Simple Solution To Preferences Stink: Abolish Them

THE TRIENNIAL PANTOMIME of “outrage” over “undemocratic” preference tickets from major parties that are a “sellout” are easy to resolve; the complaint — that preference recommendations are undemocratic — is accurate, for there is nothing democratic about distortions of voter intent. Abolishing preferential voting would terminate an oft-abused obscenity, and harm minor parties and Independents less than conventional wisdom suggests.

I know that by this stage in the election cycle — five weeks into an eight-week official campaign which, by virtue of the timetable for engineering it, is more like 10 or 11 in practice — a lot of people are fed up with the pusillanimous circus that Australian election campaigns invariably see play out; the latest act in this intellectually insulting pantomime is the revelation by each major party which other entities they will favour with recommended preference allocations, and as usual, the self-interested outrage and faux indignity from the likes of the Communist Party Greens and others dependent on a rigged electoral system to even exist has been deafening.

Those who complain that all of this is utterly undemocratic are dead right.

And, frankly, preferences should be made optional — or, even better, abolished altogether.

Readers will recall that last month — taking the delicious opportunity to both ridicule the Greens, and to advocate for their enlistment in a useful enterprise for once in their miserable existence — I published an article suggesting that Victorian Liberal Party chief Michael Kroger was right; that Labor is as bad these days as the Greens are; and that on account of this (and given the nature of preferential voting) the Liberal Party should allocate preference recommendations strategically in its own interests just as the parties of the Left have always done, despite whatever lofty rhetoric about principle they direct at others that nonetheless never seems to apply to themselves.

The “broccoli-munching gnomes” might have picked up a seat or two but overall, this would have done nothing at all to advantage the Left as a whole: on the contrary, it would have lobbed a hand grenade into relations between Labor and the Greens. But Kroger was pilloried and shouted down by shortsighted “strategists” within the Liberal Party nationally and, as a result, the ALP will receive the party’s preferences in every seat in the country — making a Labor government, and one secured with an outright majority, that little bit more likely.

That’s “principle” for you: apply it sanctimoniously in the name of preserving it, and you risk dealing yourself out of the game altogether.

Instead, Australians are being treated to a barrage of bullshit this week (and you can access some coverage here, here, here and here) suggesting the Liberal and Labor Parties are trying to lock Nick Xenophon out of the House of Representatives, or that Labor has “sold its soul” by preferencing the Liberal Party ahead of the Greens in some seats; my comment should not be misconstrued in any way as criticism of the journalists publishing those articles, or course, who are simply doing their jobs in reporting this crap.

There is a reason — when Australia’s electoral system was first devised, along with those that originally applied in the states — why voting was conducted on a first-past-the-post (FPTP) basis: the candidate with the most support would be elected; it is the simplest, purest, and least distorted model on which to conduct democratic elections.

It is the model that applies in all of the countries to which Australia is culturally closest — the UK, the US, and Canada — and even in New Zealand, where a Labour government once implemented a horrific hybrid system of single-member electorates and proportionally elected list MPs, the single-member electorates are nonetheless elected on a FPTP system.

And as I have often argued in this column in the past, there is nothing democratic whatsoever in forcing people to express a “preference” — any preference — for candidates and parties upon which they would not voluntarily choose to even spit, let alone vote for; speaking personally, I find it an affront to even place either of the Greens or Labor ahead of the other.

There are those who choose to vote for minor party candidates whose choice is just that: to vote for minor party candidates. These people don’t say, “well, I’ll vote Greens to be nice to pinko lunatics, but what I really want is a Labor MP” because if they thought that way, they would simply vote for the ALP in the first place.

In the Victorian state seat of Prahran, a Liberal candidate polling 46% of the primary vote was beaten in 2014 by the third-placed Green, who scraped together just 24% of the votes himself; contrary to the jubilant triumphalism about a “breakthrough” and the march of so-called progressive voters to the Greens that party saw fit to delude itself with, this result was in fact an anti-democratic outrage that made a complete mockery of the idea that elections should produce MPs who enjoy a clear quotient of public support.

And in Queensland, just recently, the Labor government of Annastacia Palaszczuk — heavily dependent on flows of Greens preferences — legislated to abolish optional preferential voting (OPV) in a smash-and-grab exercise conducted with no consultation and no warning, in an attempt to permanently advantage the ALP at future state elections.

This was the same Labor Party which, in 1991 and acting on recommendations arising out of the Fitzgerald reform process to clean up the rotten state of governance in Queensland, introduced OPV: it was ostensibly part of the implementation of Fitzgerald reforms “lock, stock and barrel,” but was underpinned by the ulterior motivation of making merry with the Liberal and National Parties, which to that point regularly engaged in three-cornered contests for both marginal seats and safe conservative turf they tried to poach from each other.

And in Queensland — as in NSW, where the Wran government similarly introduced OPV, in part at least to throw the same hand grenade into the state Coalition — the number of voters declining to do anything other than “Just Vote ‘1’” has steadily increased to the point where at last year’s state election, 60% of voters allocated nothing more than a first preference; far be it for me to argue the merits of abolishing compulsory preferential voting: the stampede of voters themselves, when given the discretion to allocate preferences or not, provides conclusive proof of the point I am making without me needing to incur the accusation of conservative bias.

Besides, politics changes, and so do the priorities of all parties; preferential voting itself was originally a rort to insulate the then-Nationalist Party — a forerunner to today’s Liberals — from the emergence of the Country Party a century ago, which threatened to split the non-Labor vote and gift elections to the ALP under the FPTP system then in place.

This is no less reprehensible than any other fix or rort enacted on Australia’s electoral laws, irrespective of what those distortions were or by whom they were appropriated.

(And don’t get me started about proportional voting, the least democratic system ever devised for “democratic” elections: readers can reacquaint themselves with my thoughts on what should happen to the Senate — and any other upper house employing this ghastly system — here).

Preferences allow factional thugs like David Feeney and faceless factional operatives like Peter Khalil to feel secure in lower house seats like Batman and Wills, despite no relevance to mainstream majority politics; had the Liberals followed through on the threat to preference the Greens in Batman, Feeney would rightly be contemplating defeat. Yet his putative replacement from the Greens would have been as compromised as Feeney will be now, dependent on enemy votes merely to survive.

The same can be said of Khalil in Wills, where a Labor Party serious about putting the best candidates (and, when they are also female, women) into safe seats would have preselected Jamila Rizvi, who ironically would have likely attracted enough genuine support to make the spat over preferences irrelevant altogether.

Preferences allow actual Communist idiots like Lee Rhiannon and pinko lunatics like Sarah Hanson-Young build careers in the proportionally elected Senate when they deserve none, and to do so with minimal actual direct support; this is not democracy, but a sham. Yet the Greens’ is the latest voice arguing its party has been robbed in what has become a depressingly monotonous ritual.

Those who argue for compulsory preferential voting conjure up scenarios like eight candidates in a seat splitting the vote more or less equally, with one elected on less than 13% of the vote: such scenarios are pretty ridiculous at first glance. Or they should be.

But preferences allowed a candidate in Prahran to get up with less than a quarter of the vote — and in so doing, make a mockery of the alleged superiority of preferential voting these types protest.

They express outrage that a party with just under 39% of the vote (as the Conservative Party in Britain achieved at last year’s election) could win a narrow parliamentary majority under a FPTP electoral system.

But this ignores the fact that under their beloved preferential system, Labor under Julia Gillard fell just three seats short of doing just that with 37.2% of the vote in 2010. Bob Hawke won an eight-seat majority in 1990 with 39.2%. Indeed, under OPV in Queensland last year, Labor fell one seat short with 37.5%. What’s the difference? It can be summed up in one word.


And the fact is that by abolishing preferential voting altogether, or by implementing OPV across the country and banning the publication of preference recommendations, minor parties like the Greens would be at less of a disadvantage than they are now: Adam Bandt, with his 42% of the primary vote in the federal seat of Melbourne, would still have won that seat in 2013; yes, outpolled by Labor by 1.9% three years earlier, he would have failed to win the seat, but only because someone else had more support — which is how it should be.

But minor parties and Independents, generally — campaigning on local issues and generating support within their own communities — would in fact face a lower bar to entering Parliament than exists now; all they would need to do is to top the poll for the primary vote.

And be it minor parties or major parties, getting rid of preferences (or adopting the middle option of OPV) would force candidates to get out and earn their support — something Labor is arguably better at doing than the Coalition, even if its methods leave everything to be desired, as recent state elections in Victoria and Queensland showed.

And finally, where the additional red herring objection of the potential for inducements for votes is raised by some, I would suggest any system devised by people, for people, and where the power of government is at stake, contains the inherent temptation for undesirables to engage in corrupt practices; when and if this occurs, such behaviour should be punished with the full weight of the law. But in any case, such considerations are not mutually exclusive to making the electoral system itself more accountable to the expressed (and desired) intentions of voters.

When this election is done and dusted, those with a genuine interest in the probity of governance and truly representative democracy — be they from the Left, the Right, or the Centre — would do worse than to jointly champion the abolition of compulsory preferences altogether, and the outlawing of published recommendations for preference allocations to end this insidious farce once and for all.

After all, some obscure Green, or fringe idiot with a few hundred votes, elected after perhaps dozens of counts because of an arcane preference deal cannot and does not represent a democratic outcome.

There will be those who bleat about “inclusion” and diversity — and frankly, these justifications for distorting electoral outcomes so vastly should simply be dismissed with the contempt they deserve.

If you win the most votes in whatever jurisdiction you contest, you should be elected: and whilst implementing this philosophy in the Senate might be more difficult than in the House of Representatives — short of a model per the article I linked to earlier — it should be made the most immediate priority for electoral reform by whoever wins office next month, and the charade of preference recommendations dispensed with forever.

In the final analysis, preferences are an abuse of democracy, not an enhancement of it. The sooner they are done away with, the better.