A small change has the potential to make a big difference to Australian elections

Guest Author, the views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Electoral Reform Society.

Posted on the 8th January 2021

In 1918, a seemingly ordinary by-election in the Australian electoral division of Swan changed Australian federal politics forever. The conservatives left Labor in the dust with almost double the vote. Unfortunately for them, there were two conservative parties – the Nationalists, and the Country Party. With the conservative vote split, Labor won the seat. The response from the government was immediate: Australia became the first country to adopt the Alternative Vote.

Just over 100 years since the Nationalists introduced the Alternative Vote, their modern-day successors are considering shaking up the way Australia votes once more. The government wants to move from compulsory preferential voting to optional preferential. That means, instead of requiring voters to rank every candidate, voters will rank as many or as few as they wish.

This move has the opposition up in arms and the Senate Crossbench split down the middle.

What difference does it make?

Although it seems like a small change, it has the potential to make a big difference to elections in Australia. New South Wales shows just how different Australian elections could become if it went down the optional preferential route.

Currently, New South Wales (NSW) is the only Australian state to use optional preferential voting. ABC’s Election Analyst Antony Green calculated that in the 2015 NSW state election, slightly less than two-thirds of voters only put a first choice. A quarter used full preferences and a tenth used partial preferences.

That means, approximately two-thirds of the NSW public vote as though it were First Past the Post. As Antony Green states, this system favours the candidate that performs better on first preferences.

A matter of choice

When more ballots are exhausted, more votes are wasted, and more votes are split. Why would the descendant of the party that put in place the Alternative Vote to prevent those very issues, advocate such a system?

The key argument used by advocates of optional preferential voting is choice. If a voter only likes one candidate, they can vote for one candidate. If a voter wants to support a minor party and preference a major party, they can. If a voter wants to rank every candidate, there is nothing stopping them. This is why the government and the friendly Crossbenchers support the change.

Furthermore, high-profile by-elections such as the Wentworth by-election (2018) can attract up to 16 or more candidates. Under compulsory preferences, voters need to rank all of them. Without doubt, this makes informed decisions very difficult.

Antony Green calculates that half of minor party voters will not preference a major party if they are not required to. He said, ‘It raises the question of how many of these voters are herded by full preferential voting into expressing preferences they don’t really have.’

The changing political landscape

On the surface, not much has changed in Australian politics since 1918. The Nationalist Party evolved into the Liberal Party, which is now in a coalition with the National Party (the renamed Country Party). Labor is still Labor. The two political forces alternate government every few elections.

However, there is a deep change underway. With the growth of cities and regional decline, the Nationals are struggling to remain relevant. Meanwhile, the Greens have seen a surge of support in inner-city electorates vital to Labor’s success.

Consequently, the Liberal Party relies less on preferences than a hundred years ago and Labor relies on them more than ever. Unsurprisingly, the proposed move to optional preferential voting has Labor and the Greens worried.

With the Senate Crossbench split down the middle, the government probably has the numbers to push through this change. It remains to be seen how this reform will change Australian politics.

This is a guest post by James Skibinski, a Data Science student at the University of Sydney with a second major in Economics. He is involved in New South Wales politics on a grassroots level and has interned with a leading advocacy group. He tweets @SkibinskiJames.

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