Moves to castrate minor parties are bound to backfire
SHORTLY before the Victorian election in November, I predicted in this newspaper that the Australian Sex Party’s Fiona Patten would be elected to the Legislative Council. I said this would follow a fierce struggle with the religious party, Family First, in the Northern Metropolitan region.
It happened. Not only did the Sex Party win a seat in Northern Metro but it missed out on winning a second one in South East Metro by a mere 230 votes. With 50 per cent of the vote counted, Family First and the Sex Party were neck and neck in Northern Metro before the Sex Party pulled ahead. The ultra-smart Patten is now one of those crossbench MPs in the upper house holding the balance of power.
When the Victorian election was first called, online bookies had Patten at 10 to 1 but by the time the group voting tickets had been published in the last week of the campaign, her price had tumbled to $1.87. The smart money was on Patten, and on her canny preference deals.
In previous incarnations, Patten has been a fashion designer, sex worker and adults-only lobbyist. This is not your average political pedigree.
So how did she get elected by a margin of some 20,000 votes? If you believe the nonsense spouted recently by psephologist Antony Green and Labor powerbroker Gary Gray, she “gamed the proportional representation voting system under which the election was held.
That is, Patten won a seat with a primary vote of about 3 per cent by cajoling and carousing with other minor parties to undermine a system that ideally should return “serious parties like Labor, Nationals, Liberals and the Greens.
These arguments need to be exposed before parliaments throughout Australia start acting on them in the mistaken belief that democracy is somehow better served by fewer rather than more political parties.
Green maintains that minor parties, who tightly swap preferences among themselves and exclude the major parties, are somehow rorting the system. He and Gray appear to believe that the proportional representation system of voting only works properly when it returns a relatively small crossbench and preferably one that does not hold the balance of power. As far as I know, neither of them levelled similar criticisms at the independent Tasmanian senator Brian Harradine, who held federal governments to Ã‚Âransom for nearly 20 years off a primary vote of 7 per cent or when Family First’s Steve Fielding was elected to the Senate off a primary vote of 1.8 per cent.
The Green /Grey logic appears to be that Harradine and Fielding got elected using “respectable Labor and Liberal preferences rather than the odious preferences of minor parties. I could more readily accept their criticisms if a minor party engaged in preference dealing as its only means of winning a seat and did not campaign in the traditional ways that political parties regularly do.
But in the Victorian election, and unlike Family First, the Australian Sex Party campaigned strongly throughout the community, leafleting people on their way to work at train stations, pushing their policies in the press whenever they could and arguing on social media.
They acknowledged the support of the Eros Association and even set a precedent by campaigning with two other minor parties, the Basics Rock Ã¢â‚¬â„¢nÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ Roll Party and the Voluntary Euthanasia Party, with whom they shared some common ground.
The Australian Sex Party also engaged in some smart preference deals with other libertarian minor parties. This saw Patten gather a large libertarian vote, but that’s not “gaming the system. Ask the voters of the Basics Rock Ã¢â‚¬ËœnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ Roll Party, the Voluntary Euthanasia Party, the Liberal Democrats, the Cyclists and the Animal Justice Party how they felt about their votes going to the Sex Party, after their own party didn’t get enough for a quota. I don’t think they would have felt their vote had been “gamed.
Antony Green and his ilk need to look at European parliaments to see that representation of half a dozen parties in a parliament is not only democratic but it makes politics much more engaging.
If this were not the case, why else are voters consciously putting minor parties in the Senate and in state upper houses?
The major parties need to tread carefully with any so-called “electoral reform. Any attempt to knock out minor parties with increased fees, impossible registration demands or a minimum vote that unlocks the door to getting preference flows, is likely to backfire. My feeling is that if the majors try to castrate minor parties, it will result in sudden jumps in the latter’s primary votes, and that more minor parties will be elected.
The Greens may well lose support if they go along with these draconian new ideas. The Greens started off with a primary voting base of about 2 per cent in the 1970s and if the same strategies being floated now had been in place then, the Greens would never have got off the ground.
The proportional representation system encapsulates what one can call “the cat flap principle. It allows for newer minor parties to get in, but it also makes it easy for them to get out.
Tightening the screws on “the cat flap may have some nasty unintended consequences for the big parties and, especially, the Greens.
Emeritus professor of History and Politics at Griffith University, Ross Fitzgerald has published 36 books, including his memoir, ‘My Name is Ross: An Alcoholic’s Journey’.
The Weekend Australian, January 24-25, 2015, Commentary, p 18.