The Magic Three

November 19th, 2015


How Australian Elections Work (you’re not going to like this).


Why Malcolm Turnbull will win at least the next two, if not three or four, elections.

Most elections in Australia – Local, State, and Federal – operate on a Preferential Voting system. For a variety of reasons, a significant proportion of the population (>80%) vote for one of the two major parties, Labor and the Liberal/National Coalition. This means that in almost all elections, the vast majority of seats, if not all seats, will elect a Member from one of these two major parties. Minor parties and independents, in some cases getting more than 20% of the vote, will be eliminated when preferences are allocated. I’d prefer to have a system with more proportional representation of minor parties, independents, etc, however arguments about a lack of proportionality and representation are not the focus of this piece, so I’ll leave them aside.

The vast majority of voters will vote the same at every election – their world view, whether stated in two dimensions as Progressive vs Conservative, or in more sophisticated systems, will be the major influence their choice. So people who feel strongly about one end of the political spectrum or the other, will preferentially vote for the parties that traditionally support those views. If you fall into one of those categories, your vote essentially doesn’t count.

By logical extension, if a significant proportion of voters don’t change their vote, then due to the nature of the preferential voting system, it is the small proportion of voters who DO change their vote from time to time, who determine the outcome of any election.

To give a simple example, if there is an electorate of 100 voters, and in an election, let’s say they vote like this:

Labor 43
Liberal 37
National 5
Greens 8
Independent or other party 3
Informal: 4
Total: 100

Once preferences are allocated, let’s say we end up with 53 Labor and 47 Coalition. Labor wins. Let’s call this Election 1.

Let’s say 9 of these voters who voted for Labor decide to change their vote at the next election: 3 switch to the Liberal Party, 5 to the Palmer United Party, and one to the Greens. One of the independent voters decides to just decides to write “screw you” on the ballot paper this time, adding to those who make a mistake, intentionally stuff it up, leave it blank, etc.

Labor 34
Liberal 40
National 5
Greens 9
Palmer United 5
Independent or other party 2
Informal 5
Total: 100

Once preferences are allocated, you have 53 Coalition vs 47 Labor. Let’s call this Election 2.

So with only 9 voters (or 9%) changing their vote, and ONLY 3 of those voting Liberal, you have a change of government.

It’s when we look at those 3 who changed their vote from Labor to Liberal that it becomes interesting, and slightly depressing. Australia is a first world country. Life is very good compared to most of the rest of the world. Low crime rates, good healthcare, high employment, generally a good outlook on life. We can always debate the fine detail, but things are generally pretty good for the vast majority of the population. There are quote a lot of Australians who don’t care about politics in the slightest, because they don’t see that it has any effect on their own lives. And for the most part, they’re right, if they are middle class, have a reasonably well paying job or jobs, and are relatively healthy.

The general orthodoxy in Australian politics is that governments are voted out, rather than in. That is, when those 3 voters decide they’re sick of the current mob running the show, they kick them out and let the other mob have a go. As long as the other mob don’t stuff things up in a major way, they can look forward to running things for quite a while. Until eventually those 3 voters, let’s call them the Magic 3, get sick of the now current mob, and decide it’s time for a change of scenery.

After all, it’s the government that sets the policy agenda, not the opposition. It’s up to them to do what they think will take the country forward, while at the same time not doing anything to piss off the Magic 3. Rock the boat a little too much and you might find yourself out of a job. Just ask Gough Whitlam. Malcolm Fraser did ok, nothing too challenging, so he got to stick around for 8 years. The Hawke/Keating Labor government were in power for 12 years. They didn’t really do anything much to upset the Magic 3, and generally made life better for them through most of the major economic reforms of the late 20th century. The Magic 3 just finally got sick of seeing them in Power. The same thing for the Howard government. But the Rudd/Gillard government? All that infighting and backstabbing was a bit too much, so the Magic 3 turfed them out after two terms. Tony Abbott was on track to achieve the same level of pissing off the Magic 3 after only one term. That’s quite an achievement.

Until Malcolm Turnbull decided that he didn’t really want to spend years in opposition. Because he realised that, after the Magic 3 threw out the baby along with the bathwater, the last thing that Boring Bill Shorten was going to do was piss off the Magic 3. And you can be sure that Malcolm is smart enough to steer along with a steady hand and not rock the boat enough to make the Magic 3 seasick. He’ll have be a steady hand, nothing too controversial, and will hopefully structurally steer the economy towards the industries of the future instead of those of the past (yes, I’m looking at you, Tony), because after all, he’s pretty savvy when it comes to business.

But the point of all of this is that we have set up a system in which 3 people out of 100, who have no interest in politics, or any of what we (those who do care or are interested) think are the issues, decide who forms government. That’s the slightly depressing part.

If those numbers above look familiar, it’s because Election 1 is the 2007 Federal election, and Election 2 is the 2013 Federal election. The preferential voting system distorts the numbers game even further. It doesn’t matter if you get 5%, 10%, 20% of the vote, unless you get a majority of preferences in any one seat, you get no seats. This enormously favours the two largest parties. Election 1 (2007) seats: 83 Labor (55%), 65 Coalition and 2 independents. Election 2 (2013) goes: 90 Coalition (60%) vs 55 Labor, with 1 Green and 1 Palmer United. So with only 3% voters switching from Labor to Liberal, you get 25 seats out of 148 (17%) changing hands.

“Lying” and Cowardice

May 20th, 2014

Everyone knows that politicians will break promises. In fact, there are plenty of times when it’s actually the right thing to do. The word “lying” or “liar” has been so abused that people don’t really understand it anymore. If you break a promise, you’re not a liar. If you change your mind, you’re not a liar. Lying is deliberately telling an untruth with the intent to deceive.

This isn’t about the Abbott Government’s treatment of Refugees and Asylum Seekers. They told us exactly what they were going to do and they did it. Australia voted for “towing back the boats”. Australia voted for keeping children in concentration camps. Shame on us and many of us may not like it, but the Abbott government was honest about it, and did what they said they would do.

This isn’t about Climate Change. They dismantled the Clean Energy Finance Corporation and have taken every step they can to remove the Carbon Tax and any shred of real action on Climate Change. Many of us may not like it, and it may end up being be the single stupidest act in Australia’s history, but the Abbott government was honest about it, and did what they said they would do.

On a range of other issues, the Abbott government was honest, and did what they said they would do.

But this Budget (2014) is different.

The Charter of Budget Honesty introduced by Peter Costello meant that incumbent governments could no longer claim that finances were better than they actually were, but also that incoming governments could no longer claim that they were worse than they actually were. The end of the predictable “Budget Black Hole” that allowed incoming governments to have an excuse for breaking a bunch of their promises (“core” vs “non-core”) was no more.

So everyone knew the size of government debt, the size of the deficit, and we could have an honest exchange of views that was based on reality. At least we thought we were having an honest exchange of views.

This is not about whether or not you think the size of the deficit is a problem or not, or even whether or not you think that the size of government debt is a problem or not, nor is it about the rate at which you think needs to be reduced. There will always be disagreement on those things, and that’s why we have elections.

The magnitude of the budget deficit and net public debt have not changed since before the election, except due to decisions made by the Abbott government since the election, and those decisions haven’t made a significant change to either. So the circumstances haven’t changed.

This means that so many promises made by Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey before the election were lies. They never intended to keep those promises. They made them with the clear intent to deceive. The circumstances have not changed. There is no foundation for this complete reversal of their policy platform. They were banging on about the need to reduce debt and the deficit before the election and that continues to be their mantra. That part is perfectly fine. But now we find that the actions they want to take to address that deficit and debt are completely the opposite of what they told the Australian public before the election.

So why then have all those promises been broken? Because they never intended to keep them in the first place. No new taxes, no cuts to Education, no cuts to health, no changes to the Aged pension, no cuts to the ABC or SBS, no changes to foreign aid. It was all pure bullshit.

Why couldn’t they have had the courage to take their true policy platform to the election? This was their plan all along, they just didn’t have the intestinal fortitude to stand behind it before the election, pretending they would do something else until they were safely on the government benches.

This is not so much about WHAT the Abbott Government has done, this is about HOW they have done it. We’ve always known their conservative position on a number of issues. That’s why a lot of people vote for them. But I guess they knew if they told the whole truth, there would be a certain segment of the voting public that wouldn’t vote for them: the swinging voters. Those who actually decide the election outcome. They aren’t rusted on to either end of the political spectrum, and make their decision each time they vote, based on the performance of the government and what the opposition says they’ll do if they are elected.

The Abbott government is a bunch of gutless wonders. They don’t have the courage of their convictions. They actually lied to their own supporters! And now they’re lying about the lies, in true Orwellian style, by saying they didn’t break any promises. At least Julia Gillard admitted that she broke her promise on the carbon tax.

The Abbott Government is a pack of cowards.

Desert Island Art

June 8th, 2013

I’ve often joked with my computer geek friends that if I was stuck on a desert island and could have only one program, it would be Microsoft Excel. Which is amusing on a number of levels: I have a long history of Microsoft bashing; Excel is not very well known for anything other than number crunching; Real Programmers™ tend to pooh-pooh VBA (the programming language in Excel).

But Excel is incredibly versatile. You can use it as a word processor, the formatting is great, the built in formula language is great, using VBA lets you turn spreadsheets into applications, and more. I even used it to design the kitchen and bathroom tiling for the Electron Workshop.

But a 70+ year old Japanese artist has taken it to an entirely new level: Using Microsoft Excel to create art.





Much more at:


Design Notes: iPad editions of websites

April 24th, 2012

A short note to designers of websites with “iPad editions”:

Please stop.

Design Notes: Numbers and other user input

April 13th, 2012

I’m starting a new blog section on design for the web. I’ve been using the web and creating websites for almost 20 years now (hands up those who knew it’s been around that long), and have learnt a thing or two. But it bugs me that web designers are still overlooking some pretty basic design issues. And by design, I don’t mean graphic design. I mean design in the sense of how something is constructed, with a view to how it’s used.

If you’re a programmer and don’t think you’re a web designer, think again. You are the one implementing the design and so you are essential to making things work for the user.

So, today: numbers.

Many websites that require input of numbers have all sorts of validation rules that:

1) make the page fail to work in simple cases where it should work, and/or

2) send the page back to the user to fix input “errors” that the programmer could fix themselves.

A good example that combines the two of these is handling numbers. Bank account numbers, phone numbers, etc.

I get an email with bank account numbers, they are usually written it like this:
BSB: 012 345
Account Number: 123 456 789

Leaving aside the fact that spaces make it easier to read but copying more difficult (and if you’re reading them instead of copying-and-pasting, then you have a problem), we copy them and then attempt to paste them into, say, our internet banking program, where you usually end up with this:

The designer has helpfully made the box quite large but unhelpfully set the maximum lenth at 9 characters, because hey, that’s the maximum length of an account number.

Design Error.

Why create a long field and only allow half of it to be used? That’s just teasing. And if you don’t want anything other than numbers, just filter the input to take out anything other than a number.

Another couple of examples:

Enter Amount:

Enter Phone Number:

Often these bounce back with an “error” saying “Enter the amount in the format 1234.00”, or “Please enter your phone number in the format “0312345678” without any dashes or spaces”.


Programmer, if you want the numbers in a specific format, just do it yourself. It takes one or two lines of code, and you’re not unnecessarily annoying the hundreds, thousands or even millions of people who use your website. Why aren’t you doing everything you possibly can to make it easy for your users?