Hobson’s Choice – guide to preferential voting

preferential-voting
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.

More reading:

 

 

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.