Big news today is that the Liberals are preferencing The Greens last in the Victorian election in a couple of weeks. I think that some of the commentary on this has been pretty ordinary so I’d like to make a few points.
Firstly, why are there preference deals in the first place
I wrote quite a bit about preferences before the federal election, but there’s always a lot of confusion over them so I think it’s best to start by reiterating the basics. Parties have to submit preference tickets. This is not a result of a desire to do undemocratic backroom deals, it is something they have to do. The fact that they have to do it is not a consequence of having preferential voting. Preferential voting is a good thing and is in many ways more democratic than other options. The need for preference tickets is a result of above the line voting in the upper house. This allows voters to vote just for a party rather than a number of candidates, so the parties have to submit tickets so that it is known how to allocate preferences for above the line votes. Of course parties could just do this without dealing with each other, so preference deals are not a necessary consequence of prefence tickets. Deals often involve preferences in the lower house as well, but preferences there are quite different. In the lower house preferences are allocated according to how the voter writes the preferences on the ballot paper, the parties have influence only through handing out how to vote (HTV) cards. I think it would be good to get rid of HTVs but clearly the major parties see an advantage in keeping them.
What are the likely effects of the Liberals preferencing the Greens last?
There are four inner city seats (Melbourne, Richmond, Brunswick, Northcote) which are pretty certain to come down to a two party preferred (2PP) vote between Labor and the Greens, rather than Labor and Liberal as in most seats. If neither gets over 50% of the primary then the winner will be determined by the preferences of Liberal voters. While not all voters follow how to vote cards, generally Liberal voters follow the recommendations to a fairly large extent (Update: according to this article, inner city Melbourne Liberal voters do not necessarily follow HTV’s so much), so who they decide to preference can potentially decide those seats. Thus the result of their decision is to make these much harder for the Greens to win. It is not impossible though, in the federal election the Greens vote in the federal seat of Melbourne was very close to the Labor primary vote, if the Greens can win the primary vote there could be enough “leakage” of preferences (meaning Liberal voters who decide to prefence the Greens rather than follow the HTVs) for the Greens to still win. On the other hand if the Greens had been preferenced before Labor then they would have been strong favourites for Melbourne and Richmond, and in with a chance in the others (and maybe even some additional seats).
What does this mean about the Liberals?
Not a lot. I think this must have been a tough decision for them, in the past they always preferenced Labor last, which was a safe option if nobody else was in with a chance, but with Adam Bandt winning Melbourne with the help of Liberal preferences the game has changed. The Liberals have to preference someone last, while in most ways they are politically closer to Labor, there is also the factor that Labor are their real rivals for Government. In a way there is no good decision for them, and I wouldn’t read too much into whichever way they decided to go, but it seemed inevitable that at some point they would preference Labor ahead of the Greens.
Does this mean the Greens stuffed up the preference negotiations?
I don’t think so. The majority of Greens supporters don’t want them preferencing the Liberals, if they made a deal to do so in return for Liberal prefences then I think it would have backfired badly, they may have won those inner city seats but with a high long-term cost, and what’s more it could even have seen voters in those seats deserting them for Labor. There’s not a lot the Greens could have realistically offered the Liberals, and I think it was a matter of just hoping for a favourable result since the Liberals had good reasons for going either way. While this decision now frees up Labor to devote more resources to marginal Lab/Lib seats, it also counters a potential attack on the Libs as being pro-Green if they didn’t preference them last, preference deals are always good fodder for propaganda attacks (I think there’s a bit of a feedback loop in that they can be used for propaganda since people don’t understand them, and people don’t understand them because they are used for propaganda which confused the issue.)
One of the more ridiculous ideas I’ve seen out there is that the Greens somehow owe the Liberals for helping them to win Melbourne, or even that the Greens were unprincipled for accepting Liberal preferences! I’m not quite sure how they are supposed to not accept them. The Liberals chose to hand out how to votes preferencing the Greens over Labor, and most of their voters decided to do so – the Greens had no say in it whatsoever.
Why do the Greens target Labor seats anyway?
They don’t. One example of the Greens having a good go at a Liberal held seat was the Mayo by-election in SA when Alexander Downer retired. The Greens now contest every seat at every state and federal election. Like all parties there is obviously more effort put into winnable seats, and these happen to be Labor at this stage, though there are some Green/Lib 2PP seats developing they are still a fair way off being winnable. What’s more it’s not just a bout strategic decisions. The Greens depend largely on the efforts of volunteers, and so they inevitably have more activity in areas where they have lots of members and hence lots of volunteers, i.e. inner city seats held by Labor.
So what now for Greens supporters?
Get out there and volunteer. Contact your local branch and see what you can do to help. A win in a lower house seat is still not impossible, but also don’t forget the upper house! The Greens have a good chance at getting the balance of power there.