Sunday, March 27, 2011

NSW election wrap-up

Yesterday was election day in NSW. Voters elected a new lower house (the Legislative Assembly) plus half the members of the upper house (Legislative Council). As all the world knows, or at least that portion of it with any interest in NSW, the Labor Government received the expected thrashing. Some seats are still in doubt, but the latest ABC projections fore the Legislative Assembly suggest:

  • Labor 22 seats, down 24
  • Liberals 51 seats, up 23
  • Nationals 17 seats, up 4
  • Independents  3 seats, down 3
  • Greens no seats, no change 

These numbers will bounce around a bit, but the results are clear.

Youngest daughter worked as an official for the Electoral Commission at one of the booths and left home at 6.40am to get to work. A little later, I drove my wife to another of the booths where she was handing out how to vote cards.

This is a politically mixed household. At the last election, the four of us voted four different ways! 

I am something of an election tragic. I can't help myself. Here I was struck by  comment on Pollbludger, a blog for election tragics. eddieward wrote:

By way of credulity, this is the first election I haven’t worked on since 1977. I’d like to think I understand these things, so the next ten days will learn me some more I guess. One thing I do know is that this will require stamina. I’ve got a slab of barons, two bottles of vodka, a carton of cigarettes, three days firewood, a roast chicken and professional experience with sleep deprivation. I’ll be back quicker than a channel nine ad-break with an update.

What could be more tragic than that?

I know I have a small number of international readers such as Ramana (India) and Tikno (Indonesia). Tikno, by the way, has resumed regular posting and has had some stories recently that I suspect might interest Australian readers. Have a look.

I thought that I might treat this post as a chat to my international friends, explaining what I have been following and why.


I need to start with a little background.

In our system, government goes to the party that gains a majority of seats in the lower house. There are, I think, 93 seats in the NSW Legislative Assembly with geographic boundaries structured in such a way that the number of voters in each seat are broadly equal. Voting is what is called optional preferential.

Under the old preferential voting system that I grew up with, something that was deeply entrenched in Australia, the winning candidate had to get 50% of the vote. That was done in this way.

Say there were ten candidates in your seat. You voted number one for your first choice, then ranked each of the remaining candidates two through to ten. If one candidate got a majority, then that candidate was immediately elected. If no candidate got a majority, then the candidate with the lowest number of votes was eliminated from the count, and his second preferences were distributed among the other candidates. This process continued until one candidate finally achieved a minority.

Technically, if no candidate achieved a majority after second preferences, you could continue the process with third preferences, then forth preferences and so on. In practice, distribution of second preferences achieved the desired result. The practical effect of all this was that winning candidates' majority combined those who wanted that person first plus those who wanted him/her second.

In its vast wisdom, the Labor Party Government decided that electors should have a choice as to whether they allocated preferences. This was called optional preferential, meaning that people could now just vote one or one two or whatever up to the number of candidates. The problem that arose is that candidates were now elected not on the combination of first and second choices for the entire electorate, but on the combination of first choices plus second choices from those who bothered to record preferences. This introduced a new and very random element into the process.

Upper house or Legislative Council voting is different. The Council consists of 42 members elected for eight year terms. Terms are staggered, with 21 members elected every four years at elections held in conjunction with the Legislative Assembly. Members are elected by proportional representation using the state as a single electorate. The quota for election is 4.55%.

Council voting is complicated because you can vote above or below the line with a somewhat complicated optional preference distribution system. This can make for some strange results.  

Things of interest in NSW

This NSW Labor Government had been in power for sixteen years. Labor itself has been in power for the great majority of time since 1942.

Labor's power base is geographic, reflecting concentration of certain voters in certain areas. As the original working class and union party, its strength has been in the working class suburbs of Sydney, the Illawarra and the Lower Hunter. This gave it a rusted on base along the coast from Newcastle in the north to Wollongong in the south sufficient to position it for power. Well, somebody provided a solid dose of WD40 to the rust; the Labor base collapsed!

Labor now holds no seats outside the Illawarra, Sydney or the Lower Hunter.

In the Illawarra, Labor has held Shellharbour and Kiera. Wollongong is still uncertain and may be claimed by an independent.

In the Lower Hunter, Labor somewhat unexpectedly held Cessnock plus Wallsend. Newcastle is still too close to call, with the Liberal Party ahead. This is actually a slightly better result than originally projected. At one stage it appeared Labor could lose all seats.

The remaining Labor seats are all in Sydney.

In Sydney, attention focused first on the inner west seats seats of Marrickville and Balmain where the Greens had hoped to gain their first lower house seats. They look likely to be disappointed. This is where optional preferential voting comes in.

In Marrickville, the Labor vote held up better than expected. To win, the Greens need Liberal preferences. Those preferences will not be there.

In Balmain too, the swing against Labor was a little less than expected, while the Liberals did much better than expected. On the first night count, the Libs are just ahead on the primary vote, followed by Labor and then the Greens. The most likely outcome appears to be a Labor win on the preferences of those Greens who did record preferences. This would be a remarkably good result for Labor's Verity Firth.

With the exception of Blacktown in Sydney's Northwest, Sydney's Labor seats run in a relatively thin strip west from Marrickville.

One of the interesting issues in Sydney this time was the Asian vote, with around one elector in ten born in Asia. Labor has had something of a lock-in on the ethnic vote and especially the Asian vote. This time it seemed to be shifting. One seat being watched was the very blue ribbon seat of Cabramatta, Sydney's most ethnically diverse seat. There  Vietnamese born Liberal Dai Le was running against the sitting Labor member, Egyptian born Serb Nick Lalich whose parents had escaped from Yugoslavia in 1944. Ms Lee scored a huge swing, 26.2%, but it was still not enough to take the seat.

In the bush, the main focus was on the country independents. Richard Torbay in Northern Tablelands always seemed safe. However, could the resurgent Nats take back Dubbo, Tamworth and Port Macquarie?

They did. Part of the reason for my interest here lay in the fact that Tamworth is part of the Tony Windsor held Federal seat of New England, Port Macquarie part of the Rob Oakshott held Federal seat of Lynne. As country independents, both were critical in allowing Federal Labor to cling to power.

Turning now to the Legislative Council where counting is still in its early stages, Pauline Hanson scored 52,305 votes, 1.83%. I had expected her to do better than this because of all the publicity, but looking at the huge ballot paper with the absence of any booth workers, I did wonder.

To vote for her, you actually had to find her group on the ballot paper because there was no specific identification. A small number of people at booths actually workers from other parties where her how to vote card was. She also lost votes to the Shooters and Fishers. 

Recognising how early it is in the count, at this stage the computer projections for the Legislative Council are:

  • Coalition  19
  • Labor 14
  • Greens 5
  • Shooters and Fishers 2
  • Christian Democratic Party (Fred Nile Group) 2.

As with the previous council, it looks as though the incoming government will need to rely on minor parties to get legislation through.    

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