The preferential voting system produces, or at least encourages, preference deals. It is that simple. The deal is played out in party how-to-vote cards which advise voters how to fill out their ballot papers. They are as old as the preferential system itself, especially at local electorate and state level. Relatively new though are the highly disciplined national deals, in line with the general tenor of modern Australian politics.
The term “deals” suggests something underhand, but these are generally fairly benign arrangements between like-minded parties on both sides of politics. This means that the majority of the supporters of the parties involved are already inclined to vote that way anyway. If a party leadership attempted to direct preferences against the general disposition of their followers then a grassroots revolt might occur. Leaders have to be careful what they do.
The how-to-vote card merely attempts to firm up the situation, perhaps adding another 10 per cent of second preferences to what would have occurred anyway without any guidance at all from above. So the impact of these deals should not be exaggerated. They probably matter most when there is a genuine market for preferences, as between competing minor parties such as the Greens and the Democrats.
Examples of preference arrangements include those long-established between the Liberals and the Nationals when they compete with one another in what are called three-cornered contests. This arrangement attempts to avoid second preference votes drifting away from the Coalition towards Labor.
Other past examples range from the Liberals and the Democratic Labor Party through to the Liberal Party and Family First in the 2004 election, a deal initiated by then Liberal Prime Minister John Howard himself. The Greens and the Democrats have each entered preference arrangements with Labor on a number of occasions.
At first, however, the Democrats refused to enter preference arrangements or even to distribute preferences in individual seats on the grounds that such a practice was against the participatory ethos of the party and besmirched its independent image. They issued double-sided how-to-vote cards to avoid taking sides.
What is in it for the parties concerned? Overwhelmingly the reason is electoral benefit. The relationship has to be a win-win situation. In the House of Representatives the benefits are almost all with the major parties as usually only the preferences of the minor parties are distributed. Rarely does the minor party have any chance to win in the House of Representatives.
In these cases the support of the minor party must be bought in some way. This is often simplified as “support in return for concessions”. The concession made by the major party may be a promise to introduce a policy dear to the heart of the minor party.
There is a special type of preference deal called cross-house trading. The major party mainly gains electoral benefits in the House of Representatives; the minor party gains benefits in the Senate where they have a real chance of winning a seat. Here the preference deal can mean life or death for the minor party. When the Democrats and the Greens were neck-and-neck, as in Western Australia on several occasions, the deal effectively decided the result of the final Senate seat.
Naturally those who feel jilted cast scorn on the deals and imply the worst. That has been one reaction to the Labor-Greens deal in this election.
But deals rarely signify private policy deals. They are about win-win electoral benefits. Nevertheless they do leave the parties open to legitimate criticism that they are in a closer than usual relationship that muddies their independent images and restricts their freedom to move. They also can be seen as another step towards a centralisation of politics that neglects local circumstances, such as the qualifications of individual candidates and the wishes of local party members.
But when they feel uneasy about what headquarters has agreed to, local party members at polling booths tend to undermine the national deal in any way they can. After all voters can quite easily throw the how-to-vote card in the bin. Many do.
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