Preference flows in the NSW Legislative Council


In the last few days, there has been much media interest in the decision of the Greens NSW to not direct preferences to the Labor Party in the Legislative Council on their how-to-vote cards.

This provoked a fierce response from Labor party figures such as former Premier Bob Carr and Labor MP Luke Foley, who have argued that the decision may result in right-wing minor parties such as the Shooters and Fishers and the Christian Democratic Party gaining the balance of power in the Legislative Council.

The Greens have responded by saying that it was the Labor government’s track record and it’s high levels of unpopularity that would increase the chance of a right-wing majority in the upper house, and not the Greens decision not to preference Labor. Retiring Greens MP Ian Cohen, however, is worried about the potential for right-wing gains in the Legislative Council, and publicly disagreed with his party’s decision.

So what are the facts? Would the Greens preferencing Labor improve the chances of the Greens maintaining the balance of power, rather than the position going to their conservative opponents?

First of all, current polling suggests that the Labor and Greens are running far short of winning the number of seats needed to obtain balance of power for the Greens in the upper house. There were nine Labor members and two Greens members elected in 2007. In order to hold half of the seats, the two parties need to collectively win ten more seats. The quota required to win these seats is approximately 45.5%. It may be possible to win ten seats on slightly less than that.

Even still, most polls have shown the two parties polling well below this level, largely due to a massive drop in the ALP vote. The Greens vote is at record levels, but this doesn’t entirely compensate for the fall in the Labor vote. The recent Galaxy and Nielsen polls each had the two parties collectively polling 35%, while the Newspoll had Labor and the Greens together polling 40%. While Newspoll is not too far off the range where it becomes winnable, it is the highest figure we have seen in a while. It also has the Greens polling 17%, which is the highest we have ever seen the Greens in NSW. It’s certainly a stretch to see the combined vote pushing up to 43% or 44%.

Even if it did reach the range where the balance of power became achievable, the question of preferences having an impact then comes into play.

Here I will quote Antony Green:

Overall at the 2003 election, 78.6% of voters used a single ‘1’ only vote, 1.8% voted below the line and 19.6% used the new above the line preferences option. Of those, 66.0% gave a second preferences, 11% a third, 4.0% a fourth with 8.9% of people numbering all 15 above the line boxes. The usage varied by party, 9.7% for the Liberal Party, 25.1% for Labor, 26.3% the Greens.

Green suggests that a similar result occurred in 2007, although he doesn’t mention the specific data in his blog post.

At the 2003 and 2007 elections, preferences had absolutely no impact on the final result. In 2003, the first 17 seats were filled with full quotas based on each party’s primary vote. The final four seats went to the four candidates leading on primary votes after the first 17 had been filled. A similar result took place in 2007.

Antony Green has used this evidence to justify designing his Legislative Council calculator to not use any preferences when determining results. Yet when this evidence has been shown to those arguing for the Greens to preference Labor, they have held out the possibility that the system could spit out a different outcome in 2011.

Could this possibly happen? In an extreme scenario it could happen, but this assumes that there would be no political consequences of a decision to support a party that is currently one of the most unpopular governments in modern Australian history.

In 2003, only 26.3% of Greens voters decided to direct preferences above the line. This is despite the Greens issuing preferences above the line that year. The Greens advised voters to vote ‘2’ for Save our Suburbs, then Socialist Alliance, No Privatisation People’s Party, Reform the Legal System, and then the Democrats. Interestingly, the Greens have not preferenced the ALP above the line in either 2003 or 2007, with the 2007 preferences going to the Democrats and a series of other minor parties.

In both those years, Greens preference arrangements were with small parties that shared many policies with the Greens. Even still, only a quarter of Greens even gave a number 2, and Antony Green’s statistics suggest far less would have followed the preference advice any further than that.

In contrast, the current Labor government has reached staggering levels of unpopularity in recent times. The three polls conducted this year have had Labor polling 20%, 22% and 23%, all far below their 39% vote at the 2007 election.

If the Greens were to issue a how-to-vote advising a number ‘2’ vote for the ALP, the proportion of the vote that would actually flow to the ALP would likely be substantially lower. Not only would the proportion that would direct a preference be lower, it would be likely that many would rather preference the Coalition than the ALP in the current environment, further nullifying the impact of preferences to the ALP. I would wager that it would be hard for the ALP to gain preferences from 10% of Greens voters, and some of that would be cancelled out by Greens voters preferencing elsewhere. I would be surprised if the net effect was any more than 5% of Greens voters favouring Labor.

Even then, this vote would only have an effect in the following scenario:

  • The Greens vote produces a surplus that is too small to win a seat.
  • The ALP surplus is larger than the Greens, but is only slightly behind a right-wing candidate (Family First, CDP, Shooters, Coalition) in the race for the final seat.

Here’s one possible scenario:

  • The Greens poll 15%
  • The ALP polls 25%

On primary votes the ALP wins five seats, with 2.25% surplus. The Greens win three seats, with 1.35% surplus. If you assume that the ALP would get a 5% bonus from Greens preferences, you end up with 0.07% increase in the ALP vote. The candidate they are trying to beat would need to poll (or have a surplus of) less than 2.32% to be defeated. It is an extremely slim margin where preferences could make such a difference.

You should also note that in this scenario the Greens would still not get the balance of power, as the combined Labor/Greens numbers would only add up to 20 if the ALP squeezed out a win. To win an extra seat one or the other of the parties would need to be polling substantially more.

You also have to look at the possible impacts on the Greens vote of a decision to support the Labor Party in the upper house. The ALP is currently extremely unpopular in New South Wales, including amongst Greens voters. So far I have only found one seat where the Greens are reported to be preferencing Labor, while a large number have been announced as exhausting. The Greens have mounted a fierce attack on the policies and performance of the Labor government, and you would have to think that a decision to preference them would have an impact on the Greens vote, with plenty of voters switching to the Coalition. It is impossible to see the Greens holding the balance of power if this were to occur.

The primary reason why we are facing the possibility of a conservative upper house is thanks to the ALP’s collapsing primary vote. The Greens didn’t preference Labor in the upper house at either of the previous elections under the current system, and it had no effect, because the ALP was popular and won a large vote. If the right wing gains control of the upper house it is because of the massive unpopularity of the current government causing a massive landslide to the right.

Greens preferencing decisions have no impact on that outcome. I’m sure that the Labor types coming out and crying foul know that. They know that their policies have driven away a large proportion of their voter base, and are facing a massive disaster. The latest hysteria about Greens preferences seems to be nothing more than an attempt to blame the Greens for their impending defeat.

Elsewhere: After I drafted this post but before I posted it, Antony Green also posted an analysis of the impact of Greens preferences, interestingly using the same scenario of a 25% Labor vote and a 15% Greens vote.

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  1. “Greens preferencing decisions have no impact on that outcome. ” rubbish if you consider Labor & the greens to be of the left in the nsw upper house. then such a decision can deny 1 to 2 seats in the upper house to that grouping. In a close upper house this is the difference. In the Lower house green decisions will not change things so there is a labor victory but the more votes are shifted from Labor to
    the greens then exhaust the more the Liberal benefit.

  2. In 1999 Peter Green of Reform the Legal System and Peter Wong of Unity were elected with 1% of the vote each, which was substantially less than Shooters, Marijuana and Progressive Labor.
    More memorably in the same election Malcom Jones was elected with a mere 0.2%.
    In 2003 the Liberals 7th LC spot was elected from a remaining quota that was lower than One Nation, Pauline Hanson and Democrats. While factually this does not refute your analysis(Libs did have a higher primary than those mentioned), it is deceptive to claim that preferences were irrelevant as it was preferences that secured the 7th Lib-Nat spot. I am quite interested to know if this was an oversight, or if you were aware that the Libs overtook the other 3 contenders for the last spot and used the primary vote metric(which obviously favors groups who achieve multiple quotas) on purpose.
    Both your decision to limit your analysis to 2003 and 2007, and your dismissal of preferences seem unjustified.

  3. The Liberals would benefit more if disaffected Labor voters who were considering voting Green instead decided to vote for someone else, maybe the Liberals, because the Greens ‘endorsed’ the Labor government’s record by recommending preferences to them.

    At the end of the day a great many Greens voters always make up their own mind regarding preferences anyway, regardless of what HTVs recommend. Looking at the 2007 lower house preference flows and comparing rates of preference flow in seats where the Greens recommended to preferences to those in seats where they didn’t recommend preferences suggests that only a very small proportion of Greens voters, maybe only around 10%, were influenced by the HTV. In the current political climate one would imagine even less voters being persuaded to preference Labor by a Greens HTV.

    The best way for Labor to gain Greens preferences is to persuade the actual voters that they deserve them. Good luck.

  4. Liam,

    The 1999 election was conducted under a completely different system. The 1995 and 1999 elections both saw numerous changes in the order due to flows of preferences controlled by group voting tickets. This system regularly has an effect on who is elected as it is used in the Senate and other state upper houses.

    The new system was introduced in 2003 and makes it much harder for parties to direct preferences, and has seen the proportion of voters directing preferences collapse to around 20%.

    I don’t know what you are talking about with the Liberal-National coalition. They polled over 7.3 quotas in 2003.

    I’m confident of the factual basis of this argument.

  5. I agree Greens preferences are not the issue. But one thing that is is – is Ben’s statement, “The Greens have mounted a fierce attack on the policies and performance of the Labor government.”

    Indeed, and in so doing have contributed to the collapse in Labor’s primary. That’s a big part of the bitterness and sniping that is going on from partisans.

    I also think the Greens (and its strategists know this) will benefit immensely from a conservative, development-friendly government. Protestors have to have something to protest about. Under a Coalition government, determined to make “NSW No.1 again” by making sure development, home building and investment doesn’t continue its migration to other states, the Greens will have plenty to protest about.

    There will be of Nimby, vote-harvesting “flashpoints” everywhere.

  6. “This provoked a fierce response from Labor party figures such as former Premier Bob Carr and Labor MP Luke Foley.”

    Bloke called Ian Cohen also had a bit of a spray about it. I believe he has had something to do with the The Greens over the years?

  7. The Greens have had little to do with the collapse of the ALP vote – the ALP have managed to do a pretty good job in bringing this about.

    Greens are providing an alternative for people who find they can no longer vote for the ALP.

  8. The ALP deserve Nothing! The Catholic-wing of the ALP is destroying the party ALL over Australia! Let them sink into the mire of their own hatred and discrimination!

  9. It has struck me before, and that’s happened here again in the responses (especially Brenton) to my post a few items up: There is something really odd about the extreme hostility we are hearing about to Labor.

    I’m not involved in any party, so I truly am an outsider. I don’t even vote. But the passions that Labor seem to inflame in some the Greens is something I have never seen in Australian politics before. I’m a little worried about what it means, and where it will end.

    In NSW at least, those appalling ALP people will soon be gone, at least for 12 years. Perhaps forever. What will happen to all that resentment and anger, Brenton? Ben?

  10. It’s just the zeitgeist. Go for a drive, hang out at a shopping mall, travel on public trasnport, work in retail or hospitality – the same thing occurs; people are more and more angry and less inhibited about expressing it. When the ALP is gone, it’ll be someone, or something, else, ad infinitum. Sound and fury signifying nothing, etc. reasoned debate went the way of the enlightenment. Welcome to the the world of corporate fascism where you vent your impotence in rage and yet nothing changes, which adds to the impotence and rage. As long as there is someone else to blame for your inadequacy you can celebrate it in snarling triumphalism. Been to an Australia Day ‘Picnic’ lately?

    I’m curious though reality check, why don’t you vote?

  11. I’m not an Australian citizen, Jeranglism, so am not eligible to go on the electoral roll. Sorry, I know this offends some. Though I’ve made my home here, paid taxes and raised a family of Australians (Greens voters), I’ve always entertained notions of going back home in my dotage. I’ll probably be deported, and truth be known, I’d prefer that to euthanasia anyway.

    Re: the zeitgeist. That’s true, and I won’t be surprised to see the fury re-directed towards the Liberals after March 26th. That sense of “Labor’s betrayal” presumably satiated, and the NSW party reduced to rubble (“punished”), the rage will have go elsewhere. I’ve made this point before, but I do think the Greens strategists are working for that, and wanted to get Labor’s left wing, their only allies but also rivals for the so-called “progressive” vote, out of the way first.

    Its a strategy which locks them out of power. Federally, they are busy giving us an Abbott government for exactly the same reason. Lots of comfort in impotent righteousness, little in actually changing anything.

  12. Hear hear RC.

    Greens operatives would like nothing better than the utter obliteration of the ALP’s Left and for an unchecked Centre-Unity to take a hard dive to the right.

    Labor Left and Greens, not friends, not even close.

    The last four months of campaigning has left me thoroughly disillusioned to the Greens whom I once quite liked despite not being a member of – If all they want to do is build their muscles in the Inner West’s latte belt whilst slinging pent up progressive anger at the two most progressive MPs in parliament- the women who made same sex adoption and ethics classes possible.

    If I wasn’t so busy swatting Tories in Toongabbie I’d start bussing in young turks from Western Sydney.

    In fact, I expect I’ll do just that in the battle for Grayndler in 2013. They’ll roll Albanese over my defeated and probably drunk to a depressed stupor body.

  13. Of course, that’s not to say my own faction are faultless. Far from it.

    It’s just frustrating overall as a progressive to see the movement spend a large amount of energy fighting itself.

  14. It has been a fairly lacklustre election so far, and that could be good.

    I would request that readers of this forum boycott a disgraceful book which was handed to me last week at Wynard Station by a well endowed woman promoting it.

    The book attacks the NSW Liberal Party with heady descriptions of orgies, drug use, corruption and various other activities of questionable character within the ranks of the Libs..

    I am not sure if this is a crude attempt by the ALP to score points in this election and plant seeds of doubt that they will nurture should they lose power.

    This morning I saw more fellow commuters reading the same book.

    It is entitled “The Faction” and has a gaudy picture of a woman wearing a cat’s mask on the cover. I also saw a chap beside me reading the books web site on an IPad.

    Please give it a miss and play fair.


    Decency in Politics

  15. Hell, I’m not fighting anything. I’m just trying to keep a roof over my head and food on the table. And for the last twenty years that has got harder and harder for the household sector. specially those who don’t own anything, except an old car and a crappy Tom Waits CD collection.

    This is the disconnect – while our political class (including the media) obsess with process in a he said/she said merry go round of point scoring and gamesmanship, problems such as housing, transport and energy continue to grow. In the meantime the serious money corporate sector just get on with the business of fleecing the household sector globally, and there ain’t a damned thing any sovereign nation is going to do about it, except maybe give them planetloads of cash if they screw up. In the meantime we’re out here sleeping in our cars so we can get work. And you’re worried about the future of your %@$#ing faction! Grow up! How about making your community your faction, getting to know and helping build that. Climate Change is the least of your worries if you’ve no food and shelter.

  16. Jeranglism… I support 100% what you say, but why not help fight the system? Join the DLP…

    Watch out for DLP Senator John Madigan who will take his place in the Federal Senate in July… he is not shy from taking it to the politicians and the press…

    Federal Parliament Office (or whatever its called) asked him to fly up to Canberra from Victoria and they told him it will cost $3200 tax payer dollars for him and his wife. He told them to get stuffed and bought the tickets from his travel agent friend for a few hundred bucks…

    If every politician lived like the average Australian, we could cut taxes and save a lot of money…

  17. Boutros, my dad was a stay in and fight member of the ALP who watched BA Santamaria every Sunday morning and, as much as I loved the old bigot (my dad), his politics were (and are) anathema to every sane and sentient person in the world, period. No exceptions.

    Anyone who needs an imaginary friend to inform their public decision making doesn’t deserve to be loose in public let alone running for public office. I would rather contract syphilis through an act of bestiality than cross the road to spit on the DLP. Madigan is a blacksmith, which pretty much sums it up. he is man for the century before the last one.

    I would not entertain joining your silly yelling down a well activity even if your name was Boutros Boutros, which is kind of cool.

  18. Finding more economical ways for politicans to travel while worthwile would make very little difference to the overall government expenditure – you wouldn’t get much of a tax cut even from a 50% reduction in parliamentarians’ travel bills. A quick back of the envelop calculation suggests that you might get a saving of $4m per annum. Even that is doubtful – there are very few cheap fares available on flights to Canberra particularly at peak periods.

  19. @ VA Chalmers. For all those of us who love “orgies, drug use, corruption and various other activities of questionable character” in their politics (no I’m not Italian), can you give us more details of that book – “The Faction”? Yes I googled those words + the book title. But the several million pages they generated was too much for me.

  20. Personally I will be numbering every box above the line. If I voted Green, for example, I will then preference Labor, the Democrats and other Centre to left parties, then the Libs and the Shooters and Fred Nile mob last (I’m working out which one to put last).

    The idea that a Fred Nile acolyte is elected ahead of an extra Green, Labor or even Liberal member because I was holding too much of a grudge would really get to me. I would strongly support a Labor-Green upper house deal. It probably won’t be enough, but anything to keep the Shooters and CDP from being the deciders in the upper house has my support.

    Seems self-defeating to say that you support progressive politics (which I do), but then having no preference beyond my immediate party as to who gets elected.

  21. Hamish, I agree with you.
    I read the deal last week that the Shooters Party want where they will have access to hunt some of our native birds, sulpher crested cockatoos, galahs, black swans (why on earth, who get get a more gentle bird). To know these people get their kicks from hunting and killing. As a conservationist it is aborrhent to me to think these people play any part in the decision making of our state and will put undue pressure on an O’Farrell government. I would vote Green anyday compared to this horrific scenario.

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