A “libertarian” goes down

Results at last are final from the New South Wales state election, held just over three weeks ago (see earlier report here). The numbers in the lower house, the Legislative Assembly, have been clear for a long time – a government lead of 12 seats over Labor and an overall majority of three – but the Legislative Council was only finalised yesterday.

The government won eight of the 21 seats on offer, to leave it with 17 in total (11 Liberals and six Nationals). Labor won seven, keeping its total at 14, and the Greens two, bringing them down to four (and now to three, since one of their existing members has deserted). One Nation rejoined the Council after a long absence with two seats, and the Shooters and Animal Justice will each have two seats, winning one each this time.

The Christian Democrats failed to win a seat for the first time in their history, although they still have one member elected in 2015. The Liberal Democrats also missed out, with former senator David Leyonhjelm failing in his bid to transfer to state politics.

The reason the upper house takes so long to count is that it is a preferential ballot: inefficient practices in counting and ballot organisation were entrenched by a misguided constitutional amendment in 1995, so with twenty tickets competing there is a lot of work involved.

And almost all of it is completely unnecessary. The impact of preferences is minor at best; this year, a straight Sainte-Laguë calculation on the primary vote totals (which can be done with a spreadsheet in thirty seconds) would have produced exactly the same result, except that the Christian Democrats would have beaten Animal Justice for the last spot.

I should say I’m no fan of the Christian Democrats, who are anti-Muslim fundamentalists. But the price of the current system is not just the workload on the electoral commission; it’s also a large fraction of the 300,000 informal votes (6.3% of the total), who are people either deterred by the grotesquely large ballot paper or tripped up by mistakes in preferencing.

Would it really be a net loss for democracy to get rid of the preferences and make it easier for people to vote, as well as to understand the results?

The Christian Democrats weren’t the only ones ahead of Animal Justice on primaries; Leyonhjelm was as well, by more than 13,000 votes. But his performance on preferences was exceptionally bad. In the last ten counts prior to his elimination, Leyonhjelm picked up only 6,208 votes, while Animal Justice’s Emma Hurst picked up more than 32,000.

This was Leyonhjelm’s sixth (and, he says, last) [link added] bid for election. After three unsuccessful outings, he was elected to the Senate for New South Wales in 2013, with 9.5% of the vote – an unprecedented result for his party, largely explained by drawing first place on a very long ballot paper and therefore attracting many voters who were in fact looking for the Liberal Party (who were way over in 25th position).

His term was cut short by the double dissolution of 2016, and a less favorable ballot draw wiped out most of the Liberal Democrat vote. But with added name recognition, Leyonhjelm was still able to garner a respectable 3.1%, just enough to win him re-election in the last of 12 positions.

It meant, however, that a quota in a regular half-Senate election was an impossible ambition, so instead he set his sights [link added] on state parliament. And he looked well placed for most of the count, competing with Animal Justice, Keep Sydney Open, the Christian Democrats, the seventh Labor candidate and the second One Nation candidate for the final three vacancies.

But he failed to attract preferences along the way. When the final Greens candidate was eliminated, for example, Leyonhjelm picked up only 115 of her 36,000-odd votes – less than one in 300. Even One Nation got more.

He did a bit better when Keep Sydney Open went out, getting 2.6% of their preferences. But for a single libertarian-issue ticket to a supposedly libertarian party, that was woeful. Labor got 20.9% of them; Animal Justice got 12.2%. Even the Coalition, which introduced the policy KSO was campaigning against, got 4.8%.

It’s also interesting to see where Leyonhjelm’s own preferences went, to get an idea of how LDP voters identify. On his elimination there were only five other candidates left in (with four to be elected); 78.3% of his votes exhausted, and the rest went as follows: 9.3% Coalition, 4.5% One Nation, 3.3% Christian Democrat, 3.0% Labor and just 1.6% Animal Justice.

So it looks as if official libertarianism, or at least “libertarianism”, in Australia is in poor shape. It can get candidates elected through name confusion or through dodgy preference deals (as it did last year in Victoria), but not through winning support for its ideas.

Leyonhjelm’s career has not been without achievements. He was a key proponent of marriage equality, a strong voice on freedom of speech issues, and a consistent advocate for individual liberty on a number of fronts.

But his abrasive, confrontational style, his vendetta against “progressive” politics – especially the Greens – and his unbounded enthusiasm for firearms all make him an unlikely role model for libertarianism, a philosophy of humane values and peaceful co-operation.

This would be a good opportunity for the remaining libertarians to go away and have a good long think about what they are really trying to achieve.


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