Victoria looks set to continue to use group voting tickets to elect its upper house in November’s election. Victoria is the only remaining jurisdiction still using the system after Western Australia recently moved to reform their upper house.
Group voting tickets prioritise parties over voters, locking in voters’ preferences and giving even very small parties a lot of power to direct preferences. This structure makes it possible for parties to roll up from a very small primary vote, gaining preferences from voters who may have never heard of them until they’re in an election-winning position. The system encourages parties to run in every region so they have preferences to swap without the need to have volunteers handing out how-to-votes to encourage voters to mark preferences as they wish.
Group voting tickets aren’t just a convenient way to express voters’ preferences. Where voters have regained control of their preferences, they show that they tend to vote for parties with similar ideological positions, and voters for minor parties tend to give a preference to a major party. Voters avoid preferencing the tiny parties who don’t have much of a presence. There isn’t an “anti-major party” voting bloc who prefer all of the minor parties over the major parties.
GVT preferences don’t flow like that – small parties tend to form alliances which push the bigger parties to the bottom of their preference order in favour of other small parties, sometimes including those with very different ideological positions.
Overall this can produce quite disproportional results. Sure, some minor parties benefit, but there is little relationship between votes and seats for those small parties. Tiny parties win seats while the larger minor parties miss out.
New South Wales abolished GVTs after the 1999 election, but we have seen a rush of reforms over the last six years. GVTs were abolished for the Senate just before the 2016 election, and South Australia abolished them shortly before the 2018 state election.
Western Australia abolished GVTs and shifted to a single state-wide electorate of 37 members after last year’s state election off just 98 above-the-line votes. This is an example of how you can create a voting system that allows small parties to win seats in proportion to their vote without encouraging back-room preference dealing.
The 2018 Victorian election produced a very disproportionate result. A small decline in the Greens vote saw them lose four of their five seats, while Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party won three seats off just two fifths of the Greens vote. Sustainable Australia and Transport Matters each won a seat off less than 1%, the same number of seats as the Greens.
While the most recent Victorian and Western Australian elections both produced very out-of-proportion outcomes, they were in very different contexts. Victorian Labor was three seats short of an upper house majority with a large and diverse crossbench, while WA Labor won a crushing landslide victory that gave them a majority. WA Labor also had to deal with a rural bias in the electoral system which gave a bias to the Liberal and National parties and made a progressive majority impossible at less lopsided elections.
We’re now just eight months away from the Victorian state election, and the Greens yesterday moved an amendment to electoral reform legislation dealing with smaller matters like ending the practice of political parties administering postal vote applications, to abolish group voting tickets. But not a single other MLC supported the position: not Labor, not the Coalition and not the other crossbenchers.
Just tried to move amendments that would have given voters the power to direct their own votes by scrapping group voting tickets, but the major parties & x-bench showed their contempt for voters by blocking them from even being debated.
Are they that scared of Victorian voters?
— Samantha Ratnam – Leader of the Victorian Greens (@SamanthaRatnam) March 10, 2022
I can’t say what the genuine attitudes are to group voting tickets amongst Victorian Labor. If it’s at all similar to federal Labor in 2016, there would be some who see the advantage in electing an ideological variety of crossbenchers over a united block of Greens, but there would also be concern about alienating those crossbenchers when they have other legislation to pass, particularly with two former Labor MLCs now sitting on the crossbench.
A similar dynamic played out in 2016, when the Turnbull federal government waited until late in the parliamentary term to pass reform legislation, and then called a double dissolution to sweep out the crossbenchers elected under the old system who had opposed the reform.
The entire Victorian upper house is elected at the same time, so there’s no issue with legacy MLCs sticking around after the election, but there may be a window later this year, as the parliamentary agenda winds down, to pass reform legislation. But we’ll have to see whether Victorian Labor actually wants to reform, or would rather remain the sole state using this backwards and undemocratic system.
Victorians should be embarrassed about where their state now stands on electoral reform. Between group voting tickets and re-introducing first past the post for council elections Victoria is now unique in its position on recent electoral reforms. It’s not a good position to be.