Speaker, voting and simple mathematics

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The possibilities for the Speaker in the House of Representatives are raising a lot of press. There are claims of deals, payback and ‘crab walking away‘. But a bit of simple maths sheds a fair bit of light on the issue.

The numbers in the House of Representatives are 76 to Labor and 74 to the Coalition. But, if, as a starting point, we put the Greens and Wilke firmly with Labor and Katter firmly with the Coalition, we have 74 for each side. The two conservative independents, Oakeshott and Windsor, have supported a Labor government. However, of the Labor supporters, they are the most likely to ‘swing’ in their votes.

Now, someone needs to be Speaker of the House. The Speaker does not have a deliberative vote but does have a casting vote if there is a tie. So who wants whom for Speaker?

Let’s start with Labor. It clearly doesn’t want to have the Speaker. If it does have the Speaker then on any issue it has 73 votes as a starting point to the Coalition’s 74. Labor needs both independents to vote on its side while the Coalition only needs one of Oakeshott and Windsor to beat any motion. This situation is good for the Coalition and not great for Oakeshott and Windsor – they can be split and the Coalition will try and pick them off individually on any vote. So it doesn’t maximize their bargaining power.

Would the Coalition want the Speaker’s job? Not really. This just reverses the above as the Coalition has 73 votes to the Government’s 74 with the two independents. The Government only has to get one of Oakeshott and Windsor to ensure a motion passing. Again, this doesn’t maximize the independents’ bargaining power.

What about if one of the independents – say Oakeshott – became speaker? This gives Labor and the Coalition 74 each with Windsor deciding any vote. This is great for Windsor – but terrible for Oakeshott (in terms of ability to influence legislation).The Labor government probably wouldn’t like this as they would be beholden to Windsor for all legislation. However, it is better for Labor than having the Speaker coming from their own ranks. While giving Windsor a lot of power, the Coalition would probably prefer this to putting up their own Speaker but would like to pressure the Government to provide the Speaker.

So in terms of preference ordering (using > to mean ‘preferred to’) we have for Labor:

Coalition Speaker > Independent > Labor Speaker.

For the Coalition we have:

Labor Speaker > Independent > Coalition Speaker.

For each of Oakeshott and Windsor we have:

Other independent as Speaker > Labor or Coalition Speaker > Being Speaker themself.

In such a situation, having one of the independents as a Speaker, while putting a large amount of power in the hands of the other independent, may be a reasonable compromise outcome for the major parties – but terrible for the independent who became Speaker.

Now, let’s add the ‘reform’ complication. Let’s suppose that the Speaker is ‘paired’ with someone who is on the opposite side of a vote, and neither vote unless there is a tie. If there is a tie, the Speaker gets to vote and decide. This rule makes a big difference. To see this, start again with Labor.

With a Labor Speaker and pairing, the numbers are 73 for Labor and 73 for the Coalition. Labor needs one independent only to ensure a tie or a win. But if there is a tie, it wins because the Speaker gets a casting vote under the constitution (the paired party is just a bunny left without a vote and looking a bit silly). So if there is a Labor Speaker and pairing, Labor only needs one independent to win. In contrast, the Coalition need both independents to block legislation as it cannot win on a tie. So this outcome is good for Labor and only mediocre for the independents (as they can be played off against each other as Labor only needs one of them).

The reverse holds with a Coalition Speaker and pairing.

What about if Oakeshott was Speaker with pairing. Suppose Oakeshot would have supported the Government on the vote. Then a Coalition member is paired and doesn’t vote. The score is Labor 74, Coalition 73 and Windsor. Even if the Coalition get Windsor on side, it becomes a tie and Oakeshott then votes – so Labor would win.

Suppose Oakeshott would have supported the Coalition. Then a Labor member would be paired and the numbers would be 73 for Labor, 74 for the Coalition and Windsor. Again, Windsor is irrelevant because at best he can force a tie and then Oakeshott decides.

So if Oakeshott is Speaker with pairing then Oakeshott holds the complete decision making power of the lower house. His vote is all that matters. He will be extremely powerful and the other independent (Windsor) will be irrelevant.

So with pairing, each of the major parties would want to have the Speaker. If  a conservative independent gets the Speaker role then that independent essentially controls the House of Representatives and disenfranchises the other conservative independent. This is the opposite of the case without pairing (where the control rested with the conservative independent who was not Speaker).

Now before anyone points out the obvious – yes, Wilke and the Greens may not always side with Labor and Katter may not always vote with the Coalition. But as a starting point the above analysis suggests three key points:

  1. Without pairing, no-one wants to be Speaker. An independent who took the job would have no say in legislation and this would just hand control of the Lower House over to the other conservative independent. One of the major parties will probably take the Speaker role on, but both will want the other side to take the job.
  2. With pairing, the Speaker role is a bit like a ‘double vote’. Both labor and the Coalition will want the Speaker role.
  3. With pairing, if a conservative independent gets the Speaker role then that individual controls the outcome for all legislation while the other conservative independent loses all power.

Given this, it is little wonder that the Coalition are stalling on pairing and pushing for a Labor Speaker. It is unsurprising that Oakeshott wanted the job with pairing but walked away when the possibility of pairing looked lost. It is also obvious that Labor would like pairing – and the Speaker role which it could claim once pairing was agreed to. The only odd thing – why did Windsor want pairing with Oakeshott as Speaker?

8 Responses to "Speaker, voting and simple mathematics"
  1. You are assuming the paired party is a “bunny” where there is a casting vote.  Is this correct?  Isn’t the point of pairing that it only applies when one or other of the pair is unable to vote?

  2. This analysis is fine as far it goes, but there are other considerations. The party that provides the speaker controls the proceedings of the House. This is a huge advantage. And for the independents, the speaker’s job comes with a big pay increase, prestige and a lot of first class travel.joi

  3. Some one please explain how pairing an independent works. the independents have only committed to support the govt on matters of confidence and supply.
    I am not sure that being speaker can be said to give up the right to vote. A vote is only of value when it is the casting vote. and that is precisely when speaker gets to vote. In other cases it is a phyrric loss in any case.

  4. “A vote is only of value when it is the casting vote. and that is precisely when speaker gets to vote.”
    Not true.  A deliberative vote has the ability to bring a decision into a tie.  A casting vote can’t do this.
    A Speaker with both a pseudo-deliberative vote (with pairing) and a casting vote have effectively two votes in some circumstances.

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