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Liberals need to pay attention to protest votes – they are proving costly

Recently I spoke at a community meeting in Hawthorn, Melbourne, run by Lighter Footprints, a community action group. Hawthorn is considered a safe Liberal state seat forming part of the federal electorate of Kooyong, held by the federal treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, and which has always been in the Liberal stable.

At this gathering 450 people joined for discussions on climate change and how they could make a difference and achieve policy change. There was a sense of resignation that, given the margin held by sitting members, mounting a real challenge let alone winning safe seats like this was not possible. But really, as Wentworth proved, if a strategic approach is adopted, no seat is safe anymore – including Kooyong.

At the next federal election, voters will donate $65m to the party or independent candidate of their choice through an election funding system that seems almost unknown to voters. Each voter, in deciding who to direct their first vote to, is in effect donating $2.70 to that party or candidate providing they get more than 4% of the vote.

Once financial worth is attributed to first-preference votes, campaigns to either attract or disrupt them will follow

When I explained at home to my children the “$65m question” and the fact they were giving someone $2.70, the whole notion of casting a vote had value. I have tried to explain to my children the social importance of voting but nothing I have ever said had the same impact of discussing how they will spend or give away their $2.70 on election day.

Once financial worth is attributed to first-preference votes, campaigns to either attract or disrupt them will follow, ensuring all candidates will need to rely on preference flows. It is not hard to imagine how candidates could be targeted with campaigns like “Don’t give them a cent!” or “Put candidate X number 2”.

I am not against taxpayer funding for elections where voters are informed about it and where the increasing amount of federal funding is backed by much-needed donation reform. Unfortunately, we have voters not understanding how their vote counts financially and political parties crying poor as an excuse for accepting influence-buying donations, conveniently forgetting the $65m they will share next year.

I worry that the Liberals really don’t understand the risk they currently face and how they need to learn from the Wentworth result and return to the “sensible center”. The Liberal party is seriously exposed as it lacks unity. Kerryn Phelps’s win exposed the divide in the party. Rightwing Liberals remain alone arguing against the need to address the two key moral questions of climate change and refugees. The common ground evident between Labor, the Greens and the many moderate Liberals on these key issues in effect consolidates opposition forces. This will be meaningful, as major parties often now need to rely on preferences when first-preference votes get used as protest votes by informed voters.

As Malcolm Turnbull raised in his Q&A interview, there may be a pattern emerging in that three of the formerly safest Liberal seats – Indi, Mayo and now Wentworth – are now held by independents or the Centre Alliance.

Should fiscally conservative and socially progressive independent candidates stand and secure just 20% of the Liberal voters’ first preferences, everything changes.

Should the Greens or Labor act strategically and direct their preferences in key seats to independents prioritising climate change action and socially progressive causes, the “Wentworth result” will be replicated across Australia, ending the climate change wars and the five years of prison for those caught up in Manus island and Nauru when the door was closed to boat arrivals.

The $65m dollar questions are: will the next federal election bring in a political change like we have not seen before as voters awake to the significance of their first-preference vote to inflict financial pain or reward on candidates? Will campaigns to move the $2.70 first-preference “donation” get under way? Will candidates who want to make a difference understand that it is actually possible remove safe sitting members who’s support base is fractured?

Will the Liberal party learn from Wentworth and scramble for the centre, embracing moderate liberals to “save the furniture” now that the house is fully ablaze?

Oliver Yates is a member of the Liberal party and former CEO of the Clean Energy Finance Corporation in Australia

Full story is available here.

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