In a travesty of the electoral process, little-publicised deals between the backroom operators of the Labor Party and Democrats meant that The Greens were denied Senate seats in four states. This was despite the first preference votes of hundreds of thousands of voters in New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia and Victoria. The NSW and South Australian votes had no effect on government control of the Senate, because they involved contests between The Greens and the ALP. However, in Queensland an unprincipled deal between the Democrats and the rightwing religious Family First Party led to the election of a Coalition Senator, giving Howard control of the Upper House. And if that weren’t enough, Howard had a second chance in Victoria, courtesy of the ALP. Here, despite receiving only 1.88% of the vote, Family First’s Steve Fielding was elected to the sixth seat over The Greens’ David Risstrom, who out-polled Fielding with nearly 9%.
Duping the voters. A reasonable person would conclude that, once a party has ranked its candidates in order, it would then give preferences to parties closest to it in political program. On second thoughts, maybe that’s what the ALP and Democrats did when they swapped preferences with Family First! In any case most ALP voters were outraged to discover that their eighth preference went to Fielding, and only their twentieth to The Greens. ALP voters do not, as a whole, support religious fundamentalism of any kind. When the truth emerged, ALP leader Mark Latham was challenged about his officials’ dirty deals. He claimed that the preference deals had been published well before the election. They were apparently in some buried part of the ALP’s website, and on the notoriously difficult to navigate Australian Electoral Commission site. The ABC’s website also revealed the preference flows. So they were public — if one had internet access, knew that the documents existed and knew where to look for them. Latham’s claim was a pathetic attempt to obscure the fact that his party had indeed misled voters — and betrayed their trust.
Half the picture. Group voting, commonly called “above the line” voting, was a useful reform of the electoral process. It allows a voter to place the number 1 in the box on the ballot paper which corresponds to the group or party of their choice. Preferences are then distributed according to the (supposedly) publicly available list prepared by the group. This eliminates the need to fill in a number in every box, reducing the number of spoiled ballots and speeding up queues at polling stations. But if the process is to be free from corruption, it has to be transparent. What happened in the last election was that unprincipled backroom deals became the preferences — knowingly or unknowingly — of all those who voted above the line. ALP voters may just as well have handed their ballot papers to ALP officials to be filled in. But this is not the voters’ fault. The failure of the ALP to clearly inform them of its preference flow was a con job. What’s more, it backfired. The sharp operators in ALP headquarters got the numbers wrong and handed the government total control of parliament. Which proves once again that bureaucratic inaccountability and total incompetence are two sides of the same coin. Meanwhile Howard is free to enact all kinds of reactionary laws.
Of course, the Democrats did the same thing. But that party is now a political irrelevance, rightly abandoned by many former supporters. The ALP, however, claims to represent the interests of working Australians. This is yet another example of why that claim is false.
To avoid a repeat of this travesty does not mean repealing the group voting system. What is clearly needed is a requirement that the Electoral Commission provide every voter with a booklet outlining all groups’ preference distributions. This should be available as soon as possible after the close of nominations and be published in many community languages. Voters then have an informed choice — to vote above the line or to number all squares on their ballot below the line based on their personal preferences. If voters had an informed choice about preference flows, a more likely result in the Senate would have been The Greens and The Democrats controlling the balance of power.