Hanson Preferential Myth

By Ben Reilly
Published March 14th 2001 in Australian Financial Review

Few issues have provoked as much misguided commentary in Australian politics as the recent debate about preferential voting and the return to prominence of Pauline Hanson's One Nation Party.

Following the West Australian and Queensland state elections, scribes have been falling over themselves to conjure up dark scenarios of One Nation "directing" preferences against sitting members at the next federal election, thus overturning the face of Australian politics as we know it.

The truth is more prosaic -- but also more interesting.

Preferential voting is playing a greater impact than usual in Australian politics. But its effect has not been to help One Nation, but to hinder it.

And the real winners from preferential voting are not the far-right, but the progressive left, particularly environmental parties like the Greens and, ultimately, the ALP.

Take this weekend's by-election in the traditional Liberal seat of Ryan. There, the Greens have agreed to swap preferences with Labor, making an ALP victory a real possibility. One Nation, by contrast, are not even standing a candidate.

In Western Australia, One Nation gained only 9.6 percent of the first-preference vote. They did not win a single lower house seat. The minor parties at the other end of the political spectrum -- the Greens and Democrats -- had a higher combined vote total than One Nation, 9.9 percent, and a much greater impact on the election outcome.

In fact, Labor's victory in Western Australia with only 37 percent of the primary vote was hugely dependent on the second preferences it received from Green voters, who saw Labor as being a better guardian of their key interests on logging and other environmental issues than the Coalition.

Bottom line: preferential voting was used to aggregate common interests, as it has done for many years. It is this aggregative function -- and the way preferential voting helps the politics of the "moderate middle" while punishing extreme views -- that is the real story of recent elections.

In this, Australian politics is demonstrating continuity, not change.

Historically, preferential voting has pushed Australian politics towards the centre. By encouraging parties to look outside their immediate support bases for potential secondary support, it has encouraged them to broaden their focus, making elections above all a search for the political middle ground.

A case in point was the way the major parties were able to cooperate against Ms Hanson in 1998, where she lost her seat, by effectively swapping preferences with each other. In the Senate, the Coalition's decision to direct preferences away from One Nation saw an Aboriginal MP, Aden Ridgeway of the Australian Democrats, gain a New South Wales Senate seat (and, by virtue of this, help an ALP candidate to gain a Senate seat as well).

Few commentators noted the irony of Ridgeway's election being a consequence of the Coalition's decision to eschew One Nation preference votes. Fewer still noticed that if a standard, non-preferential form of voting had been used, One Nation would have gained the final Senate seat and Ridgeway would have missed out.

The truth is that preferential voting helps those who cooperate. Indeed, the introduction of preference voting in 1918 was primarily aimed at enabling multiple candidates on the conservative side of politics to stand for election in the same seat and aggregate their combined vote share.

It did exactly that, and also provided an early spur for the coalition of urban and rural conservative interests, enabling the Liberal and National parties to maintain a close electoral alliance at the federal level since 1922 via "preference swapping" deals.

During the 1960s, preferential voting enabled the preferences of one small party, the now-defunct Democratic Labor Party, to flow predominantly against the ALP and hugely assist the Coalition maintain control of government throughout the 1960s.

But over the past decade, as new interests such as environmentalism have made their way onto the political agenda, the partisan impact of preferential voting has swung to Labor.

The best example of this in recent years was the 1990 federal election. In a near-identical situation to the recent West Australian election, Bob Hawke's incumbent Labor government was polling badly, but the Green and Democrat parties were on the rise.

Labor's chief tactician, Senator Graham Richardson, accordingly went after the second preferences of these minor party voters, emphasising the power of their preference votes. Radio and television ads underlined the message: if you wanted to vote one for a Green party, fine, but give your second preference to Labor.

This tactic worked: with minor party support levels at an all-time high of 17 percent, Labor was the beneficiary of around two-thirds of all preferences from Democrat and Green voters -- a figure which probably made the difference between it winning and losing the election.

On current polls, the next federal election may turn out remarkably similar to that of 1990. If it does, the role of preference voting is likely to be just as important as before -- but as a means of aggregating, not dividing, Australian politics.

Dr Reilly is a political scientist at the Australian National University.

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