Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Labor and the Hard Right

Reflections on preferences in the 2014 Victorian election

Election night - 29 November 2014

In the 2014 Victorian election, the Greens made history again - breaking into the lower house with two seats (Melbourne and Prahran) and increasing their upper house representation from 3 to 5 members.

Labor won government in the lower house with 47 of the 88 seats. 

Composition of the Upper House

In the 40 seat Legislative Council (upper house), Labor lost two seats, moving from 16 seats down to 14 - well short of a majority.

The Liberals also have 14 seats, and are joined by the Nationals with 2. The Greens have 5 seats, increased from the 3 they held before the election.

The balance of the chamber comprises 2 representatives of the Shooters and Fishers Party, 1 representative from the Democratic Labour Party, 1 from the Australian Sex Party and 1 from Vote 1 Local Jobs.

Labor now complains about this result, but Labor played its part in bringing it about.

Labor preferencing right wing candidates

In this election, as in previous elections since the upper house was enfranchised in this way (the first of these was 2006) the Labor party in Victoria has preferenced right wingers and succeeded in having them elected.

This first occurred in 2004, at the Federal level, when Labor preferences in Victoria were instrumental in electing Family First's Steve Fielding to the Senate, knocking out the Greens' David Risstrom. Fielding, who in his own right had won just 1.88% of the primary vote, proved a bizarre representative. He opposed any action on climate change. He said that same sex marriage was akin to incest. He even opined that young women would deliberately get pregnant so they could claim parental leave payments, and then have a late term abortion. Thanks, Labor.

The election system in Victoria's upper house

The Victorian Legislative Council is elected using the proportional representation system, similar to that used in the Australian Senate. However, the State is divided into eight regions, (three rural and five in Melbourne) each electing 5 members.

Voters can number boxes below the line (in Victoria they must number at least 5) or they can simply place a '1' in the box for their party above the line. If they take this short cut method (and the vast majority do) their preferences are distributed in accordance with the preference ticket lodged by that party. The law requires parties to lodge such a preference ticket so that preferences can be distributed.

In 2006, at the first election for the reformed upper house in Victoria, Labor preferenced the right wing again. In Western Victoria they directed their preferences to Peter Kavanagh, from the Democratic Labour Party, ahead of the Greens' Marcus Ward. Kavanagh won just 2.5% of the vote, but Labor support enabled him to pass Marcus Ward, who had won 8.2%.

Kavanagh went on to lead the unsuccessful opposition to the Abortion Law Reform Bill in 2008.

In the 2010 election, Labor preferenced the right wing Country Alliance in two of the three rural upper house electorates. This party opposes any action on climate change, and wants coal mining to continue. It opposes creation of any new national parks. It wants open slather on hunting. Although these preference deals did not see any Country Alliance candidate elected, they made it almost impossible for the Greens in those seats.

The 2014 election

In the 2014 election, Labor rejected a preference offer from the Greens. Opposition leader (now premier) Dan Andrews said: "There will be no coalitions, there will be no deals." 

After Labor had rejected the Greens offer, it then attacked the Greens when they preferenced the Palmer United Party ahead of Labor (but after several other parties) in four of the upper house regions. Opposition small business spokeswoman Fiona Richardson said the Greens' behaviour in Victoria would make even the NSW right of the Labor Party blush. "Five minutes ago the Greens were screaming foul of Labor's preference decisions," Ms Richardson said. "Now we discover they've jumped into bed with mining magnate Clive Palmer whose interests includes expanding coal mining."

She did not mention (and nor did any of the major commentators, as far as I could see) that Labor had itself preferenced PUP ahead of the Greens in Northern Victoria, South Eastern Metropolitan, and Western Victoria.

In any event, choosing between Labor and PUP on policy grounds is not straightforward - PUP opposes coal seam gas, for example, whereas Labor does not. At the Federal level, PUP's policies on refugees are preferable to those of Labor.

Western Victoria is an interesting case study in Labor preferences. In the 2014 election, Labor's preferences went, in turn, to 

  1. the Democratic Labour Party, 
  2. Country Alliance, 
  3. Vote 1 Local Jobs, 
  4. Palmer United Party, 
  5. Australian Sex Party, 
  6. People Power - No Smart Meters, and only then to 
  7. the Greens. 
In this scenario, any of the early ranked parties stood a good chance of leap-frogging the Greens, who would attract more votes than any of them. 

In the election, the Greens secured a very respectable 9.19% - well on the way to a quota. The Democratic Labour Party gained 1.53%. Country Alliance garnered just 0.99% - not enough. Vote 1 Local Jobs secured 1.28%. PUP got 2.68%. The Sex Party 2.50%. 

Labor preferences eventually meant that Vote 1 Local Jobs candidate James Purcell was elected to the last seat, ahead of the Greens' Lloyd Davies.

In Northern Victoria, the ALP won the final spot (on Greens preferences), so its preferences were not distributed. Accordingly, the ALP was not able to elect the Country Alliance, and is not responsible for the election of the Shooters and Fishers ahead of the Greens' Jenny O'Connor. However, two parties who were important for the election of Shooters and Fishers are the Sex Party, which preferenced them very highly, and ahead of the Greens, and the Cyclists' Party, which did likewise. Labor was fortunate that in Victoria (as in the Senate) the 'inclusive Gregory system' is used to pass on preferences at full value in the upper house. If the 'weighted Gregory system' had been used, Labor preferences would have elected Country Alliance. 

In Eastern Victoria, Labor also won the final spot with the help of Greens preferences. The Cyclists were again important in electing the Shooters and Fishers, as were the Sex Party. Although the Greens won 8.49% of the primary vote, as compared with 2.44% for the Shooters and Fishers, the Greens were starved of preferences while the Shooters and Fishers picked them up from all the right wing parties, as well as Sex and Cyclists.

Why is Labor doing this?

Labor's preferencing decisions look bizarre, but make sense from the point of view of some Labor powerbrokers. They see the Greens as one of their biggest threats - a party which is targeting 'their' inner city seats. They do not want to give any help to the Greens, except when the political cost is too high. They imagine the Greens, or at least Greens voters, will always support the Labor party when the crunch comes. 

To show how far this goes, in the 2013 Federal election, Labor preferenced the Liberals ahead of the Greens in Melbourne Ports (where Labor's Michael Danby is the member) and in Adelaide (where Labor's Kate Ellis is the member). We can expect more of this in future.

Old 'rusted on' party allegiances are wearing thin. The Liberal Party was once a party of high ideals, of human rights, of free enterprise, but is now just a hard right crust increasingly out of touch with most Australians. The Labor Party's old rhetoric of class warfare can find scarcely an echo today. A party that was able to reinvent itself after its 'White Australia' origins has moved backwards since the days of Whitlam. The anger shown by Labor parliamentarians when the Greens mourned Gough showed Labor's deep sense of guilt at their betrayal of so much he championed. As Don Watson put it in his article 'Whitlam's Ghost' (The Monthly Dec 14-Jan 15) 'Fewer folk with something approaching Whitlam's combination of brains, breadth and conviction come to the party, and among those who do, few stay for very long. ... Gough Whitlam could not exist in modern Labor'.

Like match race sailors, Labor and Liberal shadow each other on policy. In parliament, they vote far more often with each other than against.

The Greens stand for something more than these old party paradigms - treasuring the environment, seeking to resolve disputes non-violently, engaging the community more closely in decisions, and sharing the blessings of the Earth through social justice. It is a world-wide movement, and is on a strong trajectory. All of this means Labor should not take Greens preferences or support for granted.

Power and preference

Australians have largely lost sight of the fact that the right of politics in Australia is usually only able to form minority government, with the larger Liberal party almost always dependant on its smaller partner the Nationals to reach a majority. We often speak of 'the coalition' as if it were itself a single political party, when it is not. It comprises two parties which have worked out how to manage their differences. Minority government is very normal for Australia, but when Labor is in power minority government creates political trouble, because there is no arrangement for accommodating the necessary sharing of power.

Preferences are part of a preferential voting system (and even more needed in a proportional system). If the Greens are to have their representatives elected the party will often need preferences from others. To gain those preferences we will usually have to give our own preferences. This will involve choosing between the least of evils - parties with which we disagree on policy. No other party shares Greens policies: that is why they are distinct parties. Allocating preferences involves careful weighing of factors such as the worth of the policies of other parties, and what those parties will be able to deliver in exchange. There are many issues contained in these factors, and further factors again. This weighing up of what will best work is, in a small way, what is involved in politics more generally - compromise in order to secure what is achievable.

As the Greens grow, we will have to confront choices about our use of power. Some politicians say they are in politics to stand up for what's right. Commendable as this is, often it is inconsistent with what I think is more important in politics: to achieve the best outcomes possible. Politics involves making alliances to leverage influence and thus achieve the best possible results in accordance with our values. 

Coming to grips with these choices in order to best advance our goals as Greens will be the next challenge we face.

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