Inside Story

Has the preference whisperer sealed his own fate?

Victorian premier Daniel Andrews has come out of the election with the upper hand against the Legislative Council’s crowded crossbench

Paul Rodan 14 December 2018 897 words

Trump card: the premier has the option of changing the voting system. Alan Lam/Flickr

With the count for the Victorian Legislative Council complete, the full picture of the re-election of Daniel Andrews’s Labor government is clear. It is undeniably an impressive achievement.

In the current climate, the re-election of any government with an increased majority isn’t common, and speculation that a fear campaign based around law and order would leave Andrews vulnerable proved to be misplaced. Nor did Labor suffer any electoral penalty for a series of ministerial scandals, or for the Red Shirts affair, when government funding was misused for political campaign purposes. With politicians now held in such low esteem, a cynic might say that “scandals” are regarded as business as usual.

Instead, Andrews was able to run a campaign on his terms, focusing on infrastructure. I’m among those reluctant to identify gratitude as a motivator in voter behaviour, but the premier’s reputation for “getting things done” does seem to have been rewarded. At state level, where infrastructure and service delivery constitute a major part of the position description, it proved a winning formula.

The government secured fifty-five seats in the lower house, delivering a majority of twenty-two. In what could be construed as triumphalist greed, there is talk of Labor challenging the result in Ripon, retained by the incumbent Liberal by fifteen votes. Ironically, this was the Coalition’s most marginal seat before the election and still is. Significantly, it is located outside the metropolitan area, where the movement towards Labor was far less pronounced.

Nearly as impressive as Labor’s lower house result was its performance in the Legislative Council. At the 2006 election, the first involving proportional representation, Labor secured nineteen out of forty places and was able to establish a sort of ideological majority with the (three) Greens to get legislation passed. In 2010, the Coalition took government with majorities in both houses, but in 2014, with the preference-whispering industry energetically exploiting group voting tickets, or GVTs, the newly elected Andrews government won fourteen, the Coalition sixteen and the Greens five. Beneficiaries of GVTs shared the remaining five places, and at least two of them were needed to vote with Labor and the Greens to deliver a majority in the chamber. While upper house obstruction was not a major issue in the government’s first term, the situation was probably less than ideal.

Andrews is much better off in his second term. Major parties are normally at risk from GVT-related “gaming,” but Labor’s vote in the upper house was high enough to avoid such a fate; it won two places in six regions and three in two, for a total of eighteen. By contrast, a weakened Coalition felt the full force of preference whispering and was reduced to eleven members, the same number held by the assorted members on the crossbench, and possibly some sort of new low for an official opposition.

On the statewide mathematics, Labor secured 45 per cent of positions from 39 per cent of the vote; the Coalition got a fair 27.5 per cent from a vote of 29 per cent; the Greens’ 9.25 per cent of the vote secured them a single spot; and the Liberal Democrats will have two members in the chamber — from a vote of 2.5 per cent. The big winner was the Derryn Hinch Justice Party, finishing with three positions (7.5 per cent of positions in the chamber) from a vote of 3.75 per cent.

While the election of those with minuscule support continues to irritate, it remains the case that 22 per cent of the electorate opted for a party or group other than Labor, the Coalition or the Greens and were rewarded with 25 per cent of the positions. But the superficial attractiveness of this statistic is rendered dubious by the low primary votes of most of those actually elected. Even if GVTs remain, the case for a primary vote threshold for election is surely strong.

Daniel Andrews has never indicated any interest in addressing the GVT issue and, having done so well in this election, there is no immediate self-interested case for change. The varied crossbench — Derryn Hinch Justice Party; Liberal Democrats; the Greens; Shooters, Fishers and Farmers; Animal Justice; the Reason (formerly Sex) Party; Sustainable Australia and Transport Matters — certainly provides a potential majority on an issue-by-issue basis, with the socially progressive Greens/Reason/Animal Justice combo (which would give the government twenty-one votes out of forty) just one example from several possibilities.

And in the event that Andrews encounters upper house problems, he has a trump card — the threat of abolishing GVTs and thus putting preference whisperer maestro Glenn Druery (and his accidental MPs) out of business. It is difficult to find any credible defence for this discredited system, and the relevant legislation would surely attract Coalition, Greens and Reason Party (whose sole MP survived despite GVTs) support. While crossbenchers with the balance of power usually hold the superior bargaining position, the Victorian cohort would do well to remember that Andrews could access his version of the nuclear option.

Daniel Andrews enters his second term in a position of considerable strength, with observers routinely predicting a further victory in 2022. But given some of the huge electoral swings in recent times, it is unlikely that the re-elected premier will succumb to such hubris. The Liberals, who will have governed the state (in coalition) for just four years out of twenty-three by 2022, will surely be hoping that he succumbs to something. •