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Something doesn’t add up here

February 20th, 2016

The papers are abuzz with speculation about an early election. This is one of the favorite games of the political punditariat, and it usually comes to nothing, but the story this time seems to make even less sense than usual. Part of the problem is that there are three different ways an early election could be held, and the proponents seem to be assuming a “unicorn” or “Pixie horse” (to use Scott Morrison’s evocative terminology) that combines the best of all three from the government’s position.

First, we could have an immediate dissolution of the House of Representatives. This would have a chance of achieving the biggest selling point of the early election idea, cashing in on Malcolm Turnbull’s popularity while it lasts. But such obviously cynical moves have failed in the past, as Campbell Newman could tell you. Also, it would (as I understand it) necessitate a separate half-Senate election in the second half of the year. The political class, with the exception of minority and micro-parties, really hates this idea.

Second, we could have a double dissolution, based on the Senate’s failure to pass anti-union laws, and held under the existing rules. Apparently, the election would have to be called the day after Budget Day (11 May), and couldn’t be held until July. So, it would only be a few months early, invalidating the whole idea. And, of course, it would guarantee a Senate with lots of micro and minor party members.

The third idea, is the second, plus a deal with the Greens to reform the Senate voting rules to allow preferential above the line voting. This would kill off the “preference whisperer” deals that have allowed the election of candidates with almost no votes. The reform makes sense, but why on earth would the Greens rush it through to make life easy for the government? All they have to do is hold off until the Budget session and they can get the reform with no possibility of a double dissolution.

Also, the idea that the reform will kill micro parties seems to be oversold. Automatic preference exchange might be gone, but there will still be “how to vote” cards. With a DD quota of about 7.5 per cent, a candidate with a 4 per cent primary vote, or even less, could easily get in on preferences.

However, no one seems to be making any of these points. Have I misunderstood the arcana of our system, or just got the strategy wrong? Over to you.

Update In comments, Lt Fred makes a convincing case that the Greens want and would benefit from a Double Dissolution. They did much better in 2010 than in 2013, so a DD would be good for them.

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  1. Lt. Fred
    February 20th, 2016 at 12:01 | #1

    The Greens really, really want a DD election. There are a couple of states where they get two senators that they might get three, or one and might get two. Larissa would certainly hold her seat for instance. Add the potential gain of Grayndler and the ALP weakened by a narrow Turnbull win, it might be a real opportunity for the party to break into the mainstream.

  2. John Quiggin
    February 20th, 2016 at 12:06 | #2

    @Lt. Fred

    OK, that makes some sense.

  3. David Barry
    February 20th, 2016 at 12:14 | #3

    The Greens have been wanting this Senate reform, or something like it, for many years (and for what to me look like principled reasons).

    How-to-vote cards are only useful if they’re handed out and voters follow them. Micro-parties don’t have enough volunteers to hand them out (see, e.g., the LDP in the Canning by-election — they got some media coverage for recommending preferences to Labor, and about 70% of their voters preferenced the Liberal), so the snowballing preference harvests from a 2% primary vote are much less likely to occur.

    I agree that in a DD especially there’s an outside chance for a party with a small vote to be elected (probably they’d need preferences from a major party, whose voters might usually follow the how-to-vote cards). But most Senate elections will have the usual 14.29% quota, and most micro-parties will have nowhere near the level of support needed to think about winning a seat whatever the quota. After the NSW reform (very similar to what is likely for the Senate, and in NSW the quota is less than 5%), they went from 80 groups on the Legislative Council ballot paper in 1999 to 15 groups in 2003.

  4. tony lynch
    February 20th, 2016 at 12:16 | #4

    And when a party “breaks into the mainstream” it becomes just another mainstream party.

  5. Lt. Fred
    February 20th, 2016 at 12:33 | #5

    There is certainly that tension in the party, particularly over Richard’s style. But it works both ways. You can become mainstream by changing your message to fit the general paradigm. You can also become mainstream by changing the paradigm. Or both. Certainly Labor did.

  6. Ikonoclast
    February 20th, 2016 at 13:15 | #6

    @tony lynch

    “And when a party “breaks into the mainstream” it becomes just another mainstream party.” – tony lynch.

    That certainly seemed to be what happened to “left-wing” Syriza in Greece when it came into power and became decidedly un left-wing in rapid style. There is something about the current global power complex which renders left-wing politics, even relatively mild social democracy, largely inoperable. This is true in the economic sphere and often in the personal rights sphere too. (So the rights of reasonably well-off white gay people can be progressed for example, though not that much in Australia admittedly, but the rights of blacks and refugees definitely go backwards).

    Maybe we really need to look at why social democratic, democratic s o c i a l i s t and minority rights are so difficult to progress under the current economic system (whose name must be mentioned because it is perfect, eternal and above all criticism).

    By the way, Tony are there any philosophical blogs worth checking out? I found philosopher dot io which is interesting site but I don’t see blog options. I can understand why such a site would not consider offering blogging as an option so no criticism is intended. My own interests (as an amateur) have rapidly turned to process philosophy / process metaphysics along with a continued interest in complex systems philosophy but I have literally only scratched the surface of these interests. I won’t say more here as it is off topic.

  7. FREDDO
    February 20th, 2016 at 13:18 | #7

    Anuva big problem with an election in early July (which our brilliant political journalists seem to have missed) is that it would require Parliament to pass interim appropriation bills to keep the govt running after 1 July. What if the Senate refused to pass them!

  8. Ikonoclast
    February 20th, 2016 at 13:18 | #8

    Oops, I meant to say (ironically) of a certain economic system: “(whose name must NOT be mentioned because it is perfect, eternal and above all criticism)”

  9. FREDDO
    February 20th, 2016 at 13:19 | #9

    Lt Fred – Changing the Paradigm is about as easy as rounding up one of Scott Morrison’s unicorn.

  10. FREDDO
    February 20th, 2016 at 13:35 | #10

    John speculating about early elections is also one of the favourite parlour games of government backbenchers who are starting to wet themselves. All those who have thought Malcolm was cruising to victory and Shorten didn’t have a chance had better hold onto their hats. You can get 6-1 odds on labor winning the next election. Ridiculous. Labor is the favourite right now because:
    1. Shorten has been faultless as Opposition leader. He’s a lot brighter than Malcolm (who isn’t bright, just preternaturally greedy) An election campaign will bring that out;
    2. Malcolm is, and always has been, totally hollow. When you don’t believe in anything, and your sole function is to keep your party popular, it’s pretty hard to make decisions; LBJ’s biographer, Robert Caro, said that power doesn’t corrupt, it reveals. We’re getting a crash course in who Malcolm Turnbull really is;
    3. Scott Morrison is worse that Turnbull (somehow);
    4. Malcolm will take into the election campaign a huge amount of political baggage which is in the background right now: SSM; direct action; cuts to health and education funding, etc etc. The electorate has been waiting for him to deal with these issues. Things will get ugly when they find out he hasn’t.
    An early election won’t help Turnbull at all because his popularity is very fragile. Voters have been adopting a wait-and-see approach. When he calls an early election, they will bring forward their judgement of him. It won’t be pretty.

  11. Ikonoclast
    February 20th, 2016 at 13:43 | #11

    If I might post a link to an article or paper by tony lynch which is thought-provoking to say the least.

    http://philosopher.io/The-Unbearable-Lightness-of-Political-Democracy

    It certainly relates to this blog topic but at a philosophical rather than a psephological level. I find a lot I agree with and a little I disagree with in tony’s paper. I would also raise some further questions as what it omits is as interesting as what it says. (It’s a short paper.) But such a debate is not directly related to this blog topic so I would not attempt to pursue it here.

  12. FREDDO
    February 20th, 2016 at 13:51 | #12

    I forgot the biggest piece of political baggage Malcolm will carry into the next election – Tony Abbott. Even Blind Freddie can see that if Malcolm wins the next election (or even if he doesn’t) there will be a civil war in the Liberal Party. The only way to end the Abbott Dark Age is to boot the Libs out.
    The polls are reasonably good for the libs right now; but the dynamics are terrible.

  13. Lt. Fred
    February 20th, 2016 at 13:58 | #13

    I’d be one of those who believes the Liberales have it sown up. What’s Shorten going to run on? Can’t run on “I told you so” like Tony Windsor*, can’t run on Tony’s lies because Tony’s already gone. Can’t run on NBN waste, because the press doesn’t care. Can’t run an inspirational positive campaign based on a new tomorrow cause Shorten. Can’t run a scare campaign on the GST or additional spending cuts or an increased deficit. The press loves an articulate merchant banker lawyer with a tint of the ratbag (Spycatcher et al) so that’s going to help Turnbull as well.

    * This would by far be the best campaign line of attack.

  14. Jim Rose
    February 20th, 2016 at 14:16 | #14

    @John Quiggin
    Did not Malcolm Mackerras and other types make their careers out of pointing out that double dissolutions do not make it easier for the small parties to get in?

    see too http://blogs.abc.net.au/antonygreen/double-dissolutions/

  15. GrueBleen
    February 20th, 2016 at 15:27 | #15

    @Lt. Fred

    Sad to say, Lt. Fred, but I find myself agreeing with you though my heart and soul is with FREDDO and his analysis (above). Turnbull really is a dead loss on all fronts, but it just isn’t gonna matter this time around (unlike Qld’s Newman).

    The main questions will be 1. “How many minor party seats in the Senate ?” and 2. “Will the Greens’ ambition to be part of the power circus destroy them as Meg Lees’ ambitions destroyed the Democrats ?”

    Oh that we should have so much fun and joy in this sunny vale which has 0.3% of the world’s population but manages to have the 12th biggest (exchange rate valuation) economy with the world’s 7th biggest (exchange rate valuation) GDP per capita.

  16. Chris M
    February 20th, 2016 at 15:28 | #16

    It’s worth remembering that senate voting reform will require a certain amount of re-engineering of AEC processes and that this will require some months of work. It might be an own goal for the Greens to hold up the senate voting bills in hope of avoiding a double dissolution – the legislation may evaporate…

  17. GrueBleen
    February 20th, 2016 at 15:37 | #17

    @Ikonoclast

    Yep, Ikono, Democracy is weightless and as soon as something better is invented, I’ll join Tony in not voting for it.

  18. Alphonse
    February 20th, 2016 at 15:48 | #18

    Is it merely a recognition that any Lib budget true to Lib ideology is bound to be a vote loser, leading to a conclusion that there should be no Lib budget before the next election?

  19. Ikonoclast
    February 20th, 2016 at 16:10 | #19

    @GrueBleen

    I find myself wanting to call “democracy” a portmanteau word but it’s the wrong term.

    I mean democracy is big and amorphous term and people pack all sorts of meanings and definitions into it. What we call democracy today in the West is “limited representative democracy subjected to continuous corporate-oligarchic buyout”.

  20. February 21st, 2016 at 07:50 | #20

    Not often mentioned when a dd crops up is the Whitlam strategy as per the const’n ie a joint sitting after the dd if the senate again rejects the bills used as a trigger. In which case the number of minor parties in the senate is less relevant. I believe that’s how we got family law reform, racial discrim’n act (the one parlt cheerfully suspends for various anti-aboriginal discrim’n) etc. The Liberals may not have a tax policy (as in what else could they really ask for after the Howard “miracle”? Lower company tax? Isn’t zero low enough for the rich?) but they do have a deep desire to geld unions. Capt Waffle may be brave enough to go for an anti-union election.

  21. NathanA
    February 21st, 2016 at 10:41 | #21

    Just to clarify the second last paragraph as it’s a bit more complicated if there was a DD with the proposed reforms. Basically, the reforms as I understand them will exhaust votes when preferences are distributed, meaning that senators elected early in the count will require a higher quota than the last senator elected. This could (and in my view should) be addressed by recounting the vote each time a candidate is removed and votes exhausted. The effects of this is that the quota for the last senator in a DD with these reforms will be unlikely to be 7.5%, and likely to be considerably less.

  22. GrueBleen
    February 21st, 2016 at 14:11 | #22

    @Ikonoclast

    Personally. Ikono, old mate, I used to call democracy, in my working class social climbing rebellion daze, “elective oligarchy”.

    But I reckon we’ve got at least the first, biggest and most important step behind us: that we, the people, can sack our government and it will stay sacked (ie no geeing up the army to stage a coup).

    Now all we have to do is work out how to get the majority of enfranchised citizens to actually become aware of their own nation and its ways and means. I used to troll my work colleagues by saying to them that: “You’d go and give your lives, or send your children to give their lives, to defend the country in a war, but you won’t spend 5 hours a week to keep informed enough about the world to maybe stop wars happening.” So it goes, eh ?

  23. Paul Norton
    February 21st, 2016 at 14:31 | #23

    Perhaps the main opportunity for the Coalition to improve its Senate vote on 2013 will arise from the implosion of the Palmer United Party, and the unlikelihood of a similarly effective right-populist party emerging to take its place between now and the election.

    Estimating the exact proportion of PUP votes that would go to the Coalition is not straightforward, but it’s worth noting that about half of PUP voters preferenced the Coalition in HoR seats in 2013. The gains to the Coalition could be significant but by my reckoning not enought to give them a Senate majority in a DD. In any case, the potential gains to the Coalition from this quarter would have little, if anything, to do with the proposed changes to the voting system.

  24. Paul Norton
    February 21st, 2016 at 14:33 | #24

    Another point is that I think it is unlikely that the preference-whispering micro-parties will respond to the new voting system like so many rabbits in the headlights. I would expect some kind of concerted tactical response, althought what it will be and how effective it will be are far less easy to predict.

  25. Moz of Yarramulla
    February 22nd, 2016 at 07:34 | #25

    @Paul Norton

    According to a source who’s in one of the nano-parties, one of the plans is simply to combine forces at a slightly higher level. Rather than having multiple microparties at every latte-sipping booth, the idea is to spread them out and allocate them more tactically, but have the HTV cards still clearly lay out the preferences. They may well end up doing The Greens thing of half their effort going into trying to tell people how voting works.

  26. J-D
    February 22nd, 2016 at 11:58 | #26

    The journalists and other commentators who write about politics frequently have a limited grasp of the system’s legal/technical/formal rules, and elections are exactly the subject area where this most often trips them up. If you’re reading something they’re writing on this subject and you think they’ve missed a crucial point and their stories don’t make sense, the probability is high that they have and they don’t.

    There are a few bloggers, such as ABC election analyst Antony Green, who have a good grasp of this kind of thing and who spend time on clarifying journalistic confusions. I haven’t checked whether any of them have written about this particular issue, but it’s likely they have.

  27. Paul Norton
    February 22nd, 2016 at 13:59 | #27

    J-D @26, similar criticisms could also be made of Sam Dastyari.

    Dastyari’s claim would only make sense if the proposed changes to Senate voting rules were to make Senate voting as difficult as it was prior to 1984.

    The system used prior to 1984 required voters to indicate a valid sequence of preferences for all Senate candidates in their State. Thus, in the 1983 election voters in New South Wales had to number all squares in a valid sequence from 1 to 60 so it was no wonder that informal voting was widespread.

    By contrast, under the proposed changes voters will (to simplify) only need to indicate six preferences above the line to cast a formal vote. This means that casting a valid vote for the Senate will probably be simpler than for the House of Representatives. For the HoR there was an average of 8 candidates per seat in 2013 and there in no good reason to expect this to decline in this years election.

  28. David Irving (no relation)
    February 24th, 2016 at 11:37 | #28

    @FREDDO
    Sportsbet has an ALP win at $5.50 now – they must be starting to agree with you. I’ve just put $100 on it.

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