Australia’s Major Party Headaches


Recent elections in Australia have revealed a subtle revolution taking place within the country’s various legislatures. Election results for the recent Victoria State election were finalized last week, and the upper house results continued a notable trend.

Since 2013, Australia has had one Federal Election and two State Elections, all three of which have elected to their upper houses an array of small or single-issue parties. Collectively these parties control the balance of power in each of these three jurisdictions, causing significant headaches for the traditional major parties of Labor and the conservative Liberal/National coalition.

Australians have traditionally favored having a third force in their upper houses to scrutinize their governments. This practice of voting for one party in the lower house and another in the upper house is a reasonably common occurrence.

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While the favored destination for third party votes in the 1980s and 1990s was the centrist Australian Democrats, the rise of the environmental movement since the turn of the century has correspondingly seen the Australian Greens emerge as the third decisive voice. The Greens have taken around 10 percent of the vote in recent elections, holding the balance of power in the Federal Senate during the previous Labor government.

In comparison to the lower houses, Australia’s upper houses have always been more hospitable to smaller parties, which have remained bastions of the Labor and Liberal/National parties (despite the Greens securing a couple of inner-city Melbourne seats and the occasional strong independent).

The discrepancy arises from a quirk in the Australian voting system. With its unique proportional-preferential voting system, a party must obtain a “quota” of votes to win a seat in an upper house. Parties which do not win a quota will pass their preferences on to a party of their choice. This occurs in “rounds,” so that a party excluded in a previous round can in turn transfer its votes to another party still in the running. This allows parties without a large percentage of direct votes to nonetheless secure seats in parliament.

Interestingly, two converging factors in these recent elections have disrupted conventional results by allowing an increasing number of minor and single-issue parties to be elected.

The first is the significant drop in percentage of the overall vote for the two major parties. In the 2004 Federal election, the Labor Party and the Liberal/National coalition, received 84 percent of the overall vote. In the 2013 Federal Election this had fallen to 79 percent of the vote. In the recent Victorian state election, the figure had dropped further, to 73.5 percent.

The second derives from the ability of some minor parties to “game” the preferential-proportional system to increase their odds. Known in the media as “the preference whisperer,” Glenn Druery developed a formula called “preference harvesting” that can allow a party to win a seat on a very small margin of direct votes.

The main beneficiary of this at the 2013 Federal Election was the Motoring Enthusiast Party, whose preference harvesting allowed a Senator to be elected from just 0.51 percent of the primary vote.

The libertarian Liberal-Democratic Party and the conservative Family First Party also gained Federal seats.

Alongside these parties at this election came mining magnate, Clive Palmer, who formed the eponymous Palmer United Party after a dispute with the Queensland premier (Palmer was a major donor to the Queensland Liberal National Party). His considerable resources managed to secure a seat in the House of Representatives for himself, as well as three Senators in his pocket to toy with the Liberal/National government (although one now sits as an independent).

A similar headache exists for the South Australian Labor government, which after the 2013 election have had to negotiate with a cross-bench of two Greens and two Family First representatives, alongside a member for the Dignity for Disability Party and one member of the Xenophon Team – the vanity project of Federal independent Senator Nick Xenophon that focuses on the social damages of slot machines.

The newly elected Labor Party in Victoria faces negotiating with a crossbench equally as diverse. The self-explanatory Shooters and Fishers Party have won two seats in rural constituencies. They are joined by the Sex Party, born out of the porn industry lobby group and concerned with issues of civil liberties, along with the protectionist Vote 1 Local Jobs, and the Democratic Labour Party (DLP) with a seat each.

The DLP, a mostly Catholic, socially conservative party, was formed out of a split in the Labor Party in 1955, and were a major factor in keeping the Labor Party out of power federally from this period until 1972.

While this voting system and the results it is now creating may seem frustrating to the political classes whose stability is threatened, it gives hope to outsiders, an essential component of democratic principles.

Those who may only have one issue to advocate for can find some oxygen in the system. It has created a positive increase in democratic participation (and some comically large ballot papers.)

The Australian system should be lauded for providing such an outlet for dissent. For it must be stressed that this phenomenon would not have been possible if the public remained overwhelmingly supportive of the major parties.

With both major parties (and the Greens) nowadays stacked with political professionals, the general public is increasingly feeling disconnected and distrustful of their representatives.

However, without a responsible mainstream force to replace these stale and entrenched actors, Australians have sent a discordant set of minor and single issue parties to frustrate them instead.

While the two major parties may wish to collude to change the voting system that threatens their stronghold, they would be wise to acknowledge the implications of these election results. Any machinations may only increase the public’s distrust.

Future workable majorities will require some significant and transparent self-analysis.

Grant Wyeth is a Melbourne based freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter @grantwyeth.

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