How people elect parliaments
Over 30% of Queensland voters have turned away from the state’s two traditional major political parties, in a complex election result which will take several days to resolve.
The election was called several months early by the state Premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk, in the face of poll predictions that her minority Labor party government could narrowly secure a parliamentary majority.
But as in many established democracies, voters in Queensland were seeking to find alternatives to the established governing parties.
The incomplete results known overnight leave the state waiting for an official election outcome. However at present there is no realistic path for the opposition Liberal National party to reach a governing majority.
At just 69% of the vote, the aggregate support for the two major parties yesterday was the lowest seen in a Queensland state election since the main parties took shape a century ago.
The main channel of voter protest in Queensland has been the populist, conservative One Nation party.
One Nation, which for most of its existence has been led by former small business operator Pauline Hanson – now a federal Senator – secured 13% of the vote yesterday.
One Nation surged into onto the Australian political landscape in the Queensland state election in 1998, winning 11 seats in the then 89-seat state Legislative Assembly.
But the party collapsed into disorder during its first term. Within a few years its star had faded, despite vigorous efforts to win seats federally and in several state legislatures.
But the yearning for alternatives has only grown in recent decades.
One Nation returned to the Australian scene – again led by Hanson – at the 2016 federal elections, winning 4 national Senate seats.
After failing at the Western Australian state election earlier this year, One Nation was expected to do well again in its original homeland of Queensland.
However despite the substantial Queensland vote, the party looks likely to win just one of the 93 seats in the new Assembly.
As with most Australian lower houses, the members of the Queensland Legislative Assembly are elected in single member electoral divisions.
But unlike the plurality systems used in many other nations, Australia uses preferential (ranked choice) voting for all of its legislative elections.
Australians are well used to seeing local election results determined by preference flows.
In the mid-north coast electoral division of Mirani, One Nation candidate Stephen Andrew polled 31% of the first preference votes, behind the Labor party candidate’s 37%.
But first preference votes (the candidates whom voters mark “1” on ballots) do not immediately determine seat results (unless the leader wins 50% of those votes). The lower ranked preferences of voters whose most preferred candidate polls poorly and gets eliminated are added to the tallies of the better-placed candidates until one candidate reaches a 50% majority of the votes.
In the Mirani division, One Nation’s Andrew should nonetheless win the seat after the transfer of ballots initially supporting other conservative voters.
Under new state laws passed in 2016, the state’s voters have also been obliged to mark preference rankings for every candidate in their electoral division.
The majority of Australian legislative elections use such ‘compulsory preferencing’, but some elections allow ‘optional preferencing’ which permits voters to ignore candidates in which they have no interest.
Saturday’s Queensland election result remains, however, very much in doubt, with around a dozen of the 93 election contests yet to become clear. (Electoral Commission official results are here, and the ABC’s electorate results count is here; both will be updated as counting progresses).
When the dust finally settles, every one of the 93 electoral divisions will have a winning MP who can claim a majority of voter support – unlike the many plurality winners seen in first-past-the-post electoral systems in the UK, the United States, Canada and some other countries.
Party the delay is due to the Australian practices of pre-poll and postal voting, which is growing in popularity. These votes were not counted on election night, but will be counted during the next 7-10 days.
According to the Queensland electoral commission around 67% of registered voters voted on Saturday’s polling day, and another 23% have voted early or by post. The total voter turnout of around 90% is consistent with Australian elections, where voting is legally compulsory.
But the combination of late-counted votes and the surge of non-major party votes is also combining to create many complex divisional contests, the outcomes of which cannot yet be predicted.
A historic 24 seats have seen 4 or more candidates exceed 10% of the first preference votes.
In some cases such minor party candidates will not be among the final two contestants after preferences, but there are several seats where it remains quite unclear which two candidates are best-placed, and the order in which les successful candidates will be eliminated.
In one case – the division of Hinchinbrook, in northern Queensland – the candidate od Katter’s Australia Party (a regional conservative party) Nicholas Dametto, who is initially placed behind two others on the first preference votes, may well pull off a very rare win from 3rd place after preferences.
The strongest four candidates in Hinchinbrook won 30%, 22%, 21% and 19% of the first preference votes respectively. Given the political character of the other minor candidates soon to be eliminated, Dametto’s vote tally, starting at 21%, is fairly likely to overtake the second-placed candidate, and eventually the first-placed, as other voter preferences are transferred.
With over 43% of the vote going to conservative non-major party candidates, Dametto’s win will constitute a more appropriate representation for the electors of the division than the seat going to the Liberal National candidate, who won only 30%.
To make election results clear as quickly as possible, Australian electoral officials try to predict which two candidates will be best-placed, allowing them to carry out initial election-night ‘two-candidate-preferred’ counts of the ballots received at election-day polling places.
But at this election the surge of votes for One Nation, independents and other minor parties yesterday has resulted in the Commission predicting the wrong two finalists in over 20 of the electoral divisions, delaying the indicative winner counts.
The One Nation party ran in 61 of the 93 seats, and won vote shares between 15% and 35%.
The Green party ran across all divisions, securing an average of 13% of the vote across Brisbane, 10% in the adjoining coastal urban regions, but only 3-6% in regional areas.
The Greens will probably secure just one seat, Maiwar, where they polled well with 28% of the first preferences, placing just ahead of the Labor party. After the preferences of Labor voters are examined, their revised vote tally should overtake that of the first-placed Liberal National party candidate.
In northern Queensland the Katter’s Australia Party (KAP) looks set to win three seats in the Assembly. The KAP vote is highly concentrated in only 10 electoral divisions, giving them an efficient seat outcome despite their fairly low statewide support.
Two locally popular independent candidates also appear to have won seats. Independents have the advantage that they are usually broadly acceptable to the voters who initially support other parties, and are rarely ranked last on ballots.
In the division of Noosa independent Sandra Bolton led the field with 32% of the first preference vote, and should receive preferences from many other voters.
In Rockhamption Margaret Strelow is likely to achieve the same result, despite placing second on first preference votes at just 23%.
With the statewide votes of 23% or more of registered voters still to be counted, several seats just to close to call, and some candidate elimination orders yet to even be determined, the probable result is that the incumbent Labor party will eke out a narrow majority of 47-48 of the 93 seats.
A seven-member crossbench of 3 Katter, 2 independent, 1 One Nation and 1 Green MPs should provide the government with more breathing room. The Liberal National Opposition should remain at around 39 seats.
Australian political pundits are already raking over the possible impact of the Queensland non-major party surge, and the divisions on the conservative side of politics, for national political affairs.
Result shows Australia is done with two-party contests (Ben Raue, The Guardian, 26 November)
29 November; Murdoch press searches for culprits; blames One Nation; an excellent analysis by Tim Colebach at Inside Story, surveying the unfolding counting of preferences to date (29 Nov), but also dismantling the myth that voters supporting minor parties can be understood simply in terms of a Labor-Coalition political dichotomy