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Is the party over for Julian Assange and WikiLeaks?

With just over two weeks to go in the campaign, Julian Assange’s WikiLeaks Party has experienced some unsettling events that suggest it may be unravelling. Assange’s Victorian Senate running mate Leslie…

Controversial preference deals and high-level resignations may seriously damage the election chances of Julian Assange and his WikiLeaks Party. AAP/Joe Castro

With just over two weeks to go in the campaign, Julian Assange’s WikiLeaks Party has experienced some unsettling events that suggest it may be unravelling.

Assange’s Victorian Senate running mate Leslie Cannold has resigned along with four members of the party’s National Council over controversial preference deals, which Cannold claims undermined the party’s ideals of “democracy, transparency and accountability”.

The newly-founded WikiLeaks Party continues a rich tradition of minor parties contesting elections in Australia. Some estimates suggest that over 600 minor parties have emerged since 1910, but very few have actually won parliamentary representation.

Reforms to the Senate electoral system introduced by the Hawke government in 1983 made it a bit easier for minor parties to win Senate seats. This is because the size of the House of Representatives was increased to 150 which triggered the “nexus” provision in the Constitution. As a result, the Senate was increased from ten senators per state to 12. This meant that, in the case of a half Senate contest (that is, a non-double dissolution election in which half the Senate was up for election) the percentage of the vote needed to achieve a quota fell from 16.6% to 14.4%.

The Hawke reforms also introduced another feature which has become crucial in deciding electoral contests: the Group Ticket Vote (GTV). The GTV is a much simpler method of voting for the Senate as it gives voters the option of voting “above the line”. Voters have the choice of simply indicating their first preference and the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) will distribute voters’ preferences based on what had been decided by the political parties.

The GTV is popular among Australian voters, especially by those voting for the major parties, which has meant that minor parties have tried to engineer preference deals that give them the best chance of victory.

Indeed, since the Hawke reforms, there have been a number of minor parties that have won Senate representation even though they attracted a small percentage of the primary vote. For example, in 1984 the Nuclear Disarmament Party’s Jo Vallentine won a Senate seat in Western Australia after winning just 1.5% of the primary vote. In 2004, Family First’s Steve Fielding was elected with just 1.9%, while in 2010 the Democratic Labor Party’s John Madigan won a seat with just 2.3%.

The parties were able to win Senate representation as they were beneficiaries of the preferences from one or other of the major parties. The GTV can be a double-edged sword for minor parties if they fail to get the preferences of the major parties. In 1998, for example, the major parties ran a “put One Nation last” campaign and stopped the party from winning additional seats.

The issue of organising preference deals is crucial to any new minor party, and is at the heart of the “teething problems” experienced by WikiLeaks where several prominent party members have resigned over the party’s flow of preferences.

Of particular concern to these members - including Leslie Cannold - was the party’s flow of preferences in Western Australia and New South Wales. In Western Australia, for example, the party has lodged its GTV which show that its preferences go to the Nationals before the Greens. In New South Wales, WikiLeaks preferences go to the Shooters and Fishers Party before the Greens.

Those resigning from the party, including Cannold and WikiLeaks National Council member Daniel Mathews, have made it clear that such preference flows were not agreed to by the party’s decision makers. This can be a major problem for a party that promoted itself as one concerned with transparency and accountability.

For its part, WikiLeaks has issued a statement acknowledging its error and has promised to investigate why the party’s original preference flows were not lodged. The party has also promised to issue a “how to vote below the line” card so that voters can follow the party’s “true preference nominations”. Assange himself blamed the confusion over preference deals on failures of delegation, but says he remains confident in his party’s electoral chances:

I’m not sure I’d call it chaos, although of course it [the resignations] is a significant event.

WikiLeaks is not the first minor party to suffer a mini-split in its early stages. The Nuclear Disarmament Party underwent a major split when disagreements emerged over organisational arrangements at its very first national meeting in 1985. The One Nation Party juggernaut also unravelled quickly over concerns about the role of ordinary members.

These cases highlight how small parties face significant challenges as they try to build roots and grow in a system dominated by the established players. Only time will tell if WikiLeaks has the capacity to grow in the face of these challenges.

Still, there is a glimmer of hope for WikiLeaks especially in Victoria where the Greens are directing preferences to Assange. The Greens are currently polling at 17% of the primary vote in Victoria which would allow it to win a quota and send its surplus to WikiLeaks. This would enhance WikiLeaks’ prospects of winning a seat and ensure that Assange maintains his prominence in the current election debate.