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.