On Elections

How people elect parliaments

New party steals votes from South Australians

A newly formed Australian political party has taken possession of three elected positions in Australian parliaments, despite never having faced the voters.

Earlier this year Australian Senator Cory Bernardi walked out on the national Liberal Party – through which he was elected less than a year ago to a six-year term – and registered his new Australian Conservatives political party.

Bernardi remains in the Senate, despite having been almost entirely elected by the votes of Liberal party supporters. Bernardi was the second-listed Liberal candidate on the ballot at the 2016 election.

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Senator Cory Bernardi – elected by Liberal voters, now accumulating parliamentary seats under his new party Australian Conservatives banner (image: SBS)

Senate elections use the single transferable vote (STV) electoral system.

The state of South Australia has a long –established association with the STV system. The state’s Electoral Reform Society points out that the municipal election in Adelaide in 1840 was “the first public election in the world using proportional representation principles.”

Prominent South Australian social reformer Catherine Helen Spence was among the most active advocates for electoral reform in the world in the late 19th century. In additional to advocacy within Australia, Spence toured Britain and the United States campaigning for the STV voting system as the only system which provided voters with ‘effective representation’.

The South Australian upper house, the Legislative Council, also uses the STV system to elect 11 MLCs each four-year electoral cycle to serve eight year terms, combining into a 22-member house.

At the national elections in 2016, voters within each Australian state elected 12 senators as their representatives.

To represent South Australian voters, each candidate had to receive the quota of 81,619 votes across the state.

Cory Bernardi, however, was a listed major party candidate for the Liberal party (Australia’s primary centre-right party). He received just 2,043 votes in his own name. The remaining 79,576 votes to elect him came from Liberal voters who cast a generic vote for the whole party ticket ‘above the line’ on their ballots.

Not only has Bernardi’s new political party stolen the votes of 79,000 voters who wanted a Liberal to represent them in the national parliament, it has now taken possession of two seats in the state Legislative Council, representing around 45,000 voters who supported yet another different political party.

The two state MLCs who have today joined Bernardi’s party – Dennis Hood and Robert Brokenshire – were elected in 2010 and 2014 under the Family First party banner by 42,000 and 44,00 voters respectively – probably, of course, many being the same voters.

Given the form of the ballot design for Legislative Council elections, these voters clearly wanted candidates standing for the Family First party to represent them. There is no indication that these voters granted Hood and Brokenshire a future right to switch completely to a new political party.

Australian politicians at both state and national levels are elected as individuals, mainly as nominees of party campaigns, but not on strict ‘party lists’ as occurs in many elections in European and other nations.

On occasions sitting Australian politicians are forced out by – or disown – their original parties and continue to sit as independents. Australian voters have been seen to take a wide variety of responses to such moves, ranging from high levels of subsequent electoral endorsement through to merciless dumping.

Full partly-hopping, however, is almost never well received in the community.

Family First was a socially conservative, Christian-themed political party created in 2002. In South Australia the party consistently won between 4% and 5% of the vote in elections to the state Legislative Council and the national Senate.  It has seen six members elected in the state. The party also saw one former Senator elected in the state of Victoria.

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Family First’s electoral history in South Australia 2002-2016 – consistently supported by around 40-50,000 voters, 4-5% of the state electorate

Curiously, Family First has tended to poll slightly higher – up to 60,000 voters – in elections to the South Australian House of Assembly or the national House of Representatives, but has never been close to winning a seat in the single-member division systems used to elect members to those houses.

The Family First party’s elected members and leaders are saying today that the party, unable to continue financially, will be would up, effectively merging it into Bernardi’s new party.

Family First has been involved in other recent adventures, after their sole 2016-elected Senator, Bob Day, was found to be ineligible to be elected to office. The High Court recently determined that Day’s place should be determined by a count back of the original votes, which has now seen the seat awarded to the party’s second-listed 2016 election candidate, Lucy Gichuhi.

But Gichuhi, who has yet to be sworn in as a Senator, has today declined to jump parties to the new bloc. The party supported by the voters she now claims to represent has in fact abolished itself underneath her, leaving her to sit as an independent senator for the next two years.

The South Australian Liberal Party is sharply divided between its ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ elements, and Bernardi has long been a prominent conservative in this intra-party factional division.

Bernardi argues that his move creates a new form of politics for conservative voters, allowing them more reliable representation outside of the broad church of the major party Liberals.

Bernardi’s proposition may well have a receptive market, but no-one has yet given those voters any opportunity, through an election, to endorse it.

The 79,000 Liberal voters who earlier this year lost their representation in the Senate to the cross-bench, and the roughly 45,000 Family First voters who have voted for the party steadily for a decade and a half – only to see it disappear today mid-term – have had no say in these political developments.


Update: According to the Guardian today, potential support for the new Australian Conservatives among Liberal Party voters stands at around 18% of Coalition voters. The report says that “18% of Liberal/National voters said they would be either very likely, or somewhat likely, to support the new breakaway movement.”

Applied to 2016 election results, that proportion would represent up to around 62,000 voters. That support would not have amounted to a quota of votes at the 12-seat election in 2016.

Moreover such a shift of votes, even if directly combined with the Family First constituency, would fall significantly short of the roughly 150,000-vote quota expected for the next election’s ordinary selection of just 6 new senators.

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