What the Greens/Labor Preference Deal Means

The Liberals and certain commentators in the press have been kicking up quite a fuss about the recently announced preference deal between the Greens and Labor. This news story at the ABC has a lengthy comment thread with a number of comments along the lines of “A vote for the Greens is a vote for Labor” or “This means the Greens support [insert objectionable Labor policy here]” and so on. These people either don’t understand our electoral system or they are deliberately trying to mislead you. In this post I will explain why. One disclaimer first – I don’t have any inside info on this deal, I know only what’s in the news story, my interpretation of the implications of the deal is based on that.

Also, having finished writing this post I now notice that Antony Green has written a very sensible (as always) post on this issue, he also answers questions in the comments thread. So I recommend that you go and read that as well.

First up some brief comments on the preference system. I believe that preferential voting is more democratic than first past the post. If we didn’t have preferential voting then those who support a candidate who may appear unlikely to win would have to consider voting for one of the other candidates or otherwise have their vote effectively “wasted”. Think about preferential voting as a series of runoff elections. Lets say a group of 11 people are voting on which restaurant to go to. Five of them choose a pizza place, 4 choose one Indian restaurant and 3 choose a second Indian restaurant. In a first past the post system they go for pizza even though the majority appear to want Indian. A fairer way is to rule out the least popular option and then get everyone to choose between the two remaining options. It may be that some of the group of 3 really don’t like the other Indian restaurant and prefer pizza, or perhaps it is just that they all want Indian – either way this is clearly the fairer way to work out what the majority would like. Preferential voting works the same way, the least popular candidate is removed, and then we see who everyone prefers out of the remaining candidates and this is repeated until a candidate has more than 50% of the vote. As in previous posts I’ll refer you to the AEC or Antony Green for a neutral account of how our voting system works.

Now, given that preferential voting is a good thing, what about preference deals? The first point to make is that despite some of the fuss being made it is not a big deal that the Greens and Labor have made a preference deal. At every election I would think that just about all of the parties (and independents) discuss preferences with each other. This is nothing new and is not a sign of any sort of special relationship between the Greens and Labor. The reason parties make deals is that they have to (at least for practical purposes) assign preferences anyway. Now in some cases, there is not really much room to move. For example it is clear that the Greens will put the likes of One Nation and Family First a long way down their preferences, and Labor will have the Liberals down around the bottom of theirs. There are other preferences which are not so clear cut, so parties make deals with other, they are making agreements with each other about how they will assign preferences – something that they already have to do anyway.

So why is it that they have to assign preferences? In the Senate, you have to submit a preference ticket to allow people to vote above the line for your party. Given that the very vast majority of voters do vote above the line then this really is an essential thing for parties to do. When people vote above the line then their vote is being assigned the preferences determined by the party. If you prefer then you can just vote below the line. These preferences are available on the AEC website before election day and are on display at polling places, they are not secret.

The other part of the deal involves how to vote (HTV) cards. These suggest preferences in the lower house. When you fill in your ballot paper for the lower house you must fill in the preferences yourself. Nothing the parties agree on will alter any preferences that you write in yourself. The only way that this can have an effect is if you decide to follow the recommendation on the how-to-vote card. Why even hand out HTV cards at all? I think that the Greens would be quite happy to do away with them, for example Greens MP Mark Parnell has called for them to be banned from SA state elections, but while they are permitted then it is not possible for one party to just decide not to use them since it has been shown that they have a significant effect on the vote. Unilaterally deciding not to use them would be electoral suicide.

Some parties may be accused of swapping preferences with other parties with quite different ideologies purely for strategic reasons, but in my opinion the Greens preference tickets tend to be pretty much in line with what you might expect a majority Greens voters would support anyway. Usually the most important factor is whether Labor or Liberal is ahead and the Greens have pretty much always put Labor ahead of the Liberals as the Greens tend to agree with Labor more than Liberal (my understanding is that the very rare exceptions involved very specific circumstances involving the particular local candidates). This does not mean they agree with every one of their policies (or even any of them) or are secretly in league with them, it just means that on balance they tend to agree more with  Labor than Liberal. Does this mean that people who prefer the Liberals to Labor can’t vote Green? Not at all, it just means that they should choose the preferences themselves, as is their right. Sometimes instead of directing particular preferences the Greens have an open ticket, which says to vote 1 Green and then allocate preferences however you want to, though a potential risk with this sort of HTV is that it may result in more informal votes.

It is interesting to note that when the Greens preference Labor then the Liberals yell about how the Greens are juts Labor in disguise, and if they use an open ticket then Labor yell about how the Greens really want the Liberals to win.

To sum up, consider the following scenarios for how this preference deal might effect you and explanations as to why I think it shouldn’t affect your vote:

  1. You were planning to vote Green and prefer Labor to Liberal.
    This deal would make no difference to you. It agrees with how you were going to vote anyway.
  2. You were planning to vote Green and prefer Liberal to Labor.
    This deal makes no difference to you. In the Senate you can vote below the line (as I understand it the deal wasn’t about the Green’s senate preferences anyway, I think that they have always had Labor above Liberal there), and in the House of Reps choose preferences as you want and ignore the how to vote card (and some electorates will have open tickets anyway).
  3. You were planning on voting for someone else in the lower house but want the Greens to get more Senators in.
    This deal is good for you. It means that the Labor senate votes in excess of any quotas they get will help elect Greens senators.
  4. You don’t like Steve Fielding and Family First.
    This deal is good for you. It means that Labor party preferences won’t elect Steve Fielding again.
  5. You want to vote for Greens and equally dislike Labor and Liberal.
    This deal makes no difference to you. You have to allocate preferences anyway, it’s how the electoral system works.
  6. You weren’t going to vote for the Greens.
    This deal makes no difference to you. If the party you vote for recommends a preference to the Greens in a position you disagree with then simply choose your own preferences.