How people elect parliaments
Two elections in Australia today – a by-election for a vacant seat in the national Parliament and the election of the state Parliament of South Australia – will highlight peculiarities in the use of preferential (ranked-choice) voting.
Federal division of Batman
A by-election is being held to fill the vacant seat for the federal electoral division (district) of Batman, in the inner northern suburbs of Melbourne.
As with almost all elections for seats in the lower houses of Australia’s national and state parliaments, the choice will be made by preferential voting, known as the ‘alternative vote’ in Britain and Canada and as ‘instant-runoff voting’ (the single-member version of ranked choice voting) in the US.
The seat is vacant after former member David Feeney resigned when he could not prove that he did not hold dual citizenship due to his British ancestry.
Since mid-2017 a series of High Court decisions have strictly applied the constitutional finding that all members of the national Parliament must have no other citizenships than Australian, forcing several sitting Members and Senators out of office.
Batman has traditionally been one of the safest divisions in the country for the center-left Labor party, but in recent years these suburbs have also seen a continuing increase in the number of voters supporting the Greens party.
The center-right Liberal party has in fact declined to even nominate a candidate for this contest, leaving tens of thousands of voters without any prospect of representation.
Liberal and other voters residing in Batman have not been represented in the national House of Representatives for many decades, and have little prospect of ever being so. The reverse, of course, applies to voters living in safe coalition-held electoral divisions who support other political candidates and parties.
Voters supporting the Greens virtually everywhere in Australia lack representation in the national House. The Greens currently hold only one seat in the national House of Representatives, Adam Bandt being the MP for the neighbouring inner-city division of Melbourne.
The result today will not affect the Australian Liberal-National coalition government’s hold on power, currently based on a slim majority in the House. Whether the seat of Batman is held by Labor or the Greens does not alter the government’s position.
Final voter intention polling suggests that Labor and the Greens are almost exactly tied.
Parliament of South Australia
Meanwhile, today’s South Australian state election is set to be one of the most extraordinary Australian elections in a century, with not two but three ‘major’ parties in the running for the 47 House of Assembly seats.
The traditional Liberal and Labor parties have been joined in the field by the new ‘SA Best’ party, founded by long-established SA politician and former national Senator Nick Xenophon.
Xenophon’s challenge is coming from the non-ideological political centre, rather than from an political position to the left or right of the major parties.
In December observers were shocked to see the weeks-old SA Best party suddenly polling at 32%, making the race a genuine three-party contest.
SA Best support appears to have eased down to somewhere just over 20% during the rigours of the campaign, where both major parties, the Greens, and the politically active gambling industry have all targeted Xenophon’s movement.
While the established parties will run candidates in all 47 House seats, Xenophon’s team is only contesting 36 of them.
The 47 single-member divisions will all be filled by preferential voting. But in the present political climate it is difficult for observers to even predict for most electoral divisions which two candidates will be the final two as ballot preferences are transferred.
Roughly speaking, if a SA Best candidate is one of the final two candidates in any seat, voters for whichever major party has been eliminated might be expected to prefer the new party over their traditional opponent.
In Australian elections parties distribute ‘how-to-vote’ cards at polling places, advising their supporters how to mark their preferences. But voters do not habitually follow these advisory pamphlets, and loyalty to party direction is not a strong feature of modern Australian elections. This election is likely to see voters making up their own minds about preferences, and in unpredictable and varying ways in each electoral division.
If SA Best wins a small number of seats tonight, it may find itself in the balance of power between the two major parties in the new House of Assembly.
Earlier predictions of SA Best winning a large number of seats, and becoming part of government, have eased slightly, but are still entirely possible. Disappointed voters in Australia, as in other countries, are looking for political alternatives, and South Australians may judge SA Best to be a low-risk means of disrupting the established parties.
Xenophon himself, running as a candidate in the suburban division of Hartley, has even been rated as the preferred Premier in some opinion polls. But if he does not get elected as member for Hartley, any other SA Best winners will need to find a new leader.
Rarely has an Australian election been to fundamentally difficult to predict.
The state of uncertainly, and the fact that Xenophon’s party is relatively inoffensive to most voters (unlike, for example, the disapproval that many Tasmanian voters have for seeing the Greens win political influence in that state) means that there is no late-campaign lunge in favour of either of the established two major parties. Because literally no-one knows what direction the overall election result may turn towards, strategic voting becomes almost impossible.
South Australian voters will today also elect half the members of the state upper house, the Legislative Council, using the single transferable vote (STV) voting method, which should see representatives of all the significant parties win at least some seats. The 11 MLCs elected today will join 11 other elected four years ago, who are half-way through their 8-year terms. But the state’s executive government will be formed solely on the basis of a majority in the House of Assembly.