This past Saturday, the Australian Labor Party took control of the Western Australian state parliament after more than eight years of Liberal Party leadership. In a historic swing election, voters emphatically rejected the ruling Liberal-National coalition, with outgoing premier Colin Barnett conceding the race less than three hours after the polls closed. Support for the popular minor party, One Nation, was low as well.
Many reasons were attributed to the Liberal Party’s stunning defeat, ranging from natural cycles in Australian politics to issues of mining and energy. One of the most immediate causes however, was thought to be the coalition struck between the Liberal Party and One Nation. Under the deal, One Nation encouraged its supporters to rank Liberal Party candidates above Labor candidates in most of the seats they were contesting, and the Liberal Party agreed to ask its supporters to rank One Nation candidates above National Party candidates in certain regional seats.
An unlikely pairing, the Liberal Party and One Nation coalition outraged many centrist voters, who felt the Liberal Party should not make deals with a far-right minor party. The arrangement also angered supporters of One Nation as well, who did not like seeing the outsider party making deals with the establishment. Pauline Hanson, leader of One Nation, thought her party’s deal with the Liberal Party ultimately cost One Nation seats. Since One Nation lacked the staff to canvass most polling locations, it is unclear whether her party’s strategy worked even from a mechanical perspective, that is, whether most One Nation voters were actually told to rank Liberal Party candidates second.
The failure of this strategy reflects what most RCV supporters already know, that RCV rankings reflect sincere preferences of the voters, and that any plan that relies on voters acting strategically, is unlikely to succeed. Candidates and parties can and should compete for each others second choice votes, but parties do not own their voters, and demanding that voters obey some strategic calculus, rather than just appealing to them, is a recipe for tumultuous and unexpected outcomes.