Hard choices for good democracy


Bob Brown’s Green candidate or Labor’s Lindsay Tanner? That’s the hard question facing many electors in the federal seat of Melbourne, with ramifications for voters in all inner-city seats.

Should you vote for the hard working, decent incumbent whose track record on most issues is one of enlightened liberalism – but whose political party, the ALP, has made unpalatable policy decisions? Or should you vote for the Greens candidate, because their party platform more closely matches your own policy preferences?

Aside from aspects of Tanner’s morality politics – for example, he is not ‘pro choice’ on voluntary euthanasia – this Shadow Minister has fought hard inside Labor’s caucus on all the issues that are turning many to the Greens. Tanner supports refugee rights. He opposes the US-Australia free trade agreement, understands environment and conservation issues, and cares about workers’ rights. But his party and its new leader Mark Latham are not winning hearts and minds on those issues.

In the Tampa election of November 2001, I voted Green in both the Senate and House of Representatives. As I argued in a letter to the Age at the time, a key factor that shifted my vote was the $1.79 paid by the Australian Electoral Commission to political parties for each first preference vote. In 2004 it will be about $1.94 per vote.

This arrangement means anti-conservatives can be confident – contrary to repetitive scare mongering by Labor – that a so-called ‘protest vote’ against the major parties is far from wasted. In our preferential voting system you can vote Green or Democrat first and pass your second preference to Labor, ensuring the Coalition does not benefit. But the loss of your first preference hits Labor’s hip pocket nerve.

Three years ago that meant that Labor and the Liberals ‘earned’ $14.9m and $14.5m respectively and the Greens were rewarded with a very healthy $1.37 million in their campaign coffers, with a further $223,000 to the Western Australian Greens.

The loss of your first preference vote could hit Labor even harder. Like many other incumbents in progressive inner-city seats, Tanner is not in a safe position.

According to the Australian Electoral Commission’s website, Tanner won 47.65 percent of the vote, with 39,978 votes. The Liberals polled 20,870 votes, the Greens 13,174, Democrats 8,062 and independent socialist Steve Jolly 1,260, with James Ferrari last with 558 votes.

In our preferential system the smallest pile of votes is distributed first. The Ferrari and Jolly piles were distributed, leaving the Democrat votes to decide whether the Liberals or Greens were the smallest of the three remaining parcels of votes. The majority (55 per cent) of Democrat preferences went to the Greens – but not enough to leave the Liberals behind the Greens, which is what needs to happen for this previously safe Labor seat to fall.

Tanner has made the point that only a handful of votes stood between him and the Greens candidate for Melbourne, Pamela Curr. That’s despite the safe-seeming headline figure of a two-party preferred split showing Tanner way ahead (70 per cent) of his Liberal rival, Con Frantzeskos (30 per cent).

If the Greens win substantially more Democrat preferences in this election, and if few if any Liberals preference Labor ahead of the Greens, then Tanner could lose his seat. Tanner says the strong Greens turnout was an effect of the Tampa, and he’s probably right. But that doesn’t mean having tasted Green once, people won’t do it again.

Knowing this could happen in 2004, how should you vote?

Do you choose the party that no longer stands up on the important issues, whose leader parades as the anointed son-of-Gough – but whose policies resemble the son-of-Margaret (Thatcher)? Or do you choose the Greens, who are the closest thing to the rejuvenation of politics that came with Gough in 1972 – and in the process unseat the best of Labor?

In this case good democracy makes hard choices.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.