plurality winners are still possible if, unlike in Australia, ranking all candidates is not mandatory. The point is that pluralities of first or sole-preference votes are not sufficient.)

Of course, the claim that AV would be FPTP on steroids implies that, were Canada to switch to AV, the current tendency towards inflated majorities for a party favored by less than half the voters would be even more intensified. This is plausible, inasmuch as AV should favor a center-positioned party. A noteworthy feature of the Canadian party system is the dominance, most of the time, by a centrist party. This is unusual in comparison with most other FPTP systems, notably the UK (I highly recommend Richard Johnston’s fascinating book on the topic). The party in question, the Liberal Party, would pick up many second preferences, mainly from the leftist New Democratic Party (NDP) and so, according to the “steroids” thesis, it would thus win many more seats than it does now. It might even become a “permanent majority”, able to win a parliamentary majority even if it is second in (first-preference) votes to the Conservatives (who thus win the majority or at least plurality of seats under FPTP). The “steroids” claim further implies that the NDP would win many fewer seats, and thus Canada would end up with more of a two-party system rather than the multiparty system it has under FPTP.

There is a strong plausibility to this claim. We can look to the UK, where AV was considered in a referendum. Simulations at the time showed that the Liberal Democrats would stand to benefit rather nicely from a change to AV. While the LibDems are a third party, heavily punished by the FPTP electoral system even when they have had 20% or so of the votes, what they have in common with the Canadian Liberals is their centrist placement. Thus, perhaps we have an iron law of AV: the centrist party gains in seats, whether or not it is already one of the two largest parties. An important caveat applies here: with the LibDems having fallen in support since their coalition with the Conservatives (2010-15), the assumptions they would gain from AV probably no longer apply.

On the other hand, we have the case of the Australian House of Representatives, which is elected by AV. There, a two-party system is even stronger in national politics than in the FPTP case of the UK, and far more so than in Canada. (When I say “two party” I am counting the Coalition as a party because it mostly operates as such in parliament and its distinct component parties seldom compete against one another in districts.)

It is not as if Australia has never had a center-positioned party. The Australian Democrats, for example, reached as high as 11.3% of the first-preference votes in 1990, but managed exactly zero seats (in what was then a 148-seat chamber). Thus being centrist is insufficient to gain from AV.

Nonetheless, the combination of centrism and largeness does imply that Canada’s Liberals would be richly rewarded by a change to AV. Or at least it seems that Justin Trudeau thought so. His campaign promised 2015 would be the last election under FPTP. While he did not say what would replace it, he’s previously said he likes a “ranked ballot” and he pulled the plug on an electoral-reform process when it was veering dangerously towards proportional representation.

Still, there are reasons to be somewhat skeptical, at least of the generalization of the Australian two-party experience. The reasons for my caution against the “steroids” view are two-fold: (1) the overlooked role of assembly size; (2) the ability of parties and voters to adapt.

Assembly size is the most important predictor of the size of the largest party, disproportionality, and the effective number of seat-winning parties in countries that use single-seat districts. (It is likely relatively less important when there are two rounds of voting, as in France, but still likely the most important factor.) This is a key conclusion of Votes from Seats. It is thus important not to overlook the fact that Australia has an assembly size considerably smaller than Canada’s. In the book, Taagepera and I show that Australia’s effective number of seat-winning parties and size of largest parliamentary party are almost what we would expect from its assembly size, even if FPTP were used. (See also this earlier post and its comment thread; how close it is to expectation depends on how we count what a “party” is.) The data are calculated over the 1949-2011 period, and the effective number of parties has been just 1.10 times the expectation from the Seat Product Model (which is based only on assembly size when single-seat districts are used). Similarly, the average largest party has been 93% of the expected size (averaging 50.5%  of seats when we would expect 54.2%).

Thus we do not need to invoke the alleged steroids aspect of AV to understand the dominance of two parties in Australia. But this does not mean it would not make a difference in Canada. Consider that the current effective number of parties and size of the largest party in that country, averaged over a similar period, are also just about what we should expect. The multipartism, including periodic minority governments, that characterize Canada are not surprising, when you use the Seat Product Model (SPM). They are surprising only if you think district magnitude is all that matters, and that FPTP is FPTP. But it isn’t! An electoral system using the FPTP electoral rule with an assembly of more than 300 seats is a different, and more multiparty-favoring, electoral system than one with 150 seats. Replace “FPTP” in that sentence with “AV” and it is surely still true.

But what about the centrist party, the Canadian Liberals? Surely AV would work differently in this context, and the Liberals would be a much more advantaged party. Right? Maybe. If so, then it would mean that the SPM would be overridden, at least partially, in Canada, and the largest party would be bigger than expected, for the assembly size, while the effective number of parties would be lower than expected. Of course, that’s possible! The SPM is devised for “simple” systems. AV is not simple, as we define that term. Maybe the SPM is just “lucky” that the one country to have used AV for a long time has the expected party system; or it is lucky that country has the “correct” assembly size to sustain two-party dominance. (Australia is the Lucky Country, after all, so if the SPM is going to get lucky somewhere, it might as well be Australia.)

This is where that other factor comes in. While no one has a crystal ball, I am going to go with the next best thing. I am going to say that the SPM is reliable enough that we can predict that, were Canada to have AV, it would have an effective number of parties around 2.6 and a largest party with around 48% of seats. In other words, just about where it has been for quite some time (adjusting for the House size having been a bit smaller in the past than it is now). Note these are averages, over many elections. Any one election might deviate–in either direction. I won’t claim that a first election using AV would not be really good for the Liberals! I am doubting that would be a new equilibrium. (Similarly, back in 2016 I said my inclination would not be to predict the effective number of parties to go down under AV.)

Parties and voters have a way of adapting to rules. Yes the Liberals are centrist, and yes the Conservatives are mostly alone on the right of the spectrum (albeit not quite as much now, heading into 2019, as in recent years). But that need not be an immutable fact of Canadian politics. Under AV, the Liberals might move leftward to attract NDP second preferences, the NDP center-ward to attract Liberal and even Conservative second preferences, the Conservatives also towards the center. It would be a different game! The Greens and other parties might be more viable in some districts than is currently the case, but also potentially less viable in others where they might win a plurality, but struggle to get lower ranked preferences. The point is, it could be fluid, and there is no reason to believe scenarios that have the largest party increasing in size (and being almost always the Liberals), and correspondingly the effective number of parties falling. With 338 or so districts, likely there would remain room for several parties, and periodic minority governments (and alternations between leading parties), just as the SPM predicts for a country with that assembly size and single-seat districts.

As I have noted before, it is the UK that is the surprising case. Its largest party tends to be far too large for that huge assembly (currently 650 seats), and its effective number of seat-winning parties is “too low”. Maybe it needs AV to realize its full potential, given that the simulations there showed the third party benefitting (at least when it was larger than it’s been in the two most recent elections).

Bottom line: I do not buy the “FPTP on steroids” characterization of AV. I can understand were it comes from, given the presence in Canada of a large centrist party. I just do not believe Liberal dominance would become entrenched. The large assembly and the diversity of the country’s politics (including its federal structure) both work against that.

I agree with electoral reformers that PR would be better for Canada than AV. I also happen to think it would be better for the Liberals! But would AV be worse than FPTP? Likely, it would not be as different as the “steroids” claim implies.

Spill time?

So, who is the PM of Australia at the moment? It’s getting interesting. Again.

Second and third questions: What is the origin of the term, spill, to refer to an intra-party leadership challenge? Is Australia the only country where this term is used?

And for some comparative data context, see this planting from 2010.

There also has been an ongoing conversation about the current case at a planting from 2015. This topic of spills really overflows down under.

A list order change under Australian Senate rules

The voters in Tasmania have pushed a Labor Senator up the ranks and she will be reelected ahead of other candidates of the party.

Under the old system, most voters cast ticket votes, making the order of election in any given party more closed list than open or STV. Now, voters can rank “below the line” without having to rank all candidates. (Alternatively, they can rank parties “above the line”.)

The article notes that Tasmanian voters have tended to vote below the line more than voters in other states, anyway (probably because they use STV for their state assembly).

There are also some strange ballot rankings above the line. ABC says, quoting Polling analyst Kevin Bonham:

I’ve seen cases like people voting One for the Shooter, Fishers and Farmers, and Two for the Animal Justice Party, two parties that are more or less totally opposed to each other in the views. I saw people voting for the Sex Party, then Family First – one exists to basically negate the other. People are viewing parties in quite a strange way.

Does AV mean higher or lower effective number of parties?

There may be a conventional wisdom among people who study comparative electoral systems that the Alternative Vote (also known as Instant Runoff or Majority Preferential) tends to suppress the effective number of parties, compared to plurality (First Past the Post, or FPTP). Or maybe it is just me, but I will admit to having such a notion. After all, Australia is a pretty strict two-party system, isn’t it?

The correct way to approach the question of whether AV means a higher or lower effective number of parties (N) than FPTP is to ask: What we should expect N to be, given the country’s seat product?

As explained by Taagepera (2007) and further elaborated and tested by Li and Shugart (2016), the seat product is a country’s mean district magnitude (M), times its assembly size (S). The Seat Product Model says that the effective number of seat-winning parties (Ns) tends to be the sixth root of this product: Ns=(MS)1/6.

The model is logical, not a mere product of empirical regression work, although regression tests confirm it almost precisely (Li and Shugart, 2016).

When all districts elect just one member, thus M=1, the Seat Product is just the assembly size, S. Hence we take the sixth root of S to get an expectation for Ns. What if we do this for Australia’s House of Representatives? We get an expectation of 2.31.

The actual Ns for Australia’s elections since 1984, the year S was increased from 125 to 148 (subsequently it has increased to 150, a minor change) is… 2.53. However, I believe that figure (I am using Gallagher’s Election Indices) treats the Coalition parties as one in elections before 2010.

In the two most recent elections, Ns has been 2.92 and 3.23. The notes to Gallagher’s Election Indices indicate that for these elections the Liberal Party, the Nationals, and the Liberal National Party of Queensland are treated as separate parties. In my opinion they should be so treated, although I suppose one could have a debate about that.

The actual mean is thus above the expectation for a hypothetical FPTP of the same size assembly. If we use the figure of 2.53, it is obviously not much higher than 2.31 (the ratio is 1.10). However, if we consider the value, at least in recent elections, to be around 3.0, it is about 1.30 times the expectation value.

Contrast this with the UK, where elections of the same period (1987-2010) have a mean Ns=2.30. This is just what we expect for FPTP, right? Not much over 2.0. Not so fast! The UK has a huge assembly, and with S=650 (aprpox., as it varies over the period), we should expect Ns=2.94. The UK actually has one of the more under-fragmented assemblies, according to the Seat Product Model, with this recent-period average being only 78% of expectation.

So how about Canada, where AV is one of the potential reforms being considered? Over a similar period (1984-2011) we get Ns=2.63. With S around 300 during this time, we should get Ns=2.59. So Canada pretty much nails the expectation of the model.

So, should we expect Ns to go down if Canada were to adopt AV, as (what I characterized as) the conventional wisdom would have it? Or should we expect it to go up?

I would not be inclined to say ‘down’. I will just leave it at that for now.

New posts on Australia (and environs)

Four new posts are up today, each of them by either Alan or Henry. They are part of a series that begins now on the upcoming election in Australia (plus an update on Bougainville).

So scroll down, and enjoy. Thank you, Alan and Henry, for being F&V’s correspondents Down Under!

Has South Australia’s two-party system been Nicked?

As most of my readers will know, Australia’s federal election campaign has begun, with polling day scheduled for July 2. The campaign has been rather uneventful so far, but there is one interesting event that could take place in South Australia.

Nick Xenophon is a Senator from South Australia. His political career started when he was elected to the South Australian Legislative Council (which is elected eleven members every three years, using the single transferable vote) as a candidate opposed to ‘pokies’ (slot machines). He received 2.86% of the vote, which represented only about a third of a quota; nonetheless, he received group ticket preferences from seven other parties, and was elected.

During his six-year term, he developed substantial popularity in the state, and when his seat came up for election in 2006, his ‘Independent Nick Xenophon’ ticket received 20.6% of the vote for the lower house, only six points behind the Liberal Party. This allowed him to be elected, as well as his running mate Ann Bressington.

Following this result, he decided to run for the Australian Senate in 2007, as an independent candidate. He won a seat with 14.8% of the primary vote: just above a quota.

The results of that election saw the Labor Party win a majority in the House of Representatives, and form government. However, the party was relatively weak in the Senate; they had only 32 seats, to 37 for the Liberal/National coalition. With 39 votes needed to pass legislation, this meant that Xenophon shared the balance of power with five Green Senators and one member of the religious conservative Family First Party.

This meant that Senator Xenophon was in a position to heavily influence government legislation. And, as a Senator without a particularly strong ideological affiliation, he used this power to direct Federal funding to South Australian projects; for example, when the government needed to pass an economic stimulus bill, Senator Xenophon blocked it at first, in order to increase funding for conservation of the Murray-Darling River.

Following the 2010 election, the Labor Party lost its majority in the House of Representatives, but was able to come to agreements with a number of independent members of the House to hold onto a majority. However, in the Senate, Labor and the Greens together had a majority, allowing the government to avoid negotiation with the other Senators.

Despite this reduction in his influence, Xenophon was easily re-elected in 2013, securing 24.9% of the vote, narrowly beating the Labor Party. Such a vote put him well on the way to a second seat; however, most parties (including Labor and the Greens) submitted group tickets against his running mate, allowing Family First’s Bob Day to be elected off 3.76% of the primary vote.

Much has changed in the Senate since then. The 2013 election brought the Liberal/National coalition to power, but the government only won 33 seats in the Senate, meaning that they needed six other Senators to pass a bill. Assuming Labor and Green opposition to a bill, this meant that Xenophon and two other Senators could block a bill.

During this parliamentary term, Xenophon announced he would form a national political party. While he had registered a party before his 2013 election called the ‘Nick Xenophon Group’ (in order to have his name appear above the line on the ballot paper) it only contested the Senate in South Australia. In 2014, the party was turned into the Nick Xenophon Group, which would contest elections outside South Australia and without Xenophon as a candidate.

The government also made substantial changes to the electoral law towards the end of this parliamentary term. The electoral system for the Senate was changed from the single transferable vote with compulsory preferences, where voters could either number every single candidate, or vote for a party’s ticket of preferences. Large numbers of candidates mean that most voters voted for a party’s ticket of preferences. This system meant that small parties were able to swap preferences to other small parties with very strong preference flows, allowing candidates to win with very small shares of the vote. Dr Kevin Bonham sums up the issues with the system very well here.

The system was replaced early this year, following an agreement between the Liberal/National government, the Greens and Xenophon. It was replaced by an optional preferential system, where voters can either vote preferentially above the line (with a preference for a party representing a vote for the candidates of that party in order) or for individual candidates below the line.

Shortly following this change, the government announced that they would recall Parliament in order to put several industrial relations bills to a vote. This was the second time these bills had been put to the Senate (they had been rejected the first time), and if they were rejected again, the government would have a trigger for a double dissolution (an election for all members of both houses of Parliament). As it turned out, the bill was blocked, and a double dissolution was called.

The Xenophon Team has been announcing candidates for selected House of Representatives seats, and will run a Senate ticket in every state. The fact that this election is a double dissolution will have a number of advantages for this party.

First of all, the threshold for election in the rest of the country will be halved, as twelve seats will be up for election. This will make it easier for minor parties of all sorts to be elected, and Xenophon’s party is minor outside of South Australia.

Second of all, and more importantly, it will allow Xenophon himself to be attached to the party’s Senate ticket in South Australia for all twelve Senators, rather than just six. Why is this important?

Well, when Xenophon was re-elected to the South Australian Legislative Council in 2006, his ticket won two seats. While his original running mate turned out to be a disaster, the replacement for his seat (John Darley) ran for re-election in the 2014 election as the “Independent Nick Xenophon Team”. He received only 13% of the primary vote, but held his seat.

From that result, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say that there is a dropoff in support for Xenophon-affiliated candidates when Xenophon himself is not on the ballot, and thus him being on the ballot for all Senators could boost the party’s representation somewhat. While this may be extrapolating too much, I also think that this dropoff makes it unlikely that the Xenophon Team, despite optimistic polls (I suspect voters may be confused between the Senate and the House, but to be honest this is mostly speculation).

The other interesting thing about the Xenophon Team is that it has the possibility to lead to some very interesting results. While his House candidates are likely to be irrelevant outside of South Australia, his Senate support in the state, as well as strong polling, suggests that his party could be competitive in House seats.

The most positive individual seat polling for the Xenophon Team took place before the Liberal Party replaced Tony Abbott as leader with Malcolm Turnbull. Seat polling commissioned by trade unions a year ago suggested that a Xenophon Team candidate could win Education Minister Christopher Pyne’s seat. However, more recent polling has been somewhat less optimistic.

What will be interesting is that we will get a better picture of how preferential voting works in a multi-party environment. The importance of finishing order will be substantial, and there could be opportunities for tactical voting.

In most of the seats the Xenophon Team is targeting, the Liberal Party will almost certainly finish first in the primary vote. It is who finishes second that will be important. If, after all the other candidates are excluded, Labor is second, then the Liberals will have a good chance of victory. While the Xenophon Team is still undecided about how it will distribute their preferences, one key candidate has said that they will not file a specific how-to-vote card, and it seems likely that voters for the Xenophon Team will be more centrist.

If the Xenophon Team is second, however, then all bets are off. Labor has not yet announced its preference decisions in South Australia; however, I think it likely that they would not be too unhappy to see the defeat of a prominent Liberal MP.

Tactically speaking, it would be sensible for Labor to run a minor campaign in those seats, to ensure that the Xenophon Team finishes second on primary votes. On the other hand, the Liberals might want to surreptitiously encourage people to vote Labor (although such a campaign has not, to the best of my knowledge, been tried in Australia before).

How preferential voting works in a three-way race will become more relevant if Canada adopts it, as part of the Liberal electoral reform process. The results in South Australia, and the campaigns in the districts, might give a clue as to whether it works effectively in a multi-party environment.

the Emerald City and the sticks

Sydney has been known as the Emerald City since David Williamson’s play was first performed in 1987. Politics in Sydney are quite different from what happens ‘out in the sticks’ in the rest of the state.

New South Wales is the largest state by population and by GDP, the second by per capita income, and the third largest by area. (Both territories have higher per capita incomes) The only sister state relationship in the US is with California. Americans could think of the place as New Yorkifornia with Sydney playing many of the roles that New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco play in the US.

Apart from 1961, no-one has ever won a federal election without winning a majority of seats in NSW. The state elects 47 of the 150 MHRs and 12 of the 76 senators. Population shifts over the last few decades have tended to transfer 1 seat to either Queensland or Western Australia at each re-apportionment. The state has provided 6 of the last 10 prime ministers. ABC Vote Compass has thoughtfully posted a list of the most left-leaning and right-wing electorates in the country. NSW has 3 of the most left-leaning and none of the most right-leaning seats.

In the 1920s NSW briefly adopted STVPR. This led to a hung parliament where the Industrial Socialist Labor Party (an organisation close to the International Workers of the World) elected a single MLA who held the balance of power. STVPR was abolished in 1926, in reaction to the horror of a Wobbly balance of power.