How people elect parliaments
The unpredictable – some said “unwinnable” – election in South Australia has thrown up a result not at all favoured by the polls and betting markets; a majority Liberal government.
But the striking feature of the result is how low the voter mandate of the new majority government will be.
At the close of election-night counting – with votes from around 66% of enrolled voters counted – the Liberals look set to win 25 seats, a majority of the 47-seat state House of Assembly. Counting of pre-poll and other votes should see participation rise to around 90% in the days ahead.
The Liberals have won just 37.4% of the primary (first preference) vote, beating the incumbent governing Labor party’s support of 33.9%
New party SA Best polled below expectations, winning 13.9%.
The Greens have had a poor result (6% support) and the newly formed Australian Conservatives have started poorly (3%).
SA Best’s debut result – while disappointing given polling and media expectations – is still the second-best first result by a new Australian party ever recorded.
From around 1910 onward Australian parliaments, at both national and state level, have featured a dominant two-party system at both national and state level, consisting of the center-left Labor party and a center-right conservative party, the latter known since WWII as the Liberals.
Around 1920 many of Australia’s rural regions became safe territory for the Country (now National) party, but this movement soon developed cooperative relations with the Liberals. The two now operate in practice as one joint Coalition conservative party.
The Labor party tended to split in various ways from the 1930s to the 1970s, but has been stable now for half a century.
In more recent decades Australia’s political dynamic has seen a series of third party entries.
The best on debut – but shortest-lasting – was the One Nation party, which surged abruptly into existence in Queensland in 1998, winning 22% of the vote and several seats in the state Legislative Assembly.
But One Nation petered out within a few years, and lay dormant for over a decade until seeing a more modestly revival in 2016.
The Australian Democrats formed a centrist third party from 1977 to 2002, with support typically limited to 10%, but with a strong presence in the Australian Senate as well as in state upper houses.
The Greens slowly developed a growing voter base from around 1990 onward. They now typically score somewhere between 6% and 12% overall, although the party does much better in inner-urban localities.
SA Best provided a new model, developed solely in South Australia by former national Senator Nick Xenophon.
SA Best’s result today, while it will disappoint them, registers the second best debut result by an Australian third party. Yet they have won not a single seat in the state House of Assembly because of that chamber’s single-member-division electoral system.
SA Best will have more influence in the state Parliament’s upper house, the Legislative Council. The 11 Council seats elected yesterday – half the chamber, which is elected in two phases – are determined by the single transferable vote (STV) system. On results so far the likely outcome will be 4 Liberal, 4 Labor, 2 SA Best and 1 Green.
Combined with the MLCs elected in 2014, the Council will have 8 government, 8 opposition and 6 crossbench members. The three SA Best members will be the most significant cross-bench bloc, able to veto legislation in combination with the Labor opposition.
The Liberals will celebrate their majority, after apparently being denied government by significant geographical concentration of their voters in three of the preceding four state elections.
South Australia’s electoral system has had ongoing problems translating voter sentiment into governments with mandates.
Since the turn of the century the Liberals had won the ‘two-party-preferred’ vote aggregate (a statistic calculated in Australian elections to assess the Liberal-Labor final preference of all the voters) at the state elections of 2002 (Liberal 2pp aggregate of 50.9% of the vote), 2010 (51.6%) and 2014 (53.0%).
But Liberal support was heavily concentrated in ultra-safe rural electorates. Throughout this period a more effective spread of voter support allowed Labor to govern continuously after all four elections, although twice in minority requiring the support of independent MHAs.
Essentially, in four of the past five state elections, voters have slightly preferred Liberals to Labor as their state government, but only at last night’s election has this preference for government been effected.
The two-party preferred voting aggregate for yesterday’s state election is not yet clear, with so many votes yet to count, and a quarter of counts conducted last night focusing on final contests between one major party and an SAB or independent contender. But available data suggests a Liberal 2pp of around 51.5% – a result that has eased back slightly from the 53% they won four years ago.
The strange reality is that last night’s victory in a majority of seats comes from what is actually the Liberal’s second worst primary result since 2002, with only 37.4% of voters first preferences cast for their candidates.
Only a handful of Australian elections have ever seen governments formed with such low primary vote support.
Labor twice formed minority state government in Queensland – in 1998 and 2015 – after winning 39% and 37% of the vote respectively.
And Labor twice formed Tasmanian state governments with lower support than today’s South Australian result – winning just 34% of the vote in 1989 and 36.9% on 2010. In both cases the Greens party provided the parliamentary votes for Labor to hold office (in 2010 through a formal coalition).
But in none of these cases did these low-vote major parties actually secure a majority of the parliamentary seats on their own.
Today’s South Australian election is unique in that 37% of the vote has projected into a seat majority in the governing chamber.
Only 7 of the 25 Liberal seats were won with a majority of the first preference votes. Liberals won several rural seats where SA Best polled in second place – Labor has very low voter support in rural areas.
Yesterday 28% of South Australian voters – the largest proportion since the party system began – wanted cross-bench representation, half of that being the support for SA Best.
But unless late vote counting shows some major surprises, there will be no SA Best representation in the House at all. There will be three local independent MHAs, but they will face a majority government.
Analyzing the 2014 and 2018 elections as if the votes cast had been counted under the STV system is also revealing.
Had the state been divided into larger, multi-member electoral divisions (for example, six divisions of 7 members and one of 5), the 2014 election would have yielded around 22 Liberal seats to 17 Labor seats. Together with a possible two MHAs from the Christian right Family First party and two conservative independents, the Liberals would have been able to govern in minority, an outcome reflecting the overall preference of the electorate. Around 4 Greens MHAs would have rounded out the 2014-18 chamber.
On the votes counted so far last for this year’s election, the same electoral system would have actually yielded a slight drop in Liberal numbers, from 22 to 20 seats. The Greens – which have had a very poor 2018 election – would have lost all four of their seats, with Labor benefiting from their demise to rise to around 19 seats.
But the main difference would have been a 7-seat SA best crossbench for the next four years, replacing much of the hypothetical 2014 crossbench.
The result under STV rules would have most likely been another minority Liberal government, again matching the overall public mood. But in addition, and reflecting the historically low primary support for the Liberals, such a government would have needed to negotiate support from the crossbench.
Comparing major party support at the 2018 and 2014 elections, Labor lost around 2% of its support, while the Liberals lost 7% of theirs. Under the real electoral rules in force, the Liberals nonetheless gained several seats, allowing them to form govern with a majority.
The South Australian electoral system continues to perform poorly in translating the representation its voters seek into the kinds of government they get.
Only one of the past five state elections (the poll of 2006) has succeeded in installing a South Australian executive government with either its own clear electoral mandate, or at least a parliamentary mandate negotiated within a fairly representative assembly.
Further election results will be available at the SA Electoral Commission,