Laugh with me, hyena… Was Wikileaks to blame for @SenatorLudlam losing his seat? #auspol

It’s been an interesting week for psephologists and election nerds.  The Australian Electoral Commission has been formally declaring the Senate results, with perhaps the most interesting result being in Western Australia.  Where it was previously believed that the Australian Sports Party and the Greens’ Senator Scott Ludlam would take the fifth and sixth Senate seats, it now looks like Palmer United Party and the Australian Labor Party will take them instead.

The question that erupted on Twitter was: ‘To what extent was the Wikileaks Party’s insanely lunatic preference-swapping strategy to blame?’

Senator Ludlam hit Twitter to declare Wikileaks blameless:


Prima facie, Ludlam looks like he has a point.  In the updated count, all of the votes cast for the Wikileaks Party ended up with the Greens Party in Western Australia.

On closer look of the results, Ludlam is incorrect.  To work out why, you have to come to grips with one question: ‘Why is it that Senator Ludlam gets a seat when Wikileaks preferences go to another party (Australian Sports Party) but he loses his seat when Wikileaks preferences go to him?’

I promise that my answer does not reduce to ‘Because Wikileaks is freaking cursed.’

The controversy that rocked the Wikileaks Party surrounded one guy in particular: Greg Barns.  He acted as a strategist for the Wikileaks Party and, according to various reports, engaged in some shenanigans involving preference dealings that resulted in a few Wikileaks candidates quitting from the party.  This is Barns on Assange:

One of the reasons I admire Assange – and it was part of the reason I was keen to assist him in his election campaign – is that he represents a political philosophy which is sorely missing in this country. Having spent a few days with Assange in June this year, one is struck by two matters. Firstly, he has a superbly supple and nuanced intellect, which places him above the concrete thinkers of the Australian body politic. Secondly, Assange has a fondness for libertarianism.

The former quality was evident in the fallout over Assange’s qualified endorsement of Rand Paul, the Kentucky senator. [Source]

Superbly supple.  Nuanced.

Barns engaged in preference deals with other microparties but — perhaps this is most strange — was never able to explain to supporters what he expected to achieve from the deals.  Fiona Patten from the Australian Sex Party tried to defend her party’s nutbar preference strategy in pragmatic terms:


What they were unable to explain was how they thought pissing off their supporters with these strategies would improve the likelihood of them getting elected.  More basically, they never explained how they thought their preference deals would improve the likelihood of them getting elected.  Two strategies stand out for particular mention.  The Australian Sex Party preferenced the racist One Nation Party ahead of the Greens, and Wikileaks Party preferenced the National Party ahead of the Greens.  How did this improve the odds of them getting elected?  Nobody knows.

Both Parties were complicit in the culture of microparty shenanigans that threw up extremely random and counter-intuitive election results.  Instead of taking a principled approach to their Group Voting Tickets, instead of behaving like grown ups, they decided to take part in a multi-party attempt to ‘game’ the system… for no clear design.

Remember the hubris of Greg Barns in particular.  Here he is gloating like he’s some sort of genius chess master when it looked like Senator Ludlam would be reelected:


Beyond the general point that Wikileaks actively encouraged this cynical ‘playing’ of the Senate system, we can also see that Wikileaks’ preference flows still caused havoc in the election of Senator Ludlam, even though their votes eventually ended up with him.  The key word here is ‘eventually’.

Prior to going to Senator Ludlam, the votes passed through the Australian Sports Party and the National Party.  There were about 10k votes.

The key to understanding our Senate electoral system (Hare-Clark) is to understand that the order in which parties are ‘excluded’ affects the outcome.  In the early rounds of the count, it was small numbers of votes that kept parties from being excluded early.  By placing the Australian Sports Party as their ‘first’ preference (it’s the first party preferenced after their own candidates), it delayed their removal from the vote.  Counts 18 and 19 are relevant here.  Family First and Wikileaks Party caused Australian Sports Party to jump up out of the ‘obviously going to get excluded’ group.

When the Australian Sports Party was later excluded from the count (which we originally didn’t think would happen, mind) their vote then ended up with the National Party, causing them to move ahead of the Palmer United Party and throwing around with the exclusion order.

The problem is then to work out what impact this had on the final outcome.  Their vote basically caused votes that would have flowed in various directions to stay put.  Antony Green’s blog looks at the impact that the BTL votes had on predictions based on the GVT.  From those numbers, I’m not confident that Ludlam’s assertion is obviously correct.

(As an aside, despite all the controversy about Wikileaks’ GVT, it looks like only 7% of Wikileaks supporters voted below the line.  I’m sure there’s a nasty sheep joke that I can make here…)

Nobody ever made the claim that Wikileaks single-handedly would cause the Greens to miss out.  But what is true — and what people have continued to claim — is that Wikileaks’ GVT — constructed in concert with other microparties — caused mischief in the result that’s hard to calculate.  Wikileaks is still on the hook, and Greg Barns’ self perception that he’s some sort of crafty insider should be well and truly smashed by now.

In other news, a result where the ALP gets an extra seat is probably more representative of the vote than one where the Greens and the Sports Party get a seat.  Getting a quarter of the primary vote and then walking away with only a sixth of the seats doesn’t seem terribly democratic.  The part that smells in all of this is the Palmer United Party.

That makes a good segue to Christine Milne, Leader of the Greens Party, who had some interesting comments in the wake of the news about Ludlam’s potential Senate future.  This one was pretty good:

But it appears they (PUP) have been elected on roughly half the vote of the Greens, and that is the sort of result our voting system throws up from time to time. [Source]

Senator Ludlam received a bit over a third of the first preference vote that went to the ALP, but Milne thinks that a just outcome would have been for the Greens and the ALP to have won the same number of seats.  Riiiiight.

Or over in South Australia where Nick Xenophon drew over a quarter of the vote in his own right, but was given the same number of seats as the Greens (who only polled 7% of the vote).

Perhaps the Greens Party and its supporters should tread a bit carefully when they whinge about the ‘unrepresentative’ nature of the Senate when they’ve been such beneficiaries of it in the past…


Author: Mark Fletcher

Mark Fletcher is a Canberra-based blogger and policy wonk who writes about conservatism, atheism, and popular culture. Read his blog at OnlyTheSangfroid. He tweets at @ClothedVillainy

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