Suzanna Sheed forced to allocate preferences for upcoming state election

By Myles Peterson

Independent candidate and sitting State Member for Shepparton Suzanna Sheed has been forced to do something she has previously avoided — allocate preferences to her political opponents.

How-to-vote cards, favoured by most major and minor parties, are offered to prospective voters at pre-poll stations and on election day and represent an attempt by political apparatchiks to control how their faithful votes.

Preference deals are often hotly contested and the cards are governed by strict rules to prevent foul play.

Ms Sheed’s campaign came unstuck this week when the Victorian Electoral Commission ruled she could not leave the cards blank and tell her supporters to make up their own minds.

‘‘It’s a preferential system, people need to allocate preferences on the ballot paper, but I didn’t want to tell them what to do’’ Ms Sheed said.

A hearing before VCAT on Wednesday judged the Sheed campaign could not leave the spaces blank for fear of confusing voters.

To meet the VCAT order, Ms Sheed’s campaign has released two new how-to-vote cards, one that favours Labor candidate Bill Heath and one that favours the two Coalition candidates.

‘‘Given that most people are going to vote for Labor or Opposition parties, I’ve opted for (how-to-vote cards) that give them the choice,’’ Ms Sheed said.

La Trobe lecturer in political communications Mark Civitella said it was an unusual situation where a standing candidate did not want to allocate preferences.

‘‘I think the VEC has to protect the integrity of the election and not allow something to go out that may mislead, remembering that some people are voting for the first time,’’ he said.

But Dr Civitella also conceded the system was poorly designed for a candidate in Ms Sheed’s position.

‘‘There are some cases were candidates do go into elaborate preference deals and they’ve accidentally ended up favouring someone with appalling behaviour,’’ he said.

Ms Sheed responded to questions regarding her decision to place the Nationals’ Peter Schwarz ahead of Liberal Cheryl Hammer on her ‘‘conservative’’ how-to-vote card.

‘‘I decided that we’d go that way because it’s my view that despite a lot of the National party behaviour just recently, I would still prefer to have a party that has a good knowledge of regional issues over the Liberal party, which I believe to be a very metropolitan-based and focused party,’’ she said.

Ms Sheed this week came under attack on two fronts via push-polling ‘‘robocalls’’ and television advertisements. Neither attack was attributed to a political party, although the NSW chapter of the National party admitted ownership of the company associated with the unsolicited phone calls.

‘‘I’m seeing quite a lot of advertising coming out and robocalls, but nobody seems to want to claim them ... it’s difficult to know who’s throwing what amount of money and mud around,’’ Ms Sheed said.

‘‘They’re pretty tacky and it’s pretty disappointing to see the tone of attack and it’s not something we’ve really had before in that way.’’