News National What comes next for Australia’s ‘preference whisperer’?
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What comes next for Australia’s ‘preference whisperer’?

Glenn Druery
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The Race Across America is a thigh-pounding, glute-shredding, non-stop cycling event, about twice as long as the Tour de France and almost as brutal. Glenn Druery is the only Australian to have completed it four times.

“It’s addictive,” says the ‘ringmaster’ of Australia’s latest political phenomenon, the so-called micro party alliance. “It is my Everest times a million. A race like that gets into your soul.”

Druery, who got his start as a political adviser in New South Wales, reckons he is better known in the US for his cycling, but has long been renowned at home for putting together preference deals like the one that got the Outdoor Recreation Party into the NSW Parliament on 0.2 per cent of the primary vote.

“They didn’t see me coming,” he says of that 1999 result. “Once I got there, they didn’t know what I was doing. And once I’d gone, they didn’t understand what I had done.” 

It was his first real success and gave birth to the term ‘preference harvesting’. In the years since he’s perfected a simple but revolutionary idea: he gets tiny parties to work together by preferencing themselves higher and their big party rivals lower.

He calls it “Drueryism” and it helped elect three micro candidates to the Senate at the recent federal election. Says the political lobbyist: “The electoral math is all in my head.”

In demand

Which is why various parties in Western Australia are seeking him out. That and the increasing prospect of a re-election because the electoral commission has petitioned the High Court to declare the WA Senate result invalid on account of 1,370 missing votes.

“As soon as it looked like we were going to have a re-election, my phone went ballistic,” says Druery. “All of those I’ve spoken to are very excited, some of them are newcomers to the alliance. I guess they’ve seen real, tangible results.”

Druery believes another election will happen between mid to late February and April. But others aren’t so sure. Richard Bell, a Sydney-based barrister experienced in electoral disputes, says a re-run is no certainty.

“Courts do re-call elections in a proper case, but it’s something that does need to be justified,” says Mr Bell. “People don’t necessarily think that a re-election is a perfect solution because you might vote differently.”

The possibility of Western Australians voting differently is exactly what some of the micro parties are hoping for. Another election would give each of them a chance to nab the one seat Druery says is theirs for the taking – provided Clive Palmer doesn’t beat them to it.

“The minor party alliance sure works, and it will work again. But it can really only get one minor party elected at a time,” says Druery.

Previous winners

Last time around, it was the Sports Party’s Wayne Dropulich who snared a seat. This seems likely to change, especially since ‘state sacrifice’, the usual tactic of trading preferences across states, will be impossible. Every micro party will be gunning for the same seat, with no-one willing to pass up the chance of getting it.

“I think the Sports Party will miss out because they won’t be underestimated this time,” says the president of the Stable Population Party William Bourke.

A veil of mystique shrouds whether Druery, with his political nous and so-called ‘voodoo mathematics’, is able to predict or even engineer a different winner, or whether his powers are completely overstated.

“People read too much into it,” says the founder of the Senator Online party, Berge Der Sarkissian. “Glenn doesn’t know or keep a tab on it all.”

The unknown variables in the equation are the exact preferences of each party and the precise number of primary votes they will amass. Druery only knows for sure the preferences of those who pay him and can only make educated guesses about the outcome of primary polling. Or so it seems.

“I don’t know exactly what he does mathematically, and he’s probably not going to tell you,” says Der Sarkissian.

Secret weapon

While Druery refuses to give much away, including the names of his clientele, he does hint at having a secret weapon in his arsenal. His partner, Melissa Archery, is a high school mathematics teacher in the USA.

“We have great conversations about the mathematics,” says Druery. “I’ve educated her on the ramifications of the mathematical ripples. She’s educated me on some of the more theoretical sides.”

Druery met Archery in 2010 at a cycling event while she was on teacher exchange from the US. She’s proven to be the perfect counterpoint to his “bush mathematics.”

“She’s the professional and I’m an amateur. She polishes the edges,” says Druery.

The concept of “Drueryism” may well be elementary, but it masks a confusing spider web of preferences that determines precisely which micro party comes out on top – something Druery reckons he can mentally calculate.

Teamwork

Grouping together in an alliance is common in both politics and cycling. In the Tour de France, cycling teams ride together to boost and shepherd their own riders in the field, while at the same time blocking and tiring the other competitors.

What concerns many is the possibility that Team Micro might be shoving the other parties off their bikes, dosing themselves with hefty vials of voter ignorance and conspiring to get one predetermined rider over the line.

Der Sarkissian concedes Druery could theoretically mastermind which party gets the micro seat in WA, but argues political ambition and the intricacy of preferences make it nigh impossible.

“I’m not raising money from my members so that some other joker can get in,” says Der Sarkissian.

If this is true, then it seems Druery’s only role is that of tactical advisor to the whole alliance and preference strategist for a paying few.

“He provides a central point of guidance and assistance for everyone to understand the system. And then you go out and make your own deals. Well, we do anyway,” says Bourke. “We won’t be paying him because we can do the work ourselves.”

Forces at play

So if Druery is only telling Team Micro to ride together in a pack and is not actually picking the winner, then what determines which micro party wins in WA? The answer might be a dash of democracy and a healthy dose of luck.

“In terms of which minor party gets in, I think it’ll be the luck of the draw to some degree,” says Der Sarkissian. “It’s a combination of good management of preferences and being lucky.”

But for a man who cycles over 15,000 kilometres in a normal year, and over 25,000 when training for races in America – and whose paying customers include a Family First senator and a Shooters and Fishers state MP – chance is a dirty word.

When he next climbs aboard the electoral cycle, “I am the one who probably has the best idea of who is going to win”, says Druery, matter-of-factly.

Such confidence is hardly surprising for a man who has won the Race Across America not once, but twice. Along the way he learned that if you don’t pump up your own tyres, no-one else will.

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