How people elect parliaments
Voters in the Australian state of Tasmania head to the polls on Saturday March 3rd.
The incumbent Liberal majority government is facing a significant challenge in holding its majority of 14 of the 25 seats. According to polls a crossbench balance of power and a minority government are the most likely outcome.
Tasmanians will be voting to elect their House of Assembly using the world’s oldest single-transferable vote (STV) voting system.
While debate on instituting proportional representation of voters stalled in Britain after the 1880s, progressive Tasmanian political leaders picked up the cause, and the state adopted STV in the late 1890s.
The system was first used to elect representatives for the island’s two main towns, Hobart and Launceston, at elections in 1897 and 1900.
Tasmania electoral reformers even attempted to establish STV voting in the Australian Constitution that was being drafted from the early 1890s. After Australia united into a federal nation in 1901, there were also unsuccessful attempts to include STV in the first national electoral law adopted in 1902.
After its initial application in the two towns, the Tasmanian state STV voting system was then withdrawn for two elections, before being reintroduced statewide for elections in 1909. That re-establishment was still around a decade earlier than subsequent launches of the STV system in the United States, Ireland and Canada.
Apart from changes to the number of members elected, the Tasmanian system has now continued largely unchanged for over a century.
The Tasmanian system is based on five largely permanent electoral divisions, matching boundaries with the state’s five federal electoral divisions. The division boundaries are slightly adjusted by independent commissions around every 7 years to keep pace with population changes.
Tasmanian (and Australian) partisan politics settled into a two-party system from around 1910, with a social democratic Labor party and a single centre-right liberal-conservative party. The latter party went through various name changes before settling into its modern name of the Liberal Party after WWII.
From the 1980s onward the Tasmanian political scene has also featured a strong Greens party.
Despite STV’s perceived tendency to result in multi-party outcomes, Tasmanian state politics has generally been very stable over more than a century.
Two-thirds of the elections since 1909 have resulted in a majority government. 21 of 33 elections have seen a single-party majority, and the 2010 election saw a majority coalition government.
Another 7 elections have seen a government hold exactly half the House of Assembly – 15 of the 30 – during the period from 1909 to 1959 when the House has an even number of seats. In 1959 the Assembly was expanded to 35 seats after two elections in the 1950s has produced inconvenient 15:15 election outcomes.
Just 5 Tasmanian elections have seen a decisive balance of power held by minor parties or independents. In two early cases stable support for a majority was provided, and in 2010 a working Labor-Green coalition was formed.
Nonetheless, current Tasmanian politics is still bedeviled by the reaction of the major parties to the electoral strength of the Greens.
Three of the nine elections held since 1986 have seen a Green balance of power. On two recent occasions support for a government was not guaranteed in the election aftermath.
In 1989 the Greens provided the Labor party with support to form a government, but the parliamentary term ended in acrimonious differences over policy issues.
Then in 1996 a scarred Labor party refused to repeat the exercise, deliberately leaving a minority Liberal government in office instead.
The desire of both major parties to stop dealing with the Greens led them to unite in shrinking the size of the House from 35 to 25 seats (using 5-member electoral divisions in place of 7-member).
The gambit only worked briefly, and the Greens increased voter support has allowed them to win between 3 and 5 of the 25 seats in recent elections.
The 2010 election resulted in an awkward 10:10:5 split between the three parties. After a week of exploring constitutional alternatives, Labor and the Greens formed the state’s first coalition government, lasting one term.
Since 2012 the Greens and Labor have also governed in a more stable coalition in Australia’s other STV-elected lower house in the Australian Capital Territory.
At the coming election, in addition to the established three parties, a new grassroots movement led by former federal Senator Jacqui Lambie may also win one or more seats.
The election will be covered in depth by one of Australia’s foremost electoral analysis, Tasmanian specialist Kevin Bonham. His specific analysis of What Happens if No Party Wins a Majority sets out the background to a possible minority parliament in detail.