Preferences gone wrong

A preference for open how-to-vote tickets – and worse – is a political problem Inside the Greens could have examined more closely…

THE LIBERAL/NATIONAL and Labor parties have over the years made some unprincipled preference decisions. One of the more infamous of these is when Labor (and the Australian Democrats)  preferenced Family First’s Steve Fielding, which ensured that he won the last Senate seat in Victoria in the 2004 federal election instead of the Greens.

Since the 1980’s the Greens have made thousands of preference decisions with almost all of them being principled. However, no party is immune to the temptation of possibly winning more seats through an unethical preference deal. There are of course risks in such deals and in the long run the Greens will be much better off if the party sticks to principle and makes its preference recommendations by ranking the other parties according to their ideology and policies. It is important for the Greens to learn from our mistakes and maintain a high degree of integrity when making preference decisions. 

Bob Brown’s dangerous preference for open tickets

Bob Brown often promoted the idea of the Greens not allocating preferences to either major party in lower house seats. He would argue for the open ticket how-to-vote card approach within the party and through the media. Perhaps he was influenced by the United Tasmania Group which had a history of handling preferences that way, and the poor environmental record of both Liberal and Labor Tasmanian governments.

Within the Greens there have been different views on preference allocations and strategy. This has caused considerable tension and there could have been greater examination of this issue in Inside the Greens.

In the lead up to federal elections in the 2000s Brown would bring proposals to national meetings that would in essence make an open ticket the default position for the Greens how-to-vote cards. If adopted it would take at least a two-thirds (or in some instances 75%) majority decision to change that position, meaning it would be less likely that there would be a recommendation to preference Labor ahead of the Coalition. Fortunately, enough states including the Greens NSW resisted and Brown’s proposals failed. Not only was there concern about reducing the autonomy of local groups or state parties to make preference decisions, it was also obvious to many with a left perspective that it would be a dangerous practice for several reasons. 

In marginal seats if the Greens issued open ticket how-to-vote cards it would increase the chances of the Liberal/National candidate winning the seat and therefore the chances of the Coalition winning government. In addition it would hand Labor a powerful political weapon which it could use to damage the Greens primary vote. Labor with its large megaphone could simply reach the public with the message that the Greens open ticket preference decisions would help the Coalition win government, thereby scaring a lot of potential Greens voters back to Labor. Brown did not seem to be convinced by this analysis. Also if the Greens declined to preference Labor, then Labor would be less likely to preference the Greens. Preference exchanges with Labor have helped both parties win seats in elections and are generally mutually beneficial.
The Greens flirtation with the idea of open tickets would later contribute to a loss of votes and worse for the party in the 2016 federal election. 

No preferences for Lee Rhiannon?

In the lead-up to the 2010 election, a senior Green told one of the Greens national preference negotiators that not everyone in the party room wanted to see Lee Rhiannon elected. This was taken to be a suggestion that, when negotiating with other parties for Senate preferences for the Greens, the negotiators shouldn’t work to secure preferences for the NSW lead Senate candidate, Rhiannon. The negotiators ignored the pressure and carried out their negotiations consistent with the direction of the party, and were instrumental in securing Rhiannon’s election to the Senate. Inside the Greens does not mention the incident. 

Greens deal with Clive Palmer in 2013

Inside the Greens does mention the dubious Greens-Palmer United Party preference deal in the 2013 federal election.2 The Sydney Morning Herald reported on it too.3 Ben Oquist was involved in negotiations for the deal which saw Sarah Hanson-Young re-elected on Palmer United Party preferences. The Greens preferenced mining magnate, Clive Palmer, who won Fairfax, and a few other Palmer United candidates in lower house seats. The Greens in South Australia preferenced Palmer candidates ahead of other major senate contenders in that state, including the Labor and the Xenophon number two candidates. 

Manning does not include Bob Brown’s role where the former leader pressured reluctant Queensland Greens members to agree to the deal. Brown turned up at a local Greens campaign meeting seeking support for the Palmer deal. Local members were unhappy, but felt they could not go against what Brown wanted. 

Lee Rhiannon led the Greens campaign to end group voting tickets and associated dodgy preference deals. Senate voting reform was legislated before the 2016 election. It made it much harder to do preference deals like that.

Victorian Greens ‘own goal’ preference talks with Libs

Paddy Manning covers the discussion between the Victorian Greens and Liberals in the lead up to the 2016 federal election about a possible preference deal.4 The essence of the proposal was that the Liberals would preference the Greens ahead of Labor in some seats the Greens could win, and in return the Greens would print split tickets or open tickets on their how-to-vote cards in some Labor/Liberal marginal seats, thereby improving the chances of the Liberals winning.

Former leader Bob Brown was also publicly talking up the merits of the Greens issuing open tickets in the media at that time too. His urging the party to do so only fueled media speculation about a deal and how it would make it harder for Labor to win government.5 It worried many Greens members, supporters and potential voters, who were keen for the Coalition government to be defeated. 

It was evident that the Victorian Greens had learnt little from their 2006 state election experience where Labor campaigned effectively to reduce the Greens primary vote by publicising some Greens split ticket how-to-vote cards. 

When the Greens-Liberal talks became news, although no deal was ever concluded, the Deputy Prime Minister Tanya Plibersek in the electorate of Sydney, and Anthony Albanese in Grayndler, could not believe their luck. They campaigned heavily on the so-called Greens-Liberal preference deal.  

There can be little doubt that the publicity surrounding the Victorian Greens talks with the Liberal party damaged the Greens primary vote across the nation, as alarmed Greens/Labor swinging voters swung in behind the Labor party. Apart from Melbourne being held, the Greens did not win any other lower house seats. It was a shocking own goal.

In NSW there was also concern that the fiasco had chipped off enough Greens primary vote to cost the party a long-term Senate seat. The Greens NSW polled 7.41% in the Senate and while Lee Rhiannon was re-elected the state party fell just short of a full 7.7% quota which would have ensured the party won a long-term (six year) Senate seat instead of a three year term. When the 2019 election came around, instead of having a continuing Senator and increasing that to two, the party could only tread water successfully defending its sole Senate seat.

While Bob Brown on ABC’s 7.30 program was busy publicly blaming the Greens NSW for the Greens 2016 election result,6 the left in the Greens NSW had an entirely different view of who was to blame, but did not air their view in the media.

If it had been the Greens NSW instead of the Victorian Greens that engaged in such damaging preference discussions with the Liberals, no doubt there would have been hell to pay.

The only good thing to emerge from the episode is that the Greens will be much more reluctant to consider making any preference arrangements with the Coalition.

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  1. Paddy Manning, Inside the Greens, Black Inc., Melbourne 2019 p. 15
  2. Page 310
  3. Greens sign preference deal with Clive Palmer
  4. Pages 336-337
  5. Sydney Morning Herald, 22 May 2016
  6. Bob Brown calls on Senator Lee Rhiannon to stand

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