Monday, September 12, 2016

Optional Preferences and Pauline Hanson

At the recent 2016 Australian federal election, the right-wing anti-immigration and anti-Islam One Nation Party performed remarkably strongly, winning four Senators and coming fourth in the nationwide Senate vote, with 4.3%. The party was formed in 1997 by Pauline Hanson, a Member of the House of Representatives from Queensland elected as an independent, after she was dis-endorsed by the Liberal Party for controversial comments about Indigenous Australians and government benefits.

Ms Hanson was defeated in the seat of Blair at the 1999 federal election, but unsuccessfully contested elections for a variety of offices after that, sometimes as an Independent and sometimes as a One Nation candidate. In some cases, she came very close to election, but it is only now that she has won a seat in the Senate, with 9.2% of the vote for One Nation in Queensland (Malcolm Roberts, Hanson's running mate was also elected).

With this strong a result, attention has turned towards the next Queensland state election, which is scheduled to take place in 2018. Polls show the minority Labor government of Premier Annnastacia Palaszczuk is currently in a tight race against the opposition Liberal National Party. One Nation's recent revival in support in the state, however, could potentially have a substantial impact on this election.

The other remarkable thing about the next Queensland election will be that it will take place under a somewhat different electoral system. Earlier this year, the Palaszczuk government changed the electoral system from optional to compulsory preferential voting. This means that voters must number every box on the ballot paper to cast a formal vote. From 1992 to now, voters were permitted to number as many or as few boxes as they liked. In the event that the count reached a stage where a voter had not marked preferences between the remaining candidates, that ballot was placed in the 'exhausted' pile, and exited the count.

The question now is; what impact will the change to compulsory preferential voting have on One Nation's chances at this election? One Nation has performed strongly in the state in the past; they won 11 seats, and 22% of the votes, at the 1998 election under optional preferences.

Do preferences help or hurt Pauline Hanson?

The strongest ever performance for One Nation in any sort of election was the party's result in the Queensland election 1998. The party won 22% of the first preference vote, and eleven seats, coming close to the balance of power.

What would this election have looked like under compulsory preferential voting? In order to do this, I assumed that exhausted votes would have flowed in the same way as those cast with preferences (for example, if at a certain count the preferences of Candidate C 40% of preferences went to Candidate A, 40% to Candidate B and 20% exhaust, I distributed 50% of Candidate C's votes to A and the same to B).

I looked at twelve seats in the course of conducting this analysis; the six most marginal seats won by Labor, and the six most marginal won by the National Party, where the final preference count was between that party and One Nation. The results of this analysis are below.

Seat Party held by OPV margin CPV margin Seat Party held by OPV margin CPV margin
Crows Nest NAT +0.9 +1.5 Bundaberg ALP +2.0 +0.6
Gympie NAT +1.7 +3.7 Cairns ALP +2.3 +1.5
Callide NAT +2.3 +3.3 Ipswich ALP +3.4 +3.3
Burnett NAT +8.8 +2.3 Kallangur ALP +3.9 +2.0
Hinchinbrook NAT +8.6 +9.8 Murrumba ALP +5.0 +3.8
Cunningham NAT +8.9 +10.1 Waterford ALP +5.2 +4.0

As can be seen, CPV tightens margins in seats eventually won by Labor, and increases margins in seats eventually won by the National Party. This intuitively makes sense; preferences from centre-right parties would be expected to flow to the right-wing candidate ahead of the centre-left candidate, and thus the simulated stronger flow of these preferences would be expected to strengthen the right-wing candidate.

This is from an election where One Nation were very prominent, though. In the 2015 election, Ms Hanson ran only for the seat of Lockyer. In this seat, Ms Hanson received 26.7% of the primary vote, to 33.7% for Liberal National incumbent Ian Rickuss. The final count resulted in Mr Rickuss narrowly holding the seat, winning 50.2% to 49.8% for Ms Hanson. Oddly enough, Ms Hanson received the preferences of 41% of Labor voters, compared to 29% that went to Mr Rickuss and 29% that exhausted. Compare this to the result for the same electorate in 1998. One Nation candidate Peter Prenzler received just 16.5% of Labor preferences, against 45.4% for the National candidate.

The difference may well have had something to do with the lower statewide profile of One Nation in 2015. The party ran only eleven candidates and they had not won any seats at the state or national level for a long period of time. Opponents of the incumbent LNP government decided upon a campaign message of 'number every box, and put the LNP last'. In Lockyer, such a vote would have gone  to Ms Hanson. Something similar may have happened in the Maranoa House of Representatives seat, where One Nation received a roughly even split of preferences from the votes for lower candidates, despite 65% of these votes coming from Labor and the Greens (the AEC does not have exact figures on where these preferences came from).

It may be that the increased profile of One Nation will hurt them in some way; increased awareness of the party's support by left-leaning voters, combined with the LNP not being in government (and thus not so antagonistic to the left), might lead to them preferencing the LNP as a lesser of two evils.

Of course, the situation would be somewhat different based on the One Nation votes cast in 2016. The party received a much lower share of the vote than in their 1998 result, though admittedly there were many more parties on the Senate ballot paper than in the average Queensland state electorate. Nonetheless, even in the House districts that the party contested, the highest vote share that they managed was 17.8% in Maranoa with seven other candidates. No One Nation candidate receiving this vote was elected in 1996. It may well just be that, on these support levels, One Nation would be unable to win any seats, compulsory preferences or no compulsory preferences. This would be made even more likely given that One Nation's most prominent member, Pauline Hanson, has six years in the Senate to go.

It is rather hard to predict precisely what the impact of the change to compulsory preferential voting will be. The LNP were able to get away with telling voters to 'just vote 1' under optional preferences. Under the new system, their voters will have to choose between supporting a partisan enemy (Labor) or an radical party which they could feel close to in a partisan sense; evidence from 2001 suggests that most voters opted for the latter. On the other hand, in seats where Labor preferences are distributed, compulsory preferences could mean a stronger flow of Labor preferences to the more moderate LNP candidate; whether Labor voters will do that is debatable, though, given that they do not appear to have done that in Lockyer, and perhaps not in Maranoa.

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