(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.