I blogged earlier tonight on what the actual result was in the Legislative Council. Now I want to turn to analysing that result and how that reflects on the campaign and coverage of the result.
In the end the result of my projection was accurate, even if the exact margin wasn’t so accurate. The problem was that my calculator needed to make an assumption about the number of formal below-the-line votes, which it did by looking at the proportion of above-the-line votes that were counted. Through most of the count it assumed that the final number of BTL votes would be between 60,000 and 80,000 votes, but the final figure ended up being over 91,000. It appears that a lot BTL votes were left until the end of the process to be data-entered, which makes sense as they take much longer to process than ATL votes. So while I had Hanson’s percentage of BTL votes about spot-on, the much larger total number of BTL votes meant that I had underestimated her final primary vote lead by about 9,000 votes.
If I had known that Hanson would end up leading by 15,000 votes I would have been far less confident in my belief that she would lose, which would have been reasonable considering how close the final figures were. All the same, it still remained far too early to call the result yesterday, as some media outlets did.
In addition, for reasons that I have yet to understand, there are more ATL votes in the final count than there were in the original count posted on the website. The Coalition had 5,000 more votes, the CDP almost 5,000, Labor almost 4,000, the Greens 2,000 and Hanson 4,000. Thus the overall percentages were different, whereas my calculator assumed that these two figures would eventually coalesce.
In the end, the key preferences deciding the result certainly weren’t the Greens (despite the shrieking of David Penberthy and Labor figures), nor were they Labor preferences. It is true that the Greens and Coalition needed every set of preferences they got, but the decisive preferences came from John Hatton and Gordon Moyes. After all of Labor’s talk about preferencing the Greens and the need to keep out Hanson, only 9.4% of Labor votes at the key point went to the Greens. It’s hardly particularly impressive, and may have been just as high if the party hadn’t made a big song-and-dance about the issue. Maybe it would have been higher if the party had actually preferenced the Greens in all seats, as they said they did. Luckily it was just enough to win.
This points to how difficult it is to know how these things will play out. It remains the case, as it was before the election, that preferences won’t make a difference in the Legislative Council unless the primary vote count is extremely close. Some of us may have been flippant in dismissing the possibility of this close race happening, but you have to admit that this contest was extremely close, and that very few preferences did actually flow. Of the eleven groups that had their preferences distributed, the exhaustion rate was on average 78%, ranging from 67% for Socialist Alliance to 85% for the ALP. It was a perfect storm. I still believe that Greens preferencing Labor would have been counterproductive and resulted in neither Labor or Greens winning one of those last seats, but it is true that the scenario Labor painted could have come true, and one bearing some relationship to it did. Yet despite all of Labor’s talk about needing to swap preferences, 85% of Labor voters did not give a preference.
Most of the media commentary about which candidates were going to be in the final contest was inaccurate. Following election day the media talked about a race between Buckingham, Ferguson and Hanson, even as Ferguson’s chances slipped away. In the end Ferguson came 27th, being excluded before the No Parking Meters Party. Meanwhile the media (myself included) largely ignored the danger to the Coalition’s eleventh seat, and missed the key role Family First would play in pushing the Greens and Nationals ahead of Hanson.
It is quite disappointing how often mainstream journalists seem to show a serious lack of understanding of Australia’s electoral system. Regularly during the campaign journalists ran with stories that would have been non-stories if the journalist understood the electoral system. The Sydney Morning Herald ran a story about Pauline Hanson claiming a huge amount of public funding from running, despite the fact that she had little chance of polling 4%, and if she did she would have certainly been elected, providing far more access to public funds through a parliamentary office and expenses for eight years.
The Herald also ran a story about the Greens denying preferences to the ALP in Marrickville with no understanding of the fact that, as a race between Labor and the Greens, preferences from the Greens would have no impact on the result in Marrickville.
The Australian Associated Press ran a story on April 3, when it was clear that Labor was not going to win, swallowing Anthony Albanese’s highly dubious claim that the Greens not preferencing Labor would result in Hanson getting elected. David Penberthy went further on The Punch, but I think it’s more likely that his claim was malicious, rather than due to a lack of understanding, considering his outright refusal to reconsider his statement when the facts were presented to him clearly.
Just yesterday the ABC and AAP both reported that Hanson basically had the Legislative Council seat in the bag. They quoted Antony Green’s factual statement that Hanson was leading by 6,000 primary votes, and then spun that into a story saying Hanson would win, despite the evidence from the 2003 election, confirmed today, suggesting that the Greens could easily overtake a 6,000 vote lead. The ABC is usually better in covering electoral matters, and it’s a little bit scary that they can drop the ball this badly when Antony Green leaves the country for a few days.
Most of the time these stories come from journalists who usually show a strong understanding of politics in New South Wales, but sometimes it doesn’t extend to understanding the electoral system. I’m not talking about young journalists who don’t understand policy, as was an issue during the federal election. Often you need to conduct your own research to know the consequences of preference flows, or to know whether a particular outcome is possible or probable. I worry that the modern political journalist has little time to test these outcomes and do this research, and it often can fall by the wayside, buying the line of a politician who has an agenda to push (like Luke Foley or Anthony Albanese). Maybe major media outlets need to invest in someone like Antony Green who understands the process and can follow the count and give proper advice to political journalists. No, I’m not volunteering, although journalists can always call me to talk about these things.
It is important to Australian politics that journalists actually understand how elections work, and what way a result is likely to go. Often we can’t say for certain which way a result will go, today’s result was a perfect example of that. But understanding preference flows and where candidates stand in the count can allow you to understand how likely particular outcomes are. It can have a significant impact on the narrative of Australian politics when the media gets a story wrong. Just look at the reaction to yesterday’s stories saying Hanson was on track to win in the Legislative Council. Of course she had a chance, and came very close, but in the end it was far early to call it, and it turned out to be wrong.
Pauline Hanson, in her press conference this morning, criticised the electoral system and claimed she would have won under a system that made it easier for people to vote for her. It may surprise you, but I agree with her. I believe that Hanson received the largest below-the-line vote of any candidate because many voters would have been confused and not realised that they could vote for her above-the-line. Her above-the-line box was only marked with the words “Group J”, which have no meaning for any voter. In contrast, every other group except John Hatton got their party name above the line. Below-the-line votes for Hanson needed to have at least 15 squares numbered formally. Any “Just Vote 1” votes for Hanson below the line would have been counted as informal. A survey of votes when I was scrutineering at the counting centre indicated that many informal votes were attempts to vote for Hanson. She would have likely been elected if those attempts to vote for her had been counted.
Hanson is not the best ambassador for electoral reform, but there are serious problems with how we conduct Legislative Council ballots that make it hard for voters to understand. As a first step, it should be at least possible for independent groups that have met the high bar to appear on the ballot to have “John Hatton independents” or “Pauline Hanson independents” appear above the line in the place of a party name. Independents running for the Legislative Assembly are as easy to find on the ballot as party candidates, the same should be true in the Legislative Council.
I would go further, and abolish the need to number all 15 squares below-the-line. This would also allow parties to run far less than 15 candidates, which would make the ballot paper much simpler and avoid having such huge numbers of candidates, the vast majority of whom never came close to being elected, and probably wouldn’t have wanted to be. If you wanted to go further, you could abolish below-the-line voting entirely. Below-the-line voting made no difference at this election. You might say “but Hanson wouldn’t have won on above-the-line votes”, but those votes would have probably been cast above-the-line if it was clear who they were voting for. It remains the case that a candidate further down a party ticket has never won a seat on a surge of below-the-line votes.
Instead, we could have a system where each party has one box, and you can only number preferences for parties as a whole, and preferences would then flow the way above-the-line preferences flow now. In the process you would make the process much simpler and much easier for people to vote. It would also make the counting process much quicker, without having a real effect on people’s ability to exercise choice. Despite the theoretical possibility of voting for an individual candidate against the party’s wishes, it currently doesn’t have any real effect on the count, and significantly confuses and complicates the voting process for many voters.