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Legislative Council power balance

The govenor's chair in the legislative council chamber (Source: Wikimedia)


Last month’s state election handed another term to the Coalition but the results for the upper house of NSW, the Legislative Council, are still rolling in and the crossbench is growing.

The NSW Legislative Council is elected by a proportional representation system which treats the whole state as one single electorate. This means that the quota for election is small.

The 42 members of the Legislative Council are elected on a two-term basis, with 21 seats being voted in at each election. The 21 seats which didn’t go to election this term include nine Coalition seats, seven Labor, two Greens and one each of Shooters and Fishers, Christian Democrats and Animal Justice Party.

21 seats up for grabs

Of the 21 seats which went to election, seven have so far gone to the Coalition, six to Labor (with one more being a likely win for them), two to the Greens and one to One Nation. The Shooters Fishers and Farmers are likely to pick up a seat as well.

It may still be another week before the results of the three seats in doubt are finalised. With 20 per cent of the vote counted, the three seats up for grabs look likely to go to three of the following parties: Keep Sydney Open, Liberal Democrats, Christian Democrats or Animal Justice Party.

This would leave the Legislative Council with almost a third of its members sitting in the crossbench.

Despite voters making a strong showing for minor parties in the upper house, there have been criticisms over how vote counting for the Legislative Council is being handled by the NSW Electoral Commission (NSWEC).

Independent candidates and spokespeople for the minor parties, including the Small Business Party and Keep Sydney Open, expressed concerns over delays in reporting numbers of votes for minor parties.

In pre-election briefings, minor parties and independents were told that votes being directed their way would be put in piles classified as “other” on the Saturday night of the election, and then counted and reported on from Sunday morning.

However, the announcement of the results was delayed to Wednesday morning

“This unprecedented delay is discriminatory and treats minor parties and their supporters with contempt,” the representatives of the minor parties said in a joint statement.

“Our hard-working candidates and supporters deserve to see the results.”

The NSEC said that the long hours it would take to classify and count these votes would pose an occupational health and safety risk to its workers. But minor party representatives believe that this excuse is not good enough.

“If the concern about overworking employees is genuine, the NSWEC could have organised shifts,” the statement said.

The NSW Electoral Commissioner John Schmidt met with the representatives of minor parties last Wednesday to discuss their concerns. After listening, he agreed that the Legislative Council counting process would be reviewed in consultation with political parties before the next state election.

But he says he “makes no apologies” for his decision to delay the count.

“I make no apologies for doing everything I can to provide these staff with a safe working environment, which includes safe working hours on election day,” Mr Schmidt said in a statement.

Mr Schmidt says that parties need to remember that the vast majority of NSWEC election officials involved in the first preference count are members of the general public hired temporarily for the election period.

He also noted that allocating additional resources in an attempt to speed up the planned process would lead to “disruption and confusion in count centres” which may have resulted in a delay in determining the election result.

While preference counts play a marked role in who will pick up the seats, there have only been two instances where a candidate was on track to get a seat but lost out after preferences were counted. Pauline Hanson (2015) and Peter Jones (2015) both had very small margins in first preference votes but lost out after preferences.

Why no electronic voting?

The delays in counting the upper house votes have led to some questioning why Australia has not yet moved to an electronic voting system. Computer-based voting would mean preferences could be counted immediately.

Paul Kwan, Associate Professor in Computational Sciences at the University of New England, told that he just doesn’t think the transition is a priority for politicians.

“Compared to the economy, national security issues, climate – those may be the top priorities on their agenda and it’s possibly not until the day of the election, when people start to think about whether it would be good to have an e-voting system, that it’s even considered,” he said.

With a larger crossbench and some seats still in doubt, the balance of power in the upper house teeters on a knife edge.







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