Why Labor Rolls The Left, And Probably Always Will


There’s a simple reason why the Labor Party always rolls the left on key humanitarian issues like asylum seekers, Aboriginal rights, and same-sex marriage.

Because they can.

Indeed, it’s because they believe they must, in order to have a chance at winning office. Whether or not that’s true is another question, but it’s worked for the last few decades. When you’re on a winning formula….

What Labor is banking on is an electoral system that has protected it for generations – preferential voting.

Here’s how it works.

Mary the leftie walks into a voting booth on election day. She’s angry at the latest outrage from the Labor Party, so she directs her first preference vote to the Greens or an independent.

By law, she’s required to number all the boxes on her ballot paper. So she does, and eventually gives a vote to Labor. As always, Mary puts the Coalition last.

Later that night, as the preferences are distributed, Mary ends up voting for the Labor Party anyway. And that’s because her Green or independent didn’t get enough primary votes to stay in the race, which is almost always the case.

The preferential voting system advantages the two major parties. Labor knows this, indeed Labor banks on it happening, because above all else, it knows two things:

1. It can afford to lose some first preference votes (aka primary votes), provided it picks them up later as preferences.
2. It knows that no matter how vulgar its policies, rusted on lefties will always put the Liberals last.

This situation has come about because Labor believes that if it doesn’t punish asylum seekers, doesn’t beat up Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, or doesn’t fudge on things like same-sex marriage or the environment, it will ‘bleed votes in the middle’. Genuine swing voters will go with the other guys.

This is the ‘middle’ that Malcolm Turnbull talks frequently about. They’re practical voters with short-term goals. They’re not rusted on to either party, and generally vote on issues that directly affect them. They can be convinced that issues that affect them include ISIS and a ‘carbon tax’.

Labor’s capitulation on issues like asylum seeker boat turn backs, national security legislation, and it’s continuation of the racist NT intervention laws, are direct pitches to these voters precisely because they know there’s more risk in not supporting the Liberals on this issues. They know they can bleed a little to the left on primary votes, but pick them back up when the preferences are distributed.

After all, it’s not really primary votes that get you into office. They’re obviously important for a base – to keep you in the race – but at the end of the day, in a two-party preferred voting system, it’s preference flows that change government.

That’s how the two party system works, that’s why it exists.

The only way to confront Labor’s behaviour – ie. the only way to force them to adopt more humane policies – is to not vote for them. And in a two-party preferred system, that ultimately means voting Liberal. And if that sounds too horrendous for you, that’s why Labor keeps doing you over.

Your only other option is for a Green or independent to finish second in your local contest.

At the last federal election, out of 150 House of Representative seats, that only happened five times – in the seat of Melbourne, Adam Bandt won for the Greens; In Indi in Victoria, Cathy McGowan won as an independent; in Denison in Tasmania Andrew Wilkie also won as an independent; In Kennedy in Queensland, Bob Katter won for the Bob Katter Party; and in Fairfax, Clive Palmer won for the Clive Palmer party.

Basically, the two major parties have got the system stitched up. And if you threaten the system, guess what they’ll do to you.

In 1992, Labor passed laws to make it an offence to encourage voters to fill in House of Representatives ballot papers in a “non-officially-prescribed manner”.

It was in response to a Queensland man named Albert Langer, a political activist, who tried to devise a system where you could avoid voting for either of the major parties, by not numbering the ballot paper properly.

Langer was jailed for two weeks in 1996, for contempt of court (he distributed his ‘how to vote neither’ system in breach of a court instruction directing him not to after a case brought on by the Commonwealth).

Langer was actually jailed for 10 weeks, but had it reduced to two after public outcry.

The upshot is that short of a strong third party with mainstream appeal emerging, the grip of the two major parties is not likely to be broken any time soon.

And that means that you can rail against the ALP’s cowardice all you like, but unless you’re prepared to vote Liberal – thus forcing the ALP to start taking the demands of the left seriously – you’re wasting your breath.

At this point, it would be nice to finish the article with a clever segue, or some 'ray of hope'. Not going to happen.

Your other options are to not vote, or to vote informally. The first strategy means a fine, and a tacit vote for the Liberals, by removing a vote for Labor.

The second means a tacit vote for the Liberals, albeit without the fine.

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