Eva Cox’s bizarre take on preferencing


There has been a lot of talk about the possibilities of small right-wing parties holding the balance of power in the Legislative Council, and the effect this would have on NSW politics. I’ve already dealt with a lot of the fear and misinformation in my previous post, but it hasn’t stopped misleading information and scaremongering.

One of the worst pieces has come from prominent feminist activist Eva Cox, published in New Matilda today. Cox’s piece is very misleading about how the Legislative Council voting system, and says a number of things that are flat-out wrong.

Her most egregious mistake is her claim about below-the-line voting. Cox says that “Voting below the line is not a good tactic as only 10 per cent of votes are counted to estimate the distribution”. This is simply wrong. It suggests that below-the-line votes are reduced in value and therefore make someone’s vote worthless (or worth only 10%).

NSW elections do use sampling when distributing surplus votes. If the quota is 50 votes and a candidate polls sixty votes, then 10 of those 60 votes will be taken out as a sample and distributed, while the rest remain with the candidate. This is fair, as those votes have already been used to elect a candidate. Above-the-line votes are reduced in value just as much as below-the-line votes are.

Her main argument founders on another fallacy. I have already explained how upper house preferences will have no impact on the result in the Legislative Council. Cox said:

The Greens are relying on the past two election results when the parties most likely to win all of the 21 seats on offer managed quotas on their first preferences. Thus distribution of the preferences did not occur. However, this election will be different as Labor is expected to lose many seats and where they go may be crucial to the balance of power in this house.

This is not true. A number of seats were filled by candidates polling less than a quota, and preferences were distributed. The low flow of preferences, however, meant that these preferences had no impact on the result. There is no reason to believe that Labor losing seats makes the situation any different to 2007 or 2003. While the number of Labor seats will decline and the number of Coalition seats will increase, the final few seats will still be decided on less than a quota.

She also bizarrely claims that the system of optional preferential increases the chances of right-wing candidates like Pauline Hanson and the Christian Democratic Party winning seats.

The system of group ticket voting used for the Senate and, until 1999, for the NSW Legislative Council allows parties to do backroom deals which then directs all preferences from one party to another without voters every seeing them or having to write them out themselves. The new NSW system requires parties to show preferences on their how-to-vote, as is required in the lower house.

Under the ticket voting system, it is possible for political parties to shift their entire block of preferences to another candidate, which makes it possible for candidates with a small vote to leapfrog others and build up a vote until they win a seat. This system allowed Family First’s Steven Fielding to win in 2004 and the DLP’s candidate to win in Victoria in 2010, in both cases the candidate polling a very small number of votes. In the 1990s, it also allowed parties such as the Outdoor Recreation Party to win a seat in 1999 with only 0.21% of the primary vote.

In contrast, the current system punishes parties that split a small block of votes. In 2003, Pauline Hanson and One Nation both ran groups for the Legislative Council. Between them they polled almost 0.8 of a quota, which would have guaranteed the election of one candidate. But the separate tickets both failed to elect a candidate, with Hanson the last to be eliminated.

In 2011, we have Family First, the Christian Democratic Party, Pauline Hanson, the Outdoor Recreation Party, the Fishing Party and the Shooters and Fishers all standing. While the old system would have allowed them to ensure that no preferences would ‘leak’, the reality is that these parties will be competing for the same votes, and may split the vote such that the right will miss out on a seat they would otherwise win.

On the other hand, almost all of the progressive minor party vote is concentrated in the Greens, preventing any splitting of the vote. So, contrary to Cox’s inflammatory headline (“Will You Accidentally Vote For Hanson?”), the system makes it much harder for Hanson to sneak in and win.

Cox seems to think that the Greens could change this result by doing backroom preference deals with the ALP. She completely misunderstands why conservative control of the upper house is likely. It isn’t because Labor and the Greens aren’t swapping preferences. It is because the overall Labor-Greens vote is far too low. Approximately 44-45% of voters would need to vote for Labor or the Greens for the parties to hold half the seats in the Legislative Council. Most polls have had the parties collectively polling 40% or under.

The miniscule benefit from a preference swap would have little impact on the balance of power. If there is to be any chance, the only prospect comes from Greens voters convincing defecting Labor voters to come to the Greens rather than the Liberal Party. A preference deal with Labor is unlikely to convince people to come to the Greens instead of the Liberals.

Cox worries “that an extraordinary number of NSW voters do not seem to understand the NSW optional proportional voting system”, although her article makes it clear that she doesn’t understand it herself. At least that’s the charitable understanding. It seems convenient for a Labor supporter like Cox to be misleading voters into thinking that their below-the-line vote wouldn’t count, or to be spreading fear about the consequences of progressive voters not preferencing a Labor ticket headed by such progressive heroes as Eric Roozendaal and Greg Donnelly.

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  1. It seems that she wants the Greens to preference the ALP to maximise the chances of keeping Hanson out and the CDP and Shooters( and Fishers) from being able to preference the ALP. Greens preferencing the ALP rather than exhausting does increase the chances of keeping Hanson out and the CDP and Shooters( and Fishers) from being able to pass legislation with only the Coalition and vice versa.

    She does fail to mention preferencing the Hatton group as well may also help this end. What are the Chances Hatton will do a Xenophon (2006 SACL) and poll enough to get multiple quotas?

  2. I hope that many Labor voters who will vote Liberal in the lower house will at least vote for Hatton in the upper. Hatton is running a strong campaign to capture that central exasperated vote.

    Frankly no one seems to know Hatton’s chances and how he will affect things. He probably won’t split the progressive vote as his message is not tuned in that way.

  3. Ben, an excellent post but I want to take issue with a piece of politics (rather than pure psephology) when you state:

    The miniscule benefit from a preference swap would have little impact on the balance of power. If there is to be any chance, the only prospect comes from Greens voters convincing defecting Labor voters to come to the Greens rather than the Liberal Party. A preference deal with Labor is unlikely to convince people to come to the Greens instead of the Liberals.

    This presumes that most past Labor voters, the group the Greens have historically gained the most votes from, are so upset with the ALP that they won’t be pulled by arguments that the Greens don’t see any difference between Liberal and Labor. Indeed, the NSW Greens campaign seems to have been predicated on exactly such a lack of difference. Yet ALP voters who do defect to the Greens are generally on the left end of the spectrum, and therefore are more likely to distinguish between Liberal and Labor on a Left-Right spectrum. A decision to strategically preference the ALP actually makes sense in electoral terms for the Greens.

    I fear that the Greens are also undermining their own case by not attacking O’Farrell harder and more prominently. It is important to understand that the MSM and major parties have depoliticised Labor’s record, turning it into something of a moral argument about a “toxic” government. Yet the ALP has become so unpopular not because of a general malaise but because it has acted much more like we’d expect a Tory party to act (privatisation, pro-business policies, law & order campaigns, corruption, etc). Its usual voter base has been so repelled by its apparently anti-Labor trajectory that scarily many are willing to vote Liberal to punish it.

    Running a line that the Greens effectively don’t see a difference between Liberal and Labor only feeds into that depoliticisation and actually strengthens the Liberals’ (fake) projection of a bland and benign alternative.

    The ALP will still lose badly because it deserves to, but the politics are trickier for the Greens than you suggest. I fear this decision by the NSW Greens — which has the air of desperate vote-grabbing about it — will rebound on the party in the future. WHich would be very bad for the Left generally.

  4. Dr Tad

    It is not the ALP acting like the Conservative that has the state tune out on the ALP, If that is so,the ALP vote would not have gone straight to the Conservatives, it is

    a. corruption, rorting the parliament, it is selling assets for 1/3 of their value, it is dodgy planning decision
    b. Incompetence, M5 East built with 2 lanes, Xcity Tunnel and closing of city street, Hospital planning disasters
    c. Lying, 5 NW railroad, light rail
    d. Waste, 8 transport blueprint and nothing build yet

    This is completely the ALP’s doing

  5. With the capabilities of electronic counting, there is no longer any reason to use the archaic sampling method of distributing the surplus (even if it rarely makes a practical difference). The people of NSW deserve an electoral system that is at least deterministic!

  6. No Dr TAd, the ALP is being punished for acting like the ALP, ie. a big spending, high taxing, bad service delivering, incompetent and corrupt organisation that stands for nothing. The Liberal alternative is sim ply more effeciant, smaller government that gets out of the way where necessary and allows people to prosper. A lot of ALP voters have seen that the ALP way leads to disaster and realise view that the Liberals’ have penchant for fixing up the mess left by Labor. And although many voters in NSW at the State level have a sentimental attachment the ideal of ‘fairness and equity’ that the ALP supposedly represents, I think that they understand that the time for ‘progressive’ policies is not now.

  7. Ben, odd I was thinking along some of the same lines last night. While, as you note, the majority of Labor voters who plan to go elsewhere this time will go to the Liberals, I wonder if these same people are considering that voting Green ahead of Liberal is actually a better use of their vote.
    I get the impression, that aside from one or two pockets, the coalition has never had much favour with the voters of NSW, and wonder – as you write, should the Greens not present themselves as an Alternative to the Liberals, assuming as we should that Labor are dead and buried.
    In the recent Irish election, most former Fianna Fail voters switched to Fine Gael, when real change (in the sense of something which never happened before) would have been delivered if they voted for the Labour Party instead.
    I suspect, when it comes down to it, it’ll be the same in NSW. Aside from a growing minority, the majority will play it safe and revert to the two party state.

  8. Dr Tad, I think there can be an assumption that at this election the potential for the Greens to increase their vote at the expense of Labor isn’t just by taking votes from Labor voters who strongly identify with the left, it is also about a ‘protest vote’ factor. We can assume many people who’ve previously voted Labor, who may not be too engaged in politics, are looking for a protest vote – many will be going to O’Farrell, but maybe some will go to the Greens instead.

    It seems to me that far too much attention is being focused on the Greens preference recommendation when preferences are actually the choice of voters. Why isn’t there a focus on persuading voters to allocate preferences so as to attempt to get the most progressive upper house? It’s important to remember that for parties and candidates to recommend preferences is essentially an ‘endorsement’ of the party/candidate receiving those preferences, and can make it hard for them to assert their independence. Strategically it doesn’t make sense, especially under OPV, to recommend preferences unless the recipient party/candidate is one you really want to ‘endorse’ and/or it’s part of a very advantageous deal likely to deliver a real benefit.

    I think the message needs to be that voters should make up their own minds and allocate preferences if/where they wish in order to maximise the chances of the best progressive outcome in the upper house. I would encourage voters to preference other progressive groups in the upper house, and consider adding Labor to that list, however, I think it is very different for a party or candidate making a recommendation. Given the political climate, the Greens, as a party, can’t be expected to ‘endorse’ a failed and loathed government, even if we expect the other lot to do worse.

    Too many people believe that if voters aren’t given explicit ‘direction’ by parties on their HTVs on election day, they can’t make the right decisions themselves. I think there is too much tendency to underestimate the ability of voters (especially Greens voters) to make the right decisions themselves. The best thing at this election would be a third-party campaign encouraging strategic preferencing of progressive candidates. Let’s see that campaign rather than pointless criticism of the Greens over something which is ultimately the voter’s choice.

  9. Regarding John Hatton, I suspect he could take some votes that might otherwise go to the Coalition. Having been to one of his talks, I can say that it appeals to an older demographic, and wasn’t all that inspiring. Someone suggested it appeared more like a publicity tour for his book.

    I can’t imagine him polling high enough to be in contention for a seat. To do that he’d have needed at least 20 or more allied independents contesting lower house seats whose booth workers would also hand out for him. He doesn’t have that many.

    He’s also competing with the Save Our State party for much of the same supporter base. Both are drawing on support form the ”Part 3A network’, a loose alliance of community groups from across the state involved in campaigns against overdevelopment. This is an effective target audience for Hatton’s message, but I don’t see the evidence that this is translating into the necessary wider support.

  10. Nick, I think people will be surprised how well Hatton goes. Anecdotally, nearly all of my parents friends (older boomers) are supporting him and I’ve been told through the grapevine that Hatton has people at the majority of pre-poll centres, in particular in Eastern Sydney and the Illawarra and South Coast. I’m not confident enough to predict that he’ll get 3%, but certainly if you’re a betting man, I would consider his odds good value (6/1 last I checked).

  11. Thanks Hamish, that’s interesting then. Maybe he could scrape in there. I’d assume he’ll still struggle with getting the booth coverage on polling day though.

  12. Hi Ben,

    Whilst I am not a Green and probably never will be can I just say how much I admire the even handnesses of your moderation despite the nasty personal attacks emanating from that font of Labor wisdom – pollbludger.com

  13. Nick C, your position is very similar to one I have heard from several Greens members and activists. It’s the party line, too, as far as I can tell from press releases. It’s also a mixture of not very clever spin and strategic incoherence.

    (1) What evidence is there that there is such a depoliticised “protest vote” up for grabs for the Greens here? And what is the effect of watering down a Left message on those more usual Left ALP-Greens swing voters who do think there is a difference between Labor and Liberal? Seems to me the party is shooting itself in the foot with its Left constituency by courting this more conservative and apolitical one.

    (2) You write: “It seems to me that far too much attention is being focused on the Greens preference recommendation when preferences are actually the choice of voters.” Actually, preferencing decisions obsess Greens activists and strategists, the party agonises about announcing its decisions on preferences and it spends much time justifying itself against attacks around these. Indeed, much of Australian electoral politics is obsessed with preferences because that is how the vote is counted. It is a fantasy to think that this line about “it’s your choice” will wash with anyone half-serious. It’s a post-facto justification for refusing to do what you correctly identify: Endorse the party’s recommendations for how a supporter should vote.

    (3) This stuff about “independence” suggests serious lack of confidence that the Greens can project an independent politics. The NSW Greens have spent 4 years campaigning very hard against the ALP govt but now worry they look like Labor stooges just because they might preference the ALP over the Liberals (on a simple class, Left-Right basis)? Actually what you’re implying here is that you endorse the idea that the Liberals and Labor are no worse than each other (which legitimises the Liberals as a relatively benign alternative).

    (4) On voters getting the “best progressive outcome”, by not preferencing you actually give voters no guidance, despite them looking to you politically. It’s an abrogation of political responsibility, not some sop to their free wills and intelligence.

    (5) But I think the clincher is when you say: “Given the political climate, the Greens, as a party, can’t be expected to ‘endorse’ a failed and loathed government, even if we expect the other lot to do worse.” So in other words if you think the other lot will be worse you still send a message that it doesn’t matter if people vote them in over Labor. This is just contradictory — and cowardly, because you’re too scared in this “climate” to tell the truth that you expect the others to be worse. When people ask you later “why didn’t the Greens warn us?” the only excuse you’ll have is that the “climate” made that too hard.

  14. What I said does sound similar to what the Greens are officially saying because I happen to feel the same way about it.

    Most ‘real’ people don’t fit into neat ideological boxes, they use values systems interchangeably in different aspects of their lives. In the federal election many of the biggest increases in the Greens vote came in outer suburban and ‘mortgage-belt’ type seats (principally outside NSW) – not areas traditionally considered to be strongholds of social progressivism. No doubt these voters may have held left-wing views, but were they people who actively identify with the political left?

    We also shouldn’t forget just how unpopular the current government is. We’re talking about poll numbers consistently in the low-mid 20s, unheard of for a major party in modern Australia. Formerly hard-core Labor supporters are determined to vote for anyone but Labor.

  15. Tad, I don’t think you can argue that exhausting the votes is equating with the Greens saying there is no difference between Labor and Liberal. The Greens clearly say to voters to add further preferences if they wish. It’s a more nuanced position that recognises the power of voters to make a judgement about whether Labor or Liberal better represents them. The grim reality is that at this moment, in this election there is little evidence to suggest that this incarnation of the Labor party is much different to the alternative.

    The Greens have been anything but apolitical with their messaging this election. They’ve stood up and said that they will not sell off public assets, that they stand for workers rights and that they have a strong environmental stance.

    To weigh all that up against a silly little piece of paper that ultimately matters little in comparison to all the other advertising.

    Except, you are right (although a number on a card isn’t going to express that). The Liberals will unleash neoliberalist fury when they get the reins. I am disappointed that with the focus on the Marrickville and Balmain races that the Greens have not assaulted the Liberals more, and done more to remind voters what happens when neoliberals get unfettered control of the hospital and education systems.

    A Labor government could never be as bad as a Liberal government, if only because the Liberals will seek product differentiation by taking contrarian policy stances (cf. failure of the Costa power sell-off).

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