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preference whispering
Leader of the Reason Party Fiona Patten. (Image: AAP/Julian Smith)

Three years after Senate electoral reform brought the merry-go-round to a halt at federal level, the game of micro-party preference manipulation is in ruder health than ever in Victoria.

Together with Western Australia, Victoria is one of two jurisdictions where parties still get to corral the overwhelming majority of their upper house votes in their chosen direction as preferences, thanks to the magic of group voting tickets — a system that has progressively fallen by the wayside in New South Wales, South Australia and federally.

Next Saturday’s state election has brought forth a record 380 candidates for the eight Legislative Council regions, with ever more micro-party chancers hoping to strike it lucky.

The discipline with which the micro-parties are directing preferences to each other has also reached new heights, the consequences of which soon become apparent when plausible party vote totals are entered into Antony Green’s election calculators.

Whatever might be said of the ethics of his endeavours, “preference whisperer” Glenn Druery has clearly worked hard for the $5000 he reportedly charges those wishing to be part of the network (with the further promise of a $50,000 “success fee”).

While the exact identity of the unknowns who will shortly be thrust into the spotlight is impossible to guess, it is clear the incoming government will face an upper house configuration at least as complex as that Daniel Andrews has dealt with for the past four years, in which Labor and the Greens between them have commanded only 19 votes out of 40.

This has left the government needing the support of a further two out of five crossbenchers to win contested votes, of whom only Fiona Patten of the Reason Party (formerly the Sex Party) is not identifiably right-of-centre.

One issue the government has made no attempt to run by the Legislative Council is reform to the very system that brought this state of affairs to pass.

Indeed, Labor has been fairly consistent in its reticence to let go of group voting tickets, notwithstanding the complications that can result for its legislative agenda when in government.

The Turnbull government’s reforms were passed in the teeth of Labor opposition, and the Labor government in Western Australia has proved no more active on the electoral reform front than its Victorian counterpart, despite the failure of last year’s landslide win to deliver a left majority in the state’s upper house (albeit that the main culprit in that case was over-representation of rural areas).

Labor claims vindication for its position on Senate reform by pointing to One Nation’s successes in 2016, but the fact that the same attitude prevails in Victoria, where One Nation doesn’t feature, suggests other motivations.

The group voting tickets for the coming election, which were published on Monday, bear evidence of Labor efforts to reach accommodations with the Glenn Druery network, including by placing candidates of Shooters, Fishers and Farmers and the Liberal Democrats ahead of the Greens.

Whether such manoeuvres ultimately deliver benefits to outweigh the costs remains to be established.

However, it’s tempting to think party apparatchiks who cut their teeth on the skulduggery of student politics simply enjoy the game of preference wheeling-and-dealing a little too much for their own good, and are prone to over-estimate their talent for working the system to their own advantage.

Peter Fray

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