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Jan 10, 2013

Libs will face off with Nats over optional preferential voting

Some Liberals may want optional preferential voting to freeze out Labor and the Greens, but history shows the National Party will again stand in the way. It can't do without it.

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You can tell it’s the silly season when Bronwyn Bishop is in the headlines. But if you can get past that, it’s worth having a read of the story on the Libs in The Australian by my friend and former colleague Christian Kerr on optional preferential voting.

The theme is that “senior Liberals” (of whom only Bishop is named) are keen to move to optional preferences at the federal level if the Coalition wins this year’s election. It’s not seriously disputed that such a move, at least in the short term, would work in the Coalition’s favour, since the most significant preference flow these days is from the Greens to Labor.

Kerr gives some of the historical background; for a fuller discussion read what I wrote a couple of years ago on the subject. Antony Green also goes into it regularly — there was a typically sensible piece by him from 2011 — and Peter Brent today adds some further thoughts.

The key point, it seems to me, is that “political parties are captive to their histories”. For the last 30 years, preferences have helped the ALP more than they’ve hurt it; there’s barely a Liberal MP still serving who was around when their party received a net gain from compulsory preferences. Yet optional preferential voting was still branded as a Labor trick, and despite ample opportunity no Coalition government, state or federal, ever made the move.

If Kerr is right, that may now be changing. But it will encounter a good deal of institutional resistance.

The most serious problem, which every discussion of the subject comes back to, is the Liberals’ relationship with the National Party. As I put it in 2010, change “puts a loaded gun in the hands of a recalcitrant Coalition partner”. While under compulsory preferences the Coalition parties can contest each other’s seats with relative impunity (indeed that’s basically why they were introduced in the first place), optional preferences make any such contest a risky exercise.

“Opponents of change within the Coalition can also point out, quite rightly, that the longer term effects would be uncertain.”

Moreover, the more well-entrenched optional preferences become, the more serious that problem is; voters get used to just putting a “1” on their ballot paper and it takes more and more of an effort to get them to allocate preferences. State elections in New South Wales, which has the longest experience with optional preferences, illustrate the point: it’s almost unheard of for a party that trails on primaries to win a seat (the Greens managed it last time in Balmain, but only just).

So the National Party, insecure now even in its heartland seats, will take a lot of persuading. It’s not surprising to find Barnaby Joyce defending compulsory preferences, particularly with Bob Katter’s outfit now snapping at his right flank.

Opponents of change within the Coalition can also point out, quite rightly, that the longer term effects would be uncertain. Electoral systems change electoral behaviour; you can’t just look at the voting figures under one system and assume they would hold under a different system. A shift to optional preferences might, for example, be just the thing to push Labor and the Greens to closer co-operation in an effort to avoid wasting votes — presumably not the result an Abbott government would want.

That in turn raises the question of whether, if the Coalition did push for change, the Greens might be willing to provide the necessary votes to get it through the Senate. For them it would offer risks as well as opportunity — a wider set of options in allocating preferences might give them more leverage in negotiations. They might even be able to extract some sort of quid pro quo from the Coalition, such as the abolition of ticket preferencing in the Senate.

If there’s a constant theme in the history of electoral law in Australia (and most other countries as well), it’s that change is driven by perceived political interest, not by principle. Shifts to more democratic outcomes happen when a major party thinks that they will work to its advantage – as, for example, with the introduction of PR for the Senate by the Chifley government.

It’s just possible that this might be one of those cases. Whatever the politics of it, it’s hard to see any reason in principle why people should have to express preferences that they don’t hold.

Charles Richardson — Editor of The World is not Enough

Charles Richardson

Editor of The World is not Enough

Charles Richardson has contributed to Crikey since 2002, and was a ministerial adviser in the Kennett government and a former editorial manager at the Centre for Independent Studies in Sydney.

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23 thoughts on “Libs will face off with Nats over optional preferential voting

  1. Edward James

    Hugh (Charlie) McColl @6 and Antony GREEN @20. HCM I would be one of the voters who is almost always confused. I have in the past sort advice from the polling boot officer at the pre poling booth,to check what I advise in not directing my readers toward wasting their vote. Before I published information on how voters may exercise their own vote by directing their own preferences. Chopping away at the preference deals the two parties not much preferred. AG. In the Bradfield by-election, there were 22 candidates, including 9 Christian Democrats. You are asking an awful lot of a voter to develop a reasoned ordering of those 22 candidates. Four or five maybe, after that it is just random numbers. As you point out to crikey readers it is asking lot of politically naive voters like myself to develop a reasoned ordering of all 22 candidates. And on a table cloth with around eighty candidates well nigh impossible. Some of my readers would ask me who I am voting for and for a long time I would tell them that is really up to you. The value you put on your vote is the value you put on yourself and your community. I think and also tell others who are interested Anthony Green is in my opinion the go to person if you are seeking to understanding something of the complicated voting process. So AG here is a question. I have for some years advised people to exercise their own vote by directing their own preferences. In the last Gosford City Council election, NSW State election and now the coming Federal election I have explained to those who asked, the Liberal National party is the best tool to use if they want to sweep Labor from power . But if they make an extra effort numbering all the boxes making sure to put Labor and any Labor supporters last on any ballot paper. These voters can help make sure only a very few Labor candidates are sitting on the opposition benches after the election. I believe in your example of 22 in sequence preferences the over all order among 77 thousand ballot papers may almost appear random. But wouldn’t the important first preference, the candidate the voter really likes numbered 1 and the most disliked for me that would be Labor 22 with the intervening boxes completing the sequence no number repeated. “Under compulsory preferential voting, you had to preference every candidate to have your vote count. (Technically, you only had to number 1 to 21, but I digress.)” It is very unlikely that many voters will have reason to preference more than say five candidates in order before the numbering process becomes a blur, I understand that it happens to me. But for years I have argued if we do not want a politician in power why would we let them stay in parliament on the opposition bench at all? Why not exercise own own vote to put the most disliked politician last the count for in between would remain exactly that. But voters could have a bigger say in who leaves parliament altogether by putting them last on our ballot. First would get in and last would get out.
    Perhaps Mr Green could you please point out if my thinking about exercising our votes to good effect is wrong. Because as you can read, I am not confident and I am certainly not alone. Edward James

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