The Problem of Preferences
Every election there seems to be a huge debarcle over how parties distribute their preferences. I personally think that it should not be as big an issue. The basics of the preference system is that the individual on polling day can themselves decide which candidates they would prefer in which order, so it is completely up to the individual to appropriately decide their own personal preferences, not the parties who are putting forward candidates. So where is the problem, if the responsibility falls on the individual to determine their own preferences, then why the big fuss over the parties preferences.
If only it were that simple. The issue arises because of the humble How To Vote cards that get handed out at poling booths. These How To Vote cards are handed out by all major parties contesting an election, the reason being is that without these how to vote cards, many well intentioned people attempting to vote for a particular party if they don't have a How To Vote card that could render their vote invalid. This is a very real concern, and the parties are quite right to worry about this. So they will issue How To Vote Cards, but because if they don't actually fill in the How To Vote cards completely, there is a significant risk that the people who want to vote for them will do the exact same thing as what's on their How To Vote card, again rendering the vote invalid. So the issue remains, parties need to present a completed valid How To Vote card just in case people follow them to the letter. The issue is that the majority of people do follow the How To Vote cards to the letter. The case is even worse for the senate (or upper house) representatives where in Australia you are offered the choice of voting in 2 seperate ways, a single number "above the line" for the party you want to vote for directly, or numbering up to 60 or 70 individual candidates "below the line". The average voter will vote above the line saving them an enormous amount of time and concern attempting to decide who you really prefer the least, the "shooters for greener forests party", or the "peoples rights for bowel movements party". The question is, if you vote above the line, what happens if the party you vote for does not make it to the senate position? Well, if you vote above the line, the party gets to determine where your preferences go. This information has to be registered with the electoral commision a few weeks before an election, but the truth of the matter is that the vast majority of people have no idea where their preferences will go after they vote in this way.
Given that most people follow the How To Vote cards blindly, the way the parties lay out their How To Vote cards for the lower house, how who they give their preferences to in the upper house, becomes vitally important as elections can be won/lost all on these preferences. Their have been numerous cases where parties have sprung up simply to divert preferences to some other party. Liberals for the forest are a classic example of this, a party that had absolutely no hope of winning a senate seat, but were in fact there simply to capture the votes from people who voted above the line. This starts to become extremely un-democratic. The classic case of this happened at the last federal election here in Victoria where a releatiely inknown party called "Family First" did a preference swap with the Labor party. The Labor party increasingly worried about the Greens becomming a third political force in Australian politics, decided to preference the Family First candidate Steven Fielding above The Greens. Assuming that Family First had enough of a support base to get Labor across the line over The Greens, but not enough to get themselves across the line, they thought this was a safe bet. The Labor party mis-calculated hugely, and the result is that with just under 2% of the primary vote, Steven Fielding Managed to narrowly beat the Greens candidate David Ristrom (who incidently got 12% of the primary vote) purely on labors preferences. The Labor voters I know were horrified when they realised that they'd helped get Steven Fielding into the senate, and I know all of them would have "preferred" David Ristrom from The Greens, who would have been much more in line with labors ideals than a right wing, conservative politician like Steven Fielding.
The real problem of preferences is that for parties it often boils down to "How can we structure our How To Vote card to give us the best chance of winning a seat". which is distinctly at odds with the imperative of the voter which is "Who would I prefer to win this seat".
I think that the solution to this dilema is that people actually need to become more aware of the political process, not just follow blindly the How To Vote cards. You still need to be careful enough to ensure your vote counts as a valid vote, and there needs to be more education on this as part of any election campaign. but if people start to actually vote the way they genuinely prefer, and they stop voting above the line in upper house elections, then there won't be as much emphasis placed on the preference swaps and dealings that go on before the election, and parties will be more likely to use the How To Vote cards as a true indication of who they prefer rather than what deal will win me the seat. If you do insist on voting above the line or following the How To Vote cards exactly, make sure you look at the preferences before you get to the polling both. This information is usually available on the various electoral commision web sites, so for the Victorian election next week, see the VEC, for Australian Federal elections see The AEC.