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Jan 10, 2013

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.

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23 comments

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23 thoughts on “Libs will face off with Nats over optional preferential voting

  1. Edward James

    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

    @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

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

  4. Ian

    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

    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

    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

    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

    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

    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

    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 .