Australia is the only advanced nation to use preferential forms of voting for national elections, especially the Alternative Vote. The leading Australian expert Antony Green explores the lessons from his country’s experience for how AV might operate in the UK, and demonstrates that we need to look at state-level elections there to find the most compelling parallels. They suggest that AV in the UK may not change the national picture of who wins seats that much, but will increase the legitimacy of MPs who otherwise could not demonstrate that they have local majority support.
As an Australian observing the UK debate on the Alternative Vote (AV), I have been surprised how little reference has been made to experience ‘down under’ as part of the debate for the referendum on May 5. Nostalgic prominence has been given to Winston Churchill’s views on AV from 1931, that elections would be decided by “the most worthless votes given for the most worthless candidates”. Yet few have bothered to compare Churchill’s opinions from so long ago with real evidence gained from the experience of eight decades of preferential voting at Australian elections.
All Australian elections, federal, state and territory, are conducted using ‘preferential’ voting, where voters number candidates in preferred order on the ballot paper. Most local government elections also use preferential voting. The counting of ballot papers then translates voters intentions into parliamentary representation, using several variants of both the Alternative Vote and the Single Transferable Vote (STV) across different types of elections.
The political science literature on Australian elections concentrates on elections to the federal House of Representatives, conducted under rules that require voters to express a full preference ordering across all candidates on the ballot paper (that is, number all candidate 1, 2, 3, to N in a sequence they choose). The requirement for a full expression of preferences does not form part of AV as proposed to be adopted in Britain.
Nor do other peculiar features of Australian politics make direct comparisons with United Kingdom elections simple. Australia uses compulsory voting, and surveys suggest this requirement to vote benefits Australia’s older political parties over newer entrants, cancelling out some of the suggested benefits of preferential voting for diversifying politics. Smaller parties are also more naturally attracted to trying to win seats in the upper chambers of Australian parliaments, which are elected by proportional representation. Australia’s parties also impose tighter party discipline on their members of Parliament, a trend that pre-dates preferential voting. The tradition of active campaigning outside polling stations also influences the operation of the electoral system in a way that is unlikely to be repeated in the UK.
While full preferential voting is the norm for most Australian elections, two states do use the same form of AV that is being put at the UK referendum on May 5. In Australia it is called optional preferential voting, and has been in use in the northern state of Queensland since 1992, and in Australia’s largest state, New South Wales, since 1981. Just over a week ago on March 26, the four and a half million voters of New South Wales took part in a general election under AV rules to elect a new state parliament. For reasons unrelated to the electoral system, the election produced one of the greatest landslides in Australian political history, with the deeply unpopular Labor administration defeated, its MP numbers cut from 50 to just 20 seats in the 93 seat Legislative Assembly.
So how did AV perform at this election? Oddly enough, it behaved very much like first past the post. Based on close to complete results, nearly half (43) of the 93 lower house contests saw no candidate achieve a majority on first preferences. Preferences needed to be distributed, but in 42 of these 43 contests, the winning candidate after preferences was also the leading candidate on the tally of first preferences.
The wider picture of AV’s impacts
That so few contests saw the first preference result overturned after the distribution of preferences in 2011 is not unusual. The table below summarises the performance of AV at New South Wales and Queensland elections since the introduction of AV. Normally AV changes the results in fewer than one seat in 20, but there are three occasions here (out of 18) when more sweeping changes did occur.
Outcomes in Australian state elections using exactly the same AV system as proposed for the UK
Note:. Calculation by the author based on published returns. Final details for the 2011 NSW election are not yet available.
The final column shows contests where the winning candidate had a majority of the votes remaining in the count after the distribution of preferences, but fell short of a majority of all those voting because some citizens had not marked a full slate of preferences. The number of these contests has risen over time in New South Wales, but so far has not become a feature of Queensland elections.
Since 1981 there have been 28 contests at NSW general elections where the candidate that led on first preferences was defeated. Of these, nine were ‘triangular’ contests where a Labor candidate led on first preferences, but always trailed the combined vote of two competing conservative candidates from the separate Liberal and National Parties. All 15 ‘come from behind’ victories at the 1992 Queensland election also involved triangular contests.
The long-standing coalition agreement between the Liberal and National parties was forged under full preferential voting and has had to adapt to AV. Many Australian political observers refer to state level AV as ‘de-facto’ first past the post, and its operation has changed the coalition agreement. The NSW Liberal and National Parties have not engaged in a triangular contest since a failure to transfer preferences cost them a key seat at the 1999 election. The Liberal and National Parties have merged in Queensland, in part because of AV.
The one type of candidate to benefit from AV has been Independents. Where Independents have challenged parties in safe seats, the preferences of a third-finishing major parties have been enough to deliver victory to Independents. Of the 19 ‘come from behind’ victories in non-triangular contests at NSW election, 12 have been Independent victories in otherwise safe seats.
How AV makes a difference: a case study
In only one electorate, at the recent NSW election, the inner-city seat of Balmain, was the candidate ahead on the tally of first preferences defeated after the distribution of preferences. Why this occurred provides an illustration of the sorts of contests where AV will make a difference. The Balmain constituency covers some of Sydney’s oldest suburbs. The locale was the birthplace of the Australian Labor Party in 1891, and many of the nation’s oldest unions also have their origins in the electorate. Yet Balmain is a very different district 120 years later. Industry has gone and the wharves have moved elsewhere with containerisation. With harbour views and close to the city, Balmain has gentrified and today is one of the state’s most affluent electorates. This changing demographic brought a rise in support for the Liberal Party, Australia’s main conservative party, More importantly, the industrial origins of the local Labor Party have been shaken by the rise of a new party of the left in the Australian Greens.
On March 26 Balmain was contested by eight candidates, the Liberal leading on first preferences with 32.6% of the vote, ahead of the Green candidate on 30.7% and the sitting Labor MP on 30.2%. Five other candidates polled 6.5% between them. The left vote was even split between Labor and the Greens, and the affinity of these two parties always meant that many of their supporters would give preferences to the other party, despite there being no such party recommendation on the day. The party that finished second behind the Liberal candidates was always going to be elected on the preferences of the candidate that finished third.
The Liberal Party have not won Balmain since 1904, and it took this year’s landslide to deliver first place to the Liberal candidate. A split in the left vote might have delivered Liberal victory under first past the post voting, but history and preferential voting told you that the Liberal candidate would never be able to achieve a majority after the distribution of preferences. So it came to pass, the Labor candidate was narrowly beaten into third place, Labor preferences then flowing strongly to the Green, who went on to win 53.5% support after preferences. It was the first victory ever achieved by the Greens in a NSW lower house electorate.
Conclusions: AV effects that would transfer in the UK
The overall lesson from the experience of AV in Australian states is that its impact of AV is likely to be much less than its advocates in Britain suggest, and certainly less than its UK opponents warn. Where AV will matter is in multi-party contests such as Balmain, where the leading candidate falls well short of a majority. Then AV will work to return a member with greater support in the electorate than the candidate with the simple majority of first preferences. How that translates into national shares of seats won is difficult to determine. Based on Australian experience, which party benefits most will vary over time.
The real strength of Alternative Vote over first past the post is in individual constituencies, especially in contests where the leading candidate falls well short of a majority. AV won’t change the face of national politics. But in some constituencies it will ensure the election of representatives who can lay greater claim to representing the majority view within the local electorate.