In Australia AV doesn’t live up to the rhetoric of the ‘No’ or ‘Yes’ campaigns

by Andy Bagnall

I’ve just returned from a five-month stint down under – advising the Australian Labor Party (ALP) on the New South Wales state elections – to a pile of post several inches high. Among the bank statements and the pizza adverts was a leaflet from each of the campaigns for the AV referendum. A hand-delivered, two-colour flyer from the YES campaign and a full-colour glossy, posted direct mail from the NO campaign – perhaps reflecting the differing financial resources of the two sides.

Although I’ve followed the AV debate from afar, I read the two flyers with interest, only to be disappointed by the simplistic level of the debate and the exaggerated claims of both sides.

As far as the YES camp is concerned, I can categorically assure them from my New South Wales experience that optional AV will not make MPs work harder. It will not end safe seats or jobs for life, and it most certainly won’t stop MPs becoming embroiled in scandals.

If that were the case someone forgot to give the memo to the two dozen New South Wales MPs  who, during the last parliamentary cycle, were tainted by accusations of domestic violence; marital infidelity; sex for planning consents; child molestation; or having their hands in the till. Sadly, all of these were Labor MPs and the charge sheet explains, at least in part, the scale of the Labor government’s defeat in NSW.

The most colourful scandal was the then police minister being accused of dancing in his underpants at a post-budget party simulating a sex act with a fellow MP while saying to her daughter “look, I’m t***y-f*****g your mother.” This has been strenuously denied by all concerned. No-one’s been sued but the Minister still resigned. No, my friends, not even the awesome power of an AV electoral system can stop that level of error of judgement even if it could stop an MP fiddling their expenses.

Similarly, to the NO camp, AV will not mean the rise of extremist parties in and of itself. Nor will it mean that some people’s votes are counted twice – everyone’s vote is counted the same number of times no matter how many rounds of counting. Nor will it lead to more broken promises. This last one made me laugh out loud.The argument on the glossy direct mail essentially runs that AV will lead to more Lib Dem MPs; Lib Dems break their promises; therefore AV will lead to more broken promises. Hard to argue with when they put it like that. But no, as cynical publics around the globe are all too aware, the nature of the electoral system has little to do with the level of trust in the political class; that has more to do with the nature of the political class itself. Ask what’s left of the New South Wales parliamentary caucus.

The truth is, regardless of the end-of-democracy-as-we-know-it-if-we-adopt-AV predictions by the NO camp, and regardless of the false claims of a paradise of harder-working, corruption-free MPs promised by the YES camp, moving from first past the post to AV will make very little practical difference either in terms of outcome, or in terms of re-engaging the public. As Jim Murphy put it in his recent article on Uncut “the smaller the disagreement in politics, the higher the octane of the rhetoric.”

Although it was a unique election in New South Wales last month with Labor facing a once-in-a-century wipeout that boosted Liberal vote shares in their currently held seats, no less than 55% of seats were won on first preferences. There are still safe seats (and thus wasted votes) under AV.

Even in the other 45% of constituencies it was very unusual for any candidate to win if they didn’t finish the first round of counting ahead on ‘primary’ votes – the count of voters’ first preferences. The single example in the 93-seat parliament is the constituency of Balmain, where the second-placed Greens won their only seat in the Parliament, beating the first placed Liberal with the help of Labor second preferences. In other words, bar one seat, the outcome was the same as it would have been under first past the post.

In an optional preferential system, such as the one in New South Wales and the one being proposed for the UK, the vast majority of votes for minor parties ‘exhaust’. That is, the voter expresses their first preference and no other, meaning their ballot is then discarded, with the effect that the standing of the parties changes very little from the first round of counting. This means that, like first past the post, a candidate can win with less than 50% of the electorate having voted for them.

This is partly explained by both the Liberals and Labor running ‘Just Vote 1’ campaigns in certain seats – for example, where the progressive vote was more likely to split amongst a number of parties or independents, the Liberals would encourage voters to use only a first preference thereby stemming the flow of preferences to the likely recipient, the Labor candidate. The reverse was true if the conservative vote was more likely to fracture.

If the outcome of an optional AV election is only marginally different to the outcome of a first past the post election, it is unlikely that AV would have a transformative effect on our politics in terms of the way the parties campaign and how elected politicians subsequently behave. Compulsory voting creates a far bigger difference between campaigning in the UK and in New South Wales but that’s beyond the scope of this article.

The real question we should be addressing is “how do we improve the responsiveness of the political system to competing pressures?” or “how to we re-connect politicians with the public?” Having seen the optional AV system in action, I do not believe it is relevant to answering either of those questions. And because I believe it will make no practical difference, I will vote ‘No’ in the referendum. Change for its own sake is a waste of money in straitened financial circumstances.

I’m not a fan of PR systems that break the organic link between an elected representative and a geographic electorate. However, a choice between the current system and a genuinely proportional system (or even non-optional AV) would at least have been a choice of two real alternatives. And it may have generated a debate more worthy of only the second referendum in our nation’s history. As it is we are stuck with the choice or not of optional AV. Yes, no, whatever.

Andy Bagnall is a former special adviser to two cabinet ministers and has recently returned from advising the ALP in New South Wales.

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4 Responses to “In Australia AV doesn’t live up to the rhetoric of the ‘No’ or ‘Yes’ campaigns”

  1. Thomas says:

    It really depends on how the parties act, with relation to AV, but my opinion, having spent time in Australia, is that it encourages forms of dishonesty and abuse not present in FPTP.

    The prime example is the use by the ALP of “second preference” cards, which look like they were issued by a minor party, encoraging the 2nd preference to them.

    As well, there is the wholesale use of How to Vote cards, and a whole series of backroom horse trading to obtain 2nd preferences, by the major parties, including sometimes the financial support of minority parties to further the majority parties positions.

    The ALP has historically been less effective than the Liberals (Conservatives) at this kind of “black art”.

  2. Simon Holberton says:

    Good piece. I take issue with one claim – that those who win the first round of voting win the final vote. In the Australian federal election last year the Liberals (Conservatives) got 45% of the first preference votes in the rural Victorian seat of Corangamite while Labour polled 39.5%. Labour won the seat after distribution of (mainly Greens) preferences.

  3. Richard says:

    “Change for its own sake is a waste of money in straitened financial circumstances.”

    Looks like you’ve been suckered by the “simplistic level of debate” that you decry a few paragraphs before.

  4. Peter Millican says:

    A very interesting piece, but you don’t mention what I consider to be by a mile the most important argument for AV over FPTP – namely, that it effectively gets rid of tactical voting. Now you might be right in suggesting that AV will make little difference, but we can’t possibly know that, because the results we’ve seen in elections up till now have all been biased by tactical voting (and of course the parties themselves encourage this, with leaflets pointing out enthusiastically that “It’s a two-horse race, so vote for A to defeat B, even if you actually would prefer C, D or E”). It could well be that in lots of currently two-way marginal constituencies, there are actually quite a lot of people who would prefer to vote for one of the other parties, but don’t do so because they don’t want to “waste their vote”: that is, they want to have some effect on the A vs. B contest which they know is the only one that counts. So what happens is that voting patterns get frozen by the past, with people reluctant to shift their vote over time (and everyone is under the impression – falsely perhaps – that C, D and E have almost no support). Under AV, nobody has a motive to vote insincerely, and that alone could bring huge change (admittedly, I can’t prove that either, but I believe it to be true). Quite apart from the practical effect, it seems to me to be a fundamental principle of democracy that a voting system should as far as possible avoid giving people an incentive to vote insincerely (i.e. it should not disadvantage sincere voters relative to those who are prepared to vote tactically).

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