The Victorian election is living up to its billing as the latest battlefield in new paradigm politics, with the Liberals finding themselves shunted from the front pages by a stoush between Labor and the Greens.

At issue are the professional activities of the Greens candidate for Melbourne, Brian Walters, SC, who has been targeted over his legal work for accused war criminal Konrad Kalejs and a company associated with coal mining. After a furious response from the legal fraternity and the liberal end of the Melbourne media (The AgeSunday Herald Sun playing a tellingly distinct role in the controversy from the ), most have concluded Labor’s attack has badly misfired, with Andrew Crook of Crikey going so far as to argue it has doomed Melbourne MP Bronwyn Pike to certain defeat.

The correctness of this view depends largely on the resolution of the campaign’s other Greens-centric controversy: the split in the Liberal Party over whether to continue placing the Greens ahead of Labor on how-to-vote cards.

The behaviour of major party preferences has been little studied, as in the normal course of events they are not distributed. Of much greater interest has been minor party and independent preferences and their bearing on major party outcomes.

The only substantial interruption to this picture in recent times came with the emergence of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation, who Labor and eventually the Coalition parties both saw fit to put last. Hanson herself topped the primary vote when she contested the new seat of Blair at the 1998 federal election, but was thwarted when about three-quarters of Labor preferences went to Liberal candidate Cameron Thompson.

When state Labor advised voters to simplify matters with a “just vote one” strategy in 2001, made possible by Queensland’s optional preferential voting system, the rate of exhausted Labor votes shot from a third to three-quarters. These episodes confirmed what scrutineers had long known about major party voters’ observance of how-to-vote cards.

Even more helpfully, a ballot paper study conducted by the Victorian Electoral Commission after the 2006 election (thanks to Peter Brent, of Mumble, for alerting me to this) encompassed all four of the electorates under consideration, and found the rate of obedience among Liberal voters ranging from 30% in Richmond to 45% in Brunswick. With those Liberal voters who didn’t follow the card favouring the Greens over Labor about 60-40, the total rate of preferences to the Greens was consistently about 75%, or slightly below the 80% recorded in Melbourne and Batman at the federal election. As a rough guide, it can be inferred that a change in the Liberals’ how-to-vote policy would cut their preference flow to the Greens from the high 70s to about 40%.

Peter Fray

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