Should the Victorian Liberal Party Change its Lower House Preference Policy?

(Two updates to this post – The Australian is reporting that the Liberal Party is considering the tactic I describe in this post. Second, the Liberals are using a lot of “Put Labor Last” slogans. In an era when fewer voters see how-to-votes, planting a “Put Labor Last” message can influence a voter, which as a by-product produces stronger flows of Liberal preferences to the Greens.)

During the 2010 Victorian Election campaign, the Liberal Party sprung a surprise by announcing that it would recommend preference to the Labor Party ahead of the Greens on Liberal how-to-vote material.

At the time it seemed an odd decision as it ensured that the Labor Party would not be under threat from the Greens in inner-city seats.

I’ve heard alternate views on whether the decision was a clever tactic to win the election or an admission the party didn’t expect to win. Either way, the decision was definitely in line with what many party members wanted. Many had been unhappy that Liberal preferences elected Greens’ candidate Adam Bandt as the new member for Melbourne at the August 2010 Federal election. Bandt polled 36.2% on first preferences to Labor 38.1%, an 80% flow of Liberal preferences responsible for Bandt winning.

It was becoming hypocritical for the Liberal Party to criticise Labor for being too close to the Greens when Liberal how-to-votes were actively helping to elect Greens in both upper and lower houses.

So the decision made for the 2010 Victorian election, and repeated at Victorian and Federal elections since, put Liberal preferences in ideological alignment with the position of the three parties on the political spectrum. Labor was put ahead of the Greens because the Greens were further to the left than Labor.

Putting the Australian Democrats ahead of Labor had always made sense for the Liberal Party. The Democrats were a more centrist party on many issues than Labor, and were also a party the Coalition could negotiate with in the Senate.

There have been rumours that there may be a change of strategy for the coming Victorian election.

If so there is logic as to why. It comes down to deciding whether strategy or ideology is the better tactic for deciding on preferences.

Before 2010 Liberal preferences were strategic. Greens were rarely elected and Labor was the enemy. Recommending preferences for the Greens worked on the principle that my enemy’s enemy is my friend.

But once Greens were being elected, was it right for the Liberal Party to recommend preferences to help the more left wing Greens? The new decision to preference Labor was done on ideological grounds, done to diminish the chances of the left-wing Greens gaining the balance of power.

But more than a decade later, and with the Greens now a permanent feature of upper and lower houses, is it time for the Liberal Party to be more strategic and adopt seat by seat decisions rather than a blanket position?

For the Liberal Party, there are now two enemy parties, Labor and the Greens. Both will be present in the next Victorian Parliament whatever the Liberal Party recommends with its preferences.

Is it time for the Liberal Party to do what Labor so often does in Coalition three-cornered contests, to recommend preferences in a strategic manner based on the direction most likely to produce Coalition disharmony. The most common method is to recommend preferences against the holding party, so against the Liberal candidate in a Liberal seat, or against the National candidate in a National held seat.

Under its current policy, the Liberal Party always recommends preferences to Labor. It is unlikely to reverse that position and revert to recommending preferences to the Greens in all seats. But what about an in-between position?

The Liberal Party could recommend preferences to disrupt relations between Labor and the Greens. If the Liberal Party faces two opposing parties, why not recommend preferences in a manner most likely to sow the seeds of disharmony between its opponents.

The simplest method would be to direct against sitting members, so against the Greens in seats the party holds, and against Labor in Labor-held seats. The Liberal Party might choose to continue putting Labor ahead of the Greens in seats where the Greens are not competitive.

The Liberal Party could also be more selective, singling out candidates of both parties it thinks are too left wing, or Ministers that it believes should be defeated.

Or it could issue how-to-votes showing two options on preferences, something both the Labor and Liberal Parties did against Nick Xenophon in South Australia at the 2016 Federal election. An open recommendation would probably weaken flows to Labor and maybe even help the Greens.

I have no idea whether rumours of a change are just gossip. But if true and it interferes with the flow of Liberal preferences to Labor, then it is a decision that would increase the chances of the Andrews government losing its majority.

6 thoughts on “Should the Victorian Liberal Party Change its Lower House Preference Policy?”

  1. I don’t like compulsory preferential voting…it means I only attend the polling place to get my name marked off and not be fined.

    I only want to vote for one candidate…I don’t want to preference, I use to Langer vote until it was

    1. NSW has optional preferential, and in the past 6 or so years it has twice elected Liberals with a minority of votes, at times there was strong opposition to the party, once due to forcing councils to amalgamate without legislative basis, and other at a point when there was anger against the Libs over Morrison, et al; and of course following Glady D’s resignation over corruption. In the first case, North Sydney, had Greens preferenced the independent mayor of Mosman, she would have got up. In Willoughby, Greens preferences would have elected the Teal, who did get up, despite also competing with Labor, at the Federal election, where preferences were required.

      COMMENT: NSW elections are conducted under optional preferential voting introduced by the Labor Party in 1980. Labor entrenched OPV in the Constitution so it can only be replaced by referendum and I doubt the electorate would vote to abolish OPV. Because of OPV the Coalition did not win a majority of the formal vote at the last two elections, but it won a clear majority over Labor after preferences which is the only relevant point.

  2. Preferential voting elects the least disliked candidate, one that is at least tolerated by over half of the electorate. FPTP will give you a polly that is actively disliked by over half the electorate. I know which system I prefer.

  3. The recent federal election has shown us that there are five seats where Liberal preferences will likely decide between the Labor and the Greens candidate: Prahran, Northcote, Albert Park, Footscray and Pascoe Vale.

    Of those five, Prahran is currently held by the Greens and the rest are held by Labor.

    If the Liberals choose to preference the Greens in these seats, I predict Greens representation would increase to eight seats in the lower house with the Greens holding on to Melbourne and Brunswick and winning the seat of Richmond regardless of Liberal preferences.

    With Labor losing fives seats to the Greens, their majority would be hampered significantly putting them at risk of minority government.

    1. With most Liberal seats marginal, one only fairly safe, and one safe, and Ripon nominally Labor, 8 Greens would mean they would form HM’s Loyal Opposition, exceeding the 6 Nationals, unless somehow the coalition can be counted together.

      COMMENT: The Coalition parties are counted together. Unless there is a swing to Labor at the election, the Liberal Party will come out of the election with more than 20 seats.

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