New boundaries give old result

by Chris Griffith
Published 4 October 1992 in The Sun-Herald


my face


The more things change, the more they stay the same is an adage that describes Queensland's September 19 election result, if somewhat accidentally.

The election brought with it five areas of electoral reform. There was the major surgery to electoral boundaries, liberalised voter eligibility criteria with a merged Commonwealth-State electoral roll, a brand new Electoral Commission, revamped election regulations in a new Electoral Act, and optional preferential voting (OPV).

Yet despite all this the composition of the next Queensland parliament will be identical to the last -- Labor 54 seats, Liberals 9, and Nationals 26.

Of course, there was some shift in voting patterns with the major parties loosing some ground to independents who increased their vote by 2 percent to around 7 percent statewide, and by over 5 percent in North Queensland.

The Liberals' 9 seats is again about one third the number won by the Nationals, who say the shadow ministry in a coalition in opposition should be composed of one Liberal to every three Nationals.

This logic does not mix with some observers, for example, North Sydney Independent Federal MP Ted Mack, who says people have forgotten the Liberal Party's state primary vote of around 21 percent is only 2-3 percent behind the National's vote.

He argues that based on the primary vote the Liberal and National Parties should have roughly the same representation in a shadow cabinet. He says the 3-1 ratio is "a farce", a reflection of the distorted parliamentary representation that occurs under an electoral system based on single-member constituencies.

There are, of course, other factors that continue to allow the Liberal Party to win only 10 percent of seats with 20 percent of the primary vote despite this state's massive electoral reform.

Most notable is the Liberal Party's inability to consolidate its power base outside of Brisbane.

There is evidence too that the Queensland ALP has begun to do what its Federal counterparts have managed so well. By concentrating on the marginals, it has maintained its 54 seats despite a slight statewide drop in primary support.

And where it mattered, in the seats Labor gained from the Liberals in 1989, Labor says it has increased its primary vote by 2.1 percent.

As for the National Party - it has regrouped under Mr Borbidge, an articulate and likeable leader, who has already distanced his party from the excesses of the Bjelke-Petersen era.

An interesting, but as yet unassessed aspect of the election is the degree to which Queenslanders took to the new optional preferential voting system.

For two years, Queensland's major and minor parties, who relish commanding voters how to allocate their preferences, have worried whether this EARC-recommended reform would deliver surprise results.

The Liberal and National parties were concerned about a loss of a tight preference exchange, the Labor party about a drying up of preferences from Green and left-wing independents, and the Democrats about receiving fewer preferences from all major parties.

So worried were they all that in April 1991, the Labor and National parties combined in state parliament and passed a motion to review optional preferential voting after this election, a review ordered before the system had been tried!

In fact Premier Wayne Goss told ABC radio two days before the election that his Government would review all aspects of the electoral system, including OPV.

So will the system survive, or will OPV be labelled by all political parties as defacto first-past-the-post and an unnecessary evil that allow voters too much latitude in varying their vote from that recommended by party how-to-vote cards?

Queensland's Electoral Commissioner, Mr Des O'Shea, says the commission's Education and Research Division will next year conduct a complete statistical analysis of how Queensland voters adapted to OPV.

"That will include who voted distributing all their preferences, who voted just first-past-the-post, who voted informally and why," he said.

Mr O'Shea said he presumed the commission's analysis of OPV would be completed before the Parliament began its review. One hopes the public will also have its say, particularly as it is the public who the system is designed to benefit.

However, the reality is that optional preferential voting had little impact on the final outcome at this election.

Although no detailed analysis is available, in five marginals (Albert, Aspley, Beaudesert, Caloundra, and Mansfield) only 9-12 percent of Liberal and National party voters decided not to allocate preferences.

In none of these would the result have changed had they done so, although in Albert the National Party would have been only 60 votes away from victory had the 555 Liberal voters who indicated no preference instead allotted their second preference to the National Party.

Labor sources say around 10 percent of their voters, too, did not allocate second and subsequent preferences.

Of course, OPV may in future have a vast impact. If NSW it took three elections before voters embraced it widely.

If that occurs here, it is predicable there will be cries that Queensland is returning to the days of 1942-1962, when elections were conducted on a first-past-the-post basis.

There is however a distinct difference, namely that under OPV voters will continue to decide whether they wish to allocate a second or subsequent preference. Under first-past-the-post, they have no choice.

It is this choice factor which means OPV would never be first-past- the-post, even where 100 percent of voters decided to cast only a primary vote.

One can only hope that when reviewing OPV the parliament will act in the public interest, not just in the combined interest of the three major parties.

Meanwhile, a major event in the Queensland Parliament's history could take place on Guy Fawkes Day, Thursday November 5.

EARC's long-awaited report on Parliamentary Committees, which will address the neglect of parliament's role in Queensland's political decision making, could be tabled that day.

A few government fuses may ignite should the report recommend major reform, but hopefully any explosion will be figurative and not literal.