It seems Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party could be the main beneficiary of the “preference whisperer” Glenn Druery’s lucrative work on the Victorian state election. According to media reports this week, Druery is on leave from his day job as a Justice Party staffer in the office of Senator Hinch. Academic and journalist, Dr Martin Hirst, crunches the numbers and reports.

OUR CALCULATIONS show that the Justice Party is well-placed to benefit from minor and micro-party preferences in Victorian upper house contests. This is contrary to a claim made by Senator Hinch in an interview with The Age earlier this week. Hinch told Age reporters Royce Millar and Ben Schneiders that Druery’s efforts to pull together a preference swap deal in the Legislative Council could work against his party’s interests. However, our number crunching shows that in most upper house contests the Justice Party will collect a substantial number of preferences as some of the other micro parties drop out. The trick to successful manipulation of preference flows is to keep the micro parties in the race long enough for the preferences you need to cascade to your candidate.

The complicated voting system in the Victorian Legislative Council makes any prediction of the result a “guesstimate” at best. The key variable is where each candidate finishes after the allocation of first preferences. At that point the candidate with the lowest number of votes is eliminated and their preferences distributed. The whole point of a disciplined, locked down ticket is that most preferences will go where the party wants them too.

For example, Ben Rau’s analysis, for The Tally Room website indicates that a micro-party candidate could win the final seat in each of the eight regions because of what he calls the “preference cabal”.

[Of the 18 party groups standing], it appears that fourteen are participating in some way in a preference arrangement to deny close races to the major parties or the Greens. There isn’t perfect discipline amongst these fourteen parties, but in each region there is at least one party which is getting very favourable preferences from pretty much every other party in the group, which will give them a good chance to win if they can stay in the race long enough to start accumulating preferences.

Nick Casmirri has helpfully done some research today identifying which parties appear to be best-placed to benefit from these preferences in each region:

  • East Metro – Rod Barton of the Transport Matters Party
  • East Vic – Vern Hughes of the Aussie Battler Party
  • North Metro –  Multiple strong minors but Carmel Dagiandis of Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party
  • North Vic – Tim Quilty of the Liberal Democrats
  • South East Metro – Ali Khan of the Transport Matters Party
  • South Metro – Clifford Hayes of Sustainable Australia
  • West Metro – Stuart O’Neill of the Aussie Battler Party
  • West Vic – Stuart Grimley of Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party

Nick Casmirri is an amateur election-geek and you can find his work on Twitter by following links to this thread.

How a preference swap works

“Vote harvesting” or “preference whispering” is based on the practice of parties negotiating a deal in order to maximise their chances of winning in a particular contest. In the context of the Victorian Legislative Council, the group ticket voting system allows the minor or “micro” parties to work out deals that result in their candidates being elected with only a small fraction of the primary vote.

The Victorian and West Australian upper houses are the only places where this voting system still exists in Australia. In 2016, the Turnbull government replaced this system in the Senate after criticism of the use of preference swap deals in the 2013 election saw several micro-party candidates elected and first exposed the machinations of Glenn Druery.

Preference swap deals work in the Victorian upper house because the state is divided into eight multi-seat electorates that each return five Legislative Councillors. The optional preferential voting system also facilitates vote harvesting because Victoria allows a single “above the line” vote. The counting and distribution of preferences is also based on a complex proportional quota system that I have not been able to find a user-friendly explanation for.

In the 2014 ballot, five of the eight divisions returned a minor or micro party candidate. Fiona Patten, then representing the Sex Party, was elected in the Northern Metropolitan division; the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers’ Party returned two members (Jeff Bourman in Eastern Victoria and Daniel Young in Northern Victoria); the DLP’s Rachel Carling-Jenkins won in the Western Metro division and James Purcell of Vote 1 Local Jobs took a seat in Western Victoria. The Greens also gained two additional seats in 2014 at the expense of the Labor Party. The five micro party candidates seem to have taken seats from sitting Coalition MLCs.

As the ABC’s election analyst, Antony Green points out, vote harvesting relies on most people voting above the line for the party of their choice and not thinking too hard about where their preferences might flow:

only around 5 per cent of Victorian voters vote below the line, so the final seat in each region is determined almost entirely by the preference deals. As micro-parties game the system to keep preferences away from major parties, both Labor and the Coalition struggle to win seats beyond those they elect on filled first preference quotas.

The Victorian Electoral Commission appeared to be so alarmed about the prospect of uninformed voters throwing away their vote on candidates they might not agree with that it took the unprecedented step of issuing a public statement urging electors to effectively study the form-guide and vote consciously below the line. Based on the registered how-to-vote tickets held by the Victorian Electoral Commission, we have conducted our own analysis of preference flows in each of the Legislative Council regions to generate the following scenarios.

Who’s got the energy mix to win the Victorian state election?

Northern Victoria

In the 2014 election the fifth spot in the Northern Victorian division was taken by the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers’ Party (SFP) candidate Daniel Young. Young has the advantage of incumbency in 2018 and a small but committed local base. The SFP might retain the fifth seat as Young has been allocated preference flows from the Liberal-National coalition and the DLP ticket as well as from several of the minor parties who are unlikely to make a quota in their own right. However, Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party is in pole position to collect micro party preferences; Young is only in eighth spot in the top 10 preference flows. This is likely to be a tight contest with Young perhaps marginally in front because of the big block of votes he can expect from the Liberals, if he is in front of the Hinch candidate at that point.

Western Victoria

This year, the incumbent, James Purcell of Vote 1 Local Jobs is not standing in Western Victoria, he has transferred to the Northern Metropolitan region, which he is unlikely to win. His absence means the final seat in this division is up for grabs. Given it is largely a regional and rural seat it is likely that a conservative, rather than the Greens, will win the fifth seat. On the basis of preference allocations, the Hinch candidate, Stuart Grimley, is in a position to do very well by collecting preferences from the Shooters, Transport Matters and the Liberal Democrats. However, if he can stay in he race till the later rounds of counting, the Shooters’ candidate, Geoff Collins, could be the early favourite as he is likely to pick up the bulk of Liberal-National preferences.

Northern Metropolitan

The incumbent in the 5th seat for this division is Fiona Patten of the Reason Party and there was an expectation that she would be battling with the newly-formed Victorian Socialists for this final berth. However, it is perhaps in this seat – covering the northwestern metropolitan fringes of Melbourne, but also incorporating Green heartland in Northcote, Brunswick, Coburg and Preston – where Glenn Druery’s preference whispering may bear the most fruit.

While both Fiona Patten and Socialist candidate Stephen Jolley have publicly insisted they did not do a deal with Druery, it is clear from our analysis of likely preference flows that Hinch-aligned candidates could do very well. Twelve of the 20 published “How to Vote” cards – including the ALP’s split ticket in this division – place Hinch’s candidates in the top bracket for micro-party preference flows.

Transport Matters, the Health Australia Party, Shooters, Fishers and Farmers, the Liberal Democrats and the Animal Justice Party are all preferencing Hinch’s Justice Party above everyone else including Fiona Patten. This is a classic example of how vote harvesting is supposed to work. While the Shooters might be an outside chance to finish ahead of DHJP, the more probable scenario is that preferences will fall to Hinch candidate Carmela Dagiandis. Liberal preferences will almost certainly flow to Dagiandis ahead of either Patten or Jolley, and DHJP is also in a position to harvest Labor votes given the ticket splits preferences between Reason and the Socialists. If Hinch’s candidate can finish ahead of them on first preferences, either Labor or Liberal preferences could secure Hinch the fifth spot ahead of both Patten and Jolly. Despite a massive turn-out of volunteers in door-knocking almost the entire region, there is very little chance that Stephen Jolly can be elected; he has been placed close to the bottom on most tickets, well below Reason and the Hinch groups.

Eastern Metro

There could be a substantial shake-up in this region as the Transport Matters candidate, Rod Barton, has secured important preference flows from most of the other micro parties, as well as from the Greens and Hinch tickets. The Andrews’ government has come under criticism in this region because its otherwise popular program of rail level-crossing removal has used an above ground method of replacement, colloquially known as “sky rail” which locals are not happy about. Given that, it is astonishing that the ALP would also give allocate preferences straight to Transport Matters. However, we cannot rule out a preference surge for the Hinch ticket either if their candidate can finish in front of Barton in the early elimination counts.

Western Metro

The preference deal for the Hinch ticket also looks favourable in the Western Metropolitan region where it comes out just ahead of Reason in the top 10 preference flows. However, the main beneficiary of the preference swap deal appears to be the Aussie Battler Party which has been highly preferenced by a majority of the other candidates and the Liberals have put them near the bottom of their ticket indicating they might see the Battlers as a threat. There could also be a spoiler in this division; the Liberal Democrats polled well in 2014 and could harvest enough preferences in the later elimination rounds to overtake Hinch and the Battlers.

Southeastern Metro

Preference swaps in this region could also see Transport Matters take fifth spot. Its candidate, Dr Ali Khan is at the top of the preference swap leader board with the Hinch group in second place. However, Khan is also likely to pick up a swag of Labor and Liberal preferences ahead of the Reason party. Khan has a high recognition factor because of the controversial “skyrail” issue in the area. The question will be, Does Khan have enough pull to put him ahead of the Hinch group candidate in the tight final elimination rounds?

Southern Metro

The discipline shown between the micro parties in this division is exemplary from the point of view of preference swaps. The beneficiary is likely to be Clifford Hayes of Sustainable Australia, if he can stay ahead of the Hinch group candidate. Hinch’s Justice Party came fourth in the top ten allocations in this division, but the factor in its favour is name recognition.

Eastern Victoria

The top four recipients of preference swap deals in this division are Transport Matters, the Aussie Battlers’ Party, Sustainable Australia and the Hinch group. The incumbent micro party member is Jeff Bourman of the Shooters’ party. He won in 2014 with preferences that boosted him to a quota from only 0.15 per cent of first preferences. This time, local recognition factors may assist the Battlers’ candidate Vern Hughes, but incumbency favours Bourman. The Hinch group is an outside chance in this division, sitting fourth on the preferences leader board, which is ahead of the Shooters.

The ABC’s Antony Green says the micro parties are “gaming the system” by participating in locked-down preference deals. However, while it is distasteful to some, it is not illegal and in this election cycle Glenn Druery seems to have done his job well. Overall, Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party has done very well from the preference exchange deals and the name recognition factor could be enough to propel its candidates into very tight races in all the upper house divisions.

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Martin Hirst

Dr Martin Hirst is a veteran journalist, writer and independent scholar. In a career spanning 40 years in the media, Martin has written millions of words in news stories, magazine features, radio documentaries, academic articles, blogs and books. His most recent book, Navigating Social Journalism, was published by Routledge, New York, in October 2018.

You can follow Martin on Twitter @ethicalmartini.

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