Australia,
Ireland and Malta have something in common. In all three countries
voters are handed a ballot paper and invited to rank candidates in
order of preference. But there is a difference between Ireland and
Malta on the one hand, and Australia on the other.

In Ireland
and Malta the directions on the ballot paper read: “Place the number
‘1’ in the square opposite the name of the candidate for whom you
desire to give your first preference vote. You may, if you wish, vote
for additional candidates by placing consecutive numbers beginning with
the number ‘2’ in the squares opposite the names of those additional
candidates in order of your preference for them”.

As a result of
recent changes introduced by Labor those instructions now apply also at
elections for the Legislative Assembly in NSW and Queensland. It is
called “optional preferential”.

The
system of optional preferential voting is based on the idea of choice.
Its purpose is to enable a vote to be transferred from a losing
candidate to a candidate still in the count – provided the voter wishes
the transfer to take place.

The system federally (applying also
in Victoria, South Australia, Western Australia and the Northern
Territory) is based on a different idea – anti-choice designed to suit
the interests of party machines. Thus voters at the March 2005 Werriwa
by-election were handed a ballot paper with the directions “Number the
boxes from 1 to 16 in the order of your choice”. At the bottom of the
ballot paper it reads “Remember… number EVERY box to make your vote
count”.

The federal system began in December 1918 with the
Corangamite by-election and has continued ever since. Its purpose then
and ever since has been to enable competition between two candidates
from conservative parties without giving the seat to Labor as a
consequence of a split vote.

The system has been wonderful for
the conservative parties. As two parties they can beat Labor better
than if there were a single party.
They know it only too well.
Furthermore they are quite right when they say that the 2004 Queensland
Senate result (which gave the Coalition Senate control) would not have
given that result absent the fact that the Liberals and Nationals were
competing with each other as well as competing with Labor.

Having
reaped the benefits of this anti-choice system these parties were
forced to face up to new realities at elections for each of the NSW and
Queensland Legislative Assembly.

No problem arose in NSW. In that state the Nationals have always accepted that they are the junior party to the Liberals.
Consequently
each party fields one candidate in each seat and they divide the seats
between them by mutual agreement. Nowhere do you get competition
between Liberal and National.

There is a simple reason why
politicians in the Queensland state Nationals are willing to allow
their party to be swallowed up by the Liberal Party. They want office.
Lawrence Springborg wants to be Premier. The proposed merger of the
Queensland Liberals and Nationals into a single new conservative party
(to be known as the “Pineapple Party”) is a mad idea in every respect.
So, what motivates its supporters?

At the moment there are 16
Nationals and seven Liberals in the Legislative Assembly, making a
total of 23. To form government, however, they need 45 seats. The local
experts calculate that once such a number is reached the Liberal Party
will be bigger than the Nationals.

For that reason it has not
been possible to reach agreement on which seats each party is to
contest. That is where the Queensland situation differs so markedly
from NSW. Essentially Springborg’s fear of being out-competed by the
Liberals is behind this. He would prefer the National Party to be
swallowed up by the Liberal Party than lose face in such a way.

Anyway
the merger will not come off. There are too many members of both
parties looking beyond the parish. Meanwhile Labor is having a ball.
Furthermore interstate Liberals like Michael Kroger and Julian McGauran
are also laughing. For if the Queensland Nationals were foolish enough
to wish to be swallowed up what would be left of the Nationals in the
other states?

Peter Fray

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