Psephological Fantasies

I spend a lot of time on this site talking about denialism and delusion – mainly about climate change, but also people who believe in wind turbine sickness or that vaccination causes autism.

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.

About Stephen Luntz

I am a science journalist, specialising in Australian and New Zealand research across all fields of science. My book, Forensics, Fossils and Fruitbats: A Field Guide to Australian Scientists is out now through CSIRO Publishing. I am also a professional returning officer for non-government organisations. I'm very politically active, but generally try to restrict this blog to scientific matters.
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10 Responses to Psephological Fantasies

  1. Karen Jeans says:

    Recent Italian decision where court found MMR vaccine caused child’s autism (also reported in the Daily Mail):

    • Mo says:

      But you’ll notice Karen, that the Italian court did not hear any evidence from anyone who knows their arse from a hole in the ground. The trouble with anti-vaxers is that they’re too stupid to understand science … like Italian judges, apparently.

  2. Sounds about right. It shows how little they actually talk to people in the street. That means people not in the movement. My experience is that even people in the movement dont always do what they say they will. What morons to gamble like this. This is going to cost action on climate change and renewable energy big time.

  3. Karen, I am very keen not to let discussion of a post about an important and urgent issue be derailed by a casual side-reference I made. I will put up a post about the issue of MMR and autism as soon as a I get a chance (which may not be as soon as I would like) and we can thrash the issue out then.

  4. eternalist1 says:

    What about the Pirate Party? I’ve spent a small amount of time reading about them on their website, and as someone with a decent understanding of Senate voting and preference deals, I’m rather impressed.

    I don’t see why generally speaking, political parties can’t use online technology to empower their members when it comes to major decision making on policy or other issues (in this case, preferences deals).

    I welcome the manner in which the Pirate Party have decided their preferences; that is, in a transparent and rational fashion (which is better explained here, and one that allows all members to have a say.

    I don’t imagine that the PP will realistically take much of the primary vote at this federal election, but seeing as they have created a benchmark for utilising the Internet to encourage bottom-up organisation of political parties, I am hopeful that they’ll continue to do better in the future.

  5. Polly Morgan says:

    My theory on this is that the kind of people who are involved in genuine micro parties (as opposed to “front” micro parties, which is another issue entirely) have a campaigner manager/candidate’s psychology, which does not lend itself to really understanding or being good at preference negotiation. Although there are some people who can overlap on these roles, I think they need a very different psychological approach.

    I think good preference negotiators (apart from being numerate, of course) need to think about worst case scenarios, and what could happen if their preferences get distributed. They also need to think about not only what could happen with their own preference decisions, but make calculated guesses about what other parties will be doing with all their preference decisions.

    Whereas I think campaign managers and candidates really need to have a very optimistic outlook on their party, and their party’s chances. They have to convince themselves that they’re going to do very well and most likely win, in order to really be convincing sellers of their parties’ policies and chances of success. In many of the micro-parties, candidates are often also preference negotiators, or too heavily involved in preference decisions, due to their parties being small, often new, and having too many double-up on what should be separate roles, and I’ve found that many of them really can’t realistically judge their likely performance, and thus tend to over-inflate how they will poll, and the reality of their preferences being distributed never really sinks in for them.

  6. Terry, I’ve approved your comment so there is one from each side, but I really don’t want this derailed by what is very much a side point – Karen found her way to a post I wrote on the issue. If you or anyone else wants to discuss it, take it there.

    Polly, I had never thought of it like that, but I think you are absolutely right. A big problem, as smaller parties are unlikely to have that mix of skills.

    Eternalist1, yes I’d been meaning to say something about the Pirate Party. I was very doubtful about the Pirates prior to this election for two reasons. Firstly, while I agree that intellectual property laws badly need reform my impression was that they had a simplistic approach that would be disastrous if put into practice. I may have just been reading comments by their supporters, rather than their real agenda, but it didn’t bode well to me – people simplistic on their core issue are unlikely to have much subtlety on other topics. I was also concerned that in some countries the Pirate Parties seem to be single or dual issue parties, while in other places they are parties with a broad platform, using copyright reform and Internet freedom as tentpole issues to hold up the rest. I think there is absolutely a place for either of these things, but I think a lot of micro parties fall down when they try to be a bit inbetween, having an awkward combination of single issue and broad platform. I suspected that the Australian Pirates would fall into this gap.

    However, it does seem that I was wrong about this. I don’t agree with all their preference decisions, but they seem to have made them in a manner that fits well with their values and there is nothing that could be considered outrageous by any means. If they can get this right there is a fair chance they have other things right as well, and it may well be that they’ll prove to be a very healthy asset to Australia’s political ecology.

  7. takver says:

    An interesting post. Unfortunately major parties also make poor preferencing decisions, such as the ALP in Victoria in 2004 hoping to harvest minor party preferences and instead being harvested by Family First to elect Steve Fielding. It seems a similar event happened in the South Australia Senate race this year with both the ALP and Greens preferencing Family First over Xenophon’s running mate giving us another Family First climate denier: this time it is Bob Day. Xenephon on a number of measures is easier to work with than Family First in the Senate. I understand the threat to Sarah Hanson Young, but I don’t understand why Bob Day was preferenced over Xenephon’s running mate, Stirling Griff? Bob Day will likely be one of the important Senate crossbench votes Tony Abbott will rely upon heavily over the next 3 years. It sounds like someone in both the Greens and ALP camps stuffed up badly. Read more on this by Kevin Bonham

    The Animal Justice Party preferencing the Liberals over the Greens in the ACT, due to the Kangaroo cull, made me think twice about their politics. Simon Shiekh may have won that senate contest for the Greens with AJP preferences. So how do the AJP people way up Kangaroo cull as against the cost to the broader Australian biodiversity from coalition environment policy and inaction on climate change? I guess it is similar to people believing the carbon tax is a cost of living pressure (even though they were directly compensated) and voting for the Coalition on short term economic grounds when the biggest economic and environmental cost, even today, is the impact of climate change through extreme weather.

    • In regard to Stirling Griff v Bob Day, all I can say is this: Xenophon has a record in the past of running with people far more right wing than him second on the ticket. South Australia still has the awful Ann Bressington in parliament as a result. It is possible that Griff is as bad as Bob Day (no one I have spoken to seems to know). It is also possible that he isn’t, but that no one knew at the time and figured they wouldn’t take the risk. Or there could have been other motivations. Some people seem to be jumping to conclusions, but as far as I can see no one knows. However, it was not a case of the Greens putting Family First ahead of known progressives.

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