Features Australia

Preferring not to preference

4 May 2019

9:00 AM

4 May 2019

9:00 AM

There are certain predictable signposts on the road to polling day that are handy reference points for those tracking progress. The first of these is the inevitable ‘debate’ over the televised debate between the two leaders. How many will there be? Who will moderate? Will it be shown on free-to-air? Will the questions come from voters or from journalists?

Consistent with the slow start to a formal campaign period interrupted by Easter and Anzac Day, this time-honored wrangle occured in week two rather than its more traditional slot in the first week of proceedings. This meant it had to be incorporated into the typical second week conversation – the complaints from members of the fourth estate about how dreadfully stage-managed the whole campaign is, and furious agreement that the whole affair is tedious and boring.

Happily, we are now back on track, as the close of nominations in the latter part of week two brought forth the usual hand-wringing and clutching of pearls over preference deals, variously and inaccurately described as ‘slimy’, ‘sleazy’ and ‘cynical’.

This is not to suggest that the people who hold concerns over preference deals should have those concerns dismissed. It is perfectly legitimate to raise questions about what agreements may have been reached between various parties, and what promises may have been given in relation to policy actions post-election.

Yet most of the complainants don’t explore this aspect of the issue, because they are too busy being offended that any preference deals have been done at all.

I am no evangelist for preference deals. They lack transparency, are often complex and, on the whole, do not lead to better policy outcomes, reductions in wasteful spending or shrink the size of government. But for so long as we conduct House of Representatives elections using the current voting system, we will have preference deals. The design of the system encourages them.

There is only one way to do away with preference deals – and that is to do away with full preferential voting.

When the small percentage of Australians capable of being conned by Clive Palmer’s platitudinous advertising cast their vote, they will still have to send their preferences somewhere. Full preferential voting forces them to indicate a preference for the major parties they profess to despise.

Greens voters may like to think they are changing politics. Yet in the vast bulk of cases, all they are doing is forcing the count to take a little longer before their ballot ends up in the ALP pile.

For the three-quarters of Australians who plan to vote for a major party in the House of Representatives, standing in the booth and numbering every box is nothing more than a colossal waste of time. Save for a handful of seats, the preferences of the major parties are never distributed.

The past week’s fulmination from those demanding to know if Cabinet ministers are comfortable with their party’s how-to-vote cards recommending voters give their second preference to Clive Palmer is laughable. Why wouldn’t they be? It has no practical electoral effect whatsoever.

In the vast bulk of seats, it wouldn’t matter if the Liberal party’s how-to-vote card recommended that voters put the HEMP Party second. Absent very unusual circumstances, if you vote for a major, your preference allocations will never get even a momentary glance when the the votes are counted.

Australian election campaigns are generally only around five weeks long. That’s not a lot of time to discuss and debate the policy issues that really matter.

So if we are going to devote time to discussing preference arrangements, perhaps we should have a different conversation and question the suitability of an electoral system that forces voters to give preferences to parties they despise.

Why note simply allow voters to make a single choice if that is what they want to do, whilst still permitting people who wish to number every box to do so?

As anyone who has scrutineered at a vote count can attest, significant numbers of votes are deemed invalid because of incomplete numbering, even though in most cases the voter’s first preference will be abundantly clear.

In other words, the full preferential system is disenfranchising a significant number of voters. And in close seats in close elections, that can make the difference.

The fact that political campaigns have to invest so much time, effort and money in producing how-to-vote cards and ensuring every voter receives one is in itself a tacit admission that voters are confused by the full preferential system.

You generally do not find party volunteers at polling places in the United States or the United Kingdom earnestly thrusting pieces of paper at bewildered voters in an effort to explain how to cast a valid vote.

The beauty of optional preferential voting is that it puts full power in the hands of the elector. After all, if you’re voting for the Socialist Alternative, why should you be forced to indicate down-ballot support for capitalists? If you’re voting the Australian Christians, why should our system demand you then preference an atheist in your ballot order?

It is incorrect to suggest that optional preferential voting favours one side of politics more than another – though it’s certainly true that full preferential voting advantages Labor.

The ALP’s primary vote at the last federal election was around 7 per cent lower than the Coalition’s, and the second worst in Labor’s post-war history. Yet despite that, Bill Shorten came within a whisker of becoming Prime Minister.

On the other hand, optional preferential voting in Queensland and NSW didn’t prevent Labor’s Peter Beattie or Bob Carr winning record parliamentary majorities in their time.

When changes were made to allow optional preferential voting for the Senate in 2016, they included a ‘saving’ provision that ensures a Senate vote is still formal even if the voter numbers only one box above the line.

If voters can be trusted with optional preferential voting in the Senate, surely it is time they were given that same choice for the chamber that actually determines government?

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