Monday, June 17, 2024

Ralph Babet Was Elected Fair And Square. I Know It's Hard But Try To Deal With It

For the avoidance of any doubt at all, I'll start with my view of the subject of this article.  Most of what I see of United Australia Party Senator Ralph Babet is his social media output, and it is awful.  He delivers dumbed-down denser-than-even-Sky-News versions of what were in general stupid ideas to begin with (MAGA nonsense, supposed conspiracies against Christians and western culture, whining about "wokeness", gender, sexuality and multiculturalism, and baiting people who would rather at least try not to get COVID).  Babet is perhaps our purest yet elected example of what happens when you spend way too long inhaling what Christopher Hitchens called "the exhaust fumes of democracy", and then attempt to breathe them out. His Senate career so far has been even cringier than very early Jacqui Lambie.  As with Bob Katter, the concussed-sounding nuttiness of Babet's output frequently leads to debates about whether he's just harmlessly insane or whether some of what he's saying might dangerously affect a few impressionable chaps out there.  Think you can tell I'm not a fan.  


However, I'm also not a fan of the misrepresentation of election results and the denial of the will of the people.  Every now and then on Twitter someone will accompany some silly tweet by Babet with some negative reflection on how he got elected.  But the collective will of the voters in Victoria in 2022 was that Ralph Babet (UAP) be one of their six elected representatives.  He was rightly elected based on the mostly party-level choices made by the voters, and he was elected with a significant party vote and a high level of party support on mostly voter-chosen preferences.  He was not some kind of undeserving freak of the system, like another Ricky Muir without the good bits.  While he was elected off an unusually low primary party vote share for a half-Senate election under the current system (so far), the perception of it as a freak result is wrong.  I would say to those who complain about Babet winning that either they believe in proportional representation in the Senate or they don't.  If they don't, what is their alternative system under which Babet (or failing him, One Nation instead) would not have won the final Victorian seat?  It's probably something terrible if they have even thought about it at all.

4000 votes?

The most persistent myth about Babet's election - one which I saw again in a high-scoring tweet yesterday - is that he only got 4000 votes.  (This myth seems to have been started by a Peter FitzSimons tweet on 9 September 2023).    This one results from people not knowing how to read Senate results tables:


The 4425 votes next to Babet's name are the votes that he received below the line.  But the vast majority of UAP voters - as with the vast majority of voters for parties generally anywhere outside Tasmania and the ACT - saw no reason to vote for candidates below the line and were perfectly happy to vote for candidates above the line.  The 147,330 votes for UAP above the line were also votes for Babet.   His primary vote was therefore 151,755 votes, about 4% of all valid votes cast in Victoria.

If one was so concerned about below the line votes one could also complain about the elections of Senators Cadell (Nat), McKenzie (Nat), Stewart (ALP), Chisholm (ALP), Sterle (ALP), Payman (ALP), Smith (Lib), McLachlan (Lib), Liddle (Lib), Farrell (ALP), Polley (ALP), and Askew (Lib) - all of these were elected around the country with fewer BTL primaries than Babet got, thanks to party surpluses. And that's just 2022.  But the Senate is a primarily party voting based system (and in my view should remain so).  

There is often nonsense about the below the line votes for candidates being some measure of personal appeal.  Sometimes they can be (as in Tasmania 2016 with Lisa Singh elected entirely off them) but mostly they are not.  A voter who votes 1 below the line for a lead candidate for a party may not have a personal preference for that candidate but may have other reasons to vote below the line, including juggling the order within other parties, putting someone last, or not understanding they can control their preferences above the line.  A voter who votes 1 above the line may well have a positive view of the lead candidate but be happy to express their preferences at party level if there's no reason for them not to do that.  

The Liberal Preferences Myth

The next commonest myth about Babet is that he owed his election to Liberal preferences and in particular to the Liberal how to vote card.   To refute this one, here's a recap of the preference flows.

The Victorian Senate cutup started with the elections of Senators Sarah Henderson (Lib) and the late Linda White (ALP).  Their surpluses elected Bridget McKenzie (Nat) and Jana Stewart (ALP).  After those two surpluses the standings of leading competitors for the final two seats were as follows (quota is 545,935)

Thorpe (Green) 525,869
Babet (UAP) 152,474
Mirabella (Lib) 134,211
Smith (L Cann) 114,716
Pickering (PHON) 111,018
Nunn (ALP) 100,454
Limbrick (LDP) 91,946

Candidates were now excluded from the bottom up.  Thorpe eventually crossed the line and was elected fifth.  Limbrick was the first of these to go and by this time Nunn and Mirabella had both overtaken Babet so the order in the race for the sixth spot was Nunn, Mirabella, Babet, Pickering, Smith.  Smith's exclusion didn't change the order.  With Pickering's now 220,364 votes to be distributed the order was

Nunn (ALP) 277,825
Mirabella (Lib) 244,827
Babet (UAP) 239,045
Pickering (PHON) 220,364 - excluded

Babet at this point is out next if preferences coming from One Nation do not put him above at least Mirabella.  But they did do that, in spades.  Babet got 110,764 preferences at this point to 30,682 for Mirabella and 22,973 for Nunn.  This put Babet ahead of Labor by 49,011 votes with 275,509 preferences from Mirabella to throw.    So even if the preferences coming from the Liberal exclusion (which are not all actually 1 Liberal votes) had split evenly between Babet and Labor, Babet was home anyway.

As it happened, they favoured Babet further (105,719 to 75,346 with the rest exhausting) but the votes transferred from the Liberals were not the cause of Babet's victory.  He won because the flow to him from minor right wing candidates (this includes flow from One Nation but also votes for other minor right wing forces that flowed via One Nation) was strong enough to more than cancel out the usual tendency for preferences to flow more to the majors, Greens and One Nation than anybody else.   A noticeable feature of the 2022 Senate cutups was a great strengthening of flows between minor right-wing parties, particularly the UAP and One Nation.  This owed a great amount to the strength of the anti-lockdown/vaccines/mandates movements in driving Senate preferences away from the major parties (the Coalition in particular, as compared to 2019) and nowhere were these movements stronger than Victoria.  Indeed, it isn't just the UAP - and this is one answer to those who suggest that only the UAP's massive spending got them elected - had the UAP not run at all, the same votes would have elected Pickering (One Nation) in spite of One Nation being left off the Coalition how-to-vote card.  

As concerns the Liberal how to vote card preferences especially, 335,766 voters copied the Liberal/National Victorian how-to-vote card from 1-6.  The number of Liberal voters above the line who put the UAP second was much higher (494,035) but the difference would have included many who did so by choice and not influenced by the card.  The number who did copy the card sounds like it's still a big number, but the 335,766 were mixed in among over 1.2 million primary votes for Henderson that flowed to McKenzie and then flowed on (together with McKenzie's primary votes) in McKenzie's surplus.  Because McKenzie was not that far over the Coalition's second quota, the card-following votes now continued at a much lower value than they started at (they were now worth about 36,007 votes total).  Babet won by 81,024 so even had the Liberals preferenced Labor on their how to vote and omitted UAP, and even had every voter who copied the how to vote card with the UAP at 2 still done so in that scenario (which obviously wouldn't have happened), Babet would still have won.

Babet's election was assisted by a lucky accident that the number of Senators being elected was precisely six.  This was a happy number for him because it meant neither major party had much below two quotas.  Had there been five Senators elected the majors would still have been close enough to two quotas and there would have been no seat for Babet to get, and had there been seven they would have been far enough ahead of him to get three each.  But one can only win under the seat balance that there is, and it's not easy to begrudge the UAP for holding a mere 1/76 Senate seats (1.32%) when its national Senate vote was 3.46% in 2022 and 2.36% in 2019.  

(Minor parties like UAP in races like this also benefit from the somewhat primitive way the Senate deals with quotas.  The Senate system uses a fixed quota through the count, but because significant numbers of votes along the way reach the exhaust column, this leaves elected candidates holding more votes than they really needed.  At the point where Mirabella was excluded, the elected major party candidates are holding over 40,000 more votes than they would at minimum need.  However, even with this changed - and there are some systems that can adjust for this - Babet would still have won.)

As I said further up, either we believe in proportional representation of a State's voters in the Senate or we do not.  Either we think our system should give minor parties a shot or we don't.  If we do, we have to accept that they won't always be ones we find tolerable.  As much of a waste of a seat as Babet has so far been, the fact that he got elected is a good sign for the strengths of the current Senate system in that it will give minor right wing parties a fair go if the support level is there to elect them.  It shows the system is exactly not what it was claimed to be by those who foolishly opposed Senate reform in 2016, when they wrongly claimed the system would see an end to minor parties other than the Greens.  Even the first two half-Senate elections under the new system have elected four such parties!  

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