Magazine | September 20, 2010, Issue

The Wrong Alternative

Electoral haruspicy from Down Under

Anglosphere advocates of the alternative-vote system — in which citizens cast votes for both their first- and second-preference candidates, and losing candidates’ votes are redistributed to their voters’ second preferences — must be hoping that no one outside Australia pays attention to the verdict of its August 21 federal election. Namely, the fact that there isn’t one — at least as late as September 1. The conservative Liberal-National Coalition had initially won 44 percent of “primary votes,” as against the Australian Labor party’s 38 percent. When the second-preference votes for defeated candidates (mainly Greens) were redistributed, however, both major parties were in an almost exact “dead heat,” with the Coalition likely to emerge a nose in front after the remaining 2 million votes had been counted. And that translated into a slight majority for the Right, with the balance of power held by one Green and four independents.

Then, eleven days after the election, Labor signed a formal alliance with the Greens that involved ditching several Labor policies and adopting several Green ones. Yet it did no more than bring the parties equal in seats again at 73 each. Unless there is a surprise in the uncounted votes, the four independents will determine not only the party that forms the next Australian government, but also much of its program. They are an odd bunch: one leftish anti-Iraq ex-spook and three conservative rural rebels who broke away from the junior partner in the Coalition, the Nats. The demands of these five are equally heterogeneous, ranging from agricultural protectionism to measures against gambling to a new and undefined “consensus” politics to replace the divisive party system. Most of their “issues” were not major items in the campaign. And three of them are reputedly hostile to the Greens — which could be a problem for Labor.

On the Australian evidence, therefore, the AV system has a bias towards uncertainty, instability, deadlock, and the smaller parties. It is more likely than the Anglosphere’s traditional “first past the post” system to hand the choice of government to the politicians rather than to the electorate. It makes nonsense of party manifestos and campaign debates, since the new government’s program is negotiated after the election behind closed doors. And it encourages the splintering of broad coalition-parties with agreed and largely consistent programs into small, single-issue faction-parties with inconsistent but non-negotiable demands.

Most of these malign effects are visible in the post-election maneuvering, but the splintering of major parties is hidden in the obscurity of election statistics. Overall, one in five voters supported minor parties or independents this time. That’s higher than the usual 13 to 15 percent. What does it portend for the Australian parties large and small?

There are two broad ways of interpreting the entrails of dead elections. The first is to break the electorate down into small groups — social groups, economic categories, opinion formations, etc. — and trace how each of them has moved since previous elections. In this election, the rise of the Greens to almost 14 percent of first-preference votes is the big statistical story, especially since they advanced in almost all Green-leaning social groups and did so for the second election in a row. According to an early statistical analysis by Australian Development Strategies (a demographic-research body headed by a former Labor senator, John Black), the two major parties are threatened by this in different ways. Among the trends that ADS has discerned:

  •  Labor lost a substantial slice of its previous core vote to the Greens. It would have suffered a landslide defeat had it not been for the support of voters receiving various kinds of transfer payments, including subsidized-mortgage holders. The ADS study comments dryly that if interest rates had risen, “Labor would have been sunk.”


  • Atheists and agnostics, who — surprisingly — account for between a quarter and a third of the electorate, swung to Labor. But this news has to be qualified in two ways. First, it was more than offset by the swing of Christian evangelicals away from the party, which had dumped Kevin Rudd, a prime minister they liked, two months beforehand. Such voters, though only 10 percent of the electorate, live inconveniently in marginal constituencies. Second, atheist voters — alone among core Labor groups — voted Green first, Labor second. Given the Green surge, more atheists are likely to drift down the same primrose path.


  • Today’s Greens, however, are not your father’s tie-dyed Greens. Most are urban professionals (consultants, academics, media folk), largely childless, and very rich. Liberated from Labor, they are now free to pursue their economic interests as well as their social consciences. Where will they go next time?


  • The conservative Coalition faces its own fissiparous tendencies, though, pace Senator Black, they don’t seem to me as serious as Labor’s. First, its more conservative base in the National party is threatened by the rise of rural independents who demand more government spending on the countryside. But voter polls in the districts of the independents who are now negotiating with both major parties show clear majorities in favor of a Coalition government led by Tony Abbott. That suggests the right of the Right remains reasonably content if occasionally restive. Second, the Liberal half of the center-right may find itself competing for higher-income votes as the new Greenies begin to reorient their policies to fit their wallets.

#page#In a pre-election article, Senator Black summed up these trends with a sensational opening sentence: “The Greens are siphoning the votes of angry Labor voters to the Liberals via preferences.” He went on to suggest that over several elections, higher-income Labor voters would pass through the Greens to the Coalition Liberals (rather as Ross Perot acted as a transmission belt for disillusioned Republicans to defect to Clinton). This seems a stretch to me, especially since Labor’s alliance with the Greens, but I would not like to bandy figures with the senator, and besides, the election itself certainly did not refute his prediction.

But the Coalition must do a better job of coalition management if this prediction is to be borne out. Under Malcolm Turnbull, it alienated the base in order to win Green votes (interestingly, the doomed strategy of David Cameron in Britain). Under Abbott, it consolidated the base successfully but failed to win higher-income Greens. This can be remedied in two ways: bringing Malcolm Turnbull into the shadow cabinet, and asking him to develop a strong “property rights” environmentalism (which would also appease discontented Nats).

So much for the “micro” approach to election analysis. The other method is to look for major events in the world (e.g., a recession) or transforming divisive issues (e.g., the Iraq War) that influence all micro-groups in one direction or another. The mystery here is that in 2010 Labor lost an election it was expected to win easily in the absence of either phenomenon — especially divisive issues. The two main parties were said to have “converged” on the issues. That camouflaged the fact that Labor had abandoned some signature issues of the Rudd government (carbon trading) and adopted others from the Coalition (tough measures on illegal immigration). Indeed, one lesson of the campaign is the fragility of political correctness: Carbon trading was the conventional wisdom, dangerous to challenge, until it was actually challenged. And when political correctness crumbled, both Labor and the Coalition fought mainly on conservative ground.

As my NRO narrative of the campaign explains, the absence of any great ideological divide meant that a more subtle division emerged over the question of authenticity. Labor was seen by many voters as a soulless machine directed by focus groups and without principles. Julia Gillard was selected in a palace coup to replace prime minister Kevin Rudd partly because she was seen as believing in something. But she threw this advantage away by going through a series of personality changes (her own side trumpeted one as “the Real Julia”). Abbott, by contrast, was a conviction politician who never renounced his beliefs even when he moderated his policies. Elites thought his convictions obsolete and him “unelectable”; he believed they were shared by most Australians outside Melbourne and Sydney.

He may have overestimated that support. But even many who disagreed with him admired his refusal to bend. If Tony Abbott becomes prime minister in the next ten days, it will be because he was true to his convictions. Alas, that may also be the reason why in the end he does not end up as prime minister — and why Julia Gillard does.

– Mr. O’Sullivan’s fuller reflections on the election are archived at National Review Online.

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