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Minor parties should be held to the pre-poll preference promises they make

21 December 2013 152 views One Comment

IF the High Court sends West Australians back to the polls in the new year, we will see the formation of some very odd political alliances among the smaller parties as they wheel and deal for preferences. The recent WA Senate election certainly showed minor parties could win one and possibly two seats if they had the right preference deal in place.

In the past, minor parties and independents have been elected to the Senate via clever or lucky preference arrangements. The habit of Labor and the Coalition of preferencing religious parties and individuals above mainstream parties saw the likes of Brian Harradine hold the balance of power in the Senate for many years. It was also responsible for the election of Family First’s Steve Fielding and the Democratic Labour Party’s John Madigan.

Pushed From the Wings

Now minor parties can get elected almost by default. If too many minor parties preference another minor party high up on their group voting ticket, either because that party is perceived to have a neutral political affiliation or to have no chance of winning, this can actually get them up. The Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party in Victoria “stole” the last Senate seat at the September election in this way.

What made the election of a candidate who was a political ingenue all the more interesting was how billionaire Clive Palmer immediately tried to woo Motoring Enthusiast senator-elect Ricky Muir to form some sort of coalition to block Tony Abbott’s legislative agenda. But if that seemed a bit rich, just watch Palmer wheel and deal with the other minor parties in the run-up to another WA Senate election. Who knows what he will be promising then?

Already we’ve seen minor parties such as the Republican Party hitting the phones trying to lock in preference arrangements before the High Court has even considered whether a new election will be called. The Republican Party’s avuncular spokesman, Peter Consandine, claims to have locked in half his preferences. Given that his GVTs for almost all states at the September election were lodged by the Liberal Democratic Party’s NSW senator-elect David Leyonhjelm, many minor party co-ordinators in the future will be clearly wanting some guarantees in place.

Leyonhjelm is proving to be as hard to pin down after an election as before it. Leyonhjelm, who ran on a ticket of the legalisation of guns, gay marriage and drugs, is now reported to be trying to make a formal arrangement with right-wing religious party Family First. It’s difficult to imagine how any self-respecting civil libertarian party could possibly continue to claim to be that and sit on the crossbenches in an alliance with the religious Right. And what must the wholesome folk at Family First think about this?

Leyonhjelm owes his seat in the Senate to the fact thousands of people in NSW mistook his Liberal Democratic Party for the Liberal Party of Australia. His vote in NSW jumped from 1.5 per cent in the 2010 federal election to 9 per cent at the September one. In the ballot for positions on the Senate ticket, he drew to the left of the Liberal Party in all states except Queensland, where he drew to the right of the Libs. In all states his vote rose – except in Queensland, where it fell to 0.69 per cent – which is probably his true rating around the country.

It’s crystal clear that, intentionally or not, his party is being elected on the coat-tails of the Liberal Party, and if Leyonhjelm is allowed to run the LDP with its current name in any rescheduled WA Senate election his poll position on the ballot paper could well decide if he takes yet another seat from the Liberal Party.

It seems to me that the Australian Electoral Commission needs to act now to force Leyonhjelm to make sufficient changes to the name of his party to stop this farcical undermining of people’s true voting intentions. And while the Electoral Commission is at it, how did it ever let Leyonhjelm register another of his feeder parties (the Outdoor Recreation Party) with an abbreviated name on the ballot paper of “Stop The Greens”? It would be fascinating indeed to see how the commission would react to a group trying to set up a party called “Stop the Leyonhjelm”.

This brings us to the question of whether the WA Electoral Commission should be insisting on parties signing some form of guarantee that says they will preference other parties the way they have agreed on the phone and through email. After all, these are contracts political parties make with one another that clearly shape the next federal parliament. They are essentially contracts that could shape the future of Australia and therefore should have some privilege attaching to them. If a party lodges a group voting ticket at the 11th hour that is different from what it has agreed on, an aggrieved party should have rights to enforce that agreement – even after the commission’s deadline.

It is widely known that Leyonhjelm made an agreement with the Australian Sex Party in Victoria at the September election, via a series of phone calls and emails, to preference that party’s candidate, Fiona Patten, high up on the GVT for his Liberal Democratic Party, as well as three other feeder parties that he was acting for, including the Republican Party.

In return, Patten was to preference him high up in NSW. When the GVTs were lodged, Leyonhjelm had reneged on his promises by not submitting his GVTs by the deadline. This arguably caused Patten to lose out on the last Senate seat in Victoria to the Motoring Enthusiast Party.

Leyonhjelm’s excuses for not submitting were first that the Victorian Electoral Commission’s fax was not working. Then he claimed that it was his fax that did not work and, finally, that he dialled the wrong fax number. Yet Leyonhjelm seemed to manage these complex operations in all the other states.

Whether we will find out the truth of what happened remains to be seen, but to stop anyone in the future from welshing on an agreed preference deal with another party simply because the time for lodgments of GVTs has expired, the Australian Electoral Commission needs to step in and make a new ruling for the coming WA Senate election.

If a party’s GVT is different from what was promised, such a party should be penalised under the Australian Electoral Act. We still may see the election of one or two minor parties in the Senate, but at least they will have got there through honest and transparent negotiations.

Emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University, Ross Fitzgerald is the author of 36 books.

The Weekend Australian, December 21-22, 2013, Inquirer p 20.

One Comment »

  • Fiona Patten, P.A. Smith said:

    Preferential treatment

    ROSS Fitzgerald’s outline of minor party relationships (“Minor parties should be held to the pre-poll preference promises they make”, 21-22/12) seems pretty accurate from where I stand.

    I’m in for a good stoush whenever it presents itself in politics and that includes fighting for the right for a level playing field. The preferences game for minor parties has been littered with lies and broken promises for years. If the big boys are planning electoral reforms at the moment, they should stop thinking up ways to decrease minor party influence and start coming up with ways to make parties preference the way they promise to.

    Fiona Patten, president, Australian Sex Party, Carlton, Vic

    Do we really want the vote-losing Australian Electoral Commission (“Minor parties should be held to the pre-poll preference promises they make”, 21-22/12) to still be responsible for policing the promises of our political parties?

    Dr P.A.Smith, Mount Archer, Qld

    The Australian, December 23, 2013 Commentary, p 11.