Hobson’s Choice – guide to preferential voting

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Hobson’s Choice – preferential voting sand photo by Bob Wilson

By Laurel Wilson

I wasn’t born in Australia, but I got here as quick as I could, and have been here a long time, having been educated in Brisbane (or at least I went to school and University there.) But I don’t recall being taught anything about our voting system. Perhaps it was considered to be not all that relevant, as the minimum voting age was 21 at the time.

After finishing a Dip.Ed. at the University of Queensland, I eventually landed a teaching job in Stanthorpe – regarded in those days as a ‘hardship’ post, perhaps because it was considered to be a long way from Brisbane and it was rumoured to snow there at times in winter.

As most teachers would have experienced, the newer teachers were generally assigned to what was considered to be the ‘less desirable’ classes – in my case, this included the 9B2E2- Industrial Boys class. I really liked those kids and found them to be intelligent and respectful. We all struggled through sessions of ‘Citizenship Education’, known, it must be confessed, by teachers and students alike, as ‘Shit Ed’, such was the turgid quality of the textbook.

Having to teach the subject did, however, result in my having first to grasp and then explain the concept of ‘preferential voting’ to my class of young boys.

So, dear readers, it has come to this – there’s an election on in Queensland tomorrow to decide whether we’re to have three years of a Labor Government (we will have four year terms from 2020 onwards), or whether the Liberal-National Coalition will resume where they left off nearly three years ago. There is, of course, the possibility that Pauline Hanson’s One Nation may get the nod.

In a system which I understand is particular (some would say peculiar) to Australia, voting is compulsory and elections are decided by a system of ‘preferential voting’, rather than the more common ‘first past the post’ system used in most other countries. To add to the complications, Queensland has reverted to ‘full preferential voting’, rather than the ‘optional preferential’ system used last election. This means that we must now place a number next to every candidate on the ballot paper in order of preference. Until recently, I was unaware that this change had occurred. I suspect this move was done rather quietly in some midnight Parliamentary sitting, but it may have just been the fact that I have, for some time, eschewed reading newspapers and watching TV news.

Those who already have a grasp on our voting system may choose to stop reading now, or continue if you’re curious to see whether someone who wasn’t born here can actually understand and explain the intricacies of ‘preferential voting’….

[For those not living in Queensland, the main parties contesting the election are Labor (incumbents- centre-left oriented, the original ‘workers’ party’); LNP- a coalition of Liberal (not the North American version of Liberal) and National parties (centre-right); Pauline Hanson’s One Nation (further to the right on many issues, populist); The Greens (emphasising environmental and social issues) and Katter’s Australia Party (rural conservatives). Some electorates will also have ‘Independents’- not officially aligned with any party.]

The ‘first past the post’ system of electing representatives has never been the case in Queensland. Preferential voting was introduced here in 1892 – 26 years before Prime Minister Billy Hughes introduced it for Federal elections, including the Senate. The rationale apparently was to allow competition between the conservative parties without risking seats. That worked out just fine, then.

The drawback of the preferential system is that a person can win a seat with as little as 35% or even less of the popular vote, providing there are more than 2 candidates vying for election in that seat. Of course when there are only 2 candidates, ‘preferential voting’ is not really relevant, as one candidate is bound to secure more than 50% of the valid votes on the first count. (I did ask Mr FOMM what would happen if there was a draw – we came to the conclusion that there would have to be a by-election. Any better ideas?)

To give an example of the ‘first past the post system’: – in this imaginary electorate, there are 1000 valid votes cast.

Candidate A from the ‘Let’s Not Party’ party gets 350 votes

Candidate B from the ‘Up the Workers’ party gets 300 votes

Candidate C representing the ‘Treehuggers’ gets 200

Candidate D from the ‘Please Explain’ party gets 125

And Candidate E – an Independent gets 75

If this were ‘first past the post’, candidate A from the ‘Let’s Not Party’ party would win, leaving 650 electors NOT getting their choice of candidate.

Under the full preferential system, electors must vote for all the candidates in the voter’s order of preference – e.g. candidate A was the ‘first preference’ of 350 voters, candidate B was the first preference of 300 voters and so on. A candidate must get 50%+ 1 of the votes to win. In the above example, no candidate has gained 50% +1 of the votes on ‘first preferences’, so that is when ‘second (and often third) preferences’ come into play.

Every valid vote must have a person’s preferences marked 1 to 5 in the above example, as there are 5 candidates. The next step is to count the ‘second preferences’ of the candidate with the lowest number of ‘first preference’ votes. This candidate is then eliminated from the count. In this case, the second preferences of those who voted for candidate E are counted. Say 50 of these go to candidate B and 25 to candidate C

The new count is:

A gets 350 +0    = 350

B gets 300 + 50 = 350

C gets 200 + 25 =  225

D gets 125 +0 = 125

(Candidate E eliminated)

Still no-one with 501 or more, so the 2nd preferences of candidate D are counted and candidate D is eliminated from the ‘race’. 100 people voting for candidate D have marked candidate B as their second preference and 25 have marked candidate A as their second preference

A gets 350 +0    =   350+25= 375

B gets 300 + 50 = 350+100= 450

C gets 200 + 25 =   225+0= 225

D gets 125 +0 =   125- preferences distributed and candidate D eliminated

STILL no-one with 500+1, so the 2nd preferences of candidate C are counted and candidate C is then eliminated from the ‘race’. 100 people voting for candidate C have marked candidate A as their next preference and 125 have marked candidate B as their next preference. (At the risk of losing the plot, but to be completely accurate, I must add that the 2nd preferences of 200 of candidate C’s voters are counted, as candidate C was their first choice, but the 3rd preferences of 25 people are counted, as candidate C was their 2nd choice)

A gets 350 +0    =   350+25=375+100=475

B gets 300 + 50 =350+100=450+125=575

C gets 200 + 25 =   225+0=225 preferences distributed and candidate C eliminated

Finally, we have a winner – candidate B from the ‘Up the Workers’ party is the first,  second (or third) preference of the majority of voters. I guess you could say this means ‘B’ is the least disliked of the candidates, so gets the nod.

So over to you, good Queenslanders. Be sure to vote on Saturday, and don’t forget to number all the squares on the ballot paper to be sure that your vote counts. And in the true tradition of elections, have a polling day sausage in a blanket and be nice to the people distributing ‘how to vote’ cards – they might just come in handy this time.

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Many issues in unwinnable Queensland election

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Election special: Photo of old Maleny police station by Bob Wilson

In the interests of better community policing and the fact she had just called an election, Queensland Premier Anastasia Palaszczuk made an unequivocal promise.

The Premier, who somewhere in the Courier-Mail’s Monday election coverage recalls winning a Grade Nine competition to ‘help police fight crime’, made a commitment to hire an extra 400 police officers over the next four years. Based on a First Year Constable’s salary (including shift allowances) of $70,820, that’s a $28.32 million promise

We back our police with the resources they want, the powers they need and the pay they deserve,” she told the ABC last Sunday.

Crikey, they ought to send a couple up the hill here to Maleny, where the new $2 million police station in Macadamia Drive (staffed by four police officers), has a roaming brief to cover an area from Maleny out to Palmwoods, Beerwah, Conondale and Kenilworth.

Ms Palaszczuk’s election promise to hire more police comes a week before the 1950s-style police station in Maleny’s main street is sold at auction. The 2,344sqm property, which is zoned Community Facilities, includes an office/police station and a residence but excludes a separate lock-up.

On my calculations, this sale alone should provide the Queensland Police Service with enough money to pay the salaries of an extra 21 police officers (over four years).

Against my better judgement, I bought the election special edition of The Courier-Mail on Monday after a three-year hiatus, prompted by a series of inflammatory, misleading and discriminatory front pages. Monday’s page one was no less lurid, presenting unflattering caricatures of the three main party leaders.

I worked there in the broadsheet days, pre-tabloid, pre-redundancies, pre-online editions, four editors ago. No regrets, Coyote, as Joni would say. I entered my 70th year on Monday, BP 120/80, feeling OK and supremely relieved I had no part to play in the CM’s graphics-laden presentation of an unwinnable election.

The first two pages of the CM’s October 30 election special purport to sell us the idea they have the State’s media covered. In what amounts to a two-page ‘house ad’, the CM confirms what we already knew – Rupert Murdoch’s Queensland media empire owns almost all of the print media titles. So yes, they have it covered, but you’d expect the coverage to be suitably mainstream; about 9% of the eleven-page election coverage was set aside for stories about the Greens and how they hope to win three seats, including Deputy Premier Jackie’s Trad’s seat of South Brisbane. It appears (from vox pops interviews), that some people in West End will be voting Green because of over-development (apartments) in the inner city suburb.

The rest of the coverage focuses on the resurgence of One Nation, how Labor will suffer from its seemingly intractable position on the Adani coal mine (no mention that the LNP are all for it too), a token story about the Katter Party and proportional space for (most of) the party leaders to have their say.

So to the unwinnable election

There’s a fair chance no single party will emerge from the November 25 poll with a workable majority, so in this sense it is unwinnable.

Crikey’s Perth-based election analyst, Poll Bludger, quoted ReachTEL polling figures from September showing the LNP with a 52-48 lead on primary votes. One Nation was polling at 19.5% and Greens at 8.1%.

An earlier Newspoll had Labor on 37% and the LNP on 34%. Some of you might take this to mean that the two parties will take 71% of the primary vote. This is roughly in line with election trends around the world where one in three people did not vote for one of the major parties. This leaves the unallocated 29% to be divided up between the Greens, One Nation, Independents, minor parties and the 2% of the electorate who cast informal votes.

The poll numbers, which focus only on primary votes, are not worth much in light of the return to compulsory preferential voting (CPV). To the uninitiated, this means numbering your preferred candidate 1 and then others in order of preference (meaning the party you like the least goes last). So if no single candidate has a clear majority, second preferences of the party that polled the least number of votes are counted until a winner emerges.

Many people do not understand preferential voting, so when handed a how-to-vote-card at the polling booth, they simply fill in the numbers as suggested (or number all candidates 1 to 6 consecutively, which is known as the “Donkey Vote.”)

An Australian Institute poll last year found that only 29% of respondents knew how to correctly fill in the (preferential) Senate ballot paper. So that is not a good sign for the re-introduction of compulsory preferential voting at this election. As Griffith University’s Paul Williams pointed out (in the CM), the Australian Electoral Commission is yet to conduct an information campaign to ensure CPV is clearly understood.

University of Melbourne honorary associate Adrian Beaumont has more to say about polling and CPV in The Conversation.

The Sydney Morning Herald suggested on Monday that the return of full preferential voting and new electoral boundaries could hand One Nation a balance of power role.

Enter stage right, former Senator Malcolm Roberts, booted out after a High Court decision found he had not renounced his British citizenship.

By challenging the seat of Ipswich for One Nation, Mr Roberts, best known for his climate change conspiracy theories, could attract enough LNP second preferences to win the seat, the article suggests. (I would go ‘aarrgghh’ at this stage but that would be editorialising).

ABC election analyst Antony Green told the SMH Roberts faced an uphill battle.

“It would be highly surprising if One Nation won there on first preferences, which would mean they would have to come from behind on LNP preferences,” he said.

Ipswich West was more likely to fall to One Nation, he said, adding that One Nation also had a good chance of winning the neighbouring seat of Lockyer.

Ipswich was where Pauline Hanson originally built her One Nation party in the 1990s. Should Roberts prevail, he is being tipped to lead One Nation in Queensland. What was that about the Lord Mayor’s show and the dust cart?

On latest polling, One Nation at 19.5% would seem to be in a strong position to win seats in Queensland and maybe also control the balance of power. A scary notion for some, but you have to give credit where it is due: Pauline Hanson has found the ear of disgruntled voters, much as Donald Trump wooed that endangered species US filmmaker Michael Moore called ‘angry white men’.

In Queensland, the angry, the poor and those who feel forgotten are listening and Hanson tells them what they want to hear.

There is only one certainty about the Queensland election, whoever cobbles together a coalition from this mess will have a mandated four years in which to rule – that’s 208 ‘Fridays on our minds’…#aarrgghh

Greens coalition bridge too far

Greens metaphor: Oresund Bridge between Sweden and Denmark
Öresund Bridge between Copenhagen and Malmö photo by Fab-o-Paris https://flic.kr/p/oudRkh

You may have missed my Facebook link to the story from the Guardian Weekly about the alliance between New Zealand’s Labour Party and the (Kiwi) Greens. The two parties drafted a one-page agreement with one specific aim – to defeat the Nationals and Prime Minister John Keys at the 2017 election. There is no suggestion of a coalition beyond that point, just a muscling-up to push the incumbents from office.

This seems like a fond hope. On the 2014 election result, Labour/Green would still be 730,389 votes short. Still, the NZ Greens hold more sway in the New Zealand parliament, holding 14 seats and taking 10.70% of the popular vote in 2014.

My one line suggestion on Facebook (“memo Bill and Richard”) apparently fell like pearls into the Facebook pigsty. Only one person ‘liked’ it. (This aligns with research that suggests few Facebook browsers click through and read to the end of a lengthy article).

Last month, Australian Greens Treasury spokesman and the only Green MP Adam Bandt said on Q&A that the Greens were open to forming a coalition with Labor. But Labor Opposition leader Bill Shorten said Bandt was “dreaming”.

“Labor will fight this election to form its own government and to form a government in our own right. Labor will not be going into coalition with any party,” he told ABC North Queensland.

The Australian Greens remain incensed about Labor’s ads which suggested they were doing a preference deal with the Liberals. The Greens have since said they will put Labor ahead of Liberal on how to vote cards in all but 11 seats, leaving the latter ‘open’. PM Malcolm Turnbull told ABC Online last Sunday the Liberal Party will preference the Greens last, or behind Labor. “This is a call that I have made in the national interest,” the PM said.

Labor confirmed it will direct its preferences to the Greens in the lower house. There are reports of Labor promoting the Liberal Party over the Nationals in the South Australian seats of Murray, O’Connor and Durack. The Sydney Morning Herald also reported this week that Labor is considering a deal with Nick Xenophon that could see the independent senator pick up three Liberal seats in South Australia.

But is it, as Ben Eltham suggests, trivial to focus on preference deals (which are after all just recommendation on how-to-vote cards), instead of policies?

Conor Little, research associate at Keele University wrote in The Conversation about the difficulties facing Green parties in coalition:

 “Large centre-left parties often fish from the same pool of voters and compete on similar issues as the Greens. As a result, the Green parties are very often seen as a threat to mainstream centre-left parties and vice versa.’’

On any level, Green politics is less influential in Australia that in many European countries and, as we have stated, New Zealand.

The Greens served as the junior coalition partner in Germany’s parliament in 1998 and 2005 and came fourth at the last election (beaten out of third by one seat). In the UK, the Greens polled more than 1 million votes, holding its one seat (Brighton) in the British parliament.

Nordic noir (or verte)

In Denmark, the Red-Green Alliance polled 7.8% of the vote and holds two seats in Opposition. Across the Oresund Bridge in Sweden, the Greens held 6.9% of the vote and 25 seats at the 2014 election, the fourth-largest party in the Swedish parliament.

I mention these two countries in particular as we have become armchair experts on things Nordic, watching acclaimed TV series including The Bridge, Borgen, Wallander and Unit One. So we now recognise useful Swedish words like ya (yes), nej (no), öl (beer) and kön (sex).

The word ‘Green’ can mean different things in global politics. Denmark’s Red-Green Alliance is the most socialist party in Denmark, advocating socialist democracy not just for Denmark but internationally.

Finland’s Green League has 15 seats in parliament after the 2015 election, having quit the coalition twice over approval for a Russian-backed nuclear power plant. Statistics Finland says the party won five more seats in 2015, its vote increasing by 1.3% to 8.5%. The League usually sits in the centre of the political spectrum, criticising both socialism and the free market. But it is also anti-nuclear, anti-conscription, pro same-sex marriage and takes the high moral ground that rich countries must lead others in mitigating the impact of climate change.

So it seems that as the various shades of Green in the world have gathered support and joined coalitions, some have stepped back from the more absolutist positions of their founders.

Conor Little says being in coalition is difficult for any small party. “Co-operating with (or in) a government is a balancing act and no matter how much they achieve, parties with only a few seats usually need to compromise on much of their platform.”

Sometimes the need to assert their identity leads these parties to end their coalition early, as the Australian Greens did, ending its alliance with Labor in February 2013. Likewise Finland’s Greens walked out in 2002 and 2014 over a nuclear power plant proposal. In 2002 the New Zealand Greens rebelled over the release of genetically modified organisms. As Little says, these moves tend to attract more support for Green parties.

Meanwhile, with just 16 days left until Australians vote, what is it about the Australian Greens that makes the LNP believe the party is a threat to the national interest? Perhaps this:

The Greens are the only party that understands that the economy must work for the benefit of society and not the other way around. We have a progressive plan where tax reform starts at the top by removing unfair tax breaks and wasteful subsidies for polluting industries. Not only will this help address the structural deficit of the budget, but it will force money away from tax sheltered locations like superannuation, housing and mining and into productive areas that will set us up for the new economy and more equitable wealth distribution.”

The party polled 8.6% of the primary vote in 2013, yet because of our preferential voting system, the Greens have only one voice in Parliament, although they have 10 seats in the Senate. In New Zealand, with a first-past-the-post voting system, the Greens have 14 seats in Parliament. In Finland, the Greens hold 15 seats with just 8.5% of the vote.

The Australian media rarely portrays the Greens in a positive light. In one transparent example, a page one article in The Australian in April 2015 argued that only the “godless and rich” voted Green. An analysis of seats in the 2015 NSW election by Mark Coultan concluded that atheists and agnostics were more likely to vote Green, as were the wealthy.

Coultan said the primary Green vote averaged 17% in the top 10 electorates ranked by proportion of households with income of $3,000 a week or more (based on 2011 Census). In the top 10 electorates with the lowest proportion of rich families, the primary Green vote was 10.9%. Coultan added that this figure was inflated by outstanding Green results in the anti-CSG electorates of Tweed and Lismore.

Electorates ranked one and two for the number of atheists, agnostics, humanists, rationalists and people with no religion (Balmain and Newtown), were among the three seats picked up by the Greens in NSW.

So how relevant is this report and did it really warrant page one treatment? Judge for yourselves (i) the original yarn and (ii) a lengthy dissection by blogger Dr Kevin Bonham.

Having said that, we’re off to prune the roses before the fickle finger of climate change brings on unwanted early buds.