20/06/2016 10:03 AM AEST | Updated 15/07/2016 12:54 PM AEST

The Liberal Party's Preferences Contradict Its Economic Goals

"Our debt and deficit are too important to be mishandled."

We don’t know how voters will behave under the new Senate voting rules.
Fairfax Media via Getty Images
We don’t know how voters will behave under the new Senate voting rules.

Is the Liberal Party serious about balancing the budget, reducing wasteful spending and lowering taxation? Or is it really a party of religious conservatives determined to prevent social changes such as same sex marriage, changes to drug laws or assisted suicide?

Judging by the party's Senate how-to-vote leaflets for this election, it is the latter.

How-to-vote leaflets are advice to voters that if a party's own candidates cannot win, the parties shown on the leaflet are preferred. With the changes to Senate voting, and instructions to number at least six parties above the line, a party's Senate how-to-vote leaflet no longer says 'Just vote 1' for the party. It goes on to list five other parties to vote for.

We don't know how voters will behave under the new Senate voting rules, so we don't know how important Senate how-to-vote leaflets will be. They will be irrelevant to the extent that voters ignore the advice and decide for themselves how to allocate preferences.

And whether preferences actually matter will depend on the vote. In a double dissolution, the quota to win a seat is 7.7 percent. If the Liberal Party has a primary vote of 41 percent, for example, this will be sufficient to elect five senators with 2.5 percent left over. This is not enough to win a sixth seat and will be transferred to other parties according to how voters marked their ballot papers. It may be enough to ensure a recipient wins.

On the other hand, if the Liberal Party vote is 37 percent, it will be 1.5 percent short of winning a fifth seat. It will still win the seat due to receiving preferences from other parties or because it has the highest remaining vote in the count, but there will be no surplus votes to distribute as preferences to any other party.

The Liberal Party has issued how-to-vote leaflets that list five parties to which it would like voters to direct their preferences. In all six states, as well as the ACT and NT, the first beneficiary is a conservative Christian party. In the ACT, NSW, Tasmania and NT it is the Christian Democrats, while in SA, Victoria and Queensland it is Family First. In WA the Australian Christians receive preferences immediately after the Nationals.

In two states the how-to-vote leaflet is effectively dominated by Christian conservative parties. In Victoria, the first three parties to which it directs preferences are Family First, Australian Christians and the Democratic Labour Party, which is also a Christian conservative party. In Queensland, the sequence is Family First, Christian Democrats, Shooters and Fishers, Katter, and Australian Christians.

It would be a surprise to many people that the Liberals under Malcolm Turnbull would produce a how-to-vote leaflet like this.

The changed Senate voting rules will not wipe out the crossbench. In fact, with the double dissolution, it will probably be bigger than it was in the previous parliament. There will almost certainly be at least one minor party Senator elected in each State in addition to the Xenophon team.

That means the Coalition Government, assuming it is returned, will be obliged to negotiate with the crossbench to secure passage of its legislation. Depending on the vote for the Coalition, and how much people follow the advice on how-to-vote leaflets, negotiations with the crossbench could be significantly influenced by how the Coalition has directed its preferences. The Coalition may be negotiating with crossbenchers it has chosen, via its preferences.

If the crossbench includes several Senators from conservative religious parties, a Liberal government will be able to count on their vote to achieve various socially conservative changes. However, it will not be able to count on them to wind back spending in order to balance the budget. While the conservative parties strongly disagree with many of the ways in which our taxes are currently being spent, they are not supporters of small government and lower taxes in general. My colleague Bob Day is unique in that respect, and even he voted against repeal of the School Kids Bonus, reducing the concession on student loans, and my bill to tighten means testing of Family Tax Benefits.

If the government wanted a Senate crossbench that supported its battle to bring the budget under control, it would have thrown its support behind the Liberal Democrats. We are wholeheartedly committed to small government, low taxes and a balanced budget. Indeed, when Clive Palmer and his fellow lefties were criticising the government's 2014 budget as harsh, we argued it did not go far enough. With Labor now agreeing to implement many of its measures, and neither side having a convincing plan to bring the deficit under control even now, history shows we were right.

But instead of that, the Liberals have failed to include the Liberal Democrats in their how-to-vote leaflets in Victoria and Queensland, and have placed us below the religious conservative parties everywhere else.

This is not a complaint, as we are well placed to gain sufficient primary votes to win additional seats in the Senate in our own right. Our concern is that by risking the formation of a crossbench that will not support its economic agenda, the Liberal Party may be laying the seeds of its own destruction. Our debt and deficit are too important to be mishandled.