The perils of preferences

WITH bookies predicting his seat could go to Labor at the March 11 election, Mt Lawley’s Liberal MP MICHAEL SUTHERLAND writes a midnight lament against the wonky vagaries of the preference system and the “horse trading” that’s let bizarre microparties slip into power with a minuscule sliver of the vote. 

THERE has been a lot said and written about the preference deal struck between the Liberal Party and One Nation for the state election.

Giving and taking preferences by parties is a way of ensuring  survival of various candidates and also of winning government.

To be elected to the Lower House a candidate must secure 50 per cent plus one, of the total votes cast. It is not unusual for a candidate to rely on preferences from another party, “to get over the line” and win.

The Labor Party almost always preferences the Greens and visa versa. The policies of these parties may and do differ in some major respects but that does not matter, they take each other’s preferences irrespective to maximise their position and win seats.

Perhaps the time has come to amend or move away from the preference system. Must we stick to the preference system simply because it has always been used?


The preference system can be changed to allow optional preferential voting.

This allows voters to decide if they want to have their preference allocated or not.

By numbering more than one box their preferences are distributed, but a vote is still valid if not all boxes are not numbered. At present, unless all boxers are numbered, the vote is invalid; that accounts for the majority of rejected ballots.

The National Party, Greens and minor parties would oppose this change as they are most reliant on having candidates elected on preferences.

If the preference system is scrapped, the “first past the post” system could  be introduced.

The candidate with the highest primary vote wins irrespective if they have got more than 50 per cent of the vote. There is no distribution of preferences.

This stops all the pre-election “horse trading” between parties and makes voters decide which candidate and party they really want to represent them without going through a convoluted count and without parties having to do “sweetheart deals” which can come back and bite them.

At the 2013 state election the ALP retained the seats of Maylands and Midland after trailing the Liberal Party on first preferences by 97 and 873 respectively. In the 2016 federal election Jeremy Quinn, Liberal, led Tim Hammond , Labor, by 4133 primary votes and lost. These seats were won by  Labor on Green preferences.

To get changes to the system the Electoral Act need to be amended and unless a majority can be obtained in both houses nothing can be done. It would be up to the Liberal and Labor Parties to agree in order to get such a change through.

In the case of micro parties in state Upper House elections, members are elected on a quota system.

The stitching up of preference deals with other micro parties and taking the residual votes from the Libs, Labor and Greens, after a quota for a seat is reached by them, means that a micro party can win a seat with a miniscule first preference vote.

Parties can win a seat after losing their deposit, which is money paid by candidates to the Electoral Commission to stand in an election.

Unless the candidate gets a certain number of votes their deposit is forfeited.

It is laughable for a candidate to be elected on a miniscule primary vote, even more so if that person lost their deposit.

The preference system rendered the NSW Upper House unmanageable. Prior to 2003 there were no less than nine minor parties represented. In the case of NSW legislative change occurred, and micro parties and individuals cannot automatically pass on preferences to each other.  The number of parties contesting the Legislative Council fell from 81 in 1999 to 16 in 2003.

Pundits are now predicting that the same problems could beset the WA Upper House.

We could be in for a rough ride causing more disillusionment by the general public about the efficiency of Parliament.

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