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Losers into Winners: government wins power with unofficial coalition

ByRobert Silverman

The Author

Robert Silverman is the pen name of a journalist and academic with extensive Australian and international experience in teaching, researching and writing on politics and history.

The alchemist turns base metal into gold, Victoria’s electoral system turns a loser into a winner. Focus for a moment on one statistic, 37.03 per cent, the Labor government’s primary vote in the November 2022 election. 

In other words, as their first choice, out of the 4,394,465 Victorians who voted, nearly 63 per cent did not want any more of Daniel Andrews and his government. Yet thanks to the Greens and the preferences of the ‘teals’ and micro parties hoping to pick up a few crumbs from the table, they have to put up with them for at least another four years.

Writing in the Age, Paul Strangio describes Andrews as a “titan of politics who bent Victoria to his will.’’ (‘Daniel Andrews will be remembered as a titan of politics who bent Victoria to his will,’ the ‘Age, February 9, 2023). He certainly did, but no one describes Hitler and Mussolini as political titans for doing exactly the same thing to Germany and Italy in the 1930s. All Strangio concedes when it comes to Andrews is a “democratic deficit” in what he describes as a one-party state.   

Premier Daniel Andrews with wife Catherine and children Noah (left), Grace and Joseph: Joe Armao

Shaun Carney, who has spent years dissecting Victorian politics, believes that Daniel Andrews pulled off “one of the most remarkable victories in modern politics.” Not just in Australia or Victoria, he seems to be saying but the world – a rather big claim.  (‘How Dan Andrews pulled off one the most remarkable victories in modern politics,’ the Conversation, November 27, 2022).  

In fact, what was truly remarkable about this victory was how the government led by this “titan of politics” was returned at all. Malcolm Mackerras, who has been monitoring federal and state elections for decades, says the result, with Labor securing 64 per cent of lower house seats on the basis of a fraction more than 37 per cent of the vote is one of the most disproportionate in Victoria’s history.

The closest parallel would the 1950s-60s, when the preferences of the anti-communist and largely Catholic Democratic Labor Party (DLP) secured the return of the Liberal Bolte government six times in just over 17 years. For Mackerras, the outcome of the 2022 Victorian election was evidence of the “deficiency in our democracy.”

For reasons that should not be hard to understand, the primary vote showed that as its first choice, the electorate did not want any more of Andrews and his government. Andrews did not so much run the state as run it into the ground. There were few other places in the world where people were subjected to the misery he delivered through six lockdowns and his intemperate use of police to crush dissent.

The state is now saddled with the fallout, including massive debt and the worst social/economic indices in the country as the states try to recover (as previously reported by Umbrella News, ‘Metrics trump Victoria’s ‘good’ optics, November 25, 2022).

The Greens ran candidates in all of Victoria’s 88 electorates, knowing they had no chance of winning more than a few seats – (four in the lower house, as it turned out, and another four in the upper house).

There can be only central reason why the party invested so much time and money in contesting seats it had no hope of winning, and that is the preferences that would put Labor back in government and give the Greens a whip hand, or so they hope, when it comes to crucial issues.

Yet, for the Greens, despite this trail of destruction, the election of the Liberals would have been worse. On their fundamental touchstone issues, climate change and protection of the environment, they are probably right, but otherwise it is hard to see how the Liberals in government could do more economic and social damage than was done by Andrews and the Labor government “one-party state” in the past three years.

To the extent that there is any kind of argument about what happened in Victoria in these years, it is not so much about the level of damage shown up by all metrics but how much of it was justified in the name of combatting the spread of the virus.

What metrics can do is tell the true story of this ‘’most remarkable political victory’’ in modern times. As the following statistics show, Labor’s primary vote was one of the worst in recent history:

202237.03 %
201842.86 %
201438.10 %
201036.25 %
200643.06 %
200247.95 %
199945.57 %
199643.13 % (Liberal Victory)
199238.41 % (Liberal Victory)

Out of the 10 elections in the last 34 years, only in 2010 was Labor’s primary vote lower than in 2022. Even when defeated (1992 and 1996) Labor’s primary vote was higher. The swing against the party in 2022 was 5.8 % from 2018. One significant metric was the sharp fall in Labor votes in traditionally ‘working class’ (yes, what happened to class?) suburbs: in Broadmeadows Labor’s primary vote fell from 68 % in 2018 to 47% in 2022; in Sunbury from 58% to 44 %; and in Bundoora from 56% to 48%.

In all these cases, however, the margins were so great that Labor still held these seats. By contrast, Labor’s primary vote rose in more affluent suburbs.

Thanks to preferences and secret preference deals the Andrews’ government leapt from the first-choice primary vote of 37.03 % to 55%, giving it 56 seats in the lower house. The Liberals won 29.6 % of the primary votes (1,076,672), thus slightly more than 80 % of Labor’s primary vote (1,339,496):  however, after the distribution of preferences it ended up with 45 % of the vote but only 18 seats in the lower house, less than a third of Labor’s final tally, evidence again of the disproportionate result as observed by Malcolm Mackerras. 

This mismatch between primary votes and the final outcome was helped along by a redistribution of electoral boundaries in August 2022, which favoured Labor to the extent of two probable seats (‘New boundaries tipped to unseat Liberals,’ the Age, August 9, 2022).  Furthermore, the government barrel of pork was rolled out in the direction of Labor seats in the campaign, 80 % of pledged funds compared to 14 % for the Liberals. (‘Daniel Andrews on the defensive as 80% of Victoria’s election promises benefit Labor electorates,’ the Guardian, November 23, 2022).

Despite the resources the Greens poured into this election and their predictions of a ‘Greenslide’ they still received only 11.5 % of the vote compared to 10.71 % in 2018 and only one more seat in the lower house. Apart from major campaign planks such as climate change, the Greens promised on their website “to restore integrity to government” and thus cure “the rot of toxic culture in Victoria’s major parties” which “has well and truly set in.”

Photograph: Joel Carrett/AAP

As the Greens enter a new period of wheeling and dealing with their political rivals, of giving in return for what might be given back, we have to wait to see how this moral pledge will work out.

The upshot of the elections is that thanks to the preferential system, Victorians are stuck with a premier and government they did not really want. The preferential system forced them to accept second-best.

In a so-called democracy, it seems hardly democratic for minor and splinter parties to have the power to thwart the will of the majority. The preferential system suits the politicians far more than the voters, giving them plenty of room for manoeuvre to finesse votes through back-room deals struck with hungry small parties.

In the Victorian state elections, this was most strikingly apparent in the Upper House, where the Group Voting Ticket (GTV) system prevented voters from choosing the group, rather than ticking off individual candidates, from even knowing where their preferences went. The GTV system also rewarded micro parties well beyond their voter base: in the last WA state elections, the same system put one party into parliament on the basis of 98 votes.

The polls indicated that the Liberals had no hope of winning, yet the Greens still directed all their preferences to Labor. It might have been that they miscalculated by giving the Labor government too much support. A more discriminatory preferential policy might have resulted in a hung parliament, forcing Andrews to form a coalition government with the Greens, which he has said he would never do or call new elections. 

Instead, the one-way flow of their preferences helped to ensure that Andrews skirted the danger of minority government and ended up with an absolute majority handed to him on the basis of second-best choices.

Readers might like to consider whether the Victorian result is evidence of democracy in action or whether, as Malcolm Mackerras has argued, evidence instead of a “deficiency” in democracy that has led to the rise of a “political titan” and a “one party” state government. 



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