Queenslanders revisit the past

14 November 2016

 

Might Queenslanders be heading to the polls for an early election?  There was speculation earlier this year of one, although I haven’t heard more since then.  But it could happen, if Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk decides to call it early.

Barely two years have passed since the last Queensland election, in January 2015.  It saw the Labor Party return to office after a single term out, albeit only after getting support from the crossbench.  Labor had been comprehensively voted out of office at an election in March 2012, fourteen years after winning office, again with crossbench support, in June 1998.  Mind you, before 2012, Labor hadn’t lost an election in Queensland since November 1986.  Starting in 1989, Labor won eight Queensland elections in a row, the last of these elections being in 2009.  But Labor had a short stint out of office during this long period.

An election in 1995 left Labor governing with a majority of one seat in Parliament.  Early the following year, Labor lost one of its seats in a by-election, leaving both it and the Coalition deadlocked on forty-four seats each, while one Independent, Liz Cunningham, held the balance of power.  Despite coming from a regional area whose voters normally supported Labor, Cunningham gave her support to the Coalition, thus tipping Labor out of office – no governments have been tipped out of office in non-election periods since then.

Labor regained office when Queenslanders next went to the polls, in June 1998.  By then, politics had seen the rise of Pauline Hanson, who really polarised voters across the country.  But it seemed that she polarised voters in Queensland, her home state, more than anywhere else.  After forming her own political party, Hanson watched with pride as her party won eleven seats in the 1998 election in Queensland.  But the new MPs ended up leaving Hanson’s party, and Hanson herself, then a Federal MP, was later voted out.

Both Labor and the Coalition lost seats to Hanson’s party, but Labor gained seats from the Coalition, to the point of ending up one seat short of a majority, and was able to return to office with the support of a newly-elected Independent, Peter Wellington, even though Wellington held a seat in a region where voters favoured the Coalition.

Interestingly, although both Cunningham and Wellington might’ve been seen as betraying their constituents, in giving support to governments of the wrong “colour”, it seemed like their constituents didn’t actually mind.  Both Independents kept holding their seats at one election after another.  Cunningham retired in 2015, but Wellington’s still there now.

After initially needing crossbench support to take office in 1998, Labor went on to win big majorities at the next four elections.  But by 2012, Labor had become incompetent and scandal-plagued, and voters reduced it to a mere seven seats, out of eighty-nine available, when the election came.

Some years earlier, the Liberals and Nationals in Queensland had merged, to form the Liberal National Party.  It took two elections for the LNP to win office, albeit due largely to voters really wanting to rid themselves of Labor, but after winning in 2012, the LNP went on to be immensely unpopular, and was voted out after a single term, in 2015.

At the time, nobody really expected Labor to win, and indeed not many people knew the name of the Labor leader, who was Palaszczuk.  But the 2015 election left crossbenchers holding the balance of power, and Labor got back with crossbench support.

When Hanson first arrived on the political scene in the 1990s, the Queensland Parliament had a crossbencher holding the balance of power.  An election then came, but the balance power was again in the hands of the crossbench after that election.

Two decades on, after contesting several elections without success, Hanson has returned to the political scene, and people are talking about what impact she’ll have on the next Queensland election.  And now, like then, the Queensland Parliament again has the balance of power in the hands of the crossbench.

I don’t know how many Queenslanders remember that period of the 1990s when Hanson was wreaking havoc on the political scene, given that it all happened two decades ago.  But those with long memories probably wouldn’t have expected to revisit the past, as they now look likely to do.

The next Queensland election won’t have to happen until about January 2018.  But because Queensland doesn’t have fixed parliamentary terms, like most other Australian states have, the Premier of the day can call the election at will.  How Hanson impacts on that next election remains to be seen.  There might be thoughts on whether crossbenchers will again hold the balance of power after the election, but many voters will find themselves remembering that they’ve been down that road before.

 

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Freedom lost when you vote above the line

28 March 2016

 

Hardly anybody would’ve heard of the Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party, or of Ricky Muir, until after the last Federal election, in September 2013.  Running for a Senate seat in Victoria in that election, the AMEP and Muir only won a tiny proportion of votes, but preferences from other political parties and groups enabled Muir to leapfrog his way to a Senate seat, ahead of those who’d won considerably more votes than him.

Many regard the presence of Muir in Federal Parliament as an insult to democracy.  They don’t like the idea that he could’ve been elected when hardly anybody voted for him, and that so-called “gaming” got him there.  But while the criticism of Muir’s election has some validity, some critics are being disingenuous about it.

There’s nothing new in candidates winning seats in elections with less votes than their direct rivals.  How many people remember that Independent candidate Andrew Wilkie, running for the seat of Denison in the House of Representatives a few elections ago, actually finished third in the initial counting of votes, and won the seat with preferences from other candidates?  He might’ve been lucky to be elected back then, but he won the most votes in the initial count at the next election that he contested, and he’ll probably hold Denison forever if he wishes.

The difference between Wilkie’s initial election and Muir’s 2013 election is in relation to preferences.  When you vote to elect someone to the House of Reps, you have to mark “1” and “2” and so on against every candidate on your ballot paper for that chamber.  If your first choice candidate is eliminated, because of having the least votes at the end of any count, your vote goes to whichever candidate you mark “2” against on your ballot paper, unless your second choice of candidate has been eliminated already, in which case it goes to your third choice or higher if required.  Here, if your preferred candidates are eliminated from the count, you choose where your vote goes.  But this isn’t the same when you vote in Senators.

Until some decades ago, you had to mark “1” and “2” and so on against every candidate on your ballot paper for the Senate, which has usually been a larger paper than that for the House of Reps.  This process was later changed, and a thick black line was added to each ballot paper for the Senate.  Now when you vote to elect people from your state to the Senate, you have a choice of voting “above the line” or “below the line”.  If you vote below the line, you must put numbers in every box below it.  If you vote above the line, you need only mark “1” against your choice of political party, and then that’s it.

Not surprisingly, most Australians vote above the line when voting for Senators.  But this option has a dark underside, and not many people knew about it until some time after the option of voting above the line was introduced.

Before a Federal election, all political parties are required to state where they will direct preferences in Senate contests, as far as votes above the line go.  But they’re the ones who decide where votes and preferences go, rather than the voters, who probably don’t know where preferences are going, notwithstanding that this stuff is made public.  As a voter, you still have the freedom to choose where your vote goes if you vote below the line on your Senate ballot paper – but this freedom is lost when you just vote above the line.  It might be more convenient for you, but it’s also a touch undemocratic.

To illustrate my point, I refer to the Greens, and to controversial political figures Pauline Hanson and Fred Nile, as well as the major parties.  Hypothetically, you’d expect the Liberal Party to direct preferences to Nile ahead of the Greens, and the Labor Party to direct preferences to the Greens ahead of Hanson.  But not all voters like this.

What if you’re a Liberal voter preferring to give the Greens your preference ahead of Nile, or a Labor voter preferring Hanson to the Greens?  Unfortunately, when you vote above the line, you lose your say here.  Your vote goes where the parties decide, whether you like it or not.

It took the emergence of Hanson in the 1990s to expose this undemocratic side of voting for the Senate.  She formed her own political party, which finished third in several states at a Federal election in 1998, but other players won Senate seats with less votes, because Hanson had such controversial views that many political parties agreed to direct Senate preferences to each other and away from her mob.  This leapfrogging occurred on a few occasions at later elections.

My feeling is that, before the 2013 election, minor players came to understand that they could, and should, direct Senate preferences to each other and away from the major parties.  And that was exactly what they did – with Muir winning as a result.

Reforms to Senate voting since then might’ve resulted from a desire to prevent wins with tiny votes.  But they look driven by resentment.  Senate voting will have changed due to annoyance of big players over this kind of loss.

 

Origins of an election tragic

Warren Grzic

26 July 2014

 

How does one become an election tragic?  I suspect that it comes from stumbling upon something relating to an election, such as a report or something in a newspaper, and then looking it over.  And then looking it over once more – at this point, one becomes fascinated and wants to know more.  But no matter how much one reads and researches, the only missing thing is an outlet to spell out the knowledge that one acquires.  This applies to me when it comes to elections, and is how I became an election tragic.

Early in 1998, while browsing newspapers in a library, I stumbled across something in the AUSTRALIAN FINANCIAL REVIEW.  It was an electoral pendulum – a graphic with a tubed shaped down the middle and names down either side.  The names were of seats in the House of Representatives, the Lower House of the Australian Parliament, where governments are formed – on the other hand the Senate, the Upper House of Parliament, just covers each Australian state and territory as a whole.  On this pendulum, Government-held seats were listed to one side of the tube, and Opposition-held seats were listed to the other side.  Next to each seat was a number, showing the margin by which either the Government or the Opposition held it, and therefore the swing needed for the seat to change hands.  Obviously, smaller numbers meant marginal seats, which could therefore change hands more easily.  I just became fascinated in this, so I spent a bit of my spare time researching what parts of Australia each seat covered.  And it basically took off from there!

My interest in politics and elections at this point had been somewhat fleeting.  But I remembered a few elections past.

I remembered Bob Hawke becoming Prime Minister after leading the Australian Labor Party to victory at an election in 1983.  Hawke was considered a immensely popular figure, and would go on to win several elections as Prime Minister.  His last win was in 1990, and later on he lost the Labor leadership to Paul Keating, who’d been Treasurer in the Hawke Government for all but the last few months of it.  Keating was very unpopular as Prime Minister, but he managed to win an election in 1993.  In 1996, Keating lost an election to a teaming of the Liberal Party and the National Party, known as the Coalition, with John Howard leading it.

That 1996 election saw the emergence of a political figure of some notoriety, named Pauline Hanson.  She was a Liberal candidate in a Labor seat that the Liberals weren’t expected to win, when suddenly she made news headlines with criticism of Aboriginal people that was portrayed in the mainstream media as racist.  The Liberals disendorsed her, but incredibly, she won the seat.  She went on to become immensely popular, and formed the One Nation Party.  But she was widely portrayed as racist because of criticisms of Aborigines and Asians.

Two years later, by which time I’d come across that pendulum that kicked off my interest in elections, there came a state election in Queensland, from whence Hanson came.  This election saw the ONP win a large slice of the statewide vote and numerous seats in the Queensland Parliament, which shocked all and sundry.  This was fascinating to me – how could a party perceived as racist win so many votes?  As such, I researched more and more, and just kept researching.

Months after the Queensland election, there came a Federal election, which Howard narrowly won.  The following year saw a state election in New South Wales, and then a state election in Victoria.  By now, I was hooked on elections!

Since then, I’ve researched all sorts of things relating to elections, and watched governments fall and survive countless elections.  And having studied how voters have behaved at election time, the current circus of minor parties in Federal Parliament in particular doesn’t surprise me at all.

Over time, this election tragic will have more stories to share and enlighten you all with.