Interesting, inconsistent and unpredictable

The #QLDVOTES Preference Battle

by Sean Barry

As election day in Queensland draws closer, it is clear that preferences are likely to play a significant role in the outcome, for at least two reasons: the reintroduction of compulsory preferential voting or CPV, and the almost inexorable rise in popularity of some smaller parties such as Pauline Hanson’s One Nation.

Queensland was later than other states when it implemented CPV in 1962, which lasted until 1992, when the Goss government introduced optional preferential voting or OPV. Now, Queenslanders will again need to fill out every box on their ballot papers as CPV is re-introduced. In the impending election 453 candidates will jostle for 93 seats. This is an average of 4.87 candidates per seat, compared to 4.865 per seat in 2015, but below the record of 4.92 in 1998. Voters will need to consider multiple preferences in order to cast a valid ballot, whether they wish to or not.

The trend of decreasing primary votes for major parties, means they will require an increasing number of preferences to elect their candidates. Opinion polls show a rise in popularity for some minor parties, most notably Pauline Hanson’s One Nation and also the Queensland Greens. If these figures are translated into actual first preference votes, this will provide a problem for the LNP and the ALP in outer suburban and country areas. At the 2015 state election, One Nation polled only .92 per cent of first preferences across the state. Surveys now put that support in double figures, but the effect of those votes will vary depending on their concentration.

Why preferences will matter

The ALP has problems in seats such as Pumicestone and Rockhampton, for example. In Pumicestone its dis-endorsed member Rick Williams is standing as an independent and this is likely to split the ALP vote in an electorate that is notionally LNP after a recent redistribution.

In Rockhampton, a similar problem exists as the recently-resigned local Mayor, Margaret Strelow, who now stands as an independent candidate. Until recently Strelow was a long-time ALP member, but failed to gain pre-selection as the local Labor candidate. Although Labor held this seat with a margin of 14 per cent at the last election, the rise of One Nation and the presence of a popular independent candidate will split votes. Recent polling shows a collapse of 20 per cent in the Labor primary vote, with the bulk of it (14 per cent) going to Strelow.

In the Labor-held Townsville electorate of Mundingburra, CPV will mean preferences will flow from One Nation and Katter’s Australian Party to the LNP despite their primary vote collapsing. This is a pattern voters will likely repeat across the state. Recent Reachtel polling shows nearly three-quarters of One Nation voters will provide their second preference to the LNP. The problem for Labor is that in seats in which One Nation runs third, Labor will likely lose. Labor also faces inner-Brisbane risks as preferences may elect a Greens member who comes second to the ALP in a seat such as South Brisbane. Recent Galaxy polling shows the seat on a knife-edge, with the real possibility that the ALP may lose its Deputy Premier Jackie Trad, who is also one of the government’s most effective communicators.

The modern preference game

The majors are scrambling to attract preferences, sometimes in compromising and confusing ways. A view is emerging that the Labor government wishes to be everything to all voters, over such issues such as the Carmichael mine project (Adani), and have attempted to retain its primary vote in central and north Queensland seats with its jobs mantra and support for the mine.

At the same time it is trying to shore up its inner-city Brisbane seats by arguing it would will not support a tax-payer funded rail line for the mine project. There is little doubt the Cabinet, the ALP and many unions want the project to go ahead and the plea to inner city voters seems disingenuous.

Last week, the LNP announced the decision to place the Greens last on how-to-vote cards throughout the state and One Nation candidates in second place in 50 seats. The LNP’s preference decision concerning the Greens and One Nation also reflects a similar cynical tactic to that of the ALP’s wish to be everything to all voters. In an recent interview, LNP Leader Tim Nicholls reassured voters his party was seeking a majority in its own right, however, he won’t rule out governing with One Nation support. According to Nicholls, the preference choice was, ‘ultimately one for state executive to make.’ He argued that even a minority government does not always have to follow the legislative, or policy path of its minority partners.

Interestingly, when the Liberal Party in Western Australia decided to preference One Nation ahead of other parties in the ill-fated 2016 state election, senior Liberal and Cabinet Minister Arthur Sinodinos claimed that One Nation was ‘a lot more sophisticated’ these days. He went on to argue, ‘that doesn’t mean we have to agree with their policies. When it comes to preferencing, we have to make decisions — in this case a state decision, not a federal decision — based on the local circumstances.’

An apparent risk for the LNP is it may alienate ‘small-l’ Liberal voters in blue ribbon seats, such as Nicolls’s own seat of Clayfield, whose voters don’t fit the general profile of One Nation supporters, or do they? The ABC spoke to some LNP voters in Brisbane and they were divided about whether the One Nation preference decision would influence their vote. Another couple of LNP voters said they would maintain their vote, despite holding concerns about the direction of the LNP.

Recently released research from The Australian Institute for Progress shows that while LNP voters may view One Nation suspiciously, that suspicion does not extend to the point where the preference decision would affect their voting intentions. This is despite history showing that the preference decision can hold renewed political risks. It is difficult to argue with Dr Paul Williams that the LNP preference decision is ‘short-term’ and ‘parochial’, and that it repeats a mistake the Coalition made in 1998 that again is likely to lead to unstable government, and a consequential electoral bonanza for the ALP.

Factors such the recent electoral redistribution, dis-endorsement of some party candidates, retirements of other sitting members, collapsing primary vote shares for major parties, and the rise of minor parties act as complicating factors in this election. A return to CPV does raise concerns about the possibility of an increased informal vote and what part that might play in seats with tight margins.

In the three elections leading up to the change to OPV in 1994 (1986, 1989, 1992) the average informal vote was 2.47 per cent, falling to 1.75 per cent in the first election held under the new system in 1995. In the seven elections held between 1998 and 2015, the average was a fraction under 2 per cent, with a low of 1.45 per cent in 1998. At the federal level, however, Queenslanders have continually been required to provide preferences for all candidates, registering an informal vote of near 5 per cent for some time.

Antony Green is correct when he argues that, ‘preferences from all parties will be important.’ Workers at polling booths, however, will attest to the fact that voters increasingly determine their own mind about preferences, and care little for the recommendations of candidates, or the parties they represent.

Parties should not concentrate all their energies on winning preferences alone, at the expense of earning primary votes. It may be trite to remind them they will win a seat with 50.1 per cent of the primary vote. It is likely they would argue that those days are gone, that those circumstances only apply in blue-ribbon seats where dyed-in-the-wool LNP or Labor voters mechanically and loyally vote for their respective parties. As Mr Nicolls told ABC Radio, ‘there are no good choices here’, a point maybe not lost on the Queensland electorate. The election of the 25th November proves to be interesting, inconsistent and unpredictable in its results.



Sean Barry is a PhD candidate in the School of Government and International Relations at Griffith University. Sean has recently submitted his PhD dissertation. In it, he researches the reasons that inspired past Australian governments to propose and implement economic reform. The purpose of the research is to isolate lessons that can be learnt by current or future governments. Sean has also completed an MBA studying international business that has complimented his current academic interests in political economy. Sean also spent two decades as a barrister.

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