In the 2004 Federal Election, Steve Fielding was elected as an Australian Senator representing the Family First party.
This is the guy who, following the first legal civil union between a gay couple in Canberra yesterday, has likened homosexual relationships to incest. Here is his quote:
"A bloke cannot marry his brother; it is not right. A woman cannot marry [her] sister; it is not right. A bloke cannot marry a bloke because it is not right, and a female cannot marry a female because it is not right."
I think I see where this is leading - a bloke can marry a woman, therefore it's OK for a bloke to marry his sister. I think that's what he's saying.
So how did this guy get elected to the Senate? On Labor and Australian Democrat preferences, as it happens. This seems strange to me, since I know very few Labor or Democrat voters who support the Family First Party's policies, and so would not preference them. How, then, did it happen?
Well, you see, the Australian Senate is elected using a proportional representation - the way it works and counting the vote can be complicated. But the upshot is that there can be over 60 candidates to choose from. And for your vote to be valid you must show your order of preference for all candidates. Miss one, or give two the same number, and your vote is invalid.
To make things easier, some time back a simplified "above the line" voting method was introduced. You still have the option of filling in all 60+ boxes (these appear below a line across the ballot paper), or you can use the boxes above the line - just put a single "1" in the box for one party, and your vote is counted as if you had filled in every box exactly as per that party's how to vote card. The AEC explains this better than me.
Well the Labor party and the Democrats did a preference swap with Family First, which meant that if you voted above the line for either of those parties, because you agree with their policies, you were expressing a preference for Family First, whose policies you may or may not have supported, but probably not. (On the other hand, if you voted above the line for Family First, you probably did not want your preferences to go to the Democrats!)
We gained convenience (and made it easier to ensure we voted correctly), but gave up the chance to express our true voting preferences.
In the next year or so we will have another Senate election. Could well be a full Senate election.
Now I know what a hassle voting is. It's on a Saturday, and you have to trudge all the way to the local school or other polling place, then you have to queue, when you finally get in to the booth you just want to get it over and done with.
But think about this - do you want your Senate vote to represent your preferences for who gets elected, or the preferences of a wheeler dealer at party HQ?
Please, please, please people, vote below the line!