Getting the upper house in order: part two

As outlined in the earlier instalment, Greens leader Bob Brown has a bill before parliament that will require above-the-line Senate voters to determine their order of preferences by numbering every box, rather than allowing their one chosen party to make their decisions for them. The Greens presume, no doubt correctly, that Labor voters required to engage their minds will baulk at favouring right-wing over left-wing minor parties regardless of what the how-to-vote card says. The Bob Brown model is similar to that introduced for the New South Wales Legislative Council at the 2003 election, with the significant difference that voters will need to number every box to record a formal vote. The New South Wales system of optional preferential voting requires voters to number only as many boxes as they desire, after which their vote exhausts. This would deal with the main problem of the Bob Brown model identified in my earlier post, namely the spike in the informal vote when voters are required to number too many boxes. Perhaps the Greens admire the mathematical elegance of the existing system, but it is just as likely that they suffer an aversion to optional preferential voting born of lower house state elections where they have lost the preferences that indifferent major party voters were once obliged to give them.

If this is so, their fears with respect to multi-member upper house elections might be misplaced. A paper by Antony Green for the New South Wales parliament informs us that 78.6 per cent of voters carried on their habit of marking one above-the-line box at the 2003 Legislative Council election, so that most votes exhausted rather than carry on to other parties. After nine Labor, seven Coalition and one Greens candidate were elected with full quotas, four seats still remained to be won. At that point, second Greens candidate Sylvia Hale led the field with 0.89 of a quota followed by Gordon Moyes of the CDP with 0.67, Labor’s tenth candidate Tony Catanzariti with 0.60 and John Tingle of the Shooters Party with 0.45. The high exhaustion rate meant that few preferences were distributed after this point and the four aforementioned candidates won their seats in the order listed. This underscores the point that unless a result is exceptionally close, optional preferential voting will deliver the final seats to whichever candidates get closest to a full quota on their own primary vote, in place of the current lottery created by monolithic preference transfers.

Had this happened in last year’s Senate election, the Greens would easily have defeated Family First in Victoria and Tasmania, where they respectively suffered defeat and an unnervingly narrow victory. The outcome would otherwise have been the same, with the Coalition still winning its four seats in Queensland, the major parties still monopolising New South Wales and South Australia, and the Greens still winning a second seat in Western Australia. In light of the primary vote figures, these were not unreasonable outcomes. It is harder to say what the outcome would have been under Brown’s proposed model of full above-the-line preferences, but it almost certainly would not have favoured the Greens more than optional preferential. Now that the party can no longer rely on tight preference arrangements with the Australian Democrats, all the Greens have to gain from compulsory preferential voting is continuing access to preferences from the major parties who invariably favour the Greens over each other. From a purely self-interested perspective, it is a debatable point as to whether this justifies the system for the Greens. Apart from the small surplus that major parties pass on when they exceed three quotas, the Greens can only access major party preferences if they perform well enough to overtake their third candidates, and performances of such strength would usually win them the seat under optional preferential voting. Nor should they overlook the possibility that Brown’s amendment will not produce hugely different outcomes to the current system, given the notoriously obedient attitude of major party voters towards how-to-vote cards.

Looking beyond the interests of the Greens, it becomes even harder to maintain an argument for compulsory over optional preferential voting, which would keep the informal vote to a minimum and give voters the widest range of options in directing their vote.

Author: William Bowe

William Bowe is a Perth-based election analyst and occasional teacher of political science. His blog, The Poll Bludger, has existed in one form or another since 2004, and is one of the most heavily trafficked websites on Australian politics.

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