Why Australia's Pirate Party won't get elected

Many would love to see the Pirate Party and Communications Minister Stephen Conroy face off in the Australian Senate, but the unorthodox political party doesn't have a snowball's chance in hell of winning the necessary votes.
Written by Renai LeMay, Contributor

commentary At long last, Australia is to have its own official outpost of the Pirate Party, a controversial political group that has been wreaking havoc in Europe's parliaments for some years now.

It's about time.

It's a widely reported fact, after all, that BitTorrent-fuelled internet content piracy is a popular pastime in Australia; so popular, in fact, that some studies claim to have shown file-sharing is more popular down under than in any other nation worldwide.

The popularity of peer-to-peer traffic in our wide brown land is only matched by the vehemence with which our existing political parties have opposed it.

Current Communications Minister Stephen Conroy has thrown his hat in the ring on the issue several times.

For example, in March he was accused of improperly prejudicing the ongoing lawsuit between iiNet and major film studios, when he ridiculed iiNet's defence that it did not know whether its users had been downloading copyrighted works.

That came after Conroy in January added BitTorrent and other peer-to-peer software to the list of undesirable nasties, which the government's extremely unpopular internet filtering trial would try to block.

Considering that such polar opposite views are held by the nation's population and their representatives, it was inevitable that a radical political party such as the Pirate Party would arise to exploit the gap. After all, it is just such a gap that is driving the rise of the Australian Greens, despite the best efforts of Labor and the Coalition to "greenwash" their image.

The only problem for the Pirate Party is that it is extremely unlikely to win any seats in any election in the foreseeable future, meaning it will likely remain, like the Democrats, a party sidelined in the national debate.

The most likely arena in which the Pirate Party can realistically compete is, as the group flagged this morning, in the next federal election.

This refers, of course, to the much-maligned Australian Senate, with its alluring low-hanging fruit of proportional representation voting that has allowed many minority parties to sneak a seat or five over the years. Minority parties have almost no chance of picking up a seat in the House of Representatives, where candidates have to win the majority of votes in an individual electorate by geography.

If Steve Fielding and Nick Xenophon can make it into the Senate, the argument goes, surely anybody can.

Unfortunately for the Pirate Party, it's not that easy.

Let's assume the best-case scenario. In the recent European Parliament elections held this year, the Pirate Party picked up 7.1 per cent of the vote. That amount was enough to get Swedish candidate Christian Engström into the EU Parliament and the Pirate Party truly on the map in terms of European politics.

An interesting point here is that getting candidates elected, or even winning a certain proportion of the vote, is usually enough to win guaranteed government funding for political parties in most countries, including Australia.

However, if you examine the Senate voting in Australia's 2007 federal election (the one in which Kevin Rudd romped home), you'll find that even if the Pirate Party won that amount of votes or more, it would be very unlikely to win a Senate seat.

The group will not come close to winning seats in the next federal election even if it does poll as high as 7.1 per cent

In 2007, for example, the Greens, a rising challenger party in Australian politics, won 8.43 per cent, 10 per cent and 7.32 per cent of the vote in New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland respectively, and did not win a Senate seat in any of those states.

The Greens even picked up a staggering 21.47 per cent of the vote in the Australian Capital Territory and 8.84 in the Northern Territory, although each of those territories only has two senators, while the states get 12 each.

The problem for the Greens is that it usually ended up losing because of complicated preference deals, where votes siphoned eventually to the major Labor and Coalition groupings.

Where the Greens won, it often did so at the end of the process, with Labor's preferences ending up in its bucket, or where it had star candidates like Tasmania's Bob Brown. And it's exactly this sort of preference situation that led to Family First's Steve Fielding winning a seat.

When you apply this process to a new entrant like the Pirate Party, with an unknown voting history and a radical agenda, it likely means the group will not come close to winning seats in the next federal election even if it does poll as high as 7.1 per cent, because it'll likely be far down the preferences list of major parties like Labor.

An unexpectedly good result, however, could pave the way for the party to win favourable preference deals in the election after that, around 2013-14. But it's impossible to say if the party's narrow appeal will stick with voters that long, and how the mainstream parties will have changed their policies in that time.

It's a pity. Having Communications Minister Stephen Conroy face off in the Senate against Pirate Party senators would certainly enhance the level of debate on issues of intellectual property and the internet, which much of the population is extremely concerned about.

Will you vote for the Pirate Party in the next federal election? Why or why not?

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