DESPITE THE REPUGNANCE of the Greens — their ultra-socialist platform, the presence of actual Communists and other lunatics in their parliamentary ranks, and their opposition to most civilised aspects of decent Australian society — there is a case, a sound case, for the Liberal Party to swap preferences with them at this year’s election. The seemingly insane option is a tactical masterstroke invited by principle and evolving political reality.
In an ideal world, all lower house elections in Australia for single-member electorates would be conducted using Optional Preferential Voting (or even better, First Past the Post) but with current realities dictating that they won’t be for the foreseeable future (aside from state elections in Queensland and NSW), the compulsory allocation of preferences is an evil that must be exercised, strategised, and navigated.
The Australian is carrying a story today concerning an issue that has been widely discussed — both openly and behind the scenes — ever since Michael Kroger returned to the state presidency of the Victorian Division of the Liberal Party a year ago; Kroger, a renowned strategist credited with maximising the electoral massacre of federal Labor MPs in Victoria in 1990 and the thunderous election of the Kennett government two years later, has been canvassing the prospect of directing Liberal preferences to Greens candidates in selected seats in return for Green preferences in a swathe of marginal electorates held by Liberal and Labor MPs alike.
Readers know I harbour a deep loathing of the Greens — routinely (and accurately) decried as Communists and left-wing lunatics whenever they are mentioned in this column — but today I’m not going to exercise my usual strikethrough policy.
Even idiots can be useful idiots, and if the Greens are prepared to go along with what appears in prospect — seduced by the lure of more seats in the House of Representatives — then far be it for me to criticise, abuse, or pillory them for once.
Before we get too far into this, I should note that irrespective of whatever is recommended on a how-to-vote card by any political party, the end decision of where to allocate preferences rests with the voter; in the case of the Senate — the mechanism for electing which is about to be overhauled and simplified — such considerations are unfathomable to most voters, who simply vote above the line for the party of their choice and tacitly accept the allocation worked out by that party.
But lower house seats generally do not feature tablecloth-sized ballot papers printed with (in some cases) more than 100 names, and the voter who does not wish to follow the card is easily able to make his or her own decision, so let’s not hear about “Machiavellian deals” that distort outcomes in the lower house: such deals are readily thwarted if an elector sees fit.
In the end — in single-member constituencies elected by exhaustive preferential balloting — someone has to be placed last.
Here in Australia, it has been an article of faith for decades on the non-Labor side of politics that the ultimate enemy is the ALP, and that in all cases, the Liberal and National Parties recommend putting Labor last.
This formula has been flirted with over the years; the decision by state-based Coalition parties to recommend placing Pauline Hanson’s One Nation behind Labor arguably amplified smashing state election defeats in NSW in 1999, WA, the NT and Queensland in 2001, and perhaps the loss in South Australia in 2002; conversely, in the case of Queensland, an exchange of preferences with Hanson’s party that was poorly articulated and badly sold to the public in the face of a colossal propaganda barrage from the ALP contributed to the loss of seats at another state election in 1998 and helped propel the minority Borbidge government onto the pavement.
Yet whichever way you cut it, ever since the ALP won a federal election in 1990 with less than 40% of the primary vote using a strategy that explicitly pitched for the preferences of minor party voters — in short, acknowledging disgruntled Labor voters could have their cake by parking a protest vote elsewhere, but could eat it too by ensuring those protest votes were harvested — the ALP has run rings around the conservative parties where preference strategies are concerned.
At any given election these days (and in isolation from any deals that might be done now) eight out of every ten votes cast for a Greens candidate who is eliminated from a preference count will go to the Labor candidate; this whopping 80% conversion ratio has only grown stronger for the ALP over recent years, and makes the 60% they used to get on average from the Australian Democrats look positively pedestrian by comparison.
Labor has also more proven adept than the Coalition at striking deals with other minor parties over preferences, and appears well versed in the practice of fielding dummy “Independent” candidates whose sole function is to collect a point or two of the vote in any given seat and channel it back to the ALP.
We’re not going to look at the practice of running dummy candidates here today — insidious as it is — but where preference allocation and gathering are concerned, the ALP has long had things down to a fine art, and when anyone talks about Labor’s superiority at raw politics over the Liberals, this is one of the things they are alluding to.
At the risk of being simplistic, any preference strategy (and again, we’re talking about lower house elections) has four basic objectives and these, in no particular order, are
- To facilitate a candidate’s ability to assemble at least 50.1%, after preferences, of the valid votes cast in a given electorate;
- To relegate the primary opposing candidate to a total of 49.9% of the vote, after preferences, in a given electorate;
- To secure an absolute majority of the seats in the chamber for which an election is conducted; and
- To consign the primary opposing party (and any possible coalescence of opposing parties collectively) to a minority of the total seats in that chamber.
For today at least — and to stick to the point — we’re not going to examine by-elections or hung Parliaments to any extensive degree, although I would observe that even in those situations, efficacious preferencing strategies are still paramount to the overall endeavours and results of each competing party.
Obviously, all elections are different — and the particular tactical and strategic decisions made at each will vary, including where preference recommendations on how-to-vote cards are concerned.
But broadly, you have to wonder if the Coalition parties have been so focused on the mantra of putting Labor last (if there is no One Nation, or specific Greens bogeyman, or maybe a bellicose Clive Palmer that requires a particular touch-up just for the look of it) that they have lost sight of the seat-by-seat approach as a tool with which to effect their broader objectives.
Readers might recall that prior to the last federal election, I called in this column for the Greens to be preferenced out of existence: at that time Labor was the intended beneficiary of its usual 80% cut of Greens preferences, and this — combined with an understandable disinclination on the ALP’s part to preference against the Greens — meant that the minor party was as much a primary Coalition opponent as Labor was.
And of course, former Liberal leader Ted Baillieu is widely credited with maximising the statewide Coalition vote at a state election in Victoria in 2010 with a strategy of placing the Greens last in every electorate, even if the 51.6% of the two-party vote it resulted in garnered a majority of just a single seat (which he, and the Coalition, would soon rue bitterly).
But I suggest that even in the half a dozen years since then, things have changed.
It is now clear that broadly, the Greens have permanently dislodged about one-fifth (and perhaps as much as one- quarter) of what used to be regarded as Labor’s base vote; this movement more or less took place after the demise of the Australian Democrats early in the 2000s — at least some of whose support, it seems reasonable to suggest, found its way to the ALP — and whilst Labor has contorted and shuffled ever leftward in its attempts to court that lost vote and to appease the Greens, it does rather look as if that support is not only gone permanently, but that having oxygenated a socialist party of the hard Left, the Greens are determined to entrench, and grow, their position.
As Labor has faced broadly united opposition to its Right (in the form of the Coalition) and has sought to fend off the attack to its Left from the Greens, it has vacated the centre ground in which the overwhelming majority of swinging voters dwell, and on which elections are usually won or lost; occasionally — as was the case in 2007 — it will harvest enough votes to win a federal election on preferences, but the ALP’s structural position is a fundamentally weak, and weakening, one.
Even when Labor under Bill Shorten led the Abbott government by 10 or 15 points on the two-party measure over an 18-month period, for example, it did so despite hardly ever registering a primary vote of 40% or higher.
And its last election “win” (for want of a better term) in 2010 was achieved with just 37.2% of the primary vote.
Labor has, for decades, been far better than the Coalition at augmenting its defective primary vote with preferential support; hence its outright election win in 1990 despite scoring 39% of the primary vote and being outpolled by the Peacock-led Coalition by more than four percentage points, or its technical loss in 2010 that was nonetheless sufficient to form minority government even after the Coalition outgunned it in primary vote terms by more than six percentage points.
But if you accept the tectonic plates of broad political support for the Left are shifting — and that the Greens are on the march, which I believe they are, gradually winning new seats in lower houses across the country and positioning themselves for a run at others — then the pattern of Labor winning well over 90% of the lower house seats taken by the Left will continue to break down, and this opens an opportunity for the Coalition that can and should be exploited.
There are those who say, “How could they? How could those Liberals preference the Greens above Labor?” But as I said at the outset, someone has to be placed last: and when the Greens and the ALP are examined, side by side, the degree of lunacy one might accuse the Greens of is less marked than it used to be when considered against Labor in relative terms.
For as the ALP has shuffled to the Left to compensate for losing almost its entire Left flank, it has morphed into a very unpleasant beast indeed.
No longer just the party of trade unions, Labor is now the party through which tens of millions of dollars are channelled during each and every term of Parliament; this money — gleefully accepted by the ALP — is given for the express purpose of destroying elected conservative governments by (literally) any and all means possible, and to prevent conservative governments ever being elected in the first place.
The rabid socialism of the Greens is now, essentially, also the rabid socialism of the ALP: wielding a big-tax stick, the business community, families, self-funded retirees and the wealthy have been singled out and targeted in an explicit and vicious tax-them-till-they-drop onslaught that underpins the mentality of both parties.
The cult-like obsession with “settled” climate change science and the determination to tax carbon to the point it inflicts economic misery and hardship on ordinary Australians — replete with abuse and vilification of anyone who disagrees with it — is common ground to both parties.
Both Labor and the Greens not only favour legislating gay marriage — euphemistically described as “marriage equality” (there is no such thing) and “equal love” (a fatuous marketing slogan beyond ridiculous) — but seek to force the issue with binding votes in Parliament on their MPs: hardly the actions of liberal-minded entities participating in a system of liberal democracy.
Speaking of liberalism, liberty and freedom (or the utter lack of it) both Labor and the Greens are committed to policies and laws that dictate what people are permitted to say, think, and do: to whisper a syllable in defiance of the latest prescriptive edicts from the socialist, politically correct Left is to invite a torrent of public abuse to obliterate the individuals and/or organisations who dared to challenge whatever bullshit it is the Left is determined to impose.
And where quaint, old-fashioned ideas like economic responsibility and balanced budgets are concerned, neither Labor nor the Greens will have a bar of such trifles beyond the requisite lip-service deemed necessary to maintain a masquerade of responsibility: Labor, because to actually take such notions seriously would necessitate the candid acknowledgement it wilfully brutalised and vandalised the nation’s finances under Wayne Swan, Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd; the Greens — prosaically — because they think they will never be held responsible for anything, so they can promise whatever they like with gay abandon.
Yes, the Greens want the country’s borders thrown open and probably salivate over the social dislocation and unrest now unfolding in parts of Europe as too many migrants, culturally incompatible with Western democratic values, flood into Europe and threaten the stability and cohesion of the countries affected, whereas Labor — so far — does not.
But the only reason Labor doesn’t is because it lost elections over border policy in 2001 and 2013 and to a lesser extent in 2004, was run close in 2010 largely on account of the same issue, and finally got the message a few years ago that the silent majority of the Australian electorate simply won’t tolerate the kind of self-immolation now being experienced in Germany, Sweden, and elsewhere on the European continent.
As it lurches around toward the Left, there is no guarantee Labor won’t junk even that point of difference — especially if a more left-wing leader, such as Tanya Plibersek, follows Shorten at the helm of the ALP — and so it is difficult to separate Labor from the Greens over even that.
I know I am covering the ground fairly generally to make the point but when you look at the parties through the prism I have just outlined, why is Labor especially preferable to the Greens in any sense whatsoever? I contend they are as bad — and as nasty — as each other.
With that in mind, therefore, some astute preferential politics is a good idea. Certainly, it is no less than Labor itself has been up to for many years. And if Labor types want to bleat about “hypocrisy” (over what?) or a lack of principles, then let them do their worst.
The article from The Australian I have linked today shows a list of 12 seats won by the ALP at the last federal election solely on account of Greens preferences, all by two-party margins of 3.5% or less, and all only after the receipt of 75% or more of the Greens’ preference flow.
By the same token, there is a growing number of Labor-held seats around the country — Batman and Wills in Melbourne; Grayndler and Sydney in NSW; Griffith in Brisbane, to name a handful — where Labor members have either relied on Liberal preferences to beat Greens candidates or, based on trends emanating from the gradual drift of Left-inclined voters from Labor to the Greens, will very soon need to do so.
And to date and to the best of my knowledge, the Coalition has not had any MPs elected in any seat on Labor Party preferences: on the contrary, the ALP has helped elect Clive Palmer in a usually safe Liberal seat in Fairfax, Cathy McGowan in a usually safe Liberal seat in Indi, and previously helped the likes of Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott win normally safe National Party seats in New England and Lyne respectively. That’s just for starters, and before we even mention its handiwork in state seats across Australia.
The Coalition, in other words, doesn’t owe the ALP a zack where preference allocations are concerned. If it doesn’t like a dose of its own medicine being administered in deals with the Greens to preference against it, then it can stew in its own juices. And I make the point that Labor has no compunction about “doing deals” with the Greens to secure preference flows, and has done so to date ruthlessly and mercilessly and without compunction. If the prospect of someone else doing the same thing now offends it, then that’s just too bad.
By swapping preferences in half a dozen marginal Labor seats the Liberal Party wants to win in exchange for Liberal preferences in half a dozen Greens’ target seats, the Coalition may add to its haul of seats at the coming election, whilst the Greens may well dislodge several Labor MPs in the process: a win-win, one might say.
But another consideration that seems to have been overlooked — and which has a whole new dynamic entrenched in it — is the fact that for every seat Greens candidates win at the expense of the ALP (not increasing the overall share of seats won by the Left), the harder it becomes for Labor to win majority government at all.
In other words, the medium to longer-term effect of such a shift in electoral strategy could well be to force Labor into formal Coalitions with the Greens if it ever wants to hold office again.
Were that scenario to materialise, the ALP would finally understand what “Coalition relations” entail: and after decades of derision aimed at the National Party for “selling out” to the Liberal Party, or aimed at the Liberals for being “held captive” by the Nationals, Labor would be forced to confront the same dynamic, albeit without the decades of fine-tuning and practice the Coalition parties are able to reap the fruits of in the form of (usually) harmonious, united relations.
Elections are about many things, but when the votes are cast, they are about winning: Labor has been utterly ruthless about its approach to this for decades. If Kroger’s initiative sharpens up the Coalition’s ability to benefit from preference allocations, it would help negate the insidious reality that 80% of all Greens votes flow to the ALP as things stand.
What goes around, comes around: and I see no reason why Kroger shouldn’t trial a preference swap with the Greens in key seats in at least Victoria this year if some national strategy can’t be formalised for whatever reason.
And at some undefined point over the horizon, the idea of 65 Labor MPs trying to govern in “coalition” with 13 or 14 Greens would be amusing if it weren’t so serious, but when such a government was riven asunder by competing egos, agendas, and the truly hardcore socialism of the Greens — as it certainly would be — then that would be to the Liberals’ benefit too.
I say bring it on. And if anyone accuses me of expediency in saying so, just remember everyone else is doing it, right now: Labor, the Greens, red herrings like Clive Palmer, past abominations like One Nation, and all those other “principled” microparties designed to hive off enough primary votes to secure public election funding all recommend preference allocations in the way that best suits their own needs.
On this basis, if the Liberal Party does not do so, it is very foolish indeed: and if the Greens are idiots by nature, they may as well be made useful.