When it comes to the allocation of preferences at Australian elections, no party can claim to have clean hands.
As the federal director of the Liberal Party, Tony Nutt, noted in a media statement this week, the party machine takes a number of objectives into consideration when deciding which preferences to recommend to voters.
These include “the electoral interests of the Party, our values, principles and priorities, and the best interests of the Australian people in having an effective national government,” according to Nutt. This rationale pretty much boils down to keeping the other mob out of government.
But preference deals can also serve other agendas, such as upsetting the other side’s succession planning or depleting its brain trust by cleaning out the competition’s next generation of leaders and strategists.
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Considered from this perspective, the Liberals’ (alleged) preference dance with the Greens makes perfect sense.
No final decision on preferences has yet been made — or, at least, made public — by the respective party machines. This will be done on a state-by-state basis, with oversight from the national party at least in the Liberals’ case.
However, there’s hot speculation the Libs are considering putting the Greens ahead of Labor on how-to-vote cards for some inner-city seats. The Greens are apparently considering a return favour that involves running dead in some regional seats by not making preference recommendations to their supporters.
According to the gossip, these preference deals will cover the seats of Batman, Wills and Melbourne in Victoria as well as the NSW seats of Sydney and Grayndler.
It’s by no means a coincidence that the latter two seats are represented by the two MPs with the best prospects of becoming Labor leader — Tanya Plibersek and Anthony Albanese — if Bill Shorten was ever to fall under a bus, or lose an election.
The Victorian seat of Batman also offers the Liberals the tantalising opportunity to end the inglorious career of Labor powerbroker David Feeney and knock off the new talent Peter Khalil, even if it means further entrenching the Greens’ Adam Bandt in his seat.
Supporting Bandt in this way is a clear departure from the previous federal election, when the prime minister at the time, Tony Abbott, made a “captain’s call” to put Labor ahead of the Greens in every lower house seat.
This was a reversal of the Libs’ previous preference stance in Melbourne, which had Bandt first elected in 2010 with Liberal preferences.
Abbott did this to signal that major parties should have primacy over their minor cousins, and that voters should very consciously elect one of the majors in its own right rather than flirt with the minors and end up with another Gillard-Greens alliance. That’s right, the one that gave us the carbon tax.
Consistency and self-awareness do not appear to be words that exist in the world of preference wheeling and dealing.
Labor is currently having a big cry over the suspected Liberal-Green “non-arrangement” — given both sides have declined to confirm that there is indeed a preference deal — but the party is no less guilty than others in making Faustian pacts to get an edge over their competitors.
Family First’s Steve Fielding, he of the beer bottle costume, prevailed over the Greens’ Victorian Senate candidate in 2004 because of a preference deal with Labor.
Somewhat ironically, the next Family First Senator, Bob Day, was elected in 2013 as the direct result of a preference harvesting deal personally negotiated by Greens leader Bob Brown with representatives of the micro-parties, Palmer United Party and Nick Xenophon.
No wonder Howard recently voiced concern about his beloved party potentially getting into bed with the verdant devils.
Counter-intuitively, many Liberal voters don’t seem to mind the idea. According to Newspoll in March, 47% of the party’s supporters said they were comfortable with it directing preferences to the Greens ahead of Labor in key marginal seats.
That stance would appear to be the epitome of the ancient proverb dictating that the enemy of my enemy is my friend; it seems some Liberal voters are prepared to accept almost anything to keep Labor off the government benches.
Accordingly, there are many good reasons why Victorian Liberal president Michael Kroger might see a preference arrangement with the Greens as being ideal.
It meets Liberals’ philosophical need to see Labor defeated. It potentially makes a strategic strike at Labor’s future leaders and brains trust. And it forces the opposition to devote precious campaign funds to defending seats against the Greens instead of trying to snatch key marginal seats from the government.