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A Liberal by any other name: party titles and ballot trickery

Is it possible to prevent future election catastrophes like last year’s Senate vote? The Abbott government is working hard to make it so.

As we wait to hear whether Western Australia will return to the polls this year for a fresh Senate election, the Abbott government is looking at ways of stopping some of last year’s unusual Senate results from happening again. Yesterday, Fairfax papers reported the government wants “the names ‘Liberal’ and ‘Labor’ [to] be quarantined for use only by the major political parties … to prevent micro parties capitalising on voter confusion”.

This has been a Liberal Party objective for a while, dating back to the era of Liberals for Forests a decade ago. That party started out as a WA environmentalist group, but in the eastern states it morphed into a preference-harvesting vehicle masterminded by Glenn Druery, who came close to winning a Senate seat in New South Wales in 2004.

The Howard government attempted to deal with this unwanted competition by changing the Electoral Act. For a time this worked: Liberals for Forests disappeared, and when the Liberal Democratic Party sought federal registration it did so under the name “Liberty and Democracy Party”, keeping the same initials but avoiding any charge of being misleading.

But in 2009 the Administrative Appeals Tribunal construed the new requirement narrowly, and the LDP was able to convince the Australian Electoral Commission to let it use its original name. Under that name, it won a Senate seat for NSW last year with 9.5% of the vote.

The LDP, of course, would like you to believe that this was a result of genuine voter sentiment flowing its way. In reality, there’s no doubt the greater part of its vote represented people who were trying to vote for the Coalition but, confused by the absurdly long ballot paper, seized instead on the LDP — which was conveniently located in the first column.

Anyone who disputes that conclusion should first study the figures presented yesterday by Antony Green on the matter. As Green points out, it’s also true that even with a much lower vote the LDP might still have won a seat due to Druery’s complex preference deals.

The ALP has a similar problem with the Democratic Labour Party (as it now calls itself — the “u” was added just last year), which won a Senate seat in Victoria in 2010 and a Legislative Council seat in 2006. Its vote is very clearly sensitive to whether or not it appears ahead of the ALP on the ballot paper, suggesting that its victories have also been the result of voter confusion.

So this looks like a win-win proposition for the major parties. Introduce legislative reform to reserve the words “Liberal” and “Labo(u)r” for themselves. Labor’s votes will guarantee passage through the Senate, and pesky competitors on both sides will be disposed of.

The objections, of course, are predictable: not just from the LDP and the DLP, but from minor parties in general, which see a dangerous precedent in the major parties voting themselves into such a privileged position.

Why, the LDP will ask, should the Liberal Party get sole rights to the word “liberal”, since its claim to be a liberal party is weak and diminishing? (It is not, for example, a member of Liberal International, the world organisation of such parties, but of its conservative rival, the International Democrat Union.) The DLP would make similar claims about the ALP’s failings as a representative of labo(u)r.

Traditionally, Australia’s treatment of political parties and candidates has been very egalitarian. The requirements for nomination and for party registration are not onerous, and once nominated or registered everyone is treated equally, at least in theory. Ballot paper positions are allocated by random draw, and no special indication is given as to whether a party is a major national organisation or a hastily contrived front group.

It’s not the same everywhere. In many countries, ballot access is much more tightly controlled and considerable favouritism is shown to established parties. The downside is that challenging the incumbents can be much more difficult, but it must be admitted that there is a considerable upside in reducing the sources of voter confusion.

Before we turn our back on an Australian tradition, however, it’s worth looking again at the source of last year’s problems. Why do our ballot papers get so complex? Why is it in someone’s interest to manufacture a host of fly-by-night Senate tickets that make the voter’s task so difficult?

The answer isn’t hard to find. Our system of automatic ticket preferencing means that very small parcels of votes can be accumulated in such a way as to eventually deliver a seat to an unknown candidate. If preferences were confined to those that the voter actually expressed, it would be impossible for a group with only a couple of percent support to get elected, so most such groups would not bother standing.

In other words, although LDP senator-elect David Leyonhjelm had almost 10% of the primary vote, his case is more similar than it might seem to that of the Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party, which elected a senator in Victoria with just 0.5%.

In both cases, automatic ticket preferencing is the problem. Turning Senate elections into a lottery induces more and more people to try their luck. Without those extra candidates, the ballot paper would have been comprehensible, voters would have been able to find what they were looking for, and the similarity of names would not have been a problem.

Leyonhjelm himself would probably still have stood — the LDP, unlike most of those on the ballot paper, is a “real” political party — but he would no longer have had such a powerful ally in voter confusion.

All the signs are that the government plans to do something to reform the system of automatic ticket preferencing in any case, although it’s not clear that it will go all the way (as in my view it should) and give full power to the voters, as with the method NSW uses for its Legislative Council. If it does, it’s likely to find the problem of similar names becomes much less of an issue.

That doesn’t mean it won’t still try to do over the LDP and the DLP. But it would lack the current justification for doing so.

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  • 1
    Ugliness
    Posted Tuesday, 4 February 2014 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

    I feel that Antony needs to change his name, else the Liberal party and News Corp might construe it as more left-wing bias at the ABC :-)

  • 2
    David Hand
    Posted Tuesday, 4 February 2014 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

    I am against the two major parties reserving their names. If someone who holds Liberal or Labor views stands on a different agenda, using the words “Liberal” and “Labo(u)r” helps identify their political leanings in broad terms.

    The real problem here is the absolutely stuffed electoral system for the senate. We have ended up with these obscure preference deals by accident. What is required is a new method. Preferential voting above the line for example would make everyone look at every party standing and would dramatically reduce the votes micro parties could trade.

  • 3
    Stefan Landherr
    Posted Tuesday, 4 February 2014 at 5:51 pm | Permalink

    If preferences were confined to those that the voter actually expressed …”
    Optional preferential voting is incompatible with the quota-based system used in Senate elections. What do you do with a vote that exhausts its expressed preferences without being used to elect anyone ? That vote was included in the initial count of formal votes that determined the quota, but is now no longer in the count. If you leave the quota unchanged throughout the count, then it is quite possible that the quota for the final vacancy cannot be filled. If you recalculate (i.e. reduce) the quota after each vacancy is filled, then that would be seen as grossly unfair to the candidates elected early on.
    There are ways to mitigate the risk of an unfillable vacancy (e.g. split an exhausted vote evenly among all remaining candidates), but these methods would be complicated and go against the strong desire of most voters to “not have my vote be used to elect someone I don’t want”.

  • 4
    Geoff Powell
    Posted Thursday, 6 February 2014 at 9:39 am | Permalink

    Stefan, OPV is fully compatible with the single transferable vote. The PR Society of Australia’s PR Manual specifies a valid vote as one which has an unambiguous first preference.

    http://electoralreformaustralia.org/ regards this as a civil rights issue and includes this quote:

    Enid Lakeman (1903-95)

    Director of the Electoral Reform Society (UK)

    There is, moreover, no need for the Tasmanian rule that a ballot paper, to be valid, must bear at least three [now five] preferences. The results of the elections could hardly have been different if no voter had gone beyond a second preference, and would have been broadly similar even if everyone had ‘plumped’ for his first preference only. Seeing that only a few voters are likely in fact to behave thus, there would be no justification for interfering with a citizen’s right to indicate that he considers only one candidate to be worth voting for.

  • 5
    Stefan Landherr
    Posted Thursday, 6 February 2014 at 4:44 pm | Permalink

    Geoff,

    (1) Does the quote from Enid Lakeman refer to multi-member quota-based electorates like our Senate or only to UK single-member electorates ?

    (2) I accept that, on current voting patterns, OPV would not affect Australian results significantly. But what guarantee do we have that under OPV, voting patterns would not change ?

    (3) Are you advocating OPV below-the-line in Senate elections ? If so, it will require the major parties to persuade their supporters to express below-the-line preferences for their entire slate of party candidates. What happens if huge numbers of voters express only a first preference for candidate #1 ? (I personally think that would be a hilarious outcome - and would put into perspective all the complaints about micro-parties getting elected). To avoid this nightmare scenario, I think the major parties would rather have OPV above the line as the main method.

  • 6
    Geoff Powell
    Posted Friday, 7 February 2014 at 8:46 am | Permalink

    Stefan,

    (1) 1 Enid Lakeman, How Democracies Vote (London, 4th ed., 1970) at 14.
    Miss Lakeman was commenting on early use of Hare Clark in Tasmania. See Electoral Reform Australia for comparison of HC in the ACT where only a first preference is needed. Some Tassie candidates campaign with “Give me number 2”

    (2) No guarantee. But provided voters are made aware that later preferences cannot harm the chances of their 1st preference, exhaustion will be a smaller problem than informality now.

    (3) Abolish Above the line voting , introduce Robson Rotation, let the voters “vote the team in order of your choice” by reducing use of (or banning) numbered How To Vote cards. If the liberals had done this in Tas at the last Seanate election. PUP would not have won! OPV above the line is probably unconstitutional and still disadvantages the ALP and Liberals.

  • 7
    Stefan Landherr
    Posted Friday, 7 February 2014 at 9:41 am | Permalink

    Geoff,

    (3a) How would OPV above the line disadvantage the ALP and Liberals ?
    (3b) I support Robson Rotation at all levels.
    (3c) Would each “team” be grouped together below the line (rotated internally) ?
    (3d) Since the Constitution doesn’t mention parties or “teams”, any electoral system that recognises parties or “teams” is already of dubious constitutionality -:).

  • 8
    Geoff Powell
    Posted Friday, 7 February 2014 at 8:23 pm | Permalink

    Stefan,

    (a) If OPV above the line retained the requirement that only a single order of preference for members of each party was assumed then parties gaining more than a quota are disadvantaged as they have been since 1949. Suppose ALP and Labor obtain about 2.4 quotas each. Four candidates are elected with surpluses and after transfers the third candidates are on about 0.4 quotas. After exclusions of micro parties, both these candidates are likely to be below the Greens who might have had 0.7 quotas of first preferences. Had the major parties spread their vote equally over all candidates there would be no surpluses and towards the end of the count the three most supported candidates from the majors would be on about 0.8 quotas each and hence beat the Green (and historically several Australian Democrats, Steve Fielding and PUP in Tasmania)

    (b)Premier Cosgrove said of Hare Clark, it saves the party from its pre-selection mistakes because each candidate had to earn their own quota. Robson Rotation helps even more.

    (c)I think the majors are giving the minors a free run by retaining “teams”, but I guess the fewer changes made the better. Grouping is certainly not needed for local government elections.

    (d)Agreed.

    http://www.aphref.aph.gov.au-house-committee-em-elect07-subs-sub096

  • 9
    Geoff Powell
    Posted Friday, 7 February 2014 at 8:24 pm | Permalink

    Try this instead: http://www.aph.gov.au/parliamentary_business/committees/house_of_representatives_committees?url=em/elect07/subs/sub096.pdf

  • 10
    Stefan Landherr
    Posted Friday, 7 February 2014 at 11:58 pm | Permalink

    Geoff,

    (a) Your claim that OPV above the line disadvantages the ALP and the Liberals is totally dependent upon the scenario of a “traditional” voting pattern for 6 Senate seats (2+ quotas each for the two major parties, 0.7 quota for the Greens and the remaining 1+ quotas spread amongst others all on less than the Greens).
    There are many other scenarios (e.g the SA Senate election in 2013).
    What if a major party gets only 2 quotas, then a 3-way split would put them all below the Greens ?
    What about a party with two candidates and 1.2 quotas ?
    What if most voters for the Greens and other minor parties give only a first preference ? Then their votes exhaust, and no-one has a quota and the election becomes effectively a “first-past-the-post”.

  • 11
    Geoff Powell
    Posted Saturday, 8 February 2014 at 5:56 pm | Permalink

    If a major party had only 2 quotas spread over three candidates, then the lowest would be excluded before the Green electing the other two. Same with a party with two candidates on about 0.6 quotas each. One of them would be elected.
    With Robson Rotation and major parties not regimenting the votes of their supporters, each team member could be sitting on about half a quota of first preferences. With no surpluses to distribute, the exclusion of micro party candidates would involve fewer papers and no fractional transfers. Reducing the quota on exhaustion would benefit all continuing candidates equally.
    If exceptional candidates are elected on first preferences, then a reiterative count would elect them on the reduced quota and release a bigger surplus to their running mates.
    ACT Hare Clark exhaustion rate with OPV is well discussed on the Electoral Reform Aust site above.
    “Data is available for the Legislative Assembly elections in the Australian Capital Territory, where voters are allowed to vote for only one candidate and still have their vote counted. Examining the votes of candidates who received over a quota on the first count provides information on how many voters chose this option.
    The overall rate is 0.55%. Under any form of compulsory preferencing, every one of these votes would have been informal. Under fully optional preferential voting, none of these votes exhausted. This 0.55% is a net gain in voter participation.”
    I cannot see why plumping would be 100 times this rate for Greens and micro party voters.

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