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A report on elections in Australia (24/04/03)

Letters represent the views of their senders and may not necessarily accord with the views of 3W.

Sir,

“Greetings, as a conservative-minded Australian and a practicing Roman Catholic, I must say that I find your website of great interest and a truly valuable source of information.

Recently we had elections in my home state of NSW (March 22). The result was never in doubt, in fact it had been a foregone conclusion for a very long time now- the Labour government of Bob Carr was returned for an unprecedented third term. It appears that the Coalition (Liberal and National parties) had been ill-prepared for the fight, but this was really a personality contest and voters chose who they thought was the better leader. Certainly under Carr’s rule we’ve become a financially better managed state. That doesn’t reflect on opposition leader John Borgden, who needs to gain more experience and there’s plenty of time for him to do so- that is, if his party gives him a chance to do so.

Naturally, you’ll be interested in how the “minor” (i.e. non-establishment) parties and independents did, and the results speak for themselves- some 23% of voters did not vote for either Labour or the Coalition. That, to my knowledge, is as high a share of the vote they’ve ever had. But can they be called wasted votes? Definitely not, as our electoral system ensures such votes are not wasted. Our state’s Parliament has two houses- the Legislative Assembly (93 seats, elected in single-seat constituencies for four-year terms with preferential voting*) is the lower house, and the Legislative Council (42 seats, elected state-wide on proportional representation for eight-year terms, half the house elected every four years**) is the upper house. * preferential voting is a modified form of first past the post, in which a candidate needs minimum of 50% + 1 of the primary vote to be elected. If no candidate wins a majority, then candidates direct their preferences (as shown on how to vote cards) and then the candidate which gets the most preferences from other candidates once it totals 50% +1 wins. Which means that the candidate that gets the most primary votes will only get in if the preferences come in from other parties. ** in the Legislative Council, a party needs a minimum of 4% of the primary vote to guarantee representation. Parties which get less will require preferences from other parties to get in.

In the 1999 state election, a record 81 parties contested and the result was a most unwieldy Legislative Council ballot paper. The government’s response was to tighten up qualifications (both membership and financial) so fewer parties would contest 2003 polls. It appears many of the parties either didn’t make it, or simply decided not to take part. Previously you needed just 250 signatures to register as a political party, and the deadline was a very short time before the election! Now it’s 750 signatures, proof required there is an actual party membership, certain financial qualifications, etc.

Although this was an election fought ostensibly on state issues, the looming war on Iraq was always going to have an effect on the election. The Greens actively promoted their “No War” stance, and the result? They were the big winners on election night, capturing 8% of the primary vote. The majority of their lower house candidates saved their deposits, and in the traditionally left-leaning constituency of Marrickville they captured 28% of the vote. They now have three members in the Legislative Council. While many will claim that the Greens’ impressive performance at this election was due to anti-war sentiment, there can be no doubt it also has a lot to do with Labour’s shift to the right allowing the Greens to become something of a “united front” for the left (as well as pro-drug legalisation, libertarian and New Age groups no doubt). This will also likely marginalise the minor leftist parties. Either way, the Greens have certainly emerged as the “third force” in NSW, and Australian, politics.

The Australian Democrats, who had been vying with the Greens to be the “third force”, have fallen into some disarray nationally and this had a major bearing on their dismal showing in this election. Certainly unfortunate for a party for which things had been going so well when Natasha Stott-Despoja was leader. The Democrats are a party which rejects both the left and right. They ran an anti-war broadcast on TV with the slogan “Don’t Back Bush” (though this was not related to the election). It would seem that the Greens have stolen their thunder, as they were more agressive in promoting their anti-war stance.

Independent candidates were cited as a major reason for the Coalition’s failure at the polls, and in their (the Coalition’s) own words they seem to show up in every seat touted by them as winnable. This was definitely the case in Tamworth and in Manly as well. There are now 7 independent MPs, most representing traditionally right-leaning constituencies.

Another party which done well despite minimal exposure in the media was the Christian Democratic Party, a religious conservative party led by long-time Legislative Council member and clergyman Fred Nile. They comfortably outpolled all other “minors” save for the Greens, to become the fourth strongest block and now have two Legislative Council members. The other “minor” party to elect a Legislative Council member at this election was the Shooters’ Party led by John Tingle. And the rest? Perhaps it would be difficult to gauge the various parties’ fortunes given that fewer parties participated, but the reasons most of them did not fare well at all was down to the fact that for most part they lacked coherent policies. Certainly the appeal of One Nation has diminished greatly, but it’s a lot to do with the major parties courting their potential voters.

So the composition of the NSW Parliament is:

Legislative Assembly (93): Labour 56; Coalition 30 (Liberal 18, National 12); independents 7
Legislative Council (42): Labour 18; Coalition 13*; Greens 3; Christian Democrats 2; six other parties each have a seat (these are: Shooter’s Party, Australian Democrats, One Nation, Unity Party, Reform the Legal System and Outdoor Recreation Party) *while the Liberal (urban) and National (rural) parties are officially separate organisations, their LC candidates are on the same list on the ballot paper.

I find it laughable when some claim that the “cross-bench” in the Legislative Council (i.e. the minor parties) undermine the credibility of the chamber. The truth is the opposite- it allows for diversity of opinion, which to me is the hallmark of a true democracy. It also provides an invaluable check on government power. If anything, the public should be glad that the electoral system in this country provides at least some chance for their voices to be heard!

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