The 2010 Australian Election – New South Wales

Imagine a place where Texas would fit in comfortably with enough area left to shoehorn in Virginia but with a population only slightly larger than that of Washington State. Like all Australian states, New South Wales has a single large city, Sydney. Sydney is Australia’s largest city with a (district) population of about 4,340,000 recorded in 2007 or reasonably similar in size to metropolitan Boston. Sydney has a Mediterranean type-climate with modest rainfall. Paradise is a reasonable description of the place. The state also has Australia’s highest mountain, Mount Kosciuszko which at 2,228 meters (7,310 ft.) would qualify it as the highest mountain in the eastern US.[1]

Map 1

Position of New South Wales in Australia

667px-New_South_Wales_in_Australia.svg

Map 2

New South Wales Major Cities

new-south-wales

The state elected 48 House members in the 2010 election. Just over 4 million formal votes were cast in the 2010 election with the Liberal group receiving a solid 7.3 percentage point plurality in first preference votes statewide over the Labor group. This amounted to more than a 10 percentage point swing from the 2007 federal election. However, in spite of Labor’s giving up a lot of yardage to the Liberal group, Labor won 26 seats in the state, a loss of only two seats from the 2007 election, while the Liberal group won 20 seats for a net change of zero seats from 2007:

2010 House of Representatives Election

New South Wales

First Preference Votes

Group or Party

Candidates

Votes

% Share

Seats

Liberal Group

51

1,788,013

44.6%

20

Labor Group

48

1,494,490

37.3%

26

Greens

48

410.405

10.2%

0

Midstream Liberal Group

51

80,925

2.0%

0

Upstream Group

90

116,461

2.9%

0

Downstream Independent

2

96,476

2.4%

2

Midstream Independent

9

22,548

0.6%

0

Totals

299

4,009,318

100%

48

Source: Australian Election Commission

As elsewhere in the country, the Labor group benefitted from the Greens generous allotment of preference votes to Labor group candidates. In addition, the midstream Liberal leaning parties polled only 2.0% in New South Wales in 2010. The performance of the Family First party was particularly weak and that party provided few excess preference votes for the Liberal group in the state:

Preference Vote Distribution 2010 Election

New South Wales

From/To Liberal Group Labor Group Net
Greens

99,710

325,723

-226,013

Midstream Liberal Group

44,485

18,184

26,301

Source: Australian Election Commission

2010 Vote Totals After Midstream Preferential Distribution

New South Wales 

Group or Party Votes % Share
Liberal Group

1,932,208

48.19%

Labor Group

1,838,397

45.85%

Source: Australian Election Commission

In spite of the Liberal group winning a comfortable margin in the state after preference vote distributions from midstream parties Labor won a comfortable majority of seats in New South Wales. As we will see later when we go through the election district by district, Labor won a number of seats in the state by threadbare margins.

Note: I made some minor changes, for improved readability, in the paragraph immediately following Map 2.


[1] All of information in the paragraph is from Wikipedia.

The 2010 Australian House Election – National Level Results

In this post I will cover the exciting 2010 Australian federal House of Representatives election at the national level.

In my previous post I categorized Australian political parties into upstream, midstream and downstream groups. Major political parties are those parties whose candidates are typically first or second entering a given district’s final election round. Because these major parties are at the receiving end of preference flows typically coming from smaller parties, I call these major parties downstream parties. Midstream parties are those parties which tend to feed their preference votes into either the Labor or Liberal coalition groups. Upstream parties are those parties whose preference votes are fed to midstream parties and/or are divided relatively equally among the two major party groups.

As I noted in my previous post, upstream parties can be safely ignored by anyone interested in the big picture of Australian politics and I will do little more than note the first preference votes received by the candidates of these parties. Midstream parties on the other hand are, by definition, potentially important in every district they run candidates in as they may potentially hold the balance of power in that district. To simplify the analysis I will treat the three Liberal group midstream parties (First Family, Christian Democrats and Liberal Democrats) as a single unit. Likewise, I will do the same by lumping the three Liberal group parties (Liberals, Country Liberals and Nationals) and the two Labor group parties (Labor and Country Labor) into Liberal and Labor groups respectively. This will allow the casual observer to better grasp the big picture of the Australian electorate while avoiding details unnecessary for anyone other than political wonks.

This brings us to the independents, a group of candidates I have until now avoided discussing because they are as a group very difficult to classify. Not only do independents occupy the entire political spectrum, a few actually win elections (more so than the midstream parties) and a few more have vote distribution profiles similar to that of midstream parties. I classify those independents who either win or make a strong showing as downstream independents while those independents whose voter preferences are slanted towards either the Liberal or Labor groups I classify as midstream independents. Fortunately, there were only 4 downstream and 12 midstream independents in the 2010 election.

With these preliminaries out of the way we can now move on the analysis. The Labor party went into the August 21, 2010 Australian federal election with a solid 83-65 majority over the Liberal group with another 2 seats held by independents. Labor’s 18 seat majority was essentially reduced to zero in the election:

2010 House of Representatives Election

National

First Preference Votes

Group or Party

Candidates

Votes

% Share

Liberal Group

157

5,408,630

43.6%

Labor Group

150

4,711,363

38.0%

Greens

150

1,458,998

11.8%

Midstream Liberal Group

172

386,601

3.1%

Upstream Group

204

255,154

2.1%

Downstream Independent

4

148,434

1.2%

Midstream Independent

12

33,133

0.3%

Totals

849

12,402,363

100%

For those of you with a ravenous interest in the details of Australian politics, the Liberal Group total includes the votes received by the Nationals candidate, Tony Crook, in the Western Australian district of O’Conner. In the immediate aftermath of the election the Western Australian National Party, in a fit of opportunism, declared that the party was an independent organization and that there was no coalition agreement between the party and the Liberals. Shortly thereafter Crook declared his support for the Liberal group but also that he chose to sit on the crossbenches rather than formally join the Liberal coalition. In May of 2012 it was reported that Crook had formally joined the Liberal group fold.

The Liberal group had a clear 5.6 percentage point advantage over the Labor group in the first preference vote with the Greens running a strong third position with nearly 12% of the national total. However, we have noted earlier that the Greens preferential vote was strongly in favor of the Labor group. In counter to the Greens was the midstream Liberal group which received 3.1% of the national first preference vote. We also know that the preference distribution of this group of three parties was strongly in favor of the Liberal group. In the table below, I show the preferential vote distribution from the Greens and the midstream Liberal Group to the Liberal and Labor groups respectively:

Preference Vote Distribution 2010 Election

National

From/To

Liberal Group

Labor Group

Net

Greens

364,845

1,169,885

-805,040

Midstream Liberal Group

204,790

93,044

111,746

Totals

569,635

1,262,929

-693,294

 The Green distribution favored the Labor group by a 3 to 1 ratio while the midstream Liberal group distribution favored the Liberal group by a 2 to 1 ratio. The total distribution of these midstream parties favored the Labor group by about a 2 to 1 ratio. Let’s take these distributions and add them to the Liberal and Labor group total to get a sense of the national vote post the midstream party distributions:

2010 Vote Totals After Midstream Preferential Distribution

National

Group or Party Votes % Share
Liberal Group

5,978,265

48.20%

Labor Group

5,974,292

48.17%

Incredible. We can clearly see that the election was a dead heat. Indeed, the election ended essentially in a draw with neither party winning a majority of seats in the House of Representatives:

House of Representative Seats Won in 2010 Election

National

Group or Party Seats
Liberal Group

73

Labor Group

72

Greens

1

Midstream Liberal Group

0

Upstream Group

0

Downstream Independent

4

Midstream Independent

0

Totals

150

My following posts will break down the election results state-by-state.

Which Parties Matter in Australian House Elections

Introduction

My ultimate purpose in undertaking this exercise is to develop a model to forecast the upcoming election results on a district-by-district basis. There is a plethora of parties littering the political landscape making it necessary to cull out those parties that don’t matter from those that do.

We saw in the previous section that under the preferential voting system candidates excluded from further consideration in a given round distribute their votes to the remaining candidates. These votes in effect flow from the excluded candidate to the remaining candidates and those votes become part of the vote total of these remaining candidates in the same way that water from a small stream that flows into a larger stream becomes part of the larger stream. Thus we can use the analogy of a river system to think about the relative position of each Australian political party in the political system. I will use the terms upstream, midstream and downstream to describe these positions. Rivers that are downstream are naturally the larger rivers in the system and I will define the downstream political parties as those parties routinely electing candidates to the Australian House of Representatives. As we will see in more detail below, there are two downstream party groupings namely the Labor Party and the Liberal Party groupings. These parties generally finish first or second in most districts where they field candidates and therefore they infrequently experience preference distributions. Midstream rivers are in nature those bodies of water flowing into major downstream rivers suggesting that a midstream political party is one whose preference distributions flow primarily to the downstream parties. To this concept I will add one more requirement for a political party to truly be midstream. Not only should the bulk of a midstream party’s preference distribution flow to the downstream parties but also that this downstream flow must be biased towards one of the major political groups. This means that midstream parties have some measure of power in the election system and the extent of this power can be measured by the ability of these parties to hold the balance of power in election districts. This brings us to the upstream political parties. Like their counterparts in nature, upstream political parties tend to be small and their preference flows are often to other small parties. Even when their preference flows head in a downstream direction, much of this flow is to midstream parties and even in those instances where preference flows are made to downstream parties, these flows are fairly evenly distributed to the two major party groupings. In the end therefore, upstream parties wield little power in the political system and they can safely be ignored when modeling the House of Representatives election process.

Downstream Parties

The following is an inclusive list of Australian downstream political parties:

Labor Party Grouping

  • Labor Party
  • Country Labor (New South Wales)

Liberal Party Grouping

  • Liberal Party
  • Country Liberal Party (Northern Territories)
  • National Party
  • Liberal National Party of Queensland

The Country Labor Party is an extension of the Labor party in rural areas of New South Wales State while the Country Liberal Party is an extension of the Liberal Party in the Northern Territories. The National Party, another exclusively rural party, is independent of the Liberals but they routinely work with the Liberals. The Nationals are an exclusively rural party. The Liberal Nationals are a coalition of the Liberals and Nationals in the state of Queensland. With the exception of the Country Liberal Party, all of the above parties have at least one seat in the current House of Representatives. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_political_parties_in_Australia).

As noted earlier, downstream parties finish first or second in the vast majority of districts in which they run candidates, therefore they seldom experience preference distributions. In those cases where a downstream party makes a preference distribution, such a distribution is almost invariably tactical and designed to minimize the downstream party not making it to the final round in a district. We saw earlier the 2010 example of the Tasmanian district of Denison where Liberal party voters overwhelmingly directed their preference flow to the independent candidate successfully denying a seat to the Labor party candidate. The figure below shows tactical voting by Liberal voters when the top two positions are held by Green and Labor candidates and when the top two positions are held by National and Labor/Country Labor candidates (Figures 1 and 2 respectively). Facing a choice between Labor and the Greens, Liberals choose the Greens by a 3 to 1 margin and when forced to choose between Labor and their Nationals coalition partner, they choose the latter by a 6 to 1 margin (note that all figures are produced from 2010 election preference distributions):

Figure 1

Figure 2

Since the Labor party is roughly comparable with the US Democratic party and since the Liberals/Nationals are roughly comparable with the US Republican party, I have used the blue and red scheme familiar to most Americans to represent their Australian political soul-mate counterparts.

The following two figures demonstrate that Labor voters play the same game with their preferences when their own nominee ends up in a losing position heading into the final round of voting. Figure 3 shows the preference distribution when the Labor party candidate finishes in third place and the first and second place candidates are Liberals and independents respectively. Figure 4 is the ultimate nightmare situation for a Labor voter forced to choose between what for them must have been Lucifer and Satan. However, the decisive nature of Labor voter’s choice in favor of the Nationals suggests a clear sense of the lesser of two evils in the minds of these voters (I have made the greater evil for Labor the darker red in the figure below). This set of four figures taken as a whole demonstrates the high level of sophistication and understanding the average Australian voter has concerning the preferential voting system.

Figure 3

Figure 4

Upstream Parties

I noted earlier that upstream political parties are relatively unimportant part of the political landscape since their preference distributions tend to go either to other upstream parties (this is especially the case for most independent candidates) or to midstream parties. I also noted that when distributions are made from upstream to downstream parties they tend to be fairly evenly distributed between the two downstream party groups. While these parties tend to be small, size is not the defining criterion for upstream parties. The following figures will provide a flavor of what makes an upstream party upstream. Figures 5 and 6 show the preference distributions of representative upstream parties[1] [2]. Both parties send about 70% of their vote distributions to midstream or upstream parties; only 28% of Socialist Equity Party and 31% of Socialist Alliance Party votes are distributed to downstream parties.

Figure 5

Figure 6

The voters for these parties are, in the whole, members of fringe groups with relatively little interest in mainstream politics and/or in influencing the outcome of elections.

Midstream Parties

Midstream parties are those parties that seldom win elections but which can potentially influence election outcomes. Midstream parties do this primarily by tilting their votes towards either of the two downstream group parties and secondarily by the total size of their vote. As we will see, several of these parties draw relatively few votes but they are nonetheless midstream parties because they attract voters who on the whole have a clear preference for one of the two downstream groups. Based on the 2010 election results, four parties meet these midstream party criteria with three of these parties tilting their preference distributions towards the Liberal party group and a single party, the Greens, tilting towards the Labor group:

Labor Group

  • Green Party

Liberal Group

  • First Family Party
  • Christian Democratic Party
  • Liberal Democratic Party

The Greens

The Greens are Australia’s most important midstream party. The Green party ran candidates in all 150 House districts in 2010 and finished in third position in 132 of those 150 House districts. The Greens distributed nearly 1.5 million votes (nearly 12% of all votes cast) to the final two candidates in these 132 seats with the Labor candidate being favored in the overall distribution by a more than 3 to 1 margin:

Figure 7Labor received a majority of the preference distribution from the Greens in every single one of these 132 seats. I will provide details of the impact this Green to Labor distribution had on the outcome of individual districts in my next post.

Family First

Family First is the most important right-of-center midstream party in Australia based on the 2010 election results. Family First would fit comfortably inside the US Tea Party movement as its platform includes tax reduction, ending affirmative action for native Australians, repealing the carbon tax and a prohibition on gay marriage (http://www.familyfirst.org.au/). The party ran candidates in 108 of 150 House districts nationwide and in 68 of those districts the Family First candidate finished in fourth position distributing nearly 244,000 votes to Labor, Green and Liberal group party candidates. Nearly half of this distribution went to Liberal group party candidates:

Figure 8

Given the party’s unabashedly conservative platform, it is curious that Family First’s vote distribution to Labor and the Greens actually exceeds the preferential flow to the Liberal Group. It is especially interesting that the preference distribution to the left wing Greens exceeds that of Labor. It appears that there is a midstream/upstream split among Family First voters with an upstream protest segment preferring the Green Party over that of the Liberal group and a midstream segment strongly favoring the Liberal group. Unfortunately for the Family First Party this split considerably diminishes the potential impact the party has on House district elections.

The Family First impact is diminished further when the party’s candidate finishes in the 5th position. There remains a preference distribution bias towards the Liberal Party group but it is significantly muted compared with the distribution when the party’s candidate finishes in the 4th position.

Figure 9Christian Democratic Party

The Christian Democrats represent moderately progressive economic views, moderately conservative views on the environment and on the carbon tax and very conservative social views. Regarding the latter, the party is opposed to abortion and believes that retail activities should be forbidden on Sunday’s (http://www.cdp.org.au/). The party ran candidates in 42 of 150 House districts nationwide and in 18 of those districts the CDP candidate finished in 4th position distributing nearly 54,000 votes to Labor, Green and Liberal group party candidates. In addition, the party finished in the 5th position in another 18 districts.

A majority of the Christian Democrats preference distribution votes, from both the 4th and 5th positions, went to Liberal group parties with a 60% distribution to the Liberals from the 4th position and a 55% distribution from the 5th position. This minor loss in Liberal distribution in the 5th position occurred in spite of the remaining “Other” parties grabbing 23% of the CDP distribution in the 5th position distribution. In contrast, Labor and the Greens saw their distribution shares plummet in the Christian Democrat’s 5th position. This suggests that the CDP would be far more influential on the national stage than are the Family First party was the former able to attract as many first preference voters as do Family First.

Figure 10

Figure 11

Liberal Democratic Party

The Liberal Democratic Party is a secular, free-market, libertarian political party (http://ldp.org.au/). The LDP is also surprisingly small in numbers given the opportunities for minor parties under the Australian political system and the rugged individualism that seems to be an important part of Australian society. The party ran candidates in only 22 House districts in the 2010 election and these candidates ran in 5th position or better in only 8 districts.

Figure 12

Figure 13

In spite of its small size, the LDP’s 4th position preference distribution is virtually the same as the Christian Democrats while its preference distribution when its candidates finish in 5th position or higher is definitely midstream. The LDP is definitely a midstream political party.


[1] Other includes all parties other than Labor, Greens and the Liberal Group.

[2] The preference distribution values for Figures 5 and 6 are for final positions of fifth place and higher.

An American Perspective on the Australian Election System

Introduction

Australia will soon hold, most likely in September of this year, elections to that country’s federal House of Representatives (Australia’s most important elective body). Australia’s voting system to elect members to its House offers a refreshing contrast to the rigid first-past-the-post election system used for the vast majority of federal, state and local elective offices in the US. This system, called a preferential voting system, provides both the ideological diversity of a proportional voting system and the political stability of a first-past-the-post (“first post”) system. Australians have been using the preferential voting system for nearly a century and its national-level success has encouraged the use of this system throughout the society for all manners of public and private elective offices. The following series of posts will look at the nuts and bolts of the Australian preferential voting system, pinpoint those political parties that actually matter in this system, provide an overview of the exciting results from the 2010 election (the closest House election in Australian history) and, ultimately create a model to forecast the district by district election results in the upcoming election.

But you may ask, why should any American be interested in such a voting system and in the upcoming Australian election? First off, the 2000 US presidential election is a good place to start. As many readers will remember, the results of the 2000 US presidential election came down to a few hundred Florida ballots (out of six million cast in that state) and to this day many Democrats rage at Republicans, George W. Bush and the US Supreme Court over what they felt was an election stolen from them and from Al Gore. People today tend to focus less on the fact that Ralph Nader, a liberal minor party candidate, received more than 90,000 votes in the state far more than enough had these voters cast their ballots for Mr. Gore. However had the Australian voting system been in place in Florida in the 2000 US election, most of these Nader voters would likely have indicated a preference for Mr. Gore over Mr. Bush and Mr. Gore would have been elected president. Secondly, as anyone perusing on-line news article comments is more than well aware, Americans hold little back in expressing their diversity of opinion. However the US two-party political system is about suppressing such diversity of opinion with each party. Indeed, frustration with mainstream opinion on the left and right helped to create the Occupy and Tea Party movements, movements that have not been supported by mainstream Democrats and Republicans. But being marginal players within the two main parties offers these groups more potential in the US system than would separating and forming a minor party since minor parties are, because of the first-post system, an irrelevant part of the US political process. Third, the upcoming Australian election will represent a referendum on Australia’s controversial carbon tax policy, arguably one of the most aggressive attempts to limit carbon dioxide emissions in the developed world. With US policy on limiting CO2 emissions sidelined by a reluctant Congress, with Europe’s carbon trading scheme floundering, and with renewable energy subsidy schemes in countries such as Germany and Spain under threat by budget austerity the Australian election may well represent the battle line for aggressive public policy to limit CO2 emissions in the developing world. If carbon emissions policy can’t keep its head above water in Australia, it seems unlikely to make significant headway anywhere else anytime soon. It’s important to remember that the carbon tax was proposed by Prime Minister Julia Gillard after the 2010 elections even though she campaigned against such a tax during that election campaign. While this apparent flip-flop puzzled most American observers (including this one), an understanding of the Australian preference voting system and the results of the 2010 election will easily explain what drove Gillard to reverse course on the carbon tax. Fourth (and perhaps most importantly) Australian politics provides great entertainment value even for the casual observer. Australians play a rough, uninhibited brand of politics with cheap shots, low blows and backstabbing seemingly all in a day’s play. It’s like playing American football American style without padding or helmets. So it may well be worth it learn a little bit about the Australian electoral system and then grab some popcorn, settle down and watch the upcoming show.

Australian House of Representatives Voting System

As in most democratic countries, Australian House voters face a list of candidate names and boxes next to each candidate when they go to the polls. Most countries would simply require the voter to select their favorite candidate and place a mark of some kind in the box next to that candidate’s name. However, Australian voters are required to not only select their favorite candidate but to also indicate their preference for the remaining candidates in descending order. The voter must place a “1” in their favorite, first preference, candidate’s box, a “2” in the box of the candidate who is their second preference and so on until they finally indicate that candidate whom they would most rather not have get elected. The important point is that the voter MUST indicate their preference for every candidate on the ballot or else their ballot is declared invalid (called an “informal” ballot in Aussie lexicon). Preference indication for every candidate is necessary because preferential ballots are counted round-by-round, with the lowest vote candidate eliminated in each round, until only two candidates remain with one of those candidates receiving 50%+1 vote and election.

I have chosen two examples from the 2010 election, from Western Australia’s Brand district and from Tasmania’s Denison district, in order to make the preferential counting process transparent to the reader and to illustrate some of the most important dynamics of the preferential system.

Western Australia’s Brand district is a primarily suburban district located south of Fremantle on the Indian Ocean coast. There were five candidates on the ballot in Brand in 2010 (listed below in ballot order) including candidates representing the major Liberal and Labor parties as well as three minor parties:

Candidate

Party Affiliation

Dawn Jecks Green
Donna Gordin Liberal
Robert Burdett Christian Democratic
Andrew Newhouse Family First
Gary Grey (Incumbent) Labor

Source: Australian Election Commission

Preferential ballots are counted round-by-round. The Preliminary round allots the first preference votes to each candidate, that is, a count is made of the number of voters who placed a “1” on behalf of each candidate. The table below shows the number of first preference votes for each of the above candidates:

First Preference Votes

Brand District 2010

Candidate

Party Affiliation

Votes
Dawn Jecks Green

11,504

Donna Gordin Liberal

30,731

Robert Burdett Christian Democratic

1,771

Andrew Newhouse Family First

2,190

Gary Grey (Inc) Labor

31,832

Source: Australian Election Commission

The Labor candidate came through the first round with a narrow 1,101 vote margin over the Liberal candidate while the Green candidate trailed. The Family First and Christian Democratic candidates lagged far behind the leaders with the Christian Democratic candidate holding the last position. Under the preferential voting system, the candidate with the fewest votes in a given round is “excluded” from consideration in subsequent rounds and their votes distributed to the remaining candidates based on preferences of each individual voter for the excluded candidate:

Round 1

Distribution of Christian Democratic Votes

Brand District 2010

Candidate

Party Affiliation

1st Pref. Votes

Round 1 Distribution

Round 1 Votes

Dawn Jecks Green

11,504

122

11,626

Donna Gordin Liberal

30,731

382

31,113

Robert Burdett Christian Democratic

1,771

-1,771

0

Andrew Newhouse Family First

2,190

1,163

3,353

Gary Grey (Inc) Labor

31,832

104

31,936

Source: Australian Election Commission

I have drawn lines through Mr. Burdett’s name and party to emphasize his exclusion from future election rounds. The table shows that 1,771 votes have been taken away from Mr. Burdett and distributed to the other candidates as well as the updated vote total for each remaining candidate after the above distribution. I have drawn a line through the excluded candidate’s name and party for emphasis.

The Family First party’s candidate received the lion’s share of the distribution from the Christian Democratic candidate while the Liberal candidate gained about 300 votes on her Labor party incumbent opponent in Round 1. While the Family First candidate made significant gains in the first round distribution, Mr. Newhouse’s total remains far behind the other candidates and he will be excluded from further consideration in future rounds. The table below shows the distribution of votes from the Family First candidate to the remaining candidates in Round 2:

Round 2

Distribution of Family First Votes

Brand District 2010

Candidate

Party Affiliation

Round 1 Votes

Round 2 Distribution

Round 2 Votes

Dawn Jecks Green

11,626

1,013

12,639

Donna Gordin Liberal

31,113

1,652

32,765

Robert Burdett Christian Democratic

0

0

0

Andrew Newhouse Family First

3,353

-3,353

0

Gary Grey (Inc) Labor

31,936

688

32,624

Source: Australian Election Commission

Note how the Liberal candidate took over 1st place by a scant 141 votes after the favorable distribution from the Family First candidate. However, neither candidate is, at this position anywhere near the 50%+1 requirement for election under the preferential voting system. With the two major party candidates running neck and neck and with the Green party candidate’s 12,639 votes remaining to be distributed to the remaining two candidates in the 3rd and final round, we can see that the Green party voter preferences hold the balance of power in this election. Should this preference distribution be relatively random, then the outcome would be a tossup. On the other hand, if the Green party voters in this district tend to favor one major party over the other, then these Green voters would decide the outcome of this election:

Round 3

Distribution of Green Votes

Brand District 2010

Candidate

Party Affiliation

Round 2 Votes

Round 3 Distribution

Round 3 Votes

Dawn Jecks Green

12,639

-12,639

0

Donna Gordin Liberal

32,765

3,653

36,418

Robert Burdett Christian Democratic

0

0

0

Andrew Newhouse Family First

0

0

0

Gary Grey (Inc) Labor

32,624

8,986

41,610

Source: Australian Election Commission

In fact, the Greens are more ideologically compatible with left-of-center Labor than the right-of-center Liberals. In the end the Green party voter’s preference distribution favored the Labor party candidate by a more than a 2 to 1 margin over the Liberal candidate in the process delivering a 5,200 vote margin of victory in the Western Australia’s Brand district to the Labor incumbent candidate Gary Grey.

Let’s summarize what the above example has taught us about the Australian preferential voting system:

  1. Australian House of Representatives voters vote not for a single candidate but rather indicate their preference for candidates from greatest to least.
  2. Counting of preferential votes takes place on a round-by-round basis; the candidate with the fewest votes in any given round is “excluded” from subsequent voting rounds.
  3. The votes for excluded candidates are distributed to the remaining candidates based on preferences of voters for those excluded candidates.
  4. Preferential vote counting continues round-by-round until only two candidates remain. The candidate with the most votes at that stage is declared elected.

With the above in mind let’s move to the fascinating 2010 House election in Tasmanian state’s Denison district. This was essentially a four-way race between the two major parties (Liberal and Labor), the most important minor party (the Greens) and an independent candidate who, unusually for independent candidates, commanded significant support. I begin with the candidate list for Tasmanian’s Denison district (again based on ballot order):

Candidate

Party Affiliation

Andrew Wilkie Independent
Jonathan Jackson Labor
Mel Barnes Socialist Alliance
Cameron John Simpkins Liberal
Geoffrey Alan Couser Green

Source: Australian Election Commission

Why do I emphasize ballot order? Because ballot order matters. Voting in Australian federal elections is compulsory (more than 90% of eligible voters comply) and voters with some uncertainty regarding their preferences when they enter the voting booth will tend to make some or all of their ordering based on ballot order. I estimate that each ballot order position is worth about 0.3% of first preference votes. That is, the independent candidate Wilkie can expect to receive about 1.2 percentage points more first preference votes than the Green candidate simply because of ballot position. This also implies that if the orders between these two candidates were reversed, the total impact would be 2.4%.

First Preference Votes

Denison District 2010

Candidate

Party Affiliation

Votes
Andrew Wilkie Independent

13,788

Jonathan Jackson Labor

23,215

Mel Barnes Socialist Alliance

856

Cameron John Simpkins Liberal

14,688

Geoffrey Alan Couser Green

12,312

Source: Australian Election Commission

The percentage share of received by Wilkie received 21.3% of first preference votes while Couser received 19.0%. Thus, reversing the ballot order could have put the Green candidate ahead of Mr. Wilkie by a handful of votes after the first preference count. Since the distribution from the Socialist Alliance candidate in the first round was nearly a dead heat between the independent and Green candidates, it is entirely possible that Mr. Wilkie went through to the 2nd round on the strength of his ballot position: 

Round 1

Distribution of Socialist Alliance Votes

Denison District 2010

Candidate

Party Affiliation

1st Pref. Votes

Round 1 Distribution

Round 1 Votes

Andrew Wilkie Independent

13,788

269

14,057

Jonathan Jackson Labor

23,215

229

23,444

Mel Barnes Socialist Alliance

856

-856

0

Cameron John Simpkins Liberal

14,688

98

14,786

Geoffrey Alan Couser Green

12,312

260

12,572

Source: Australian Election Commission

This is as a good a time as any to clarify the ideological position of Labor, Liberals and Green parties that may be confusing to Americans. The Liberals are in fact Australia’s mainstream conservative party while a reasonable comparison can be made between the Australian Labor party the British Labour party. This also brings up a most curious spelling point regarding Australian English. Most curiously Australians use the American spelling Labor to refer to their political party but they use the British spelling labour when writing about workers or working. At any rate, since the Liberals are conservative and the Greens are quite liberal (in an American sense, mind you), if Green voters perceived Mr. Wilkie (a one-time Green candidate for office) as being relatively left-of-center compared with the Liberal candidate, then they would have likely given a strong share of their distribution to Mr. Wilkie.

And this is exactly what happened. A majority of Green voters declared a preference for Mr. Wilkie thus putting Mr. Wilkie through to the final round.

Wilkie’s odds of winning the election still seemed long as the Labor candidate faced an uphill fight in the final round as the Labor candidate Jackson still held a lead of 7,640 votes over his independent rival meaning that Wilkie would need to receive a minimum of about 75% of the Liberal distribution to win election. However, since both candidates were politically left-of-center, the question is whether these conservative Liberal voters had an opinion one way or the other as to which left-of-center candidate became MP.

Round 2

Distribution of Green Votes

Denison District 2010

Candidate

Party Affiliation

Round 1 Votes

Round 2 Distribution

Round 2 Votes

Andrew Wilkie Independent

14,057

6,635

20,692

Jonathan Jackson Labor

23,444

4,888

28,332

Mel Barnes Socialist Alliance

0

0

0

Cameron John Simpkins Liberal

14,786

1,049

15,835

Geoffrey Alan Couser Green

12,572

-12,572

0

Source: Australian Election Commission

In fact, Liberal voters did in fact have a strong opinion regarding which of these two candidates they would have prefered to see get elected. For Liberal voters, every Labor seat represents a firm seat for their opponents. On the other hand, even if Wilkie were to align himself with Labor in the subsequent parliament he would not owe his seat to Labor if he were elected. In fact, were he to gain his seat as a result of support from Liberal voters, he would be more likely to maintain his independence going forward since he would owe his seat to the benevolence of Liberal voters.

Voters taking these factors into consideration and casting their votes based on such considerations is called tactical voting. Tactical votes are votes cast by voters in a minority position in order to sway an outcome towards, from those voters standpoint, the lesser of two evils. While tactical voting is virtually non-existent in the US, the preferential voting system means that tactical voting is practically an art form in Australia. Indeed, the Liberal’s distributed 79% of their preferences to the independent candidate giving Andrew Wilkie a narrow victory and denying Labor a precious seat in what was an incredibly close election at the national level:

Round 3

Distribution of Green Votes

Denison District 2010

Candidate

Party Affiliation

Round 2 Votes

Round 3 Distribution

Round 3 Votes

Andrew Wilkie Independent

20,692

12,525

33,217

Jonathan Jackson Labor

28,332

3,310

31,642

Mel Barnes Socialist Alliance

0

0

0

Cameron John Simpkins Liberal

15,835

-15,835

0

Geoffrey Alan Couser Green

0

0

0

Source: Australian Election Commission

Fantastic outcome if you were rooting for the little guy. Had the Green candidate Couser edged out the independent in the 1st round it is quite possible that he could have been the first one to break the finish line tape since the Liberals would have looked at a Green-Labor final round and voted to undermine Labor in the very same way they put Wilkie over the top against the Labor candidate Jackson. Then again, the smallest of swings in Labor’s favor would have given Labor a narrow victory.

There are a number of lessons we can take away from these actual election examples:

  1. The preferential voting system creates opportunities for minor party and independent candidates to hold the balance of power in an election or even occasionally win.
  2. The preferential voting system enables tactical voting to become an important part of the electoral process and the above examples strongly suggest that Australian voters are extremely sophisticated when it comes to organizing their preferences.
  3. Minor party power under the preferential voting system depends on the number of first preferences votes received and on the ability to distribute those votes in such a way as to affect an election’s outcome.
  4. While major parties tend to win the lion’s share of the seats under the preferential voting system the potential power of minor parties forces the major parties to take into consideration the interests of minor party supporters. This is in sharp contrast to the first-post system in the US where minor parties are virtually non-existent and where voters with views away from the mainstream are forced to fit uncomfortably under the awkward “big tent” of the two major parties. The outcome under the Australian preferential voting system seems to combine the stability of a two-party system while giving minority parties a stronger say in the ultimate outcome than is the case in the US electoral system.

In my next post. I will identify those Australian political parties that matter in House of Representative elections.