A Sigh of Relief!

Well, that was close.

We have a very strange way of chosing our upper house representatives here in Australia. On the surface, it is a very fair way of distributing preferences. In the Federal Election, a certain number of seats is given to each State. In the States, the state is divided into regions, and a certain number (five in Victoria) of seats are elected for each region. I can’t quite work out how it is all done, but the preferential voting system has the quirk of often delivering a final seat to a party that had very small primary votes, but gets in on preferences.

That is the way in which Family First got its first senator in the Federal Senate six years ago, and the way in which the Democratic Labor Party got its first seat in the Legislative Council in Victoria at the last elections. It also ensures that the Greens generally get a small number of seats.

This time, however, things looked dicey in at least one region in Victoria. The Family First candidate and the DLP candidate were excluded in the Northern Metropolitan Region, and for a while it looked like an independant with Liberal sympathies (Stephen Mayne) would get the final seat. Then yesterday I heard the news that, thanks to the way the preferences fell, the “donkey vote” for the Sex Party looked set to deliver a seat to them in this region. Yikes! Give me a Green any day!

Anyway, relief at the very last seems to have given the final seat to a Liberal candidate. Premier Ted will be pleased.

But it does demonstrate how dangerous the system can be. Those preferences count, folks. To make sure that your vote goes the way it should, do what I do: fill out all the numbers below the line. It takes a bit of time, but it is the RESPONSIBLE way to vote.

About Schütz

I am a PhD candidate & sessional academic at Australian Catholic University in Melbourne, Australia. After almost 10 years in ministry as a Lutheran pastor, I was received into the Catholic Church in 2003. I worked for the Archdiocese of Melbourne for 18 years in Ecumenism and Interfaith Relations. I have been editor of Gesher for the Council of Christians & Jews and am guest editor of the historical journal “Footprints”. I have a passion for pilgrimage and pioneered the MacKillop Woods Way.
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10 Responses to A Sigh of Relief!

  1. Alexander says:

    Not every state’s upper house is divided into regions. New South Wales and South Australia are undivided (which means very small parties get representation, because the quota is very low). Tasmania’s parliament is upside-down, so the upper house is elected by a majoritarian system (but the lower house is divided into five regions electing five members each). Queensland (and the territories) have no upper house. So I think it’s only Victoria and Western Australia that have regions in the upper house.

    So are preferences in a proportional system a good idea? I think the answer is yes. If they can’t give you what you want the most (or too many people vote for one group/person), your vote should still count. The problem is that “above-the-line” voting is done based on agreements by parties. Instead, you should be able to write your own preferences for parties. Everyone would be able to express their opinions but it wouldn’t take any longer than in the lower house.

    As for the result, pay no regard to the ABC’s website. It’s just a guess based on votes above the line. The VEC isn’t giving any indication of who’s one yet, and has only counted 83% of the enrolment (which sounds a little low, given that the turnout was 90%). At the last state election, the DLP’s seat was a surprise no-one had guessed until the VEC “pressed the button”, as Antony Green puts it. If I recall correctly, the Green’s Northern Metro seat was also a below-the-line surprise.

    As for sighs of relief, a Liberal majority in both houses would be most disappointing. Considering the votes were so close, I very strongly think the Liberals should have to negotiate to get things through the upper house. They will have plenty of options if it’s just one vote they need, and most things probably will (and should) go through with a Labor stamp of approval, collectively representing a good 80%+ of the electorate.

    • Schütz says:

      Thanks for all that info, Alex. Still, I would much rather a majority Liberal (or even Labor) Government in both houses than a “Sex Party” representative in that mix anywhere.

  2. Salvatore says:

    Actually, on the Legislative Council ballot (in Victoria) you only need fill in five preferences below the line – which completely avoids the danger of your preferences going astray. It rather makes one wonder why we have an ‘above the line’ option at all. Surely counting to five isn’t too much to ask?

  3. Matthias says:

    sadly Colleen harland of the greens-yes she who co-authored the appalling loss of conscience provision in the Abortion Act- is re elected. At least Maxine Morand was dumped,the other author of that section.

  4. Robert says:

    Anyone who doesn’t number all the squares below the line, on a ballot paper, should automatically forfeit his or her right to bellyache about subsequent preference-induced political outcomes. I cannot understand the sheeplike assumption that one should simply follow the ballot paper instructions (and consequent preference decisions) of any party.

    Every election, state or federal, I number all the boxes. (In the Victorian election, as it happens, I didn’t put the Greens last: I put the Sex Party last.)

    • Schütz says:

      Me too, in the Upper house ballot. There wasn’t a “Sex Party” candidate in our lower options.

      I do wonder about the “bellyaching” going on about the Liberals putting the Greens last “in preferences”. That isn’t exactly how it works in the lower house ballot anyway. What they did was put the Greens last on their “how to vote” cards. Voters who wanted to vote Green didn’t have to follow the Liberal “how to vote” cards.

  5. Stephen K says:

    I am not entirely happy with the preference system but admit to not knowing what alternative would better meet the balancing of giving effect to individual values on the one hand and determining a workable government. I know the Greens favour proportional representation, whereby parliaments supposedly will reflect proportionally the diversity of views in the community. In that scenario, if enough people support – with a primary vote – a party or individual then it seems right that the values or policies represented by them should go into the legislative debating mix. If not enough don’t, then you don’t end up with anomalous electees like Steve Fielding or the Sex Party. It sounds right, doesn’t it? However, my instinct tells me no system is perfect – which might mean only that no system will ever deliver 100% of what any individual elector might want in an ideal world. Nevertheless, if one has a foundational belief in the virtues of representative democracy, I think it’s hard to argue that if enough people do indeed support a party like the Sex party then they shouldn’t be represented or shouldn’t influence legislation. Politics then becomes a matter of considered argument – not mantras – and persuasion – not shouting and branch-rigging. What a healthier political society we would then be? What do others think?

    • Schütz says:

      The problem with with proportional representation is that you end up voting for a party rather than for a particular individual candidate. That would only have complicated matters for me in the last election, where I especially wanted to support pro-life candidates in a situation where the policies of the major parties was not definitive on these matters.

      • Stephen K says:

        David, I’m not sure that that is a problem just with proportional voting: you might wish to not vote for the candidates of either of the major parties in preference voting but unless you number each box your vote will be invalid and you end up giving a (last) preference to one of them, so it amounts to the same problem. The other caveat to consider is that you might vote for an individual qua individual not member-of-party, but party disciplines, peer pressure or simply point-scoring politics will combine to mean that many individuals subordinate their own mix of views, so again the party view reigns supreme. It is impossible to expect any candidate to reflect all your own views, or to predict how they might eventually vote in the House or Senate. For the voter, I think, it is really a case of some compromise, i.e. choosing the candidate that you judge most likely to represent your views – on the whole. You have to sometimes make a choice between several “goods” or “evils” and make an evaluation of their respective importances: a candidate might champion both universal health care, but also abortion decriminalisation. Some will think both these are goods, some will think they are both evils, and some will think one is one and the other other.

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