In what is a rare move, the Greens have chosen to direct preferences against Labor at the Northern Territory’s Johnston by-election, to be held on Saturday 29 February.
In the past the Greens have often chosen to make no preference recommendation, but to actively recommend preferences to conservative parties ahead of Labor is very unusual.
The decision is attracting a lot of attention to an otherwise obscure local by-election in an electorate of just 4,988 voters in the northern suburbs of Darwin. If you are after more information on the Johnston by-election, check my background page at the ABC’s Election website.
The decision has started arguments back and forth between Labor and Green partisans, but i’ll leave it to participants to argue the subjective point of whether the decision is right or wrong in policy and/or strategic terms.
But that leaves plenty of room to examine whether the decision is important to how preferences will flow, to the result of the Johnston by-election, and to the Northern Territory election in August.
Update At the by-election, 56.9% of Green voters gave preferences, around 20 percentage points lower than the usual flow of Green preferences. You can find my commentary on the result and preferences at my Johnston by-election page.
Why did the Greens Make Their Decision?
On releasing her how-to-vote recommendation, the Green candidate for Johnston gave the following explanation.
The Greens have a clear policy difference with Labor over fracking and have made a decision to punish the Gunner Labor government for its decision. The Greens and Labor are separate parties and have no form of coalition agreement. Nothing exists that requires the Greens to recommend preferences for Labor.
While framed entirely in policy terms, the decision results in the Greens recommending preferences to the Country Liberal candidate and two other non-Labor candidates, one a former Country Liberal candidate, the other a former Country Liberal President. In the past the Greens have shown little love for the Country Liberals.
As is always the case with single issue decisions, some will see the decision as in conflict with broader agendas and strategies. I’ll leave it for the participants to argue that point.
Do Green Preference Recommendations Make a Difference?
The first thing to say, as I always do, is that parties and candidates do not direct or control preferences. Preferences are completed by voters. Parties and candidates can try to influence voters with how to vote material, but they cannot determine how preferences flow.
100% of every voter’s ballot paper flows as a preference where the voter directs it. Total percentage preference flow figures are calculated by adding up the individual voter decisions.
I think the last time the Greens directed preferences against Labor was in the seat of Springwood at the 1995 Queensland election. (Results here) The issue was a Goss government decision to build a second major road, a tollway, connecting Brisbane and the Gold Coast. It would have damaged a koala habitat and was dubbed the “koala tollway”.
The Greens contested the seat and recommended preferences to a Democrat candidate, and I understand then to the winning Liberal candidate. I say ‘understand’ as I have not seen the how-to-vote. But the link to the result above certainly suggests that’s how preferences were recommended. But it is impossible to isolate the Green flows in the distribution of preferences.
I have carried out analysis of what happens when the Greens choose not to recommend preferences. In a blog post I wrote in 2010 (the post is incorrectly dated as 2018), there was only a tiny difference in preference flows between seats at the 2010 federal election where the Greens recommended preferences to Labor, and those where open tickets were distributed. The large number of open tickets distributed in 2010 has not been repeated at Federal elections since.
There is also a huge difference in where a preference ends up and the path the preference follows. Whenever the Greens insert another party as a number 2 preference ahead of Labor, there is a huge tendency for Green voters to give a 2 to Labor anyway.
At last year’s NT Senate election, the Greens recommended HEMP as 2nd preference and Labor as third. 30% of voters gave the second preference to HEMP, but 45% went 2nd preference Labor anyway.
Unpublished work i’ve done on preference flows in NSW lower house elections shows a similar pattern. Even if the Greens give a second preference to another candidate, the majority of Green voters still go 2 Labor. Whether this is because voters don’t follow the recommendation, or because many Green voters did not receive the recommendation, is difficult to determine.
It may be Johnston will be different. Fracking is a big local issue, as the Koala tollway was in Springwood in 1995. But as I outlined above, many Green voters preference Labor anyway, plus the Labor Party will no doubt use the how-to-vote as an argument that the Greens are trying to elect the Country Liberals or one of the other opposition parties.
Preferences and How-to-votes in the Northern Territory
The Johnston by-election will be conducted under full preferential voting. Optional preferential voting was used at the 2016 NT election, but electoral law has reverted back to full preferential. The instructions on the Johnston by-election ballot paper will be to fill all squares with numbers from 1 to 7.
However, the changes that ended voters having to run “the gauntlet” of party campaigners outside polling places have been retained, though with some tweaks.
It is illegal to canvass for votes within 100 metres of a polling place or 10 metres of an early voting centre. Canvassing includes:
- placement, display or handing out of posters
- pamphlets or bunting that contains electoral matter
- handing out how-to-vote cards
- soliciting the vote of a person
- inducing a person not to vote for a particular candidate
- inducing a person not to vote at the election
- using a loud speaker, public address system, amplifier or other thing to broadcast matter that is audible within 100 metres of the entrance of the voting centre.
Within the exclusion zone, the Electoral Commission may declare a designated campaign area where each registered candidate will be allowed up to three campaigners, each campaigner having completed the relevant appointment form. A person engaged to represent a candidate in the designated campaign area will be able to:
- Canvass for votes
- Solicit the vote of a person
- Hand out how-to-vote cards
But the designated campaign area must be:
- Accessible to voters; and
- Avoidable by voters who do not wish to engage with campaigners.
So at polling places, the distribution of how-to-vote will require a voter to be approached more than 100 metres from a polling place, or by a voter approaching the designated campaign area.
But with the majority of votes expected to be taken at the three pre-poll voting centres, the 10 metre rule may prove to be more important as to whether voters receive Green or any other party’s how-to-vote.
Does the Johnston By-election Matter?
Johnston is a seat in Darwin’s northern suburbs, and it is a long established truism of Northern Territory politics that governments are made and unmade in Darwin’s northern suburbs.
The CLP’s long dominance of NT politics from 1974 to 2001 was built on its ability to win seats in northern Darwin. For two decades, the only time Labor ever managed to win a northern Darwin seat was when a CLP member departed and Labor won at a by-election. And once Labor won a seat at a by-election, it tended to stay with the Labor Party.
As I outlined at the time of the 2014 Casuarina by-election, there is a long history of governments getting massive kicks at by-elections. (See notes on past by-election at my Casuarina by-election page.) It was the massive swing against the Country Liberals at the 2013 Wanguri by-election that led to Terry Mills being deposed as Chief Minister.
After 2001 Labor swept Darwin’s northern suburbs. It was the loss of one northern Darwin seat at the 2008 election, Sanderson, that left the Henderson Labor government on a knife edge for four years. It was the failure of the CLP to win any further northern Darwin seats on coming to office in 2012 that was a core reason why the Mills and Giles governments were so internally divided. Labor won all northern Darwin seats in 2016.
So what is Labor’s position in 2020? Labor won 18 of the 25 seats at the 2016 election. It has since had three defections to the crossbench, including the departing Ken Vowles in Johnston.
As I outlined in a recent post on the NT redistribution, the Gunner government is not in as strong a position as people think. Labor will lose most of the seats in Palmerston, Katherine and Alice Springs delivered to it by the decimation of the Country Liberals at the 2016 election.
For Labor to win the 2020 election, it has to hold all its northern Darwin seats, and that means holding Johnston at the by-election in 29 February.
And for the Opposition?
Despite the unpopularity of the Gunner government, it had been expected Labor would hold Johnston. The party has a candidate in Joel Bowden with a high profile in AFL before politics and a high profile within the Labour movement as head of Unions NT. In Darwin’s tiny electorates, most voters will meet the candidates during the campaign, and Labor has many campaigners on the ground getting Bowden’s name out in front of voters.
If Labor does win, the question is which opposition party will come out on top. The Country Liberals have struggled to re-group after the 2016 defeat, and recently changed leader in its two-member caucus. The party’s candidate is Josh Thomas.
Former Country Liberal Chief Minister Terry Mills was elected as an Independent in 2016 and has since formed the Territory Alliance. Mills has since recruited a defecting Labor MP into his party. If the Alliance’s Steven Klose can win Johnston, (he was the Country Liberal candidate for the seat in 2016), Mills will argue he has three members and should become Opposition Leader in place of the two-member Counyty Liberal.
And Braedon Earley is on the ballot paper. He is a former Country Liberal President, helped form the ‘1 Territory’ party that contested the 2016 election, now renamed as ‘Ban Fracking Fix Crime Protect Water’.
Finally the Greens polled 17% in the seat in 2016. Can this decision raise their profile enough to make fracking an issue that gives them a chance of winning? Or will the decision be too controversial for left leaning voters?
Lots of question to be answered on 29 February in a by-election that, until the Green how-to-vote card was released, barely rated a mention outside of Darwin.