Federal election: Do preference deals matter? Who’s making them? And how are they allocated?

Home Australia News Federal election: Do preference deals matter? Who’s making them? And how are they allocated?
Federal election: Do preference deals matter? Who’s making them? And how are they allocated?

Every time a federal election rolls around there’s a big kerfuffle in political circles about preference deals among parties.

It can give a bit of an insight into who parties would prefer to share the parliament with, or what the faceless men and women of Australian politics have been up to.

So why do the parties care so much? Do they even matter? And what should you know before you vote? 

First, a crash course on preferences

For your vote to be counted in the lower house (that is, for the House of Representatives), you have to number every single box.

So you put a 1 next to the person you would most like to win.

You then put a 2 next to your second choice, and a 3 next to your third choice, and so on until you run out of names on the paper.

Preferential voting means that the person who wins the most ‘first preference’ votes might not win the seat.

If a candidate wins more than 50 per cent of the first preference vote, it’s game over. They have won.


This is where the fun starts

But if nobody gets over 50 per cent, then preferences start being tallied.

The second preferences of the candidate who came last are then dished out to the remaining candidates.

That process is repeated with each losing candidate, from the bottom up, until those votes push someone over 50 per cent.

Here’s a very simple example

Say there are three candidates in a seat.

If the Liberal candidate receives 45 per cent of the first-preference vote, the Labor candidate gets 40 per cent, and the Greens candidate gets 15 per cent, the vote will go to preferences.

The Greens candidate is knocked out, and all of their second preferences go to Labor.

The Labor candidate would win with 55 per cent of the vote, while the Liberal candidate remains on 45 per cent.

The idea is that 55 per cent of voters would ‘prefer’ the Labor candidate to the Liberal candidate.

No contest is that simple — but that’s pretty much how it works.

So what role to the parties play?

To be crystal clear — only you, the voter, get to decide where your preferences go.

But parties try and influence how you decide which candidates you preference through their how-to-vote cards.

A voter puts a Senate paper into a ballot box for the 2016 federal election.
Everyone is free to vote however they choose.(ABC News: Kathy Lord)

Many parties and candidates will station volunteers near polling booths on election day, handing out instruction cards on how to vote for their candidate.

The cards will often have an image of a ballot paper, with a ‘1’ next to their candidate, and numbers in the rest of the boxes too.

The ABC’s election analyst, Antony Green, said they serve two purposes.

The first is to remind you to fill out all the boxes so that your vote counts.

“What they’re trying to make sure is that people fill in the ballot paper correctly and number all the squares.”

Secondly, they aim to send preferences in the direction that will work best for them politically.

It might mean if they lose, their preferred alternative is more likely to win the seat.

“For the minor parties whose preferences are more important, they might be trying to influence preferences,” he said.

“And of course, the major parties talk to minor parties to try and get minor parties to direct preferences to them in the lower house, or do a trading deal with the upper house.”

But again, it is just a suggestion.

While some voters clearly follow the suggestion, everyone is free to vote however they choose.

But what are the ‘preference deals’?

Political parties, unsurprisingly, love to play politics.

At every election there are suggestions that backroom deals have been cut between major parties and minor parties to send preferences to one another.

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How the United Australia Party’s vast campaign budget could impact the federal election(Peter McCutcheon)

For example, at the last election in 2019, the Coalition was reported to have struck a deal with Clive Palmer to swap preferences around the country.

The UAP would suggest its voters preference the Coalition second, and the Coalition would suggest its voters give second preferences to the UAP.

For the Coalition, it would mean UAP votes would flow to its candidates in tight lower-house races where they may be needed to edge ahead of Labor.

And for the UAP, while it was unlikely to win any lower house seats, it bolstered their chances of picking up a seat in the Senate.

As it turns out, the UAP’s preferences did not prove decisive to any individual race for the Coalition, and the UAP did not wind up with a Senate seat.

The Coalition did benefit from lots of anti-Labor advertising coming from the UAP, but that’s a separate matter.

What preference deals have parties made among themselves?

No deals have been outright confirmed in this election, but there are lots of parties talking about what they will and won’t do with preferences.

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