Hanson Preferential Myth
by Ben Reilly
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
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
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
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
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
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