Canberra Times Opinion Piece: The Devil is in the Detail by David Risstrom

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Canberra Times Opinion Piece: The Devil is in the Detail

by David Risstrom

The Australian Labor Party and Democrats preferenced Family First ahead of the Greens in the Victorian Senate contest, even though they didn’t need to.

As a consequence; despite the Greens polling 8.6% primary vote versus 1.9% for Family First, these preference deals appear set to elect Family First to the sixth Victorian Senate position. Similar Faustian pacts in other States may possibly see Greens Senate candidates defeated in favour of Family First in South Australia and Tasmania.
As the Victorian Greens No. 1 Senate candidate, facing likely defeat, you my readily dismiss my opinion as biased, partisan and self-interested. A legitimate view is that Victorians have favoured Family First ahead of the Greens. Some may even say that’s democracy
The reality is that many people were unaware that their vote for the ALP and the Democrats in the Senate would elect Family First ahead of the Greens. Approximately a quarter of a million Victorians voted for the Greens in the Senate, and some 60,000 for Family First.
How is it that a Victorian Senate for the Greens more than four times that of Family First will likely see them elected? The answer may be a pragmatic approach to preferencing, or an alliance of values that may surprise many traditional ALP and Democrat voters.
The Australian Senate uses a preferential voting system that involved candidates lodging a preference ticket that is used in the counting process to determine how each voter’s choice is distributed. When voting for Senate candidates, voters are given a choice of placing a 1 ‘above the line’, or to number every candidate ‘below the line’ in any order they choose. Historically, over 90% of people vote above the line, with the result that the voting ticket used to guide the counting of Senate tickets has a very large influence on how every vote preference is distributed.
This is largely why preference negotiations evoke so much excitement in the lead up to elections. Those who understand the preference system realise that the outcome of preference negotiations is a significant factor in determining who is likely to be elected, particularly in close elections.
Last weekend saw the first federal election contested by Family First, which has close links with the Assemblies of God Church; links repeatedly denied or played down by their candidates during the election.
Family First were extremely successful in negotiating preferences with a large number of political parties. They received Victorian Senate preferences ahead of the Greens from the Australian Labour Party, Australian Democrats, Democratic Labour Party, The Aged and Disability Pensioners Party, Liberals for Forests, Christian Democratic Party, Australian Progressive Alliance, Non Custodial Parents Party, Ex-Service, Service & Veterans Party, and the Liberal/The Nationals.
Family First had announced their intention to preference the Greens last before Senate ballot papers were published, and before preference negotiations were completed. The Democrats and Australian Labor Party, both experienced and potentially progressive influences in Australian politics, knew their parties would be preferenced by Family First ahead of the Greens.
Family First ultimately preferenced The Greens, Indigenous candidate Richard Frankland’s group, ungrouped candidates and the ‘Hope Party Australia - Ethics Equality Ecology’, last in that order.
The ALP and Democrats are both experienced preference negotiators. With the knowledge that Family First were placing them above the Greens in the preferences exchange, what was it that the Democrats and ALP were gaining by making the election of Family First more likely than that of the Greens?
One can only speculate, and perhaps the ALP and Democrat members can find out for themselves and let those people who feel betrayed by them know.
Many people wrongly assumed that that the progressive aspects of the ALP and the Democrats meant they would preference the more progressive Greens ahead of the newly emerging conservative church based group Family First. Those people were proved wrong.
The consequences of deals involving party machines preferencing in collision with party principles are worth considering for future elections.
The success of Family First in collecting preferences, the strong swing to the Coalition, and the fact that elections involve extraordinary endurance and decisions made under pressure, often with incomplete knowledge have set in train an historic election outcome that many appeared to think was impossible.
The impulse for progressive parties to compete for progressive votes, in deference to expanding the progressive vote, may have won over and delivered the most conservative of coalitions Australia has seen for decades.
Despite issuing media releases identifying this issue, speaking at meetings and rallies wherever possible, the inevitable marginal seat myopia that focuses on the formation of government through a majority of members in the House of Representatives was a stronger attraction for most commentators. The importance of the Senate’s role as thoughtful watchdog appears to have been assumed either as secure, or more likely, ignored.
Australia’s forty first Parliament will see the Coalition forming government with a strong majority in the House of Representatives, and almost certainly see it have control of the Senate in either its own right, or with the co-operation of one or more Family First Senators. The potential impact on Australia’s political, social and economic landscape is considerable.
If Family First hold the balance of power, their fairly scant policy platform will see it guided by its electoral mantra: “If it’s good for your family, we’ll say YES. If it’s bad for your family, we’ll say NO.”
I have little doubt that a very skillful Howard government will trade much that is valued by progressive Australians in order to conform to Family First’s view of the family and what is good for them.
Previous Senates have limited the government’s economic rationalist agenda and confident social conservatism. With or without Family First providing a majority, a period akin to that ignited by Thatcherism is probably on our horizon.


David Risstrom is a Melbourne-based barrister and No. 1 Victorian Senate candidate for the Australian Greens.

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