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Christian Kerr: Why Australia adopted AV - and is now beginning to shun it

Picture 3 Christian Kerr is a political reporter with The Australian.

As Britain debates adopting AV, Australian voters and political parties are quietly dropping the idea.

To understand quite what is happening, you need a quick lesson in Australian political history.

British politics is a three sided game, but in Australia it has been played with just two teams for more than a century. For most of this time these teams have been the Australian Labor Party, the ALP, and a joint squad assembled from the two main parties of the centre-right, the Liberals and the smaller rural-based National Party.

The Liberals and the Nationals work in coalition virtually all of the time, in both government and opposition, but this closeness has not stopped some spectacular fights for the same electoral territory over the years.

Australia originally conducted its national elections using first past the post, but in 1918 the forerunners of the Liberals and the Nationals introduced AV to stop Labor candidates getting up through the middle when they clashed. The six state parliaments gradually followed suit.

For most of the time since then Australian electors have had to put a number in order of preference next to the name of every candidate on the ballot to cast a valid vote. For most of the time the Liberals and Nationals have been the winners.

But in recent decades Labor governments in the two states where the Nationals are strongest and their rivalry with the Liberals fiercest, New South Wales and Queensland, have struck back. They have bought in a modified form of AV where electors, if they chose, can lodge a valid ballot without giving a preference to every candidate on the ticket or even cast what is effectively a first past the post vote. This has offered some help to the ALP.

Australian politics has also been complicated since the turn of the century by the rise of a new party, the Greens. They have their roots in the environmental movement, but are increasingly being captured by the hard left; deserters from the ALP, activists from the more militant trade unions and apologists for the old Soviet Union left politically homeless since the end of the Cold War.

The Greens only average between 10 to 15 per cent of the vote but under AV their preferences matter. Increasingly Green preferences are getting Labor candidates across the line.

Suddenly things are changing. New South Wales is holding a general election on March 26th. Its 16-year-old Labor government faces a catastrophic defeat. It has had three premiers in as many years and is regarded as incompetent, negligent and sleazy. One former member of the ministry is already in prison. The polls put Labor’s vote at an all-time low. No one wants to be associated with the party.

This time the Greens are not riding to the rescue of the ALP with their preferences. They have adopted a smugly morally superior tone they do not want to sully by a dalliance with Labor.

The Liberals already have a commanding poll lead. They do not wish to compromise their beliefs and risk the election of Greens in the state where the communist influence on the party is strongest by giving them preferences in the hope of further damaging the ALP.

These preference decisions will be vital to the election outcome, thanks to another quirk of the Australian electoral system.

Australia has compulsory voting. Registered electors have to turn out and have their names crossed off the roll or pay a fine. Many of these simply take a party how-to-vote card when they arrive at the polling place and follow it faithfully.

In New South Wales on March 26th many of those how-to-votes will not bother allocating preferences. A majority of voters are likely to put a “1” next to the name of their Liberal, National or Green candidate and leave Labor to its fate.

As one very senior local Liberal put it last week, “New South Wales is increasingly becoming a first-past-the-post voting state”.

New South Wales is the most populous Australian state. Sydney is the largest Australian city. Where they lead, the rest of the country usually follows.

> Sunday's Comment from Paul Maynard MP: More lessons from Australia on the realities of AV


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