At the moment however, I am dealing with the consequences of a different form of delusion – psephological. (Psephology, from the Greek word for pebble, is the study of elections, particularly the numbers side). Australian social media is currently lighting up about the decision of various small parties their supporters thought of as progressive to direct Senate preferences to far right wing groups such as One Nation, Australia First and the Liberal Democratic Party.
Those who have engaged in this behaviour include The Wikileaks Party, The Sex Party, The Animal Justice Party and Stop CSG. There are a lot of reasons why this has occurred, and I don’t want to get into all of them, but a major one is that key members of these parties expect to do very well. They think they can do deals with rightwing groups in safety because they will outpoll these groups and inherit preferences, rather than dropping out early and helping elect someone directly opposed to them.
These parties are getting hammered on the ethics, but something also needs to be said about their chances. With the exception of The Sex Party, none of these have run before, so they really have no idea how well they will do. Neither have I, but I do know one thing: New parties always over-estimate their vote.
I first encountered this phenomenon the first time I handed out How-To-Vote cards, at the Thomastown By-election. Standing next to me was someone handing out for a candidate of the (Australian) Republican Party. She told me there was an “80% chance” her candidate would be successful. From memory he did not break 1%, and certainly not 2.
That is an extreme example, but one sees lesser cases all the time. No one founds a party if they expect it to do badly, and we all live in bubbles where the people we encounter are more likely to support our values, giving a false sense of how many people will vote for us. However, winning votes as a new party is very, very hard.
The first Senate race in which the Greens ran in Victoria was 1996. By this time there were Greens in three state and one territory parliament and two Green senators from WA. We were part of a global movement with parliamentarians in more than a dozen countries, in coalition governments in two. Our leader was Bob Brown, a nationally recognised figure. The Victorian lead Senate candidate was Peter Singer, a controversial figure certainly, but one with a global profile, generally described as the founder of the animal liberation movement. We had recently contested two by-elections, scoring 20% and 28%, had more than 500 paid up members, candidates in 20 lower house seats and a budget of $150,000. We expected to get at least 5%. Instead we got 2.9. It took 14 years of hard sweat building up the party until we won our first senator in Victoria. A colleague from those days quoted Max Weber that politics is “slow boring through hard boards”. Parties that want to be taken seriously need to be willing to put in the long term effort if they want to make an impact, not rely on lottery short cuts.
The easiest contrast is with the Animal Justice Party. I don’t know how many paid up members they have (free memberships don’t count for much when it comes to campaign activity) but I think they have just two lower house candidates in Victoria (the website does not list any, but I know they have them in Melbourne and Batman). Their state and national leaders may have some profile in vegan communities, but probably somewhat less than Peter Singer or Bob Brown.
Yet they expect to get more than the 3% the Greens scored in 1996. I realise that support for animal issues has risen over the last 17 years, but seriously? That much? There are parties with similar platforms in other countries, but only in the Netherlands have they made it to parliament – in that case scoring a little over 1% after years of building up from the local level.
The inevitable result of this delusion is that all these parties will get votes much lower than they expect, and also much lower than the right-wing parties they have directed preferences to. They will be eliminated, and the votes they do get above the line in the Senate will increase the chances of parties with little or nothing in common with their values getting elected over those that are close to them.
Unfortunately, the delusions of some of their members are at least as impenetrable as those of the climate denialists, who will often be the beneficiaries of these views.
Addendum: Some people have pointed to the Greens deal with Palmer and say “you do it to”. The Greens have put Palmer ahead of the Liberals. On policy this is an entirely defensible position. I am not aware of any policy where Palmer is further from the Greens than the Coalition, and there are several (most notably refugees) where he is much, much closer.
More generally however, it is true that there is no clear line over what preference swaps are acceptable and which are not. It is quite easy to say “you should never do deals over preferences” but reality has a way of intruding. I’ve been the campaign manager for local government candidates faced with a choice between two independent candidates that were really hard to choose between – one was better on certain issues while the other was better on others. In a case where you’ve been arguing for a while and are starting to look for a coin to toss and one calls up and offers to direct preferences to you if you place them above the other it takes a remarkable level of ideological purity not to take the offer. I’ve also sometimes been part of agreements where we went to candidates we probably would not have in return for their preferences. However, in every case I have been involved in, and almost every case I am aware of for the Greens, the candidate we have directed to was not drastically worse than those we were putting behind.* Some decisions did make me feel a bit uncertain, but in every case I thought “If I wake up on Sunday morning and X beat Y because of our preferences I wouldn’t feel like I had done something terrible.”
I very much doubt that those who have placed Pauline Hanson ahead of not only the Greens, but also Labor and Liberal, can say the same thing.
*Yes there have been cases where we discovered things about candidates later than made us wish we had not dealt with them. But that also happens when you make decisions in the absence of any negotiations. Where preferencing is compulsory, such as in the Senate, you go with the information you have at the time.