How the Pirate Party could win seats at the next Australian Election

Duncan Riley - Author

Jun. 15 2013, Updated 8:56 p.m. ET

The Pirate Party of Australia has been getting its act together of late, with a draft constitution published and a call for office bearers as part of the path towards registration as an official party with the Australian Election Commission (AEC.)

With registration possibly on for later this year or early next year, the party has finally gained some well earned media attention, but not all of it has been positive. (Disclosure at this point, I’m a preliminary member of the party.) Renai LeMay in ZDNet Australia, a fully owned subsidiary of the CBS writes today that the Pirate Party doesn’t stand a chance in hell of getting anyone elected at the 2010 Australian election.

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He’s wrong, although in saying that the maths do make it a long shot. That aside though, it’s not impossible either, and without knowing much about those pushing the party forward, presuming their smart enough to understand the system, the odds of getting a Pirate Party member up in the Senate aren’t as long as many might naturally assume.

The following analysis is offered in the context that I’m not an expert on Australia politics, but as someone with some past experience as a previous member of the major Australian political party (four years clean), three times a State and Federal staffer, and regular campaign volunteer (including some senior positions in campaigns) over 12 years of State and Federal elections in three states. I have in my past written submissions for redistributions, and played with more numbers than I care to remember as I crunched data for in one case an electorate the size of Portugal.

The race to 14.3%

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The Australian Senate works on a proportional representation that includes use of preferences; that is, even if you vote for candidate A, if he isn’t near the top, his votes get allocated to others. In the House of Representatives the system is clear cut, because under Australian electoral law you have to number every box in order of preference, so you determine the preference. However the Senate is different, because you have the option of voting “above the line” or “below the line.” Below the line the voter allocates preferences, above the line the party or candidate allocates the preferences. Most people vote above the line in the Senate because in some years, and in some states, the ballot paper has been known to exceed over a meter in length.

There are two scenarios going into the next election: a half senate or full senate election. A full senate election would only take place if supply was blocked in the Senate. So far, despite some saber rattling on all sides, this hasn’t happened and is unlikely. In a double dissolution election, the quota reduces to roughly half that of a normal half senate election (senators serve six year terms,) and a double dissolution election would be ideal for getting a Pirate Party candidate up.


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Lets presume a normal half senate election in 2010 or early 2011 (it must be held by 16 April 2011.) Renai LeMay writes that “If [minor party candidates] Steve Fielding and Nick Xenophon can make it into the Senate, the argument goes, surely anybody can” then goes on to note that “Unfortunately for the Pirate Party, it’s not that easy.”

Actually, it can be if you know how to work the system.

Lets take for example the election of Family First Senator Stephen Fielding for a Victorian Senate seat in the 2004 election. According to the ABC archives, Fielding received a grand total of 56,376 votes, or x0.1317 of one quota, from roughly 2.3 million votes. At the end of the distribution of preferences (count 285), Fielding ended up with 540,012 votes or x1.2615 of a quota, ahead of the Australian Greens who despite initially polling 263,481 votes or x0.6155 of a quota, ended up after preferences with 314,729 votes or x0.7352.

In case you didn’t get those figures: a guy with 56,376 votes got elected over another candidate who received 263,481 votes.

Preference swaps

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Renai LeMay is right to one extent: the appeal of doing preference swaps with the Pirate Party will be less appealing at this election until it has proven itself at the ballot box. But likewise I think that underestimates the potential appeal of preferences the Pirate Party will offer.

It probably is a slight misnomer to say that the Pirate Party will appeal primarily to younger voters (after all, I’m 34 and I’m joining) but if the support in Australia follows what has happened in Europe, the voters will skew young. Young voters are a holy grail when it comes to Australian politics, because they’re the hardest to reach, and the least likely to follow traditional two party voting patterns.

The aim of the game isn’t so much about the Pirate Party selling itself to other parties, but what they might think they’d get out of a preference swap. You can rule the Australian Labor Party (ALP) out immediately, given one of the two party platforms at the moment is opposition of the ALP’s Chinese style censorship regime, but looking beyond Labor the party has the potential of swaps with both the Liberal Party and Australian Greens, both who oppose censorship and would be looking for preferences from Pirate Party voters.

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The variable here is the type of candidate the Pirate Party puts up. The problem with single issue parties (well, the Pirate Party has two issues in Australia) is outside of those issues you hit resistance because if you’re elected you have to vote one way or the other. The way out is to commit to only support the Government of the day in return for the policies of the party being implemented; that’s actually not an unreasonable stance, and has been done before in the Australian Senate.

Lets presume the candidates can straddle. Then you have an appealing block of votes that might appeal to both the Australian Greens and the Liberal Party (as both the major third party in Australia, and the main second party). I’d actually think that Liberal preferences are a strong possibility, maybe not in every state, but those states where the Liberal Party still believes in small government. Greens I’d think would play anyway because they’d want the votes to get their candidates over the line, and on the fundamental issues of the Pirate Party, they mostly agree.

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Add to that any range of independent and small party candidates. There’s not a lot of people in Australia who back the censorship stance of the ALP, so you’d think you could at least somewhere down the chart swap preferences there as well with other minor party candidates.

Then we have a potential Steve Fielding in the making.

Realistically Pirate Party preferences would more likely end up electing a Liberal or Green Senator in most states, but if there’s the strong possibility in even one or two states that the flow could work the opposite way, that’s all the party needs on its first election outing, and to actually get one or two senators up who will fight for the cause.

The path forward

As mentioned, I haven’t been in contact with the people driving the party forward, although I’m here willing and able to help where I can. I should note that despite the links to The Pirate Bay, the Pirate Party isn’t anti-copyright at all…which will surprise some people. Indeed, the party is pro-copyright, to a point. This idea that copyright extends for 70 years post the death of the author is absurd, and the party believes that copyright should expire over a reasonable period. In Europe, that’s 5 years, although the Australian Pirate Party was looking at 11-13 years (I’m not sure if they ended up supporting the longer term though.)

Getting a Senator up is like climbing Everest, but it’s not impossible even the first time out. Renai LeMay generalizes when he say’s it’s impossible, but he should look at the stats before saying that it’s impossible. Raw stats don’t lie, and the Pirate Party in Australia does have a chance, even if it’s a long shot.

If you’d like to join the Pirate Party of Australia, click here.


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