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On the topic of 'giving preferences' ...

By Andrew Bartlett - posted Wednesday, 18 August 2010

One of the biggest frustrations for smaller parties during election campaigns is the difficulty in getting any significant media attention for their policies. Somewhat ironically, media commentators occasionally lament that smaller parties are flying beneath the radar and not enough attention is being paid to what they see as dangerous policies. This type of comment can be particularly prevalent when smaller parties have reasonable prospects of winning some Senate seats and potentially be in a balance of power position.

The same double-sided frustrations are often expressed about the lack of attention given to the Senate contests in federal election campaigns, given the very significant power the Senate has under our Constitution. Smaller parties want more attention given to what they could offer in a Senate balance of power role, while some commentators express concern that not enough attention is being given to what they see as the dangers of that party being in a balance of power position.

Unfortunately, when attention is paid to such things, it is often quite cursory and can leave many members of the public with a mistaken impression of how the Senate balance of power usually operates. The same problem occurs as a result of the fairly simplistic descriptions that are often made in regards to how preferential voting works, which usually just consists of the bald statement that one party is “giving” their preferences to another.


I’ve been involved in politics for over two decades now, and probably one of the biggest frustrations is the lack of understanding, including among many socially engaged and highly educated people, about how preferential voting works. I occasionally get the impression that even some political journalists aren’t completely sure about it either.

It is understandable that people use the “giving preferences” term as a shorthand, but it does create the widespread misunderstanding that a party can actually give all their votes as a block to another party. This “giving” of preferences can only occur in the Senate, and even then only if a voter chooses to have their vote used in this way by voting for a party above the line on the Senate ballot paper, rather than number all the boxes below the line themselves.

Of course, almost all parties negotiate with others about providing favourable examples of preference flows on their how to vote cards, but the actual decision about where preferences flow is made by the voter rather than the party. But talk about preference deals is often accompanied by assertions that this creates some sort of formal alliance.

If we combine misunderstandings about how Senate balance of power usually operates with misrepresentations about how preferences work, we can end up with wildly inaccurate, alarmist scenarios such as this one by Gary Johns recently published in On Line Opinion, which makes some highly improbable post-election assertions, such as “the Greens may be in a strong position to insist on an alliance” with Labor or that “the Greens will demand a place at the table of Australia’s premier economic advisory bodies” such as the Productivity Commission or the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission.

Being a former member of the House of Representatives, Mr Johns would be well acquainted with how preferences work and the fact that voters control their own preference decisions. As a former Minister he would also know that no government, including the Labor one he was part of, would unwillingly adopt a policy they did not support as a result of a pre-election policy commitment to a third party.

Preference agreements between parties can sometimes involve specific policy commitments from the larger party should they form government, although in my experience such commitments are more often broken than kept after the election, once the relevant major party is safely in office. A government may decide to do something they might feel is less than ideal, should they judge it is needed to get legislation through the Senate or to curry some favour with another party. But no government worth its salt would do something fundamentally opposed to what they believe in.


Perhaps it is because Mr Johns served in the House of Representatives that he has a poor understanding of how the Senate works. In my time in the Senate, it was not uncommon while negotiating legislation to discover a Minister from the lower house - who are used to government being able to use the House of Reps as a rubber stamp - to be almost incapable of realising that they might not be able to get sufficient support in the Senate unless they negotiate, and be willing to compromise if necessary. I don’t know if Mr Johns was one of those Ministers, but he certainly grossly overstates the power which smaller parties in Senate balance of power roles have.

Having been in that Senate balance of power position, I wish it had been true that balance of power parties could force governments to meet their every whim. The Senate balance of power role is very important, which is why the Senate contests at election time merit more attention. But it is not akin to being part of government, even in a de facto sense. If it were, the Greens wouldn’t need to put in the enormous energy required to try to win House of Representatives seats.

The Greens are very likely to hold the balance of power in the Senate after this election. Should that come to pass, it is highly likely that role will be performed in a way quite similar to how the Democrats did this in recent decades. The Greens also have the benefit of being able to learn from the rare but significant mistakes the Democrats made over that time.

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About the Author

Andrew Bartlett has been active in politics for over 20 years, including as a Queensland Senator from 1997-2008. He graduated from University of Queensland with a degree in social work and has been involved in a wide range of community organisations and issues, including human rights, housing, immigration, Indigneous affairs, environment, animal rights and multiculturalism. He is a member of National Forum. He blogs at Bartlett's Blog.

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