Preferences, Principles and Chook Raffles


There’s a certain thrill in being scandalised, and what progressive could not help but feel just a tad shrill and emotional at the news that two well, after a quick recount one Democratic Labor Party (DLP) member had been elected to the Victorian Upper House on Labor Party preferences?


By chasing votes in offbeat places, Victorian Labor has repeated the 2004 Federal disaster when its own above-the-line preferences sent a candidate of the socially conservative Family First Party into the Senate with only 1.9 per cent of first preferences thereby handing control of the Upper House to Prime Minister John Howard.

This time, in Victoria, Labor’s tactics have brought back to life an anathemic Party whose ‘distributist‘ philosophy, according to its website, means, among other things: ‘an end to radical-feminist affirmative action policies whose primary effect is the disemployment of male breadwinners and the (sic) youth.’

In case you’re not sure where this is leading, the DLP wants a return to ‘just cause’ grounds in matrimonial disputes; repeal of ‘anti-family provisions in legislation that encourage easy divorce and family breakdown;’ offers comfort in ‘one national flag;’ wants ‘a rational approach to gun control;’ ‘zero tolerance of illegal drugs in the community;’ and while you’re there, the abolition of the Federal House of Representatives!

Back from the dead, at least for one Upper House term, is a Party that pinpoints HIV-AIDS as ‘overwhelmingly a homosexual disease;’ and has environment policies that allow nuclear power and a strange reference to nuclear ‘ last resort  strategic defence contingencies.’ Nuclear weapons?

Yes, to be fair, there’s sympathy for refugees and people with disabilities, but then some winking about ‘abolition of special departments, commissions and committees with dubious social or political functions’ identifying, by way of illustration, the Constitutional Commission, the Office for the Status of Women, the Commission for the Future (didn’t it die in 1998?) and the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission.

So pleased was new Upper House DLP member Peter Kavanagh that, last week, he expressed gratitude to the Labor Party for the deal.   Victorian Premier Steve Bracks did not, of course, anticipate ALP preferences working this way. No one did least of all the voters checking out the how-to-vote cards inside voting booths. But just as with Family First in 2004, Labor preferences did work this way. Both times, utterly avoidable. It’s time to pay attention.

Labor turncoat Billy Hughes introduced preferential voting in 1918 so that competing conservative Parties could aggregate their vote and keep Federal Labor out of office. The plan worked for more than a decade. Later, in the 1950s, splitters forming the DLP fed preferential votes to Liberal PM Robert Menzies. Labor voters felt the sting election after election until the DLP’s electoral extinction in 1975.

Extinction? Until these fresh sightings in 2006 in Victoria.

It’s not preferential voting per se that’s the problem it’s more that Labor, this time, systematically preferenced the DLP over the Greens. Is it preferencing without principle? Or is it playing tactics without seeing where they could lead you?

Stranger things have happened. In 1984 Federal Labor and the Liberals did a deal to keep the newly formed Nuclear Disarmament Party (NDP) out of the Senate. They exchanged preferences so that a passionately anti-uranium and Pine Gap opponent Peter Garrett couldn’t get elected even with over 9.4 per cent of the first-preference vote. In that year, Labor preferred a National Party Senator to an NDP one.

Peter Garrett, building or burning bridges? Image from here

Ironically, last month, with pre-election polling showing surprising levels of support for the Greens in key inner-Melbourne seats, the same Peter Garrett dropped a carefully worded letter into strategic letterboxes. This time, the now-Federal Labor MP wrote of a ‘Greens’ deal with the Liberals’ speaking of a ‘Liberal-Green alliance’ that could lose Labor office. Of course, the Greens never preferenced Liberals ahead of Labor, but the insinuation was out there, and bouncing around. It may have cost the Greens a Lower House seat.

Greens have their own self-inflicted wounds. By getting agreement from Labor to preference Greens ahead of Family First but not insisting on second place on the ticket, Labor was given room to do deals with other minority Parties like the DLP, Country Alliance, the Democrats and People Power, putting them ahead of the Greens and still abide by their agreement.

But with Garrett’s controversial intervention, and given the final results, bridges may need rebuilding prior to the next Federal election. It might make sense for the Greens to preference Labor in every Lower House seat, and Labor to preference the Greens in every Upper House seat. But what makes sense doesn’t always happen.

Billy Hughes probably knew that, way back in 1918. I’m sure he won every chook raffle he put in for.

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.