Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Preferential voting serves up surprises in Oz

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BRISBANE -- Take a motoring enthusiast, a footballer known as "the brick with eyes'' and a billionaire man who wants to rebuild the Titantic and you have the makings of an interesting Australian barbecue.

Put them in the national Senate and you might have a problem.

It's one Australia will have to deal with shortly after the federal election held on Sept. 7 produced one of the most fascinating results for the upper house ever seen in this country.

Micro-parties, which included people who wanted to put Coke in school water fountains and build bullet trains, found themselves elevated to the plush red leather seats of the house of review.

The Motoring Enthusiasts Party and the Australian Sports Party were two of the standouts who will field a candidate representing what could only be described as "boutique interests" on the federal political landscape.

Wayne Dropulich, for example, is a gridiron playing engineer whose Australian Sports Party appears to have no policies other than advocating more sport in an already sports-obsessed nation.

With just 0.22 per cent of the vote, Dropulich managed to elbow aside the candidate from the century-old Australian Labor Party, which won more than 12 per cent of the vote.

One of the nation's most respected election analysts, Anthony Green, who has presided over numerous election nights on the national broadcaster the ABC, calls the victories historic, not merely for Australia, but for "world electoral history.''

The strange results are a direct manifestation of Australia's preferential-voting system, in which voters mark their first, second, third, etc. preferences. In the event the first preference fails to win a clear majority, 10 second preferences are tallied and so on until a clear winner emerges. It can -- and just did -- happen that a candidate for a fringe party can muster more "lesser" preferences than a candidate for an established party and win election despite having very little "first-preference" support.

So it is possible, as Green points out, that the Motoring Enthusiasts candidate Ricky Muir managed to turn .05 per cent of the votes into 14.3 per cent by harvesting the preferences from an astonishing 25 parties.

More alarmingly, both the sports and motoring parties managed to secure the preferences of both Family First (a socially conservative party) and the Australian Sex Party (a party which, as the names suggests, has a more libertine view).

Billionaire Clive Palmer, who himself has possibly won a lower house seat (counting still continues two weeks after the election) has secured one of his Palmer United Party candidates in the Senate in the form of Glenn Lazarus, a footballer formally known affectionately across the nation as "the brick with eyes.''

The amiable Lazarus freely acknowledges he will have to take lessons on the business of governing from Palmer, a colourful political operative and mining billionaire who has a range of interests including airships and rebuilding the Titanic.

Australia's reaction to the rise of the micros has been mixed with some suggesting the upper house has been turned into "a barnyard" while others marvel at the wonders of the democratic process.

Ron Boswell, an aging Queensland Conservative Senator who retires next year, is unapologetically appalled.

It's not that micro-parties should be denied their democratic right to representation, he says. It's that the democratic process is clearly being subverted when ordinary Australians vote for one political view, and watch their vote seep across the political divide in the preference process to land in a party with a contradictory view.

Canada appears to be pondering the pros and cons of the preference system supporters insist is the more sophisticated way of dealing with democratic elections.

It might well be, but there is wisdom in that ancient maxim:

"Be careful what you wish for.''

 

Michael Madigan is the Free Press correspondent in Australia. He writes mostly about politics for the Brisbane-based Courier Mail.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 20, 2013 A15

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