Hard Choices Down Under

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has called an election for the 21st of May. Mr. Morrison’s three-year term (the maximum length of time legally allowed in Australia before a new election must be called) was nearly at an end and he opted for the May 21st date. Very astute readers will have spotted that the 21st is a Saturday. One of the oddities for this native-born Canadian was to find, on arriving in the Antipodes, that elections are held on Saturdays. In Canada it is Mondays. In Britain Thursdays. I’m not sure why, but the idea of a weekend election struck me as odd. Now though, having been through lots of them over the last seventeen years, it feels sort of normal to have the election on a day when most aren’t working.

What Americans need to know is that Australia has very, very unusual voting arrangements. And I don’t simply refer to weekend elections. Of course, all electoral systems that you find across the Western democratic world carry with them their own particular incentives, ones that shape the landscape of party politics. It is just that Australia is an outlier in two important ways. First off, voting is compulsory in Australia, as it is in Belgium, Greece, and a few non-European democracies. Forcing citizens to vote is rare but hardly unique. The Aussies, however, take the practice seriously. You will be fined (a moderate amount) if you fail to cast a ballot. Voters can show up and spoil their ballots, or write some profanity across the page, and that counts as voting. But you cannot simply choose not to vote. One result is a voter turnout of 92 or 93 percent of eligible voters compared to Canadian and US results that these days rarely break 60 percent. A more intriguing result, one very odd for this native-born Canadian, is that political parties need spend no time at all in “getting out the vote” efforts. Think about that from the vantage of a political operative who can now focus effort elsewhere.

The other oddity is the voting system itself. For elections to the lower House of Representatives that provides the Prime Minister and government, Australia uses a preferential voting system sometimes described as AV or Ranked Choice voting. Instead of First-Past-the-Post’s ticking of just your one favoured candidate, under this system you must rank from top-to-bottom every candidate on the ballot. Basically, what happens then is that all number one choices, or first preferences, are tallied. If any candidate wins over fifty percent of the total number of voters in the district, he or she is elected. If not, the lowest-scoring candidate drops out and his or her second preferences are distributed to the tallies of the other candidates. You keep this up until some candidate wins 50 percent plus one of the votes cast.

A big upside of this Australian AV system, for me at least, is that it still delivers majoritarian outcomes just as its near cousin, the First-Past-the-Post system that is used in the US, UK and Canada, does. You still get two big, broad-church parties, the centre-left team and the centre-right team, and normally one of those will win a majority. For me, that is much preferable to what proportional voting systems give you in most of continental Europe—namely, small “kingmaker” parties with massively outsized sway. And worse than that, proportional systems empower the party elites. Because they are more or less designed to stop any one party from gaining a majority on its own, all the important bargaining that goes into forming some sort of coalition government happens after the election, away from any input by voters. In majoritarian systems, by contrast, the sausage-making takes place beforehand and has to be put to the voters.

So on first arriving here in Australia, I saw that this ranked-choice system delivered the benefits of the First-Past-the-Post system by giving you two main parties and majority governments, almost always. Yet it did that while also measuring whom a voter dislikes almost as much as whom he or she likes; and for plenty of voters, indicating whom they want to lose, their antipathy, is as important as signalling their preferred candidate.

However, there is a reason why only Australia and one small South Pacific island country use AV/Ranked Choice voting (though I believe that the state of Alaska is about to join or has joined this exclusive club). And that’s because it slowly dawned on me that this voting system acts as a protection racket for the two main parties. It is virtually impossible for voters to punish their own side of politics. Imagine you were, say, a Trump Republican in Wyoming under the Aussie system. At some point down your House of Representatives ballot you have to choose to rank Liz Cheney before or after the Democrat—one has to be above the other. Nor does it matter where you put any fringe candidates. To punish your own side of politics, you must vote for the other big party (by ranking it higher). You can’t stay home; you can’t vote for a joke or fringe or libertarian candidate; there is simply no way to avoid having to make this choice. The two big parties in Australia know this. You know that they know it. And they know that you know that they know. And they really couldn’t care less. Ranked-choice voting makes protest votes against your own side of politics brutally difficult. Throw in compulsory voting and it is more difficult still. The preponderance of disgruntled voters end up holding their noses and supporting their usual side.

In most past Australian elections, voters put one of the two main parties as their first preference, Labor on the political left or the Coalition on the political right. Yet entering into this upcoming May election, polls are showing that an all-time high percentage of voters will not be giving either of the two main parties their first preferences. It is nearly one-third of voters telling this to the pollsters—an astoundingly high figure showing immense dissatisfaction with both major parties. If, as is normally done, you assume that a voter’s first preference under Ranked Choice (who is marked ‘1’ on the ballot) equates to whom he or she would tick on a First-Past-the-Post ballot, then having a third of voters jettison the two big parties could translate into Armageddon for a major party in Canada or Britain or the US. But not in Australia.

Why is this happening? Well, as the nominally right-of-centre Coalition has been in office and governing Australia for the past nine years let me explain this immense dissatisfaction from the perspective of a conservative voter like me. The problem can be summed up as the “Angela Merkel effect.” The supposedly conservative Coalition governments, at least for the last seven years, have opted to park themselves an inch to the right of the Labor Party and its policies. So sign up to Net Zero? Tick. Spend more per capita during the pandemic than even Justin Trudeau? Tick. Fail to criticise any of the State Premiers who implemented some of the world’s toughest and most draconian lockdowns? Tick. Have a current Prime Minister who pooh-poohed the desire to uphold free speech policies, claiming free speech never created a job? Tick. Put it this way, since a little over half of the Coalition MPs decided back in 2015 to knife then-Prime Minister Tony Abbott, this supposedly conservative government has looked (to a lot of conservatives) like something between a Labor-lite and a Labor-heavy government. It has been pretty good on defence and national security issues. And that is about it. In the last two and a bit years, it spent so much money that I truly do not believe that a Labor government would have spent as much as the Coalition did. (Labor, after all, would have had a Coalition opposition.) When John Howard left office in 2005, Australia had zero federal government debt. Yes, zero. Since then, both parties have spent like drunken sailors, the difference being that sailors spend their own money not the taxpayers’. Australia’s debt to GDP is still pretty good by profligate world standards, but our debt trajectory is just about the world’s worst. We have a massive deficit and no real plans by the Coalition to rein it in.

And that takes us back to the upcoming May election. What do you do as a voter when your side of politics is beyond uninspiring? When it has been awful not just on economic issues and free speech but on social policies, the public broadcaster, and the universities. And yet the other side would clearly be worse (which, for conservatives in Australia, the Labor party most definitely would be). Do you hold your nose, close your eyes, lie back and think of England while voting for the Coalition candidate? Or do you decide to go for the circuit-breaker and actually preference the Labor candidate in the hope that after losing this election the Coalition might discover at least a scintilla of what it means to be a conservative party?

Remember, the voter must ultimately opt for one or the other. The “hold your nose” option delivers a slow-motion, ever greater shift to the left, a la the Frau Merkel example. For some time now I have advocated the circuit-breaker option. Game theory and evolution tell us that if you keep giving in to a runaway party leadership, it will keep doing what it’s been doing and it will be slow motion ruin. Better to take your medicine now and hope for party renewal after losing. But actually getting lifelong Coalition voters, many of whom are very dissatisfied, to preference Labor is brutally hard to do. For many, it is psychologically impossible.

All that said, the polls at present show Labor with a moderately comfortable lead. Were the Coalition to recant on Net Zero or pick a fight on any conservative big-ticket issue I think it would win big. But the partyroom—the elected MPs for the Coalition —is so split between “conservatives” and “moderates” that paralysis has set in. The result is that there is next to no difference in what the two main parties are offering.

 At the time of writing, the betting markets have the most likely outcome as a toss-up between a Labor win or a hung Parliament (ie, no majority government). Hung Parliaments are rare. If that were to transpire, a small fringe of Green and uber Left independent MPs will probably join a coalition with Labor to form a government that would be more to the left than a straight-up Labor one. But given the options this current Coalition government is offering its usual voters, it would deserve anything it got. It is quite a feat in a Ranked-Choice voting system to get your core voters angry enough to punish their own party.