Gaming the democracy system.

Why should the travails of a Queensland opposition MP be of interest to a non-partisan, non-political voter in Melbourne?

Peter Dutton, currently a liberal MP in the seat of Dickson, QLD, has been making news of late with his bid to move to another seat, and having failed to win preselection in the safe Liberal seat of McPherson, his ultimatum that the party find him a seat in which he won’t have to fight other candidates.

Mr Dutton’s intent has been shaped by a determination to vacate his current seat in Dickson, which after a redistribution has become “notionally Labor”. Dutton is unwilling to contest the seat, tried once to oust a local Liberal candidate in another seat, and now demands that he be given a free run in another safe seat without having to face down an incumbent.

Am I the only person in Australia who has problems with this?

Mr Dutton won Dickson from high-profile Labor MP Cheryl Kernot in 2001. Now I have no political training and have never quite understood the vicissitudes of electoral redistribution, but according to the Electoral Commission Queensland, the committee responsible for the recent redistribution is independent and impartial. Redistribution is an integral and regular component of our electoral system. Redistribution is enacted to ensure that electorates are of relatively equal impact on the outcome of any election – to make sure that each vote in any electorate has equal influence on the election of one candidate. In this instance, the seat of Dickson (which Dutton won by a mere 217 votes at the last election, after an 8% swing back to Labor) has lost some rural areas and gained some other areas that include a higher proportion of Labor voters. On the basis of the current boundaries, Dutton calculates that the seat would be very hard to win. He’d rather not take the chance of losing. Dickson is a seat that has chewed up several high profile politicians already and (understandably) Dutton doesn’t want to lose the seat.

But what does it mean that the seat is “nominally Labor”? What assumptions underlie that description? Are they fair assumptions, what do they say about the state of democracy in Australia, and how should politicians and voters respond?

“Nominally Labor” means that, based on previous election results and a basic understanding of the kinds of profiles of voters that lead to Liberal and Labor votes, it can be calculated that more voters in this seat will vote for Labor than Liberal. Sounds simple. It makes the assumptions:

  • A large proportion of voters will support the same party that they did last election.
  • Rural/metro profile, demographics and growth profile of an area can be used to predict voter intention.
  • The number of voters for whom issues like party and candidate policy, local interest and involvement of the candidate, past policies and campaign promises, and the ability to protest vote, will not affect the predicted outcome.
  • The results at the next election for any electorate can be reliably predicted.

What this says about the state of democracy in Australia is that it’s not really the voters who have the power in this arrangement. It’s the powerbrokers who say which politicians can stand in which seats; it’s the party financiers who decide which candidates should be supported and where losses should be cut; it’s the various commissions and boards responsible for electoral boundary definitions; and it’s the media pundits and commentators who do the sums to work out whether your electorate is a safe seat for either party or whether your politician ought to move to another seat.

The problem with gaming the system, of course, is that the system can still surprise you. People can get their sums wrong. Voters move between electorates and bring their predispositions with them. And voters may take unkindly to having a candidate imported from elsewhere on the assumption that the party elders know how you’re going to vote. Last election, Dickson was expected to be a shoe-in for Dutton; the huge swing against him, almost unseating him, took most commentators by surprise.

It appears that, at least in this instance, along with yourself as a voter, the candidates have little say as well. Recent branch stacking controversies in Victorian State government seats suggest that this kind of behaviour and attempt to subvert the democratic will of the people is endemic. In other words, where there is a system and incentive to win, people will try to game the system. We can only hope that in a populace becoming progressively more discerning about politics, that these attempts will be seen for what they are and rejected by the voters as cynical attempts to make your vote not count.

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