Preferences in the 2004 federal election


An open letter to my fellow ALP members about the deeply misguided Senate preference manoeuvres in the 2004 federal election campaign. A cry from the heart and an expression of bitter anger

Bob Gould

As it happens, in March this year I notched up my 50th year of ALP membership. I joined the Labor Party in 1954 as a youth of 17, in the middle of the battle with the Groupers.

In all my 50 years of ALP membership and activity I’ve never seen anything quite as dishonourable and stupid as the decision of the party managers in several states to preference the essentially right-wing group, Family First.

A question of process arises. Who in the hell makes those kinds of decisions? They should be made by the federal executive of the ALP, but clearly the wheeling and dealing was delegated to individuals, mainly from the right, and indeed from the most backward sections of the right, in each state.

The process of making such decisions is clearly deeply flawed. One issue is the dishonourable nature of the decision. The Greens have every right to be bitterly angry and disillusioned with the ALP and its managers.

On the face of it the Greens had a preference deal with the ALP, which was announced with great fanfare, and it appeared to involve an ultimate preference exchange between the Greens and Labor before right-wing parties.

The parliamentary leader, Mark Latham, ought to be very angry, because on the face of it he has been roped into a dishonourable tearing up of an agreement, to which he was very publicly party — the agreement with the Greens.

After the event of the deal with the Greens, whoever made the arrangements in the ALP to quietly preference Family First before the Greens engaged in an act of political bastardry of the highest order.

The consequences of this decision will be disastrous. The Greens, a formation likely to be around for a very long time, and growing steadily to occupy all of the electoral space to the left of the ALP have little reason to trust anything ALP preference negotiators say to them ever again.

The Greens, in fact, kept their part of the bargain and behaved honourably. On the basis of Labor’s Tasmanian forest policy, the Greens ended up giving all their preferences to the ALP in all marginal seats and an ultimate preference to Labor before the conservatives in the Senate. For instance, Greens preferences will elect the ALP’s Michael Foreshaw to the sixth Senate position in NSW.

The argument put forward by the shadowy ALP preference negotiators, who made the ultimate decision, that they could not anticipate the electoral consequences, does not stand up at all.

In a proportional representation vote, like the Senate, with the quota being about 14.3 per cent, the last position to be elected is always unpredictable, depending on the votes for small parties and the parts of quotas left by Labor and the Coalition after they have elected their first two senators.

(I’m acutely aware of the vagaries for the last position in a proportional representation ballot for six positions. In 1971, in a much-commented-on ballot for six federal conference delegates from the ALP in NSW to the vital federal conference before Whitlam was elected, I won the last position by one vote over half a quota – the narrowest margin possible. One vote over half a quota is all that’s needed for the last position, which is a sound reason for never treating preferences in such a situation as bloody-mindedly and as casually as the ALP managers did on this occasion.)

If Labor preferences right-wing parties, the possibility always exists that the vote can build up to elect a right-wing candidate, in this instance Family First.

The basic principle should be that there are no enemies on the left, and preferences should go first to other groups on the left and then centre formations such as the Democrats.

For the many thousands of Labor Party members, including me, who worked hard on election day to elect Labor, that kind of preference approach is a principle, in addition to which it’s the only practical thing to do if you want to beat the conservatives in the Senate.

With six to be elected, even if the Labor and Green vote drops there should be no difficulty in Labor and the Greens finishing three-all with the Coalition and other conservatives.

The electoral stupidity of the people who made the preference arrangements in the Senate for the ALP is demonstrated by the result of these manoeuvres, which has been to hand control of the Senate to Howard and Family First.

The outrageous thing about this handing over of the Senate to the Liberals and Family First is that it wasn’t necessary. A simple ultimate preference exchange with the Greens would have got a three-all result between the two sides of politics and led to a deadlocked Senate.

The second aspect of it is the completely artificial way that it builds a neanderthal, fundamentalist, right-wing Protestant party into a major force very quickly.

Thankfully, the ongoing demographic reality in Australia is that notional Protestant religious allegiance, which is at the core of the conservative side of Australian politics, is steadily declining. Notional Protestants are only about 30 per cent of the population, when they were 70 per cent 40 years ago.

The number of Australians who either say they have no religious beliefs, or don’t state a religious belief in the census, has gone up from nearly nothing to about 30 per cent, the number of Catholics is stable at about 30 per cent and Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Jews and Eastern Orthodox combined have gone up to 10 per cent.

There is certain revival of Protestant fundamentalism in outer suburban areas of the big cities, but it’s a narrowly middle-class phenomenon, and very right-wing politically. It takes its inspiration from the reactionary association of fundamentalist Protestant religion and right-wing politics in the United States.

Mainly because of the ongoing demographic realities, Australian politics hasn’t, until this election, taken the US shape in this respect. Fred Nile has been battling to bring fundamentalist Protestant religion into politics for 25 years, with minimal success.

Suddenly, the Family First preference deal has enabled these religious fundamentalists to leap from 1.2 and 2 per cent real votes to artificial quotas of 14 per cent, partly with the aid of Labor and Democrat preferences.

As a secular, leftist, agnostic Australian of Irish Catholic cultural background, I find this sudden move to strengthen US-style Protestant fundamentalism in Australian politics deeply offensive.

As many observers have commented, Mark Latham and the Labor Party conducted a very vigorous and effective, and objectively rather leftist, election campaign (compared with the past 25 years), but the economic conjuncture was not favourable, the conservative propaganda was effective, and we lost the election.

It was a serious loss, but the basic Labor-Green vote of 47.5 per cent (preferred) is intact. The electoral shift was among the 5 per cent in the middle of Australian society who tend to shift from left to right and back again.

By far the worst feature of this election result is the blind surrender of control of the Senate to the Liberals and Family First. Despite all the current sweetness and light, the Coalition government will use all its increased influence and power in the Senate to attack the trade union movement.

The trade union movement should crucify, politically speaking, the shadowy Labor Party managers who made the preference deal. These people have ensured that the trade unions will have to fight for their interests from a very defensive set of circumstances, with the Liberals in control of the Senate.

PS. While we’re at it, we should never forget that Labor preferences unfortunately helped to elect the conservative Democrat, the leader of the right wing in the Democrats, over the Greens in WA, three years ago. Labor members and supporters, and Greens members and supporters, throughout the country should raise hell to ensure that the kind of dishonourable bastardry involved in the ALP preferencing Family First over the Greens never happens again.

Left activity in the Labor Party

October 18, 2004

The situation from a socialist point of view ebbs and flows in the Labor Party. My polemical material on the Green Left list and elsewhere hasn’t been directed mainly at what socialists should do in the ALP or the Greens. It has been directed mainly against a mindless exposure strategy towards the ALP and the Greens, adopted particularly by the DSP and the SEP, and especially towards leftists who continue in the ALP.

As Norm points out, I am indeed an individual with a few associates, but I have been around labour movement politics for a very long time, I know a large number of people, and I have a loud voice.

It’s rather early days yet to talk about rebuilding a serious socialist grouping in the Labor Party. I have chosen to adopt the medium of open letters taking up arguments on key political questions, which isn’t a bad way to proceed in the current circumstances. I distribute these letters very widely in ALP circles and on the web.

The most relevant of these letters to this discussion are my comment on the NSW local government elections two items in advance of the federal elections, commenting on a socialist approach to those elections, including preference policy, and going back a bit further, a description of one sort of thing I do in the Labor Party when there’s an opportunity.

I’m open to advice as to what socialists should do in the Labor Party, and I’m interested that Norm now concedes that the Labor Party is a reasonable place to engage in socialist activity.

On the basis of past experience of the DSP, which captured the 1971 Socialist Left in NSW and then acquiesced in its liquidation, and which had some influence in a small publication called Labor Militant, with which myself and some associates formed a cautious united front in the mid-1980s, it’s not my understanding that the DSP has historically been very patient in Labor Party work. Of course things can change, but a good start for the DSP would be to stop abusing leftist ALP members for the very act of being in the ALP.

In relation to the Greens, socialists I know who are active in the Greens are cautious in their activities. They have the awful skeletons lying in front of them of the DSP’s clamourous and disastrous activities in the Nuclear Disarmament Party, and in the formative stages of the Greens, particularly in NSW.

In both instances, the DSP took what were incipient mass movements and attempted to take total organisational control of them at a very early stage, with a big clamour about democracy, with disastrous results.

With those experiences in front of them and behind them, it’s my impression that socialists in the Greens are justifiably fairly cautious in how they proceed.

Obviously, all these questions are up for sensible discussion, and that discussion should proceed without too much rancour.



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