piece was originally written for the Victorian State election in November
2006. A modified version was published in The Age Online,
20th November 2007 for the Australian Federal election
Federal or State elections in Australia, the message is much the same
--if you want your vote for an alternative party to count for anything,
you must put them first on the ballot form, followed by your
been a huge fan of the major parties in Australian politics I often
spend a few hours on election day handing out 'how to votes' for an
The first time
was for the Greens in the early 1990s in the Sydney inner suburb of
Marrickville. I was amazed at the apparent high level of support they
had - so many people saying 'oh, good, the Greens' and 'thanks!' enthusiastically
as they took a card, and 'I gave you a vote!' as they came out. I
thought, wow, they're going to get about half the vote.
But when the
results came in, they got four percent.
Some years ago
the Democrats put up a bill to commit ongoing funding to educate the
populace about the electoral system, about the different levels of
government, and about the quite complex preferential and proportional
voting systems. Given that voting in Australia is compulsory, this
seemed a sensible idea.
(And a necessary
one, if the number of people who seem puzzled that there are two different
'how to vote' cards, is any indication. 'No, I've got one,' is a frequent
response. 'But you need this one too,' I'll say, 'for the Upper House
and the Lower House.' Blank stares.)
The bill was
defeated by the Liberal and Labor parties joining ranks against it.
So why might
an ignorant population be in the interests of the major parties, and
an educated one preferred by the alternative groups?
Or why, we might
ask, do the 'how to vote' cards of the major parties rarely give information
about the affiliations of the other candidates, even as they're telling
you in what order to put them?
the backroom shenanigans that go on in the weeks before an election
often result in some pretty dirty and hypocritical deals - as was
seen in the past few weeks. And they'd rather not display this.
to some good thinking down at the Victorian electoral commission,
it is now much easier to bypass these deals and make up your own mind.
In the past if you wanted to vote 'below the line' (that is, choose
your own order of preference) you had to consecutively and accurately
fill in every box - no mean feat on the Upper House voting form, which
is often the size of a table runner. Now, however, you can fill in
as few as five boxes and have your vote count.
If you want to
bone up on the party affiliations of the candidates in your electorate
before you get into the polling booth, you can do so by going to http://www.vec.vic.gov.au.
Otherwise just keep pestering the spruikers outside your polling booth
until you find someone - usually from one of the alternative parties
-- who has a 'how to vote' card that actually gives this information.
an ignorant electorate seems to be more desirable to the bigger parties
is that they can then run full page advertisements the day before
an election to frighten people from voting for an alternative party.
'Don't waste your vote' is one tactic. Or 'Don't take the risk' is
Is there a risk
in putting an alternative party first, and the party with the chance
of actually winning the election second?
it is possible that in a convoluted way, in exceptional and very precise
circumstances, your vote could assist the 'wrong party' (neither your
first nor your second, but your last choice) to win. What would need
to happen is for more people to vote for
minor party A than for major party B, so that B is knocked out of
the contest first and its preferences redistributed. What would also
need to happen is that B had allocated its preferences not to A but
to its enemy, major party C.
Which is to say
that any risk only exists in the event of dirty dealing by the main
parties, not because of your democratic right to vote for an alternative.
So it's a risk
- if it exists at all - that they've created (and can stop creating
by being more principled).
And even then
it is an extraordinarily tiny one. A bit like saying, don't turn on
that light, because you might get electrocuted. Whereas the benefits
of voting first for an alternative party are much more certain, and
Indeed far from
'wasting' your vote, by putting an alternative party first you can,
in a sense, double your vote's value.
If the alternative
candidate doesn't make the count for the final showdown, the full
value of your vote is automatically redistributed to your second choice.
So you still
get to vote to decide on which party forms the government. But you
also get to first send a message that the concerns, policies and approaches
of the alternative party are important to you, a message that can
have a powerful resonating effect throughout the next three years.
on a practical level, alternative parties need funding to grow, develop
policy, and to have an influence. For every member elected (to either
House) they get a parliamentary office and an electoral officer. If
they get five members, they get parliamentary party status, which
provides a raft of benefits and resources, including offices in regional
Even if they
don't get elected, as long as they get more than 4% of the overall
primary vote, then your vote is worth $1.31 to them in public funding
to put towards their campaign costs.
But, all of this
only happens if you put them first.
The tragedy of
that voting day in Marrickville many years ago - a tragedy I've seen
repeated over and over again in subsequent elections - is that so
many people, uneducated in the subtleties of preferential voting,
thought they were actively supporting the Greens by putting them second.
But if you put
them second, and put a major party first, no-one will ever know. The
effect is zero.
In a recent survey
eighty percent of those polled said that global warming was the most
important issue facing Australia today. It will be interesting to
see how this ends up translating (or not) in the voting figures on
Spencer has recently completed a PhD in cultural studies at the University
of Ballarat on
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