First, for anyone baffled by the Australian preference voting system, it works like this. Over to the Electoral Council of Australia (you can stop reading at the end of the second sentence if you prefer):
'...preferential voting systems are majority systems where candidates must receive an absolute majority, 50% plus 1 of the total formal votes cast, to be elected. The term "preferential voting" means voters can indicate an order of preferences for candidates on the ballot paper, ie. who they want as their 1st choice, 2nd choice and so on. Full preferential voting [means] the elector must show a preference for all candidates listed on the ballot paper. In some electoral systems which use full preferential voting, the voter can leave one box empty if the voter's intention with regard to the other preferences is clear. The empty box is treated as the voter's last preference, eg: voting for the Victorian Legislative Council and Assembly. [With] Optional preferential voting, the number "1" preference must be shown and other preferences may be indicated, eg: voting for the NSW Legislative Assembly. [With] Partial preferential voting the elector must show a minimum number of preferences as set out on the ballot paper. eg: voting for the Tasmanian Legislative Council.In a Federal election for the House of Representatives, full preferential voting is used. Senators are elected by proportional representation: half of them are elected at each Federal election for a 6-year term. By the way, a ballot paper that has been incorrectly filled in or not filled in at all is called an 'informal' vote. Informal votes are weeded out and set aside before any counting of 'formal' votes begins. See http://www.eca.gov.au/systems/single/by_category/preferential.htm#full for an explanation of the distribution of preferences (votes).
Right now, three and half weeks before the Federal election, the two main parties are recommending who to vote for as a second choice. In effect, they are strategising to prevent minor parties from winning seats and being wooed into a coalition in the event of a small-majority win by either of the biggies. The LNP fails to mention the fact that it is, by definition, a coalition of the Liberal and National parties. You often hear them claim that the last government, a coalition of Labor and a handful of Independents and Greens, was a disaster. In fact, a huge amount of legislation was passed, considering. This was in no small part due to Julia Gillard's negotiating skills throughout her three years in office and despite Tony Abbott's constant campaign to undermine her efforts by calling no-confidence motions.
Over Australia as a whole, the Greens probably present the biggest threat (to the big guys) of all the small parties. In the 2010 election, they got 13 per cent of the Senate vote, the highest ever for a minor party. They won a seat in every state; another first. With nine senators in all, they held the balance of power. The Greens also won their first seat in the House of Reps. According to the polls this time around, however, their support has fallen away.
In hard times, or, more accurately, times that are perceived to be hard by Aussie 'battlers', voting is bound to be more conservative, that is, allied to traditional parties. Voters who think their jobs in the mines or the forests are under threat, are unlikely to support candidates who focus on sustainability and environmental protection. In addition, Australians appear reluctant to become proactive about climate change. They resent carbon pricing because of its potential impact on their household bills (in fact, they're being subsidised); and they are isolationist enough to get petulant when a United Nations agency in Paris criticises their stewardship of the Great Barrier Reef. Care of a wonder of the world, however, carries responsibility internationally. Finally, rather like in the United States, there is prevailing attitude here that Australia has a god-given right to exploit its natural riches. Anyone standing in the way of that, motivated by conservation or limiting growth, is likely to be reproached.
I have never come across such vitriol and bitching among politicians and in a Parliament as I have witnessed in Australia. In Europe, the Greens are respected as genuine believers in a cause that many voters sympathise with even if they don't actively support. Greens may sometimes be the recipients of 'protest votes' by disgruntled mainstream voters, but they are seldom considered to be subversive, extreme-left-wing loonies with a hidden agenda, and vilified as they are in Australia. There is even an 'I hate Australian Greens party' Facebook page.
I thought it was a spoof therefore when I heard that the Greens had reached agreement with Clive Palmer's rookie political party; but then I am struggling to grasp the subtleties, if that is an appropriate word in this context, of the second-preferencing free-for-all. Can they be serious? Palmer is the mining investor responsible for the proposed development of what former Greens leader Bob Brown has described as 'an obscene giant coal mine in central Queensland'*. Apparently it's all a ploy to boost the re-election chances of a couple of key Greens in South Australia and the ACT with the help of PUP's second preferences. In return, the Greens will second-preference PUP ahead of Labor in constituencies in Tasmania, South Australia and Queensland.
Fortunately, it doesn't matter how many second-preference deals the parties strike or however hard they try to justify their strange choice of bedfellows to the electorate. It is entirely up to you how you list your votes in order of your preferences.
I wouldn't be surprised if you were confused after the muddying of the waters during this last week of electioneering. I couldn't elucidate better than this: http://greens.org.au/understanding-preferences.* the inappropriately named China First Project in the Galilee Basin