Voting Above the Line

It turned out to be a storm in a teacup. In response to calls for a recount from a Victorian ALP confident the Democratic Labor Party’s number two man had cheated its own candidate of victory, the Victorian Electoral Commission (VEC) ran the figures again. On Thursday, the elevation of a third Green’s candidate to the Upper House was announced.

Paul Austin (Opinion 14/12) derided those who feared a second DLP berth would unleash the same sort of horse-trading that Federal Family First Senator Steven Fielding has made an art form. But Austin is mistaken. It is true that the DLP would have been only one of 3 minor parties with whom Labor could have done deals to pass contested legislation in the upper house. However, the known reluctance of socially conservative Premier Steve Bracks to allow a vote to happen on the decriminalisation of abortion, and the implied willingness of the DLP to unquestioningly stand as one with the government if it shelved plans to bring the issue to a vote, made the party a real threat to progress on this and other women’s reproductive health issues. Indeed, it is possible that the elected DLP Member Peter Kavanagh retains the power to blackmail the government into steering clear of the abortion debate, given the necessity of his vote for the opposition parties to call the government to account through the inquiry and committee process.

There are two conclusions to be drawn from the DLP seat that might have been. The first is that sadly, state party functionaries appear incapable of learning from the glacial mistakes of their Federal counterparts. Despite the election of Family First’s Steven Fielding to the Australian Senate in 2004 on preference deals (the party had just under 2% of the primary vote), Victorian party apparatchiks adopted similarly misguided tactics in their preferencing of the DLP. Hopefully, it won’t require an entire electoral cycle of monorail-minded horse trading of votes on key national issues in exchange for misogynist health policy and a bit of verbal gay-bashing, to prompt wiser choices next time around.

Which brings me to the second point: the sobering fact that around 98 per cent of Victorians in Federal elections, and 95 per cent in State ones, vote above the line. Such electors chose only the party that gets their primary vote. That party then decide – according to prevailing priorities, beliefs, relationships, threats and patronage promises – how their vote will be redistributed in the event its candidate fails to get over the line.

The cynicism Australians feel about their political leaders makes this an odd choice. Why give those you neither trust nor respect critical control over who wields the reigns of power? On the other hand, reservoirs of contempt may have nowhere to flow but to seas of indifference. This is certainly the view of the experts who, in the absence of hard data, speculate that a strong desire for voting to be quick and painless motivates many to vote above the line. Above-the-line voting is quick, and reduces the stress surrounding additional decision-making beyond who we like best.

However, laziness and indifference may not entirely explain our voting behaviour. Despite the newness of procedures surrounding the election of the upper house last month, approximately 3 per cent more Victorians voted below the line than had done in the 2004 Federal election. This may be because the new ballot paper makes below-the-line voting easier, requiring voters to rank just five candidates rather than the approximately 65 needing to be ordered when voting Federally.

I also can’t help wondering whether voters equipped with better information about what their preferred party intends to do with their vote might be less inclined to hand over control. While the Victorian Electoral Act requires group voting tickets to be “prominently displayed” at polling booths, the VEC does little more than post preference deals on its website and signpost the manager’s possession of this information at voting centres. In the future, it might be hoped that the Bracks government’s laudatory march towards a state-of-the-art electoral system would see electronic voting offered to all Victorians, not just the vision-impaired. I fantasise about a computer interface that would respond to an above-the-line vote above the line with an information screen explaining the nature of this choice, the preference arrangements of the party selected, and a “complete your vote” and “change your vote” option.

It is unfair to attribute the Family First fiasco and DLP debacle to the single transferable vote and the proportionality it introduces into the Australian political system. Proportional representation is widely acknowledged to introduce valuable elements of sharing, disbursing and limiting power into a democracy that concentrates significant power in the hands of the majority. Instead, it may be the refusal of the overwhelming majority of Australian electors to take control of the entire life course of their vote that results in the elevation of candidates that few choose – in a meaningfully informed fashion – to govern us.

Publication history

Voting Above the Line  The Age