When Victoria goes to the polls next month, it won’t just be control of the Legislative Assembly at issue; voters will also be electing all 40 members of the upper house, the Legislative Council. And since the strange goings-on at last year’s half-Senate election, upper houses are attracting a good deal more interest.

Victoria’s Legislative Council was reformed by the Bracks government prior to the 2006 election to introduce proportional representation, much like the Australian Senate. Despite that, the Coalition unexpectedly managed to win a majority in 2010, with 18 Liberals and three Nationals (running on joint tickets) against 16 Labor and three Greens.

It’s very possible that the opposition parties will pick up a couple of seats this time, giving the Greens the balance of power. But there’s also some attention being given to the possibility that smaller parties will win seats — as four of them did last year in the Senate.

Hence a Fairfax story yesterday in which Heath Aston says “the micro parties are set to dominate Victoria and NSW too”, retailing predictions that such parties will win up to six seats in the Victorian upper house.

Much of the story is based on the ruminations of “preference whisperer” Glenn Druery, who talks up his own ability to arrange preference deals that would enable micro-parties to pull off the impossible. More surprising is the claim that the ABC’s Antony Green “told Fairfax Media he expects five or six micro party candidates to be elected in Victoria”.

If you want to know what Green really thinks, you can read his own blog post here. While he’s very much alive to the threat of the micro-parties, his analysis, on my reading, shows only five regions in which he thinks a micro-party might have a chance of election, and in most of those the chance is pretty slim. The idea that they might all succeed simultaneously is sheer fantasy.

Those who exaggerate the chances of micro-parties make two mistakes. One is to neglect the differences between the Senate and the Victorian Legislative Council; the other is to misunderstand what actually happened last year with the Senate.

In Victoria, the eight regions each elect five members, compared to six per state in a half-Senate election. That means the quota is one-sixth (16.7%) rather than one-seventh (14.3%); while 2.4% might not seem a big difference, it’s actually a large obstacle for a small party that’s having to work hard for every vote.

There are also a lot fewer parties in Victoria. This year there will be a maximum of 23 registered parties (eight are still awaiting approval), compared to 37 that were on the ballot paper last time in Victoria (42 in New South Wales). Since the size of ballot papers is the thing that makes above-the-line voting so much of a lottery, that also matters a lot.

Furthermore, as Green points out, below-the-line voting is much easier in Victoria, because voters only need to number five candidates. In 2010, in the most widely contested region, Northern Metropolitan, 5.7% voted below the line, compared to just 2.7% in last year’s half-Senate election. That’s a big chunk of votes that can’t be corralled by preference harvesting.

But it’s also important to be clear about what happened in the Senate.

If a micro-party is one that gets less than 2% of the primary vote, only one such senator was elected last year — Motoring Enthusiast Ricky Muir in Victoria with 0.5%. Even if you raise the bar to 5% it would only bring in one more, South Australia’s Bob Day (Family First), who had 3.8%.

The other minor party senators who got elected had substantial support; one might attribute that to voter confusion (Liberal Democrats) or piles of money (Palmer United), but they’re different things to preference harvesting.

The problem with the system of ticket preferencing — as my colleague William Bowe lucidly explained earlier this week — is not so much that large numbers of micro-parties are likely to succeed, but that the chance of them doing so by gaming the system is sufficiently high to lure more and more of them into the field, making ballot papers unmanageable, alienating voters and turning the system into a lottery.

Victoria is still some way behind the Senate in that process. But if nothing is changed, it’s probably only a matter of time before it catches up.

* Charles Richardson was a member of the Liberal Party from 1978 to 1996 and worked in the Kennett government.

Peter Fray

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