Obstacles in the way of Independents at the ACT Election

Australian jurisdictions that elect upper houses by proportional representation, and allow the grouping of candidates on the ballot paper, have a two step process for nomination.

First a candidate nominates. Then candidates can lodge a separate form requesting they be grouped on the ballot paper. Candidate that don’t lodge a grouping request will be placed in the ‘Ungrouped’ column on the far right of the ballot paper.

When requesting grouping, candidates also specify the order in which their names will be listed in the column. Where the candidates are from a registered party or parties, their party name or names will be printed at the top of the column.

The rules are different for Tasmania and the ACT, the two jurisdictions that use variants of the Hare-Clark electoral system. Request for grouping are allowed, but parties and candidates cannot determine the order names are listed. Hare-Clark ballot papers randomise the order of candidate names printed in each column.

In Tasmania there are differences in the grouping rules for party candidates versus independent candidates. Parties simply request their candidates, or even a single candidate, be listed in one column. An Independent or Independents can make the same request, but as explained in this post, they must supply more nominator names.

In contrast the ACT does not allow grouped Independents. Independents will be placed in the Ungrouped column unless the Independents go through the process of registering a party name. For slightly different reasons, David Pocock registered a party called David Pocock to contest the 2022 Senate election, making it easier for voters to identify him on the ballot paper.

This rule on Independents will be a major impediment for the talk of Independents contesting the ACT election in October. Unless they register some sort of party name to nominate under, ACT Independents will be placed in the Ungrouped column.

The first blog post I ever published was in 2008 and concerned changes to the ACT Electoral Act restricting ballot paper columns to registered parties.

That old blog is no longer publicly available. With Tasmanian and ACT elections looming, and talk of high profile Independents contesting both, I thought it worth resurrecting the old post. In short, Tasmania provides a mechanism allowing Independents access to a column on the ballot paper, but the ACT does not.

The unaltered post below was first published on 28 March 2008.

March 28, 2008

Independents to be disadvantaged by ACT electoral changes

A quiet year looms for Australian election junkies, unless they are attracted to the NSW local government elections in September, or riveted by the year-long battle for the White House in November.

The only state or territory contest due is the Australian Capital Territory’s Legislative Assembly election on 18 October 2008, the ACT’s seventh election since self-government in 1989.

It will be the fifth ACT election conducted using the Hare-Clark electoral system, a semi-proportional electoral system that is also used for Tasmanian House of Assembly elections.

At the 2004 election, the Stanhope Labor government became the first ACT administration to be elected with a majority, winning nine of the 17 seats in the Legislative Assembly. As a result, the Stanhope government is the first in the ACT’s history to be able to pass legislation without having to compromise on amendments put up by the Opposition or the Assembly cross-benchers.

One bill where this will be important is the Electoral Legislation Amendment Bill, introduced in August 2007. This bill, soon to be debated in the Assembly, includes a provision to change the way non-party candidates appear on the ballot paper. If passed it will become harder for Independents to be elected to the ACT Legislative Assembly.

The Hare-Clark electoral system has many similarities to the Senate, the main difference being a ballot paper that is designed to weaken the power of parties to determine who is elected. Like the Senate, candidates appear on the ballot paper grouped in columns, but there is no group ticket or ‘above the line’ voting. A special printing process is also used to vary the order candidates appear within groups on each ballot paper. This removes the advantage of appearing first on a party ticket by spreading straight party votes across all candidates in a group. The ACT also bars the distribution of how-to-vote material outside polling places, another measure that weakens a party’s ability to determine which of its candidates are elected.

Like every other state and territory, the ACT has a system of registered parties, registration requiring a party to prove it has 100 members. There are currently five registered parties, the Labor Party, the Liberal Party, the ACT Greens, as well as two minor parties in the libertarian Liberal Democratic Party, and Free Range Canberra, a party that campaigns against battery hen farming. The Australian Democrats were de-registered in September 2007, and new parties have until 30 June this year to lodge a registration for the 2008 election.

Registered parties establish their support in the electorate by proving their membership, and are granted the right to put forward the names of candidates without the need for nominators. Independents must lodge their nomination with the names of 20 nominators. Once nominated, two or more candidates are currently allowed to inform the Electoral Commissioner that they wish to be grouped on the ballot.

The proposed changes remove the provision that allows Independents to be grouped on the ballot paper. The Stanhope government attempted to make the same change in 2003, but then lacking an Assembly majority, it was blocked by the opposition and minor parties.

A similar provision was implemented in the Tasmanian Electoral Act before the 2006 Tasmanian election. However, the Tasmanian change was more democratic than the ACT proposal, as it simply applied a tougher test for grouping rather than totally remove the right.

Like the ACT, the Tasmanian Electoral Act requires parties to have 100 members for registration. Only 10 nominators are required for an Independent to nominate, and any Independent putting themselves forward with only 10 nominators will appear in the ungrouped column.

However, one or more Tasmanian Independents can have access to their own column on the ballot paper by applying for grouping, backed by 100 nominators. In effect an Independent, or group of Independents, can have their own group by proving a level of nomination support equal to the membership support required to register a political party.

This is where the proposed ACT electoral changes will disadvantage Independents. Unless Independents lodge a registration for political party status by 30 June this year, they will be forced to appear in the ungrouped column of the ballot paper with all other Independents.

Election from the Ungrouped column is possible, as was shown by Paul Osborne’s election at the 1995 ACT election. (How-to-vote material was still allowed in 1995.) The last occasion in Tasmania where an ungrouped candidate was elected was in 1959, and I am not aware of an Ungrouped candidate ever being elected to the Senate or to any state Legislative Council.

For Independents to receive the same rights as parties in accessing their own group, it seems appropriate that a higher test of support be applied, as is done in Tasmania. Simply grouping all Independents together, whatever their political persuasion or level of support, is unfair to Independents, but above all, deprives voters of ballot paper prompts on like-minded Independent candidates.

The approach adopted by the Stanhope government appears to be an attempt to make it harder for Independents to be elected. A fairer approach would be that adopted by Tasmania, setting a higher hurdle rather than banning like-minded Independents from appearing together on the ballot paper.

2 thoughts on “Obstacles in the way of Independents at the ACT Election”

  1. Hey Antony,

    Bit of a misplaced question, but this seemed a vaguely apt place to put it.

    I’m trying to see if the TEC has a results feed similar to the XML feed of the AEC. I called the Tasmanian Commission to see if they know if it exists, given that it’s not on the website. I presumed it would be close to the other states where there is some level of communication needed, yet they said that it doesn’t exist. Do you know where I should look/ if it exist? I hope it isn’t that you need to be in the tally room.

    Thanks, Greg

    COMMENT: They publish several XML files which provide different bits of the results rather than a single file. There will be no files until after the close of nominations next week.

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