Steam rolling Peter Garrett in to the endorsement for a safe seat has certainly improved Mark Latham's chances of becoming Prime Minister and it is not because more people are likely to vote one for Labor. Winning Federal elections these days is not just about maximising the vote of your own party. It's those second preferences that count and, with the Greens likely to be the largest third party, getting their 2's next to a Labor name will be all important.
Back in 1975 was the last time that a government secured a majority of votes in its own right and before that it was only Robert Menzies in 1949 and 1951 who gained more than 50%. At the other 19 elections since 1949, votes for minor parties and independents were the determining factors.
The importance of those second preferences has increased dramatically as the combined Labor and Liberal/National share of the vote has declined from the high 90% of the early 1950ies to the less than 81% gained in 2001. For two federal elections in a row, one in five Australians has chosen to vote in House of Representative elections for minor parties and independents.
This tendency to spurn the ALP and LNP shows no signs of diminishing. Pauline Hansen's One Nation Party may have come and gone but the opinion polls still show a similar total minor party figure as they did before the 2001 election. Newspoll has minor parties averaging around 15% support in the last three months and past experience shows that pollsters underestimate the minor party vote by around five percentage points. In the month before the 2001 Federal poll Newspoll's 15% for others had grown to 19.1 per cent at the actual polling booth. It was a similar story in 1998 with the predicted 15% ending up at 20.4%
The significant thing, of course, is not in the total vote for other than ALP and LNP but in how that large number of preferences is distributed. Here the indications are that Labor is doing substantially better than at the last election. Newspoll now has Labor getting nearly 64% of the preferences compared to the actual 58% gained in 2001. If Kim Beazley had gained that difference of six percentage points in the share of minor party preferences he, not John Howard, would be Prime Minister today.
The recruitment of Peter Garrett with his impeccable environmental reputation shows that Labor has not forgotten how to campaign for second preferences. In 1987 Bob Hawke stole an election win by receiving 62% of the number two votes and it was again over 60% in 1990. In both those elections the Liberal/Nationals were in front on primary votes.
Richard Farmer was a campaign strategist for the Labor Party in elections from 1977 to 1990. He has no current affiliation with the Party.