Election blues for Albert the Red

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The Independent Online
From his prison cell in Melbourne yesterday, the veteran left-winger Albert Langer defiantly described himself as an Australian political prisoner. Now 45, Mr Langer was seen as an Australian Tariq Ali or Danny the Red during the 1960s, and has maintained his revolutionary credentials ever since.

He has just lost an appeal against a jail sentence for encouraging Australians to use a voting method at the general election which would ensure that no candidates from major political parties were elected.

Voting in Australia is compulsory. In federal elections such as that on 2 March, it is conducted under a preferential system by which voters place numbers against the candidates on the ballot paper in order of preference. Any candidate who wins more than half the first preference votes is elected. If no one gains a majority, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and second and subsequent preference votes are distributed until someone is declared elected.

In marginal constituencies distribution of preference votes will be vital to the main contenders, the ruling Labor Party, led by Paul Keating, and the opposition Liberal-National conservative coalition, headed by John Howard, and could decide who governs Australia for the next three years.

Mr Langer took to the streets of Melbourne early in the campaign with leaflets describing how voters could ensure that their preference votes went to neither Labor nor coalition candidates - "Tweedledum and Tweedledee", as he described them. Instead of marking their ballots 1, 2, 3, 4 and so on, he urged placing 1 and 2 next to independent or minor party candidates of their choice, followed by 3, 3 and 3 against candidates for the big parties. Such a vote, he argued, would ensure preferences would not transfer to Labor or the coalition.

Australia's Electoral Act does not strictly prohibit voting in the way Mr Langer advised. But it does ban encouraging voters to mark ballots in any way other than the 1, 2, 3, 4 order, with a maximum penalty of 6 months' jail. Mr Langer's campaign was part of a challenge he brought before the High Court arguing that the Electoral Act contradicted the implied constitutional right to free speech. When he defied an injunction to stop distributing leaflets, Mr Justice Barry Beach in the Victorian Supreme Court last week jailed him until 30 April.