Passing the weekend at a 40th birthday in Little-Sodding-On-The-Wold, or somesuch, in Shropshire, we all arose Saturday mid-morning to start a chicken and champagne bash only to find that the birthday boy had polished off the champagne on an all-night bender, and the Wi-Fi didn’t work.
Luckily, the pub had it (though they call it “Magic Picture Wind”), thanks to the sort of rural subsidy that is being offered by Labor as part of the National Broadband Network that Julia might have mentioned, ooooh, two or three hundred times in the course of the final coupla days, so we huddled around the screen in the Saloon of the White Horse to watch the ABC’s pretty boring coverage.
“What’s happening?” said Mick the bartender, who more or less believes Australia to be another county, somewhere between Kent and Sussex perhaps.
“Labor seems to be winning,” we said, the WA results not yet coming in.
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“Gahh is it that … that woman. And Welsh! No thanks.”
Pretty soon, it came to look as if significant sections of Australia agreed with him, as Labor’s counter headed backwards and the Coalition’s steadily rose and overtook them. But it stopped short of a Coalition victory, and I began to wonder if this might not be the perfect result the one that throws everything into confusion.
That would now appear to have come to pass. So we have the possible result of a 73-73 tie, with the Coalition having the larger primary vote, and Labor having a slight edge in the two-party preferred, or even more interesting the Coalition leading 73-72, while Labor holds the edge in two-party preferred. The third result Labor 73, Coalition 72 might be the most interesting of all.
What all these votes have in common is that they surely must reveal how ridiculous this winner-takes-all system is. Should Labor win on the 2PP, but remain stuck on 72 seats, then we will have had our second minority vote government in 12 years and our third since 1984, when the system was allegedly redesigned to create as equal a vote as possible.
That would make one election in every three giving the wrong result. How can anyone defend this? It is approaching the 1 in 2 odds that would be generated by tossing a coin to choose each government. In which case we may as well admit that we have no interest in respecting the people’s will, and simply choose a three-year dictatorship without the expense of an election.
But, of course, even if the party with the larger 2PP wins, it has after all, only been by a whisker. Nevertheless, they would get the right to form a government advancing their policies to the degree that the Senate would allow them, and with total disregard for the de facto dead-heat that occurred.
This, among other things, is one of the problems with the exhaustive preferential system that we are indoctrinated from primary school onwards to believe is an electoral system handed down by God himself, written in dew on the petals of the first rose. In the vote it puts the emphasis on whom you would most like to keep out, and who you would find least objectionable of second choices. But in the final tally, it construes that negative set of choices, as positive ones. The party that wins the 2PP is the relatively less loathed. They are nevertheless treated as if they had won a majority in a first-past-the-post system, and represented some sort of clear majority or popular will. It’s bollocks.
But it’s bollocks on stilts for the Coalition to claim that a higher primary vote represents anything meaningful at all. The whole point of an exhaustive preferential system is that you can do more with your vote than voice support for the candidate you ultimately support; you can let it wander through people and parties whose visibility and figures you want to bump up.
To regard a final 2PP vote as lesser because it has a higher composition of 2nd, 3rd, etc, preferences than its opposition, is nonsense. Either an eight preference distributed has as much validity in every sense as a first preference, or we should return to FPTP for the lower house. It’s amazing that Labor isn’t arguing this more forcefully against the onslaught of Abbott’s rhetoric about the higher primary.
What about the argument that the three rural independents should go with the Coalition, because they would have got up on National Party second prefs and most of their own first pref votes would have second-preferenced the Nats? This runs up against Edmund Burke’s old point about the difference between a representative system and direct democracy.
When you elect someone you aren’t, the argument goes, simply appointing them to communicate the mass opinion of the electorate, you are selecting them to apply their autonomous wisdom and judgment to innumerable unpredictable scenarios. To regard second preferences as some sort of morally binding instruction to the elected member. This is a pretty key principle of conservative thinking but I won’t hold my water waiting for the conservatives to cite it.
Still for the Tories, the possibility that they might be done out of government by a few votes must concentrate the mind somewhat for the two cases are hardly symmetrical. The Senate lock by the Greens means that a conservative government with limited powers has been selected a situation in some congruence with the way the votes fell.
But a Labor government created in the lower house with a bare 50% of the 2PP suddenly has the keys to the kingdom on a whole range of issues, with Green support in the Senate. And the stuff they want that the Greens will hate, they can push through by daring the Coalition to vote down further installments on bastardry towards refugees, etc.
It is in other words, a startling example of the capricious nature of winner-takes-all democracy, and I wonder if it might tempt some on the conservative side to look with more interest on a multimember proportional system, on the strategic grounds that it would split the left/progressive vote between Labor and the Greens more effectively. After all on a proportional system of one vote, one value, the Coalition’s larger primary vote would have been reflected in having the largest number of seats of any single party, and first dibs at government formation.
They won’t, of course, but they must recognise that the mega-proportional Senate system gives no clear scenario by which they would ever have an upper house sympathetic to their program, save for a total collapse by the Greens. That’s possible but far less likely than with the Democrats. The Greens are a party with a class base, a core shared philosophy and a distinctive mode of politics.
But me, I am hoping, well part of me is hoping, for the Coalition (which is barely a stable Coalition these days, made up of five different parties, three of them the fragments of the once-unified National Party, whose foundation in the ’20s prompted the ridiculous preferential system in the first place) edging up 73-72, on a minority of the 2PP, in the hope that the arbitrariness of Labor’s defeat will drive people in it crazy with rage at their dimwit factional overlords, and tear them limb from limb and get the ball rolling on the greater process of structural change to our next-to-useless parliamentary machinery.
Anything’s possible, but not according to the birthday boy, treating his hangover with black velvet as Kerry O’Brien again talked of a “swing to the ABC”.
“It’s Abbott,” he groaned, “it’s Abbott.” The darkness slithering from pre-dawn dreaming, when the head tightens and the bones shriek. Mine eyes have seen the gory, in Little-Sodding-On-The-Wold.