Yesterday, Saturday 20 October 2012, we had an election for the government of the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) (aka Canberra). Now those of you who don’t understand Australian voting—let alone voting in the ACT—let me enlighten you.
Firstly: voting is compulsory in Australia. Well obviously, the physical act of ticking, crossing, or numbering your ballot paper is not compulsory per se; after all no-one is holding a gun to your head to make sure you actually mark the paper. But the act of presenting yourself at a polling place, having your name crossed off the electoral role, and taking receipt of the aforesaid ballot paper and approaching a little cardboard voting booth, is compulsory. And this for every election; be it local, state or federal.
Failure to participate in this way will incur a small reprimand by way of a letter from the Australian Electoral Commission (aka Big Brother) asking for a reason as to why you did not pop into the polling place on your way back from the shops, and request you to pay a $20 fine. If you do not respond to the Commission within 21 days you may be prosecuted, taken to court, and fined the princely sum of $50 plus court costs. By the way, your reason for not attending the polling place cannot include ‘all the candidates are crap and it’s a total waste of time’. Pity, but there it is.
Secondly: Australia has a preferential voting system which simply means voters can indicate an order of preference for candidates on the ballot paper—number 1, number 2, etc. So rather than voting for the party, you vote for the candidate. You can of course vote for the party you prefer by placing all your favourite party candidates together and numbering them from 1 onwards; putting the party you loathe the most and never want to see in power even if hell freezes over, last on the ballot paper.
George Clooney 1
Jack the Ripper 16
For example, let’s say there are 16 candidates. If you want the four members of the Italian Handbag Party to win (they want to see everyone on the planet given a beautiful Italian leather handbag) you put all their candidates first starting at one. If you never want to see the three members of the Ultra Sensible Party (who don’t give a damn about handbags—leather or otherwise) gain ground, you will number them 14, 15 and 16. All the other candidates you will place in the middle from number 5 to 13. Got it?
Incidentally, there was one particular state election I recall when there were 52 candidates on the ballot paper. The paper did not actually fit in the little cardboard voting booth, and voters trailed it behind them and over the edge of the booth as they marked their numbers from 1 to 52. But I digress …
Thirdly: the voting system in the ACT is called The Hare-Clark System and (not surprisingly) is named after Thomas Hare (an Englishman—interesting that they do not have this system in England), and Andrew Clark, a Tasmanian. Now it would take me most of my life (and indeed yours) to fully explain the intricacies of this system—not to mention using all my available blog-space in one fell swoop, so I will be brief, and hopefully as succinct as I can be.
So first up is a nice quote from my favourite election commentator Anthony Green, whose election guide states: “Hare-Clark is often described as a complex electoral system”. So there you have it—from the expert.
The eloquent Mr Green also goes on to say, “Voters trying to vote tactically, attempting to keep candidates in the count, or have greatest weight in distribution of preferences, do face a more complex task, as the order candidates are elected or excluded in the count is certainly difficult to predict.”
Simply put, it means that counting the votes and allocating preferences is a pain in the butt. And that trying to work out who has actually won the race will take at least two to three weeks and include many a long day working out preferences flowing from one party (or candidate) to another.
The lovely Mr Green was on television last night with a very up-market, high-tech touch screen, which he played with throughout the night, showing us lots of lovely colourful data on counting, preferences, numbers, seats in the assembly (all in the lovely colours matching the relevant party). The man is a mine of electoral information, and I could listen to him talk all night.
Unfortunately, at the end of the night (and I’m not sure when that was, because to be honest, and just between you and me, Mr Green started to lose his enthusiasm after 11pm and I went to bed), he was unable to tell us who had won government.
So today, the intrepid voters of the ACT (who risk life and fines to present themselves at the polling place) still do not know who their government is and will not be certain for some weeks. Mr Green has provided us with a chart of which party has the most votes, which party has the most seats (they are not the same incidentally), and a little calculation of who it’s likely to be. Sadly, there are too many preferences to take into account for even him to call the winner.
Let us be grateful there were not 52 candidates in this election or we could be rudderless for some time—though that may not be as bad as it sounds …