NSW 2011: analysing the Legislative Council result

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I blogged earlier tonight on what the actual result was in the Legislative Council. Now I want to turn to analysing that result and how that reflects on the campaign and coverage of the result.

In the end the result of my projection was accurate, even if the exact margin wasn’t so accurate. The problem was that my calculator needed to make an assumption about the number of formal below-the-line votes, which it did by looking at the proportion of above-the-line votes that were counted. Through most of the count it assumed that the final number of BTL votes would be between 60,000 and 80,000 votes, but the final figure ended up being over 91,000. It appears that a lot BTL votes were left until the end of the process to be data-entered, which makes sense as they take much longer to process than ATL votes. So while I had Hanson’s percentage of BTL votes about spot-on, the much larger total number of BTL votes meant that I had underestimated her final primary vote lead by about 9,000 votes.

If I had known that Hanson would end up leading by 15,000 votes I would have been far less confident in my belief that she would lose, which would have been reasonable considering how close the final figures were. All the same, it still remained far too early to call the result yesterday, as some media outlets did.

In addition, for reasons that I have yet to understand, there are more ATL votes in the final count than there were in the original count posted on the website. The Coalition had 5,000 more votes, the CDP almost 5,000, Labor almost 4,000, the Greens 2,000 and Hanson 4,000. Thus the overall percentages were different, whereas my calculator assumed that these two figures would eventually coalesce.

In the end, the key preferences deciding the result certainly weren’t the Greens (despite the shrieking of David Penberthy and Labor figures), nor were they Labor preferences. It is true that the Greens and Coalition needed every set of preferences they got, but the decisive preferences came from John Hatton and Gordon Moyes. After all of Labor’s talk about preferencing the Greens and the need to keep out Hanson, only 9.4% of Labor votes at the key point went to the Greens. It’s hardly particularly impressive, and may have been just as high if the party hadn’t made a big song-and-dance about the issue. Maybe it would have been higher if the party had actually preferenced the Greens in all seats, as they said they did. Luckily it was just enough to win.

This points to how difficult it is to know how these things will play out. It remains the case, as it was before the election, that preferences won’t make a difference in the Legislative Council unless the primary vote count is extremely close. Some of us may have been flippant in dismissing the possibility of this close race happening, but you have to admit that this contest was extremely close, and that very few preferences did actually flow. Of the eleven groups that had their preferences distributed, the exhaustion rate was on average 78%, ranging from 67% for Socialist Alliance to 85% for the ALP. It was a perfect storm. I still believe that Greens preferencing Labor would have been counterproductive and resulted in neither Labor or Greens winning one of those last seats, but it is true that the scenario Labor painted could have come true, and one bearing some relationship to it did. Yet despite all of Labor’s talk about needing to swap preferences, 85% of Labor voters did not give a preference.

Most of the media commentary about which candidates were going to be in the final contest was inaccurate. Following election day the media talked about a race between Buckingham, Ferguson and Hanson, even as Ferguson’s chances slipped away. In the end Ferguson came 27th, being excluded before the No Parking Meters Party. Meanwhile the media (myself included) largely ignored the danger to the Coalition’s eleventh seat, and missed the key role Family First would play in pushing the Greens and Nationals ahead of Hanson.

It is quite disappointing how often mainstream journalists seem to show a serious lack of understanding of Australia’s electoral system. Regularly during the campaign journalists ran with stories that would have been non-stories if the journalist understood the electoral system. The Sydney Morning Herald ran a story about Pauline Hanson claiming a huge amount of public funding from running, despite the fact that she had little chance of polling 4%, and if she did she would have certainly been elected, providing far more access to public funds through a parliamentary office and expenses for eight years.

The Herald also ran a story about the Greens denying preferences to the ALP in Marrickville with no understanding of the fact that, as a race between Labor and the Greens, preferences from the Greens would have no impact on the result in Marrickville.

The Australian Associated Press ran a story on April 3, when it was clear that Labor was not going to win, swallowing Anthony Albanese’s highly dubious claim that the Greens not preferencing Labor would result in Hanson getting elected. David Penberthy went further on The Punch, but I think it’s more likely that his claim was malicious, rather than due to a lack of understanding, considering his outright refusal to reconsider his statement when the facts were presented to him clearly.

Just yesterday the ABC and AAP both reported that Hanson basically had the Legislative Council seat in the bag. They quoted Antony Green’s factual statement that Hanson was leading by 6,000 primary votes, and then spun that into a story saying Hanson would win, despite the evidence from the 2003 election, confirmed today, suggesting that the Greens could easily overtake a 6,000 vote lead. The ABC is usually better in covering electoral matters, and it’s a little bit scary that they can drop the ball this badly when Antony Green leaves the country for a few days.

Most of the time these stories come from journalists who usually show a strong understanding of politics in New South Wales, but sometimes it doesn’t extend to understanding the electoral system. I’m not talking about young journalists who don’t understand policy, as was an issue during the federal election. Often you need to conduct your own research to know the consequences of preference flows, or to know whether a particular outcome is possible or probable. I worry that the modern political journalist has little time to test these outcomes and do this research, and it often can fall by the wayside, buying the line of a politician who has an agenda to push (like Luke Foley or Anthony Albanese). Maybe major media outlets need to invest in someone like Antony Green who understands the process and can follow the count and give proper advice to political journalists. No, I’m not volunteering, although journalists can always call me to talk about these things.

It is important to Australian politics that journalists actually understand how elections work, and what way a result is likely to go. Often we can’t say for certain which way a result will go, today’s result was a perfect example of that. But understanding preference flows and where candidates stand in the count can allow you to understand how likely particular outcomes are. It can have a significant impact on the narrative of Australian politics when the media gets a story wrong. Just look at the reaction to yesterday’s stories saying Hanson was on track to win in the Legislative Council. Of course she had a chance, and came very close, but in the end it was far early to call it, and it turned out to be wrong.

Pauline Hanson, in her press conference this morning, criticised the electoral system and claimed she would have won under a system that made it easier for people to vote for her. It may surprise you, but I agree with her. I believe that Hanson received the largest below-the-line vote of any candidate because many voters would have been confused and not realised that they could vote for her above-the-line. Her above-the-line box was only marked with the words “Group J”, which have no meaning for any voter. In contrast, every other group except John Hatton got their party name above the line. Below-the-line votes for Hanson needed to have at least 15 squares numbered formally. Any “Just Vote 1” votes for Hanson below the line would have been counted as informal. A survey of votes when I was scrutineering at the counting centre indicated that many informal votes were attempts to vote for Hanson. She would have likely been elected if those attempts to vote for her had been counted.

Hanson is not the best ambassador for electoral reform, but there are serious problems with how we conduct Legislative Council ballots that make it hard for voters to understand. As a first step, it should be at least possible for independent groups that have met the high bar to appear on the ballot to have “John Hatton independents” or “Pauline Hanson independents” appear above the line in the place of a party name. Independents running for the Legislative Assembly are as easy to find on the ballot as party candidates, the same should be true in the Legislative Council.

I would go further, and abolish the need to number all 15 squares below-the-line. This would also allow parties to run far less than 15 candidates, which would make the ballot paper much simpler and avoid having such huge numbers of candidates, the vast majority of whom never came close to being elected, and probably wouldn’t have wanted to be. If you wanted to go further, you could abolish below-the-line voting entirely. Below-the-line voting made no difference at this election. You might say “but Hanson wouldn’t have won on above-the-line votes”, but those votes would have probably been cast above-the-line if it was clear who they were voting for. It remains the case that a candidate further down a party ticket has never won a seat on a surge of below-the-line votes.

Instead, we could have a system where each party has one box, and you can only number preferences for parties as a whole, and preferences would then flow the way above-the-line preferences flow now. In the process you would make the process much simpler and much easier for people to vote. It would also make the counting process much quicker, without having a real effect on people’s ability to exercise choice. Despite the theoretical possibility of voting for an individual candidate against the party’s wishes, it currently doesn’t have any real effect on the count, and significantly confuses and complicates the voting process for many voters.

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13 COMMENTS

  1. Whatever the practical impact may be, I can’t really agree about the idea of abolishing below the line voting. That would entrench a system where parties have all the power. Of course it happens in practice, but in theory at least voters have the option to choose individual candidates. Also, for parties which don’t enforce strict party discipline, the individual candidates who get elected can definitely make a difference, and voters may definitely want to choose between them.

    A problem with the current system is that it already gives parties too much power to decide which individuals get elected. How democratic is it that in practice someone as unpopular as, say, Eric Roozendaal, can’t be democratically removed from office? The alternative, something like the Tasmanian or ACT approach, would obviously be impractical for an election for 21 seats, so I think it’s a situation we have to live with where in practice the candidates do get elected in the order the party chooses, but I don’t like the idea of a process which makes that mandatory. The current system may be a little complex, but it does have the advantage that if offers voters maximum control over their vote and where it flows.

  2. Ending the requirement to preference at least 15 candidates BTL is not going away because that would need a referendum as it is in 1 of the entrenched parts of the constitution (this is the reason for the 15 candidate requirement for an ATL group).

    I do not foresee “1st candidate independents” group naming being introduced as increasing party requirements (currently the only way to get an ATL group name) was one of the major anti-tablecloth reforms and it would likely have elected Pauline Hanson.

  3. Ben, Great analysis I agree with you about the idea of putting independants names above the line would help. However the 15 box will stay. I think one problem with your analysis on that particuarly subject forgets the meter long table cloth ballot paper incident. That percipitated the move to require groups to have at least 15 candidates. I could see an argument for reducing the number to say 10 however we can’t just abolish the rule all together becase that opens the door for that incident to happen again and for folks such as the footy show to run joke candidates which in my view damages the reputation of the voting system.

    Another significant problem I think is the different voting systems that occur in Australia which I think for the average voter who doesn’t pay much attention to politics can get easily confused by. In my view that is another significant area of reform that needs to be undertaken. Also what do you make of the idea of removing the sampling of LC ballot papers which Antony Green seems to be pushing.

  4. I agree that Pauline Hanson almost certainly didn’t win because voters didn’t understand that voting 1 for her below the line was not a formal vote. The final result is close enough for that to have been decisive.

    Perhaps voters can be given a choice: After getting their name signed off, take a Legislative Council BTL paper, or a LC ATL paper.

    Postal votes, etc. could still get a combined paper due to the possible confusion of getting 3 papers for 2 elections, but in a voting booth where the electoral official can offer a choice, it could significantly reduce confusion for voters.

    However, similarly, it’s almost as likely that the Liberals got their 11th candidate in because of the donkey vote. The margin is small enough for that to have been decisive.

    Both are distortions: the former is where a voter’s clear intention is not recognised, and the latter is where there is no intention from the voter yet it influences the outcome.

    Also, Luke Foley is again trying to rewrite history. My own response was:

    LIE: "The decisive preferences that flowed to the Greens Party’s Jeremy Buckingham were from Labor voters."

    FACT: Greens received 3738 votes when Labor was excluded. Greens received 4020 votes when Family First and the Fishing Party were excluded.

    In conclusion, the Greens received more votes from right wing parties than the Labor party.

    This was partly due to Labor's failure to adhere to their preferencing commitments.

    Who knew that Family First and Fishing Party are such Greens lovers? Why do the Labor party hate their compatriots on the left side of politics so?

  5. “Why do the Labor party hate their compatriots on the left side of politics so?”

    By the low preference rate? I hate to say it, but from the Greens that’s a bit of throwing stones from glass houses given their preference decision.

    Traditionally, minor/micro party voters preference more because they know there is a good chance of their vote exhausting. Major party voters know that they will elect at least a few candidates and are less aware that their vote can still exhaust.

  6. Yeah the comment was more for the benefit of The Punch’s knuckle-dragging commentors than any serious analysis of the result.

    It is true though that Labor Left’s resentment of Greens’ growth is interfering with achieving progressive outcomes. It’s the “Everyone’s the enemy except our faction!” perspective that makes Albo’s & Foley’s ongoing war against the Greens so unedifying.

  7. Re: “Albo’s & Foley’s ongoing war against the Greens…” and the “hate” etc.

    I think Bob Brown will come to regret his use of phrase “hate media” as it has simply elevated (and encouraged) the tensions. But I mix with both Greens and Labor people in the inner west (I belong to neither party), and I have to say, I’ve been really surprised by the level of antagonism and outright bitterness I’ve encountered.

    Not from the Labor people to the Greens (who seem to have a lot of sympathy and common ground with the Greens), but vice versa.

    My guess is the roots of the hostility are historical, back to when the Trots were leaving the ALP (or were expelled). Some people have been nursing grudges for 20 years or more, and the “loss” of Marrickville (to Albo’s wife!!!) has turned them a bit demented.

    ps. I notice on New Matilda that Sylvia Hale wants the Marrickville result annulled, and Fiona Byrne appointed or new election. Like I said: Dementia has set in.

  8. Pauline is arguing, among other things, that random sampling is inherently unfair because a computer does it. She wants a manual count. She does not seem to realise that a manual count would also have to be done using random sampling of surpluses.
    It is arguable that a computer count would be fairer because it would be testably random, whereas a manual sample might be biased. I am not sure how you actually randomly sample very large numbers of ballot papers scattered around a warehouse. The Senate Scrutiny Procedures handbook of 1984 contains a wealth of detail of how to carry out a manual count with 3 million ballot papers piled into huge stacks, but by this stage, the method was already Hare-Clarke.

    It’s easy enough to “randomly” sample SATLS, because they are all the same. But BTLs and RATLs are another matter. In the LC, there were 17 surpluses from 3 parties to distribute via random sampling. In these, there were 12 to 20 thousand BTLs and a totally unknown number of RATLs.

    On the question of variability of result as a consequence of random sampling, it would certainly occur and affect the numbers at any one count. It is hardly likely to affect who was elected, but it nearly did in Manly LG in 2008. The initial gap was 24 votes for the last seat. A recount produced a 12 vote gap (but there were also errors in the primaries). Simulation showed that the gap could have been reversed in about 1 out of 18 re-runs.
    In the LC election of 2011, the smallest gap was Hanson’s lead of 207 over Buckingham at the 2nd-last count. It is arguable that this could have been a gap the other way on random resampling… Pauline would not like that. However, the second-last count was some 290 counts downstream from the last random sampling event- of which there were 17 and the chances of all 17 being favourably resampled towards her is 1 in 2^17, which 1:130,000. Now that is a BIG ask .

    At any one count, the variability of the sampled number is binomially (actually hypergeometrically) distributed and a function of the square root of the number and the “chance” you want to take (usually 5%). I haven’t got my head around the variability associated with running 17 such tests in sequence but it would be akin to the relation of the standard error to the standard deviation in parametric statistics….. that is to say, if the 95% variability on any distribution is 100 (which is about right here), the variability over 17 successive distributions is probably 100 / sqrt(17), or a bit less than 25. That’s way to small to be worth recounting.

    There is another mystery about this count though. This relates to the apparent materialization of 127,000 formal ATLs between the post-election period and the Tuesday morning count at Riverwood. I can think of a number of reasons for this, mainly associated with errors made at the booths, but have not seen it explained. As I remarked on Monday, Hanson benefited greatly from this, so it would not be in her interest to question it.

  9. Russell

    It is it is understandable – indeed almost inevitable – when two groups or parties are in fairly direct competition that a degree of antagonism develops.

    However, I agree that it is important to at least try to keep such antagonism under control, as it can become quite irrational and eventually counter-productive. It is no secret that the biggest hatreds within Labor are between factions, and often it’s even more so between different competing (so-called) ‘left’ factions or ‘right factions. Similarly, the hatred between the Libs and the Nats can be extraordinary to behold, and I’ve even heard some say that there used to be a tiny bit of antagonism between the Democrats and the Greens back in the day when they were competing for (roughly) the same demographic.

    I’m not saying it’s a good thing – it’s not at all. But it does seem to be human nature. However, if there’s one thing I’ve learnt over the years (although I like to think there might be more than one), it’s that hatreds have far more influence (for the worse) over decisions that alliances/likings, and one of the big challenges the Greens really need to confront and overcome as the party’s support continues to grow is to avoid descending into internal bickering (which we’ve seen a few signs of since the NSW election, although nothing remotely approaching the Democrats at their worst), and to be able to compete assertively and confidently with the other two major parties for votes without descending to their level of distortions, fibs and aggression. Personally, I think that will be a key factor in determining whether the Greens can continue to grow or whether they shrink back to following the rather unfortunate path of the Democrats.

  10. Wondering if you could give me a source to find statistics on the legislative council vote in the electorate of Sydney? I’d be interested to see what impact Clover Moore had on the vote for the three parties.
    Cheers!

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