Refuting self-interested garbage in the SMH


In yesterday’s Herald, Heath Aston ran an ‘exclusive‘ publishing supposed modelling from a couple of so-called “veteran players in minor party preference negotiations” claiming that Senate GVT reform would deliver the Coalition a majority in the Senate.

There’s a lot of massive problems with this prediction, and I’ll try to lay them out.

At the end I will apply some of the same logic, but using real polling data and come up with my own less sensationalised conclusion, which suggests a Coalition win would lead to Xenophon balance of power, but if Labor recovered to a winnable position then the Greens would likely win the balance of power.

Firstly, sensible people should know not to trust the predictions of two people who are active participants in a system which Senate reform would abolish, particularly when they don’t provide the data or assumptions they used to come to their conclusions.

Firstly, it’s amusing how confident they are in their conclusions. Any sensible analyst would need to build in a high degree of uncertainty, due to polling, but also because we don’t know for certain how a new system will play out – how much preferences will flow, and how well the microparties will be able to cooperate.

We have no idea how much preferences will flow under a minimum-six-preference system. Will 5% exhaust? 20%? 50%? That makes a big difference, and in part will depend on how parties act.

It’s silly how confident these analysts are in predicting that the Greens would only win a single senator in WA, SA and NSW.

According to PollBludger’s quarterly state breakdowns of his BludgerTrack polling average, the Greens are currently sitting on 1.55 DD quotas in Western Australia, and 1.52 in South Australia and New South Wales. Sure, none of these are enough to guarantee two seats, but it’s easy to imagine the Greens managing to win in one of these states (although Nick Xenophon will presumably be a barrier in South Australia).

The quotas from the two “experts” also take a condescending tone in assuming that the Greens are acting against their interest. Whatever way you run the next election (GVTs or not, half-Senate or double dissolution) there’s a high chance the Greens will lose seats. In the case of a half-Senate election, the Greens will struggle to hold on to seats in NSW and Queensland in particular, and more generally would be at some risk in WA and SA. In the case of a DD under the GVT system (which wouldn’t happen) the Greens would be under severe risk of losing their second seats to microparties, possibly in all four states where the Greens have two seats.

Their analysis seems to assume that no minor parties apart from the Greens and Nick Xenophon’s team will have a chance of winning any seats.

With a lower 7.7% quota, it’s easy to imagine some of the medium-sized minor parties such as Family First or the Shooters and Fishers winning a seat. You could imagine a small party winning say 3%, particularly if other front parties drop out in the absence of GVTs, and making their way to something just short of 7% and winning the final seat.

I’m not saying it will happen, but it is a realistic possibility. In the long term, you would expect to see parties consolidate and campaign differently – the current set-up of microparties has evolved over 30 years to take advantage of the current system. Sure, you won’t see parties winning on tiny votes, but the capacity is still there for real minor parties who poll around 5% to win, particularly if they can attract preferences.

Finally, it’s easy to disprove some of the nonsensical claims about the Coalition’s chances. The modelling supposedly shows the Coalition winning seven senators in New South Wales, Queensland and Western Australia.

Again, I looked at PollBludger’s BludgerTrack polling average, broken down by state in December. In reality, it’s likely the major parties would probably underperform the polls in the Senate, but let’s give the Coalition credit for all its polling. The Coalition reaches six quotas in four states, and gets to 5.8 quotas in Victoria, which would probably be enough. They get to 5.55 quotas in South Australia, which could get them enough theoretically, but they are probably right to assume this will get hit by Nick Xenophon.

But in the states where they give the Coalition seven seats, the Coalition is polling no more than 6.28 quotas (in NSW), and only 6.05 quotas in Western Australia. In Western Australia, the second Green has 11 times more votes than the seventh Liberal in the race for the final seat.

At the moment, on average ‘others’ is polling at 1.41 quotas. We don’t know what will happen to those voters – it’s unlikely those voters will go back to the major parties. It’s likely some of these votes will end up exhausting and not playing a role, and others will flow to the Greens and the major parties, but this so-called “modelling” basically assumes that all the seats you would expect to go to ‘others’ ends up favouring the Coalition, not the Greens or Labor.

After reading this analysis, I went through and made my own estimates.

I decided to adopt the same approach as Breen and Askey, but using actual current polling data. Since we have no idea whether minor parties will have a chance, where there was a final seat I gave it to Labor, Greens or Liberal if they were over half a quota in any state. Basically I assumed that a minor party can win if no big party is within striking distance but they can’t get enough preferences to close a big gap.

In Queensland, none of the big three had a half-quota left over as surplus, so I granted the last seat there to an unknown ‘other’ – possibly Lazarus. I also accepted their guess that Xenophon would poll much higher than the ‘others’ vote in the House, which seems reasonable, so took one seat each off Labor and Liberal.

I got to a result of:

  • NSW – LNP 6, ALP 4, GRN 2
  • VIC – LNP 6, ALP 4, GRN 2
  • QLD – LNP 6, ALP 4, GRN 1, OTH 1
  • WA – LIB 6, ALP 4, GRN 2
  • SA – LIB 5, ALP 3, XEN 3, GRN 1
  • TAS – LIB 6, ALP 4, GRN 2
  • Territories – 2 LNP, 2 ALP

This gives a total of 37 Coalition, 25 Labor, 10 Greens, 3 Xenophon and 1 QLD other. In this case, we would end up with Nick Xenophon in the balance of power, which seems like a reasonable reflection of the current polling environment.

To win a centre-left majority, Labor and the Greens would need to gain four seats – which would be a swing of around 8% in four states, which could come about through a national swing of maybe 4% – which would also put Labor in a winning position nationwide.

Update: Heath Aston on Twitter has suggested that the two analysts who provided the data based on their predictions on the Coalition two-party-preferred vote – which doesn’t have any relevance for Senate elections. Let’s just say it’s a brave call to assume the Coalition could pull it’s entire 2PP vote in a Senate race.

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  1. Any discussion of who might be ‘advantaged’ or ‘disadvantaged’ kind of misses the point though. The question is, would the system better reflect the intent of voters? If it does, which it does, then any argument that it may be more or less favourable to any particular party ought to be put in the context of that being a more accurate reflection of voting intention.

    What’s being implied in a lot of these arguments over who may be advantaged or disadvantaged is that it’s somehow legitimate to tweak the electoral system to disproportionately advantage your side. Of course it’s the nature of partisan politics that every political partisan looks at it that way (and indeed any other issue), but we need to shift the discussion back to the question of whether it will produce outcomes that best represent what voters want, regardless of whether or not it may be thought to advantage or disadvantage anyone over the status-quo.

    We’ve had this extremely rare circumstance following the 2013 election where the perceived self-interest of all established parties actually for once aligned with a sound, politically-neutral reform model, because they all finally realised the present system could randomly disadvantage them in ways they had little capacity to influence.

    I’m not a particular fan of the model now being pursued, as opposed to the JSCEM recommendations, but it will still produce results more reflective of voting intention. (and you can’t say that people who vote for one minor party would be happy with any random other minor party – not to mention that if they indeed are, they can preference that way themselves)

  2. “In the case of a half-Senate election, the Greens will struggle to hold on to seats in NSW and Queensland in particular, and more generally would be at some risk in WA and SA.” So, we could lose Lee, Larissa, and maybe Rachael and/or Sarah. That’s make the party room look seriously blokey; we’ve already seen Christine replaced by Nick, and Penny by Rob. A bad result could leave Janet as the only remaining female federal Greens MP.

  3. Sarah Hanson-Young isn’t up for election, it’s Robert Simms. It is true that, while the Greens have three men and three women up for election, two of the men are in the two safest seats, so probabilistically it’s likely that more men will be elected in 2016 than women if there’s a half-Senate election.

    Having said that it’s unlikely that the Greens would lose all of those races.

  4. I think that, even under the new no GTV system, Jackie Lambie has a chance at re-election in Tasmania with a half-Senate election (if she stays popular until the 2019/10 election) and a high probability of election in a DD (under any system).

    Tasmania has a lot more media space for its Senate contest, because of its smaller number of HoR seats and its history with proportional representation. SA is a bit similar but in not as small and does not have the same history of Hare-Clark at state level increasing public and media attention to a PR contest but still enough to give Xenophon a decent ability to get enough media coverage.

  5. I think it is likely that the Greens will do well enough to re-elect Siewart and Waters at a half-Senate election because Queensland and WA have gone 2 ALP, 3 Coalition, 1 Green or Democrat at almost every election since 1990. The exceptions being 1998 Qld (2 Coalition, 1 One Nation), Qld 2004 (4 Coalition, 0 Green, 0 Democrats), Qld 2007 (3 ALP, 3 Coalition), Qld 2013 (3 Coalition, 2 ALP and Palmer) and WA 2013-4 (ended up as 3 Coalition 1 Green, 1 Palmer and 1 ALP). I doubt that there will be a 2004 or 2013-4 type result for the Coalition or a Qld 2007 type result for the ALP as there is no Rudd this time.

  6. Yeah, I agree Antony, I thought I would be generous to the Coalition to demonstrate the absurdity of the ‘analysis’, but I do point out that they’d likely underperform that polling in the Senate.

  7. I’m not particularly a great fan of the Greens, but at least they’ve proven themselves to be smarter than the Coalition, although that’s not much of a complement.

    The fact is that there are many minor right parties with state or federal representatives, and significant infrastructure who could would continue to run.

    Here’s are the minor parties I definitely expect who would continue to run under OPV:

    Family First
    Christian Democrats
    Democratic Labor Party
    Shooters and Fishers
    Liberal Democrats
    Sex Party

    The fact majority of those GVTs would go to the Libs. There is no way the Libs will get a Senate majority in a half senate election in the foreseeable future.

    The Greens will do well out of this because most of their minor competitors will drop out, allowing them to get enough of a quota to get seats in all states.

    Previously I couldn’t understand why the Coalition is so enthusiastic to shoot itself in the foot. But I rethought that, and now realise they’re aiming for their own face.

    If you go purely on self interest, the Greens should be backing abolishing GVTs, the Coalition dead against, and Labor slightly in favour (it makes the cross bench more Green which they may not like, but they may occasionally pick up an extra third seat on partial quotas).

    Of course it’s all topsy turvy. The Greens to their credit, seem to be the only ones that have worked this out. Perhaps Labor is playing their cards close, but the Coalition seems full of nincompoops.

  8. If the coalition had some brains, they’d take the Mackerras suggestion (already implemented in the Victorian upper house) and allow OPV below the line, perhaps with also introducing at the same time OPV for the House of Reps.

    It would get crossbench support, hurt Labor on 2PP and be relatively simple to implement, as current AEC software already has to deal with incomplete preference orders due to savings provisions from repeated preferences. (i.e. a 1,2,2,4, … ,110) is currently formal with only the 1 vote applying as it makes less than 3 numbering mistakes.

    But the coalition is too busy loading rounds in the chamber for their facegun to actually use their brains for a minute.

  9. Bellow the line OPV did not stop 5 micro party candidates winning in Victoria, in 5 member-regions, in 2014.

  10. Thanks for adding your thoughts to this discussion. I think you have missed two critical points however:

    1. Why is it so hard to imagine that the Greens might be voting against their self-interest? OPV (or variation thereof) has been Greens policy for years and years, and the subject of Greens reform Bills both legislatively and in many states (where proportional upper house voting is meaningful, such as in NSW and SA). The Greens acknowledge that there’s a possibility of altruistic outcomes, but as the first commenter above mentioned, the discussion of “who benefits” should be irrelevant – any new system MUST be judged on its ability or inability to reflect the will of the voters. What ultimately will determine Greens support is whether the Coalition puts in any sneaky clauses to their Bill, such as the minimum numbers of members a Party needs to have to be registered, how much running a candidate costs, etc etc. So it will be a question of supporting the whole thing, attempting to amend to improve the Bill, and then if the amendments don’t get up, having a contingency plan. Nobody can really make predictions at all therefore because a Bill hasn’t been introduced yet and the details will be crucial.

    2. A Double Dissolution is extremely unlikely. Turnbull is keen to keep everyone on their toes by hinting all about it, but it’s a tactic he’s using simply to spook everyone. In particular, he’s using the double dissolution as a threat to the cross bench so that they pass OPV in the first place. Turnbull has made it clear that he wants OPV or similar voting reform to pass regardless, therefore the pressure is on for the cross-bench to cooperate. In essence, and this is where the Fairfax article bollocksed it up, there is no point analysing the impact of a DD election under OPV, because quite simply, if an OPV Bill passes, there won’t be any “trigger” for a DD to be called. Turnbull would have to bring back the university legislation or something to provide him with a trigger if OPV passes, and he’s unlikely to do that so close to an election, given he’s still got to hand down an election budget.

  11. I think many of the currently registered parties will still contest this election. They’ll still have some core group of members who think they have some kind of prinicple they want to stand on. I thnk it’ll be during the next election cycle when more micro-parties will either coaesce into larger forces or just cease to exist as people lose interest after a failed election campaign.

    It seems to me to be a peculiarity of Australian politics, and no doubt largely influenced by the Senate voting system (even if not all are started intentionally to game the system) that we have such a predominace of these single-issue interest-group parties. Most countries’ party systems are at least in general based on ideology or perhaps personality-based, but I can’t think of many international examples where you see such a proliferation of these parties that specifically present themselves as representing some kind of single-issue interest, often irrespective of ideological differences within such interest groups. Such parties can’t be long-term sustainable if elected because they don’t have a common point of agreement that cuts across all policy areas. They are also premised on arguably mistaken beliefs that people actually will vote on a single-issue interest. I assume these kinds of parties will largely disappear and we will see more of a shift towards parties with a more coherent ideology or broader identity – some of whom will have more plausible pathways to success because they’ll be better able to build actual supporter-bases.

  12. Nick – good observation on distinctiveness of Australian pattern of single issue parties. Parties need in addition to a shared ideology a social base that feels it is not represented by the major parties. A study of the Greens shows how hard that is and how long it can take – having started out as a single issue party they have now found a social educational group that feels they speak for them

  13. Yes but it’s important to distinguish that the Greens were never a ‘single-issue’ party in the sense that parties like the Cyclists Party or the Arts Party or the Renewable Energy Party are. Regardless of what angle you take on the key factors in the formation of the Greens, there was a philosophy behind it. Environmentalism for example is a philosophy, and the other components of the Greens’ origins equally had an ideological basis in left-wing social movements. Likewise I don’t classify the Pirate Party as a single-issue interest-group party because it has a general philosophy around open culture that can give rise to positions on a range of issues.

  14. Under the new system at a DD

    NSW – I think a minor or micro party would have a chance here for the last spot versus Labor or Greens.
    VIC – I think the last spot of each of would have some chance of being beaten by a minor party. Though no GTV helps the Liberals avoid a repeat Ricky Muir beating them for their sixth spot on the preference flows.
    QLD – The new system and a low quota DD does benefit a ‘popular’ candidate like Hanson who can hypothetically get themselves a three plus percent primary, but traditionally has had almost everyone preference against them. Interesting that the ‘experts’ didn’t suggest a micro party or (un)popular independent getting elected on a ‘small’ primary vote as a risk of the system
    WA – Hypothetically possible for six Liberals and one National on a landslide victory with five point something quotas for the former and half of a quota for the other.
    SA – On the 2013 Senate vote its just likely four Liberal, three Xenophon. three Labor and one Green. To even hit four full quotas the Liberals need a modest primary vote improvement. So I don’t see five here as an extremely likely prediction. Family First and Liberal Democrats would still have had a credible chance of that last spot.
    TAS – Once again the Liberals are under five quotas on 2013 senate results. Wherever those PUP and Liberal democrat votes end up would likely have a better chance than the sixth Liberal.
    Territories – as you post

  15. In a DD on 2010 results is it a fair assessment to say that its possible for the Greens to win 3 seats in Tasmania?

  16. Definitely. Three quotas is 23%, they polled 20.3%. Not guaranteed but quite possible.

    Liberals would get five, Labor four, Greens two with final seat up for grabs, with Greens leading on 0.6 quota. Labor would have 0.29 quota surplus so that would almost get the Greens there.

  17. Most of these claims about the coalition winning 7 seats in state is nonsense. The only plausible situation I could think of is in WA where the Liberals might win six, although even thats doubtful and the Nats winning one. Also in a DD Jacqui Lambie could very much win a seat, in fact i’d say she would have more then a 50 percent chance.

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