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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.

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.

23
  • 1
    Edward James
    Posted Thursday, 10 January 2013 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

    I am surprised more voters do not make an effort to exercise their vote below the line. For example if everyone who is entitled to vote, exercises their vote below the line. Giving their favored candidate number one and continuing. They can by pass party political deals. Doing that and putting Labor and any Labor supporters last will help push Labor dead wood not just out of government. But right out of Parliament into the street where they can earn their living instead of resting at our expense on the opposition benches. Edward James

  • 2
    Charles Richardson
    Posted Thursday, 10 January 2013 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

    @Edward - agreed, but it’s not the easiest thing to fill out numbers from one to fifty-something without a mistake, so you can understand why most people don’t do it. If a proposal for optional preferential voting ever makes it to the table, it will be interesting to see if it covers the Senate as well.

  • 3
    Holden Back
    Posted Thursday, 10 January 2013 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

    Bronwyn Bishop had a shallow self-interested idea? Surely not!

  • 4
    Ian
    Posted Thursday, 10 January 2013 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

    Charles I agree with you when you say: - “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.”

    I am sick of having to decide which of the two major parties represents the lesser evil. For me its a question of who do I put last when I vote since I think Labor, Liberals and Nationals are all just about as bad as each other.

  • 5
    geomac62
    Posted Thursday, 10 January 2013 at 4:21 pm | Permalink

    If it would mean voting a first preference only or just first and second while ignoring the rest I might favour it . I dont mind voting the present way for the lower house but the senate takes a while . Mind you placing Fielding last gave some consolation for numbering over 50 candidates .

  • 6
    Hugh (Charlie) McColl
    Posted Thursday, 10 January 2013 at 4:27 pm | Permalink

    EJ, you continue to confuse the issue for so many voters by referring to ‘below-the-line’ voting when this story is about optional preferential voting in the Commonwealth House of Representatives - where the ballot paper has never had a ‘line’ like a Senate ballot paper. The difference is important because it is quite clear that many voters do not have the faintest idea about ballot papers and preferential voting.
    In fact the effect of “just vote one” (one party above the line in the Senate) is the complete opposite of ‘just one vote’ in optional preferential voting. I think OP is an excellent idea, regardless of which party introduces it. It works well in Queensland (where there isn’t an upper house anyway) and clearly has not advantaged any party to stay in power.

  • 7
    Edward James
    Posted Thursday, 10 January 2013 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

    I was never interested in voting or politics. Until one night about ten years ago while trying to get some sleep in the back of a ute outside NSW State Parliament I realised I understood exactly what a hypocrite was! It was me standing outside the oldest parliament in this country screaming about my democratic rights, never having voted. As Hugh and Charles point out between them it is not a simple thing to effectively exercise ones vote, I make no claim to being expert. Part of the problem for us all I think is there are very few individual politicians out there who we all could identify as statesmanlike. That is why I refer to Coalition and Labor as the “two parties not much preferred”. Yes it is easy for most voters to just follow the how to vote card. Which feeds the preference deals the two parties not much preferred do the “get in” When elected these parties appear to be taking turns in disrespecting their constituents once we have given them our votes in trust. Edward James

  • 8
    Philip Howell
    Posted Thursday, 10 January 2013 at 6:09 pm | Permalink

    Compulsory optional preferential is a better system. Compulsory because people have a duty to consider who should be elected; optional because that allows the maximum freedom consistent with the duty.
    But it was really this comment which caught my eye: “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”.
    Apply that to constitutional change. The last change, in 1977 re casual senate vacancies, came about because the Liberals wanted to prevent Labor doing to it what it had done to them. Now the Liberals have to worry about Labor & the Greens using 1975-style tactics in the Senate after the next election. They don’t realise it yet, but they have a real interest in backing the Advancing Democracy model to change the Constitution.

  • 9
    geomac62
    Posted Thursday, 10 January 2013 at 6:26 pm | Permalink

    Philip Howell
    Agree with your comment . As an aside its funny how the flag wavers , soldiers died fighting for our rights etc seem to think compulsory voting is undemocratic . Whats so onerous about voting every few years ? Its not only a right but a duty and I don,t mean the small fine . Use it or lose it they say for a healthy body , same applies to the vote .

  • 10
    geomac62
    Posted Thursday, 10 January 2013 at 6:27 pm | Permalink

    Philip Howell
    Agree with your comment . As an aside its funny how the flag wavers , soldiers died fighting for our rights etc seem to think compulsory voting is undemocratic . Whats so onerous about voting every few years ? Its not only a right but a duty and I don,t mean the small fine . Use it or lose it they say for a healthy body , same thing for the vote .

  • 11
    geomac62
    Posted Thursday, 10 January 2013 at 6:28 pm | Permalink

    Must learn not to use the plural of apply

  • 12
    Malcolm Street
    Posted Thursday, 10 January 2013 at 6:58 pm | Permalink

    Geomac - it’s only compulsory to collect and deposit a form and do something with it in the polling booth in the meantime. No problem deliberately voting informal including leaving it blank.

    Does anyone know whether it’s legal to make a postal vote informal? If that’s the case you don’t even have to turn up to the polling place.

  • 13
    geomac62
    Posted Thursday, 10 January 2013 at 7:05 pm | Permalink

    Malcolm
    Interesting question . I,m assuming you mean a deliberate informal vote such as defacing the ballot paper in some way . I postal vote and as I recall I need to get the signature of another eligible voter to witness my vote at least for federal elections .

  • 14
    Xoanon
    Posted Thursday, 10 January 2013 at 8:34 pm | Permalink

    … it’s hard to see any reason in principle why people should have to express preferences that they don’t hold.”

    This is twisting it around the wrong way. The reason compulsory preferential is essential is that the alternative - basically first past the post - is so awful, often and easily delivering members who don’t by any stretch of the imagination represent the political views of a majority of voters in their seats.

    When you’re asked to register 2nd, 3rd, 4th preferences etc, you’re not being asked “Do you like these guys?”, which is how people always misrepresent it. Instead you’re being asked “If your favourite candidate doesn’t get in, who’s the next best?”. That shouldn’t be so difficult to answer, in order to help select the most preferred candidate across the seat.

  • 15
    Stefan Landherr
    Posted Thursday, 10 January 2013 at 10:32 pm | Permalink

    Do those who advocate optional preferential voting understand that if their preferences are “exhausted” (i.e. none of their preferred candidates is elected) then their vote will have no further influence upon the result of the election. It will be as if they had not voted.

  • 16
    Hugh (Charlie) McColl
    Posted Thursday, 10 January 2013 at 11:34 pm | Permalink

    Stefan, you refer to two different groups - those who advocate and those who fill out the ballot paper with only one vote. They are different groups. And many people choose to vote for more than one candidate (you can vote for as many or few as you wish, it is your choice alone). Which is great because you might be happy to vote for all the candidates on the ballot paper bar one - and with OP you are not obliged to number EVERY square. This way, you decide when your preferences will exhaust.

  • 17
    GF50
    Posted Friday, 11 January 2013 at 12:08 am | Permalink

    Edward James, your first comment, OK, until the point gave the ALP a spray, then we get the point, “your” preference

  • 18
    Edward James
    Posted Friday, 11 January 2013 at 1:02 am | Permalink

    GF50 I do not understand why disenfranchised voters would stop short at voting the Labor government out of power and into opposition? When with some extra effort we can use our ballot papers to keep many of them right out of our Federal Parliament. Edward James

  • 19
    Charles Richardson
    Posted Friday, 11 January 2013 at 9:23 pm | Permalink

    Xoanon and Stefan - in Peter Brent’s post (which I linked to in the third paragraph) he suggests that if we move to optional preferential the AEC should still advertise to encourage people to fill in every square. I think that’s a good idea; we should try to get the message across that people maximise their influence by numbering more candidates rather than fewer. (This of course is part of a general problem of very poor education about voting, which I attribute in part to compulsory voting.) But if people really don’t have a preference - if they’re indifferent between two or more candidates - then I don’t think they should be forced to express one.

  • 20
    Posted Saturday, 12 January 2013 at 11:18 pm | Permalink

    In the Bradfield by-election, there were 22 candidates, including 9 Christian Democrats. You are asking an awful lot of a voter to developed a reasoned ordering of those 22 candidates. Four or five maybe, after that it is just random numbers.

    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.)

    The electoral commission checked all 77,000 ballot papers to verify that each had a complete sequence of 22 preferences. The Liberal candidate had 56% of the vote so not one preference was actually ever required to determine the winner.

    Our problem is that the formality rules are all written to determine what can’t count rather than what can count. I’ve estimated that if all informal ballot papers with a valid ‘1’ were admitted to the count, and ballot papers only rejected as informal if the preferences needed to be examined, then roughly 90% of these votes would remain in the count.

  • 21
    Edward James
    Posted Sunday, 13 January 2013 at 6:50 am | Permalink

    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

  • 22
    Posted Sunday, 13 January 2013 at 8:58 am | Permalink

    But why do they have to fill in all those preferences? In single member electorates, if you vote Labor or Liberal, it is highly unlikely that any preference other than your first preference will ever be used. But, if you make any error in the other 21 preferences, your vote for the Liberal would be informal. It is what wrong with the rigid insistence that every preference be correct. It rejects votes that are perfectly capable of being counted. With optional preferential voting, your first preference could not be invalidated by errors on your ballot paper. You would still be permitted to fill in as many preferences as you like.

    My advice under optional preferential voting is people should put their most preferred candidate or party first, followed by other candidates they know of in order. I don’t believe in random numbering beyond that with a least preferred party last, as you don’t know who those other people are. But compulsory preferences requires random numbering to make the vote formal.

  • 23
    Edward James
    Posted Sunday, 13 January 2013 at 9:09 am | Permalink

    Thank you Anthony Green. My perception is the way we are permitted to exercise our votes, encourages perhaps most of us to simply take a how to vote card and vote the “party line” and forget about it till next time. A single way of voting nationally Federal State and Local would be a start. Cheers Edward James

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