How people elect parliaments
The dust is not settling quickly on yesterday’s Australian election.
Australians have elected a Parliament, but not an executive government.
But then, under Australia’s constitutional system the voters never do elect the executive government.
As every voter can see when they examine their ballot papers, the people do not directly mark a choice between the rival government offerings of the major parties.
Australian voters actually elect individual representatives to the two houses of Parliament, and only one of these – the House of Representatives – is responsible for the next three years for sorting out who becomes Prime Minister and assembles the executive government.
The results in around 140 of the 150 House electoral divisions seem to be clear, but 8 to 10 divisions are still in doubt.
The tally appears to be roughly Liberal/National Coalition 70, Labor 67, independents and others 5, with 8 divisions remaining to close to determine.
Labor is said to be leading in 6 of the 8, but analysts anticipate that the Coalition will do better with the postal votes that have not yet been counted.
While the Coalition could still just achieve the majority target of 76 seats, Labor apparently cannot. The most likely result is that the Coalition will continue governing with a House minority.
Counting of votes will resume on Tuesday, when most of the remaining postal, absent and other votes become available.
The implications of this closely balanced result for public and media understanding of the Australian system of government are significant.
For the second time in the past three elections, Australia’s electors have not given a majority of the seats in the House to one of the major parties.
The inbuilt distortionary effect of the single-member division electoral system has again failed to give a major party dominance of the House.
Support for non-major party candidates (including Greens) in the House elections has grown to a historic level of 23% nationally.
But among votes cast to elect senators the non-major-party share seems to have been around 35% nationally, reaching nearly 40% in Queensland and South Australia.
In the new 45th Parliament the share of the voting population actually represented in the House by candidates to whom they gave their first preference will remain at historic lows, as it has been for the past two elections.
The proportion of the electorate directly preferring the candidates of the party forming government will also be among the lowest ever.
The well-promoted claims from major parties that whoever forms the government has a ‘mandate’ for their policy program now lies in ruins.
The mandate theory – which lacks a constitutional foundation – appeared to make sense in the 1950s when the two major parties dominated the landscape, but the electoral results of modern era have exploded the idea.
In the next few weeks, or at the latest by the first sitting of the new House, an Australian government will be formed in the usual manner. The government will soon need to learn to operate in cooperation with both houses of the legislature.
The claims of the governing party to any special status for their program will hold little sway.
The governing Coalition may yet achieve a House majority of 1 or 2 seats, but they will only control one house. Australians have elected a Senate that will certainly not have a regular majority supporting the government.
Passage of proposed tax changes, budget measures and social legislation will require compromise and negotiation, as is the natural constitutional role of the Parliament.
The febrile political conditions apparently prevailing inside the Coalition parties do not suggest that this will be an easy, full-term Parliament.
If the Coalition cannot manage the pressures of minority government, a second House-only election fairly early in the term is a real possibility.