Visionary reform or crime against humanity?

So now we know what it was really all about. Having floated the idea of voluntary voting and had it dismissed as far too radical, the Liberals are getting down to the nitty gritty.

Well, if voluntary voting is off the table, what about optional preferential? Surely that's a fair and reasonable compromise?

This, of course, is precisely the tactic of the militant trades unions the Libs affect to despise: start with an ambit claim, an agenda far too extravagant to be taken seriously. And then, once negotiations are under way, get down to what you really want. It may have appeared outrageous if you had sprung it out of the blue, but in the context of the previous wild demands it becomes something like the middle ground.

It's not, of course: it is naked self interest, and the irony is that this is precisely the reason the anti-Labor forces introduced compulsory preferential voting back in 1918. Australian politics seldom has much to do with altruism, and when it comes to the electoral laws, never.

The point about preferential voting is that it delivers not the candidate who is most loved, but the one who is least loathed. Say you have just three nominees. Hughie, Dewey and Louis, and just 100 voters. In the first count, Hughie gets 40 votes, Dewey 35 and Louis 25. Louis, as the back runner, is eliminated, but his votes stay alive; we now count the votes numbered 2 on the papers where Louis was numbered 1 - the second preferences. And it turns out that Hughie only gets five of them while Dewey gets 20.

Dewey is therefore declared the winner, 55-45. He wasn't the most popular, but he was acceptable to more voters than Hughie was. He was, in other words, the preferred candidate. It seems a fair enough method, and it gives the voters more bang for their buck; if their first choice goes out, they get another chance - or, if there are a lot of candidates, quite a few more chances.

And it brings third parties into play: In the example above, without preferential voting - with the system called first past the post - Hughie, though the choice of less than half the voters, would have been elected automatically, while the 25 percent who wanted Louis would have been effectively disenfranchised.

And this was why the system was introduced; in 1918 the conservative vote was being split between the Nationalists and the emerging Country Party, while the Labor vote remained rock solid. If the Nationalists and the Country party could exchange preferences, it would give them control; and so it proved for more than a decade until the Nationalists themselves fell apart.

And for almost all of the last century the system delivered, usually to Labor's discomfort; after the great split of the 1950s. The preferences of the Democratic Labor party sustained the conservative coalition until 1972. But then quite suddenly the playing field changed.

In the 1980s the Australian Democrats started giving a majority of their preferences to Labor, and in the '90s the Greens followed suit. Indeed, Labor's election winning strategy in 1990 was based on winning their preferences to prop up Labor's declining primary vote, and in federal terms the same has applied ever since: Green preferences saved Julia Gillard in 2010 and without them she would have no chance this year.

Hence Bronwyn Bishop's appeal is not to axe preferential voting altogether - heavens no, she is not an extremist. All she wants is for voters to be given a choice. If they don't want to vote for someone, then they shouldn't have to - even though a last preference for a candidate is effectively an absolute rejection. All they have to do is to put number 1 next to the candidate of their choice, although they can still number as many of the other candidates as they want to. But experience shows that as time goes on, fewer and fewer of them will bother, and eventually preferential voting will die a natural and painless death.

The fact that the Liberals have put Bishop up front to carry the case suggests that they are not taking it all that seriously - which is probably wise of them, because there is no way that a Labor government would ever allow the change to take place, all the more so if it relies on the support of minorities - Greens and Independents. Without preference swaps with a major party, minorities would wither and die.

But Bishop has a point to make: There is confusion, leading to higher than usual informal voting in federal polls, because two states - New South Wales and Queensland - have already adopted the optional preferential system. And not only that, in both cases the change was made by a Labor state government, so it can't be a simply a matter of partisan politics.

And she's right; in 1980 Neville Wran introduced optional preferential, and in 1992 Wayne Goss followed suit. In both cases, of course, it was done for perceived short-term advantage, with little or no thought to the wider political environment or the damage that could be wrought in times to come; and indeed the way "Just Vote One" strategy was used by Barry O'Farrell and Campbell Newman to devastate Labor governments should cement Gillard's determination to stop the rot from going federal.

Of course, there may come a time when compulsory preferential is once again to the coalition's advantage. If the Greens fade away, and the Bob Katter Party starts siphoning off conservative supporters, or the National Party gets a bit bumptious and starts asserting its independence, there could be something of a reprise of the situation in 1918 and Labor might start thinking that a return to first past the post, or at least to optional preferential, might not be such a bad thing after all; and of course at that point Bronwyn Bishop and her fellow Liberals would realise that such a change would be unfair, purely opportunistic and a threat to democracy as we know it.

Because changing the electoral laws is like that. If it works for you, it's a visionary reform. If it doesn't, it's a crime against humanity. As Labor's great numbers man and the architect of the 1990 preferential strategy, Graham Richardson, might put it: Whatever it takes.

Topics:  opinion

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