Senate fact-checking and myth-busting

The Western Australian and South Australian Senate results under the microscope: which preference decisions mattered, and which didn’t.

In a Senate election that has excited more interest than most, there has been a lot of understandably confused talk over the past few days about the impact of contentious preference decisions. What follows is an attempt to sort through some of them claims which have gained currency around the place.

Claim: Wikileaks preferences cost Scott Ludlam his seat.

Julian Assange has had no more stout defender over the past few years than WA Greens Senator Scott Ludlam, so his party’s failure to fast-track preferences to Ludlam provoked a furious response from many, not least his own mother. Most offensive to left sentiment was the decision to place Ludlam behind David Wirrpunda of the Nationals, which the party justified as supporting Aboriginal representation. When news came through that Ludlam had indeed fallen short (pending of course a possible recount), many on social media jumped to the conclusion that Wikileaks was to blame.

However, the potential of Wikileaks preferences to harm Ludlam actually went unrealised. Wikileaks preferences did flow to the Australian Sports Party and the Nationals in turn, but both were eliminated fairly early in the count. Since Ludlam had a higher placing from Wikileaks than the other late count survivors, namely the two major parties, the Palmer United Party and Shooters and Fishers, he did in fact get their votes – 8150 of them, which in the final analysis still left him 3372 short of Louise Pratt.

Claim: Wikileaks vote-splitting cost Scott Ludlam his seat.

Absent the opportunity to blame Wikileaks for their preferences, some of the party’s critics fell back on the argument that it damaged Ludlam by fielding a candidate at all. One such was Mary Kostakidis, who like many expressed her displeasure on Twitter. This would have been a telling point under first-past-the-post, but it doesn’t work so well under compulsory preferential voting, where every vote of an excluded candidate ends up with somebody else – in this case, as noted, the Greens. If anything, Wikileaks’ entry might have helped deliver the Greens preferences from libertarians who would never have voted for them directly, although I doubt there would have been much in this. It could be argued that the absence of a Wikileaks candidate might have given Ludlam’s campaign clearer air, but I doubt there’d be much in that either.

Claim: Greens preferences elected Family First in South Australia.

Confronted with the allegation that her party’s preferences were responsible for electing Bob Day of their ideological enemy Family First yesterday, Sarah Hanson-Young tweeted: “Actually SA Greens preferences went to Xenophon & Labor well ahead of both FF & Liberals”. Either the Senator was not entirely on top of her own preference ticket, or she was being exquisitely disingenuous – perhaps the former, given that her tweet was deleted shortly thereafter. It was indeed true that Xenophon himself was rated much higher than Family First on the Greens’ preference ticket, but as Xenophon had no trouble getting elected off his own bat, that was beside the point. The issue was Xenophon’s running mate Stirling Griff, who did spectacularly badly on preferences from all fronts. Whereas Xenophon was given a solid but ultimately irrelevant position a third of the way down the Greens’ preference order, Griff was buried deep below. As it happened though, the 11,065 Greens ticket votes delivered to Day after Hanson-Young’s election were surplus to requirements: he would still have been 21,257 clear of a quota without them. So the Greens did not of themselves elect Family First, though it wasn’t for want of trying.

Claim: Labor preferences elected Family First in South Australia.

By contrast, Bob Day would never have made it had not Labor also opted to put him ahead of Stirling Griff. This might inspire comparison with Labor’s preference decision in Victoria in 2004 which gave Steve Fielding his seat at the expense of the Greens, but on this occasion Labor had the Greens second. The decisive factor was actually the transfer of Sarah Hanson-Young’s surplus, which was bloated with the Labor preferences received when Don Farrell was eliminated. This amounted to 41,501 Labor ticket votes which would have elected Griff had they been directed to him instead.

The wonks among you might like to observe that this is an uncommonly severe case of the distortion caused by the “inclusive Gregory” method of calculating transfer values when distributing surpluses. In theory, those Labor votes shouldn’t have been worth so much since they have already been used to help elect Penny Wong. However, the existing system only applies one transfer value to all votes in a given surplus distribution. If votes were reduced in value in due proportion each time they formed part of a surplus transfer (the “weighted inclusive Gregory” method), the Hanson-Young transfer would have contained 23,390 Labor and 18,214 Greens ticket votes, rather than 41,501 and 11,065. In that case, Labor preferences of themselves would not have been decisive.

The value of Labor votes was again inflated when Bob Day’s surplus was distributed, at which point Labor’s remarkable decision to place Griff behind even the Liberals kicked in. This wasn’t decisive, but it might have been if the gap between Simon Birmingham and Griff had been a little narrower. Another factor to be kept in mind here is that Labor got a bigger bang for its buck out of its preference ticket decisions, since 90.8% of its votes were above-the-line against only 81.4% for the Greens.

Claim: Nick Xenophon started it by shafting the Greens.

The Greens’ motivation to punish Nick Xenophon even to the point of aiding Family First was his own decision to preference the major parties ahead of the Greens. Hanson-Young was heard to complain that Xenophon was “making a political decision, just like any other politician”. However, it seems to me that Xenophon is the only party in all this who was doing just the opposite, his preference tickets appearing at least outwardly to be all principle and no expediency.

The Senate ticket voting system allows groups to have up to three preference tickets for their above-the-line votes to divide evenly between. Xenophon used this to play the straightest possible ideological bat by having one ticket that looked how a moderate left supporter might want it to look, and another pleasing from the perspective of a voter of the moderate right. This meant one of his tickets did in fact have the Greens ahead of the Coalition parties, while the other had them behind both the Coalition and Labor. So the Greens might in fact have received half of Xenophon’s preferences, had those preferences been distributed at a point where there was no Labor candidate in the count. In the event, Xenophon preferences were not distributed at all, as Stirling Griff was left holding the bag when Simon Birmingham was elected at the final count.

The Greens’ sense of grievance that Xenophon’s idea of moderate tickets should place them behind Labor is no doubt informed by the fact that he played it differently at his first Senate election in 2007. Xenophon’s idea of ideological balance at that time was to have a single preference tickets which placed the competitive minor parties of both right (Family First) and Left (the Greens) ahead of the majors. I wouldn’t care to venture if Bob Brown spoke truly when he claimed Xenophon’s objective this time around was to loom larger on a smaller cross-bench (a goal he has spectacularly failed to achieve if so). But if he was wrong and Xenophon was indeed motivated by principle, he offers a useful case study for why so few others followed suit. Despite scoring something between six and seven times as many votes, Xenophon landed the same number of seats as Family First. Stirling Griff started the preference distribution process with 107,110 votes, seemingly well on his way to the quota of 148,348. But as preferences swelled the Family First base vote from 38,909 all the way to 180,670, Griff was only able to limp to 121,743.

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.

142 comments on “Senate fact-checking and myth-busting”

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  1. Can we please reserve this thread for discussion of the Senate result, the election count in general, and related issues. For more general commentary, the Essential Research thread remains open.

  2. The Greens only made it on the back of ALP preferences. Their vote slumps 33%. Had the ALP preferenced Xen instead of the Greens SHY would be the wasted quota

    Wikileaks was NEVER going to deliver the NP a seat. Wikileaks was a competitor not a partner. Ludlum attacked the Greens for fear that if they secured 2.5-3% they would have climbed the pack and beat the Greens so they had to make sure their vote was minimised.

    Ludlum needed Sports party to be elected so he could benefit from the preference deal with Clive Palmer.

    It’s a bit rich that Ludlam now attacks Clive Palmer claiming he had more votes yet he himself needs Palmer’s preferences. “Grubby preference” deals are Ok when they assist the Greens but never good when they work agstint the Greens

    Sports Party climb to be a contender was only possible because of united support and preferences of the minor parties, including the Democrats, the the Holly Trinity Christian Groups

    Ludlum not needs the Christians to out poll the Fishermen Shooters in a recount in order to elect Sports freeing up Palmer’s vote to flow to the Greens.

    Then there is the system

    Had there been a weighted Surplus Ludlum would have been elected along with Palmer. BUT remove segmentation and distribute the vote using a reiterative counting system so that votes were excluded candidates are redistributed as if the excluded candidate had not stood then Ludlum again loses out. You can not fix one error in the calculation of the surplus transfer value and not address the issue of the distribution of preferences.

    The Greens lost a seat in QLD 2007 as a result of the flaws in the counting process. They should have fixed it then. Bob Brown who was on the JCSEM did nothing to address this issue.

  3. Thanks William for the clear explanations of the result. So Labor preferencing Bob Day ahead of Xenephon in SA WAS decisive. How stupid could they be? This was not an accident of maths – someone in SA Labor has made a very bad decision. Nor is it the first time Labor preferences have helped Family First over the line. Family First did not preference Labor very highly in return so why do it? The joke was on Farrell.

    Quite apart from the religious fundamentalism involved, Labor has preferenced someone who fights against building worker conditions all the time. Brilliant.

    I think stripped away of all the claims of “clever tactics” which it clearly was not, Labor preferencing in several recent decisions in SA (FF) and Vic (DLP) can only be explained by the fact that the preferencing decisions are made by people in the Labor machine who are themselves right wing religious conservatives at heart.

  4. Sorry meant to say…

    Wikileaks was NEVER going to deliver the NP a seat. Wikileaks was a competitor not a partner. Ludlum attacked the Wikileaks for fear that if they secured 2.5-3% they would have climbed the pack and beat the Greens so they had to make sure their vote was minimised.

    Wikileaks votes ended up with the Greens a few more votes and they would have made it.

  5. Socrates @ #4

    So Labor preferencing Bob Day ahead of Xenephon in SA WAS decisive. How stupid could they be? This was not an accident of maths – someone in SA Labor has made a very bad decision

    Yes, someone did make a bad decision. Had Labor preferenced Xenephon ahead of The Greens Sarah Hanson Young would not have been elected. Would have been better if she was removed from office

    Hopefully there will be a double dissolution. The Greens would lose representation and Labor would gain a few seats

  6. Answer: 3 votes did a full Reverse Donkey.

    (However, 62 votes did go from ONP to LIB. But it is perfectly reasonable to expect 15% of ONP votes to go to LIB regardless of ballot paper).

  7. How could Labor end up with 5 seats in a Vic DD with only 32.45% of the vote? That is, they would have got 4.22 quotas – not sure how that can snowball to getting 5 elected.

    Labor would go backwards under a double dissolution if:
    -Parties’ preference tickets were the same
    -Peoples’ votes were the same

  8. I’m not sure Sarah Hanson-Young actually did delete her tweet, for what it’s worth. A tweet by SHY that said:

    “@PaulEErickson @SenatorLudlam Actually SA Greens preferences went to Xenophon & Labor well ahead ahead of both FF & Liberals.”

    is still showing in her feed and I have “favourited” (term used advisedly) it.

    Either it was not deleted, or it was deleted then reposted, tweeted twice and deleted once (etc).

  9. It is highly unlikely there will be a double dissolution, and there certainly won’t be one using the current electoral system.

    The chances of a double dissolution before July next year are nil. Most of the bills that Labor and the Greens can block until July 2014 can be passed after July 2014 and the government will simply wait for the new Senate to be in place before seriously trying to pass them. There will be a lot of rhetoric that Labor and the Greens should accept the government’s mandate, but the government knows it just has to wait until 1 July and then it can get serious with its legislative agenda.

    If the new government proves to be popular then the chances of a double dissolution rise if the government finds the new Senate difficult to deal with.

    If the government is not particularly popular, the chances of a double dissolution are nil. Governments are not forced to double dissolutions, they choose to hold them. That is with the exception of 1975 which is always an exception.

  10. Very logical conclusion Anthony. Regarding the Senate voting and the preference methodology I honestly don’t know how any reasonable person could have the vaguest idea where their vote will end up. It’s like a lottery where the prize is total confusion.

  11. I would think there would be some doubt as to where your preference will ‘end up’ under almost any system as you don’t know exactly who will be excluded at which stage – however by getting rid of the ticket system people would at least have some idea of the order that their preferences would flow. Couple with OPV (which I’m not sure I can support) one could also choose to not allow their vote ever to go to parties they do not want to assist.

  12. d@w, the major parties will be thinking more of their advantages in the HoR rather than the Senate in making calculations about DD elections.

    The Government will only go to a DD if they think their position will not worsen too much in the HoR (or will improve) and they will gain some advantage in the Senate. Their position in the HoR is already pretty good, so then the only reason to go to a DD election is to improve their position in the Senate. This is unlikely to happen with the current Senate electoral system.

    The position of the Senate is quite irrelevant to the ALP if they aren’t in government and Abbott is unlikely to call for a DD if there’s a good chance of the ALP winning. Further, any improvements the ALP make in the Senate are likely to be small (if any).

    As such strategically, I still think it’s in the best (electoral) interests for the ALP and other parties to delay Senate electoral reform until late in the parliamentary term to decrease the chances of a DD election being held at a time disadvantageous to them. It also gives everyone much more time to consider the benefits and disadvantages of any reforms – which should not be rushed through.

  13. Just got hold of a very old report on informal voting at the WA Ascot and Balga by-elections in 1988. It’s relevant to Senate elections if any can guess why. I suspect William might know,

  14. Davidwh, in some ways I agree with what you say to the extent that you don’t know for sure which candidates your vote will end up counting for since you don’t know how everybody else will vote, but I don’t think it is as problematic as you suggest. If you choose your own preferences then you can be absolutely confident that at any point where your vote elects a candidate it must be in preference to others who are further down your preference list. It’s hard to predict overall results but an individual, if they vote below the line (or even agree with the ATL ticket) can be confident of what their vote can do.

    There are some strange cases where changing your vote from your actual preferences to something else can produce better results when the count is very close (e.g. for WA Truth Seeker describes a number of these) but it requires full knowledge of what everyone else is doing and is of no practical use, furthermore it isn’t a particular problem of our voting system, Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem essentially says that all systems have this feature.

    Of course those who vote ATL without looking at the ticket have no control over what their vote does and this a problem.

  15. Psephos, surely it isn’t a ‘favour’ simply to expect preferencing according to ideological distance rather than shady swap deals. Do you really think most Labor voters would prefer Family First’s Bob Day to Xenophon running mate Stirling Griff?

  16. Hey TS, regarding the definitive count on Reverse Donkeys…

    Did you check both possible combinations, i.e.

    ONP, LIB6, LIB5 … LIB2, LIB1, ALP4, ALP3…


    ONP, LIB1, LIB2 … LIB5, LIB6, ALP1, ALP2…

    I’m willing to bet the answer doesn’t change by much but let’s do the ol’ “Mythbusters viewer email” trick and get a definitive result!

  17. Mark Duffert…re Family First in SA
    The SA result re FF is a bad one…just as the 2004 result in Vic which elected Fielding on ALP prefs was a bad one…and a dis-service in every way to Labor voters most of whom were unaware of the way their prefs went to FF at that time
    I voted Green in the Senate in 2OO4,and later pointed out to those friends and family who voted Labor what they had b done with their prefs
    Most of these I have since persuaded to vote Green as a permenant change of heart
    There was a certain justice in the Labor loss of Farrell in SA…he was one of the worst of the DLP-inclined Labor-Catholic rightists ….in Victoria we have a similar situation with Collins who is really the Right to Life

    Santamaria lives in the ALP Right !! (close to Abbott’s heart really )

  18. Another myth that could use verification/busting – did the Animal Justice Party preferencing the Greens behind the Liberals get Zed Seselja elected ahead of Simon Sheikh in the ACT?

  19. Happy Thursday, Sarg! 🙂

    I take a wider interpretation of Reverse Donkey vote.

    For example, with 3 tickets of 2 candidates each (A1, A2, B1, B2, C1, C2) I would accept the following as “reverse donkeys”


    Inter party numbering must be perfect, but intra party numbering can utilise a mixed up/down strategy.

    But recall, there’s only 3 (far less than tht 50% of 400 as suggested by another pundit whose name I forget). My excel is playing up right now so I’ll go from memory and I think there were 2 “pure” reverse donkeys and 1 “impure” one which used a mixed intra party strategy but a pure inter-party strategy. 🙂

  20. Nice article, but I don’t agree with this sentence at all:

    “However, it seems to me that Xenophon is the only party in all this who was doing just the opposite, his preference tickets appearing at least outwardly to be all principle and no expediency.”

    The decision to split preferences is to give the impression of being “in the centre” or “above party politics”. That does not mean it has anything to do with principle. My opinion is that if Xenophon were to act on principle, he would list preferences in the order that best suited his particular philosophies, of which the stance of each party on poker machines would presumably be very prominent.

    Instead, the split ticket is an attempt to gain as many primary votes as possible, as you are protected from the “a vote for Xenophon is a vote for Greens/Labor/Liberal” line of attack. Indeed, it strikes me as being hypersensitive to the “vote for Xenophon if a vote for the Greens” attack, which let’s face it is pretty potent when SHY is standing. That’s not a principled decision, that’s a political decision, particularly if what you care about is how it appears to moderate voters.

    Also, I really think that Labor and the Greens ought to be preferencing on principles and policies, rather than preference swapping deals. These deals are almost always indefensible and arguing “they didn’t preference me so I didn’t preference them” is the sort of thing that turns voters right off.

  21. That is a beautifully detalied answer which leaves me wanting nothing more.

    Other than some cake… I thought there would be some in the lunch room, but the last slice was in the bin! Who in their right mind throws away a perfectly good slice of cake?

  22. [Another myth that could use verification/busting – did the Animal Justice Party preferencing the Greens behind the Liberals get Zed Seselja elected ahead of Simon Sheikh in the ACT?]

    No, Zed Seselja was elected without needing any ticket votes. In other words, he got across the line just on BTL votes.

  23. I’ve been having some fun with the Tassie BTLs checking who got the most #54s. The winner was the last Greens candidate, Ann, followed by the last Stop The Greens candidate, Phibbs, then the last Liberal, the ungrouped independent, the lead Green and the lead Liberal.

    I’ll be chatting on 7ZR 936AM about this obscure stat @ circa 4:15.

  24. Nick has been mythologised here in SA but he is basically a fraud who has sucked in many dimwits. It was because of Nick’s manipulations that ETSA was flogged and power prices rose 100% in the next years after wards.

    He caused the ALP to lose two pretty good members by getting them to cross the floor on the sale and then shafting them.

    He shafted Anne Bressington and SA has been stuck with her in the upper house ever since.

    No-one in SA trusts Nick to have a proper running mate and that is the truth of it all.

    He is not that great and his bid was to be balance of power, instead he is less now than he was before.

    I think in the bigger picture 17 non major party senators can’t be a bad thing for democracy no matter how much they want to whinge.

  25. [He shafted Anne Bressington and SA has been stuck with her in the upper house ever since.]

    I don’t think “shafting” is the right word in that context but your point is valid about being weary of Xenophon’s running mates.

  26. [He is not that great and his bid was to be balance of power, instead he is less now than he was before.]

    How do you figure that? Perhaps less than 2008-11 but more than 2011-14.

  27. Can understand people finding Bressington an embarrassment given her form on drug kits and so on. But given the choice between someone who merely might be or even probably was an embarrassment and Family First, I’d go with the former every time.

  28. The majors will be more worried that an extra independent would vacuum up their primary in a way Xenophon has done.

    The Senate we have partially reflects the fact that more people are feeling the major parties do not deserve their vote or represent their interests, if the majors want to get around this by disenfranchising people through the introduction of an arbitrary threshold, it’ll not be a great result,

  29. [Can understand people finding Bressington an embarrassment given her form on drug kits and so on. ]

    If only it was that.

    Firstly, she’s as socially conservative as they come. Yes, I know FF are too but there’s more. She indulges in nutty conspiracy theories and she wastes the Legislative Council’s time with ridiculous crap. She is an A-grade, unhinged fruit loop. Regardless of what happens at next year’s state election, there will be one major positive outcome: she will be gone.

    Having said that, I doubt having another Bressington was the concern of Labor or the Greens when they preferenced Bob Day over Stirling Griff. Rather, they were probably hoping to limit the effects of Xenophon’s vote (the ALP may have been trying to get in FF’s good graces a little too)

  30. Western Australia results x 12

    With one percent shift (The ALP could expect a 2-3% shift) in the vote at the next election the ALP would gain an extra seat. HEMP are relegated to the stone “Wasted quota” basket

    1 JOHNSTON Liberal
    2 BULLOCK Australian Labor Party
    3 LUDLAM The Greens (WA)
    4 CASH Liberal
    5 PRATT Australian Labor Party
    6 REYNOLDS Liberal
    7 FOSTER Australian Labor Party
    8 BROCKMAN Liberal
    9 THOMAS Liberal
    10 BOW Shooters and Fishers
    11 WANG Palmer United Party
    12 WIRRPANDA The Nationals

  31. The System as currently applies handicaps the Major Parties (LP and ALP)as it denies them the option to spread their percentage of the vote. Remove this handicap and the results change

    In Victoria if their was a Double dissolution the Greens would only elect one. (Not two) and possibly lose out in SA and QLD

    If a half Senate election was help they wold go backwards, The odds are in the ALP’s favour to hold a double dissolution

  32. Itep

    d@w, the major parties will be thinking more of their advantages in the HoR rather than the Senate in making calculations about DD elections.</blockquote)

    I agree in most cased the ALP is only focused on the HoR and they use the Senate as a trade off. The Greens insisted that the ALP preference them in the Senate and in exchanged they would preference Labor in the HoR. This meant that the Green did not have to man the booths to the extent that they would otherwise and in Victoria they concentrated all the effort and expenditure on Melbourne

    The Fact that the Green vote slumped (Down 33%) has meant that the Greens are now facing a finding crisis of their own as they will no receive as much public funding as they were expecting.

    I find it amusing that the Greens are quick to demonise others for preference deals., deals that in most case will not see any benefit or distribution, yet they are more than happy to benefit from preferences delivered by Clive Palmer. If the WA recount is successful the Greens are elected on Clive Palmer's preferences.

    The ALP should have issued split tickets. It would have forced the Greens in to defending their Senate seats.

    If there is a double dissolution the ALP representation would go up as the odds are fewer people will vote for minor/micro parties and the ALP with leadership division behind them will have a swing towards them.

    It is also becoming clear that any deal on Senate reform will be a an agreed position between the ALP and the Liberals. The Nationals holding the most influence outside when it comes to electoral reform.

    Could PUP and the Nationals form a voting block in any shape or form?

    Clive is probably in the position of most influence as he controls three Senators that are crucial to the Liberal Party pushing though legislation. Will he show the sensibility of compromise (Something the Greens lack) or will he sink like the Titanic at the first ice berg in its way.

    The Greens do not hold the balance of power in opposition. They are going to be more and more marginalised and irrelevant.

  33. KB
    [Seeing reports from @Clarkie1972 journalist AAP, that the call for a recount in WA is being denied (subject to appeal)! ]

    Yes, it’s surprising to me. There must be some doubt about the count, but the AEC doesn’t want to make the effort. I can’t see how this decision would survive a court challenge. The AEC would be hard pressed to prove that the senators elected would not be different after a recount, particularly in light of the altered numbers following past HoR recounts.

  34. Western Australia
    Vote Distribution 2nd Preference

    AFLP 1 0
    AIN 5 1
    AJP 4 1
    ALP 5 3
    AMEP 1 0
    ASP 3 0
    ASXP 10 1
    AUC 1 0
    DEM 3 1
    FFP 0 3
    GRN 31 15
    HMP 9 2
    KAP 5 0
    LDP 1 1
    LP 3 4
    NP 7 1
    ODR 2 0
    PUP 10 0
    RUA 4 1
    SEP 2 1
    SMK 2 1
    SPA 1 3
    SPP 1 1
    SPRT 1 0

    WKP 9505 118

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