Feb 4, 2014

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.

Charles Richardson — Editor of The World is not Enough

Charles Richardson

Editor of The World is not Enough

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”.


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11 thoughts on “A Liberal by any other name: party titles and ballot trickery

  1. Ugliness

    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

    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

    “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

    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. 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


    (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


    (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


    (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


    (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.


  9. Stefan Landherr


    (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”.

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