How people elect parliaments
Australians head to the polls today to elect their 46th national House of Representatives and half their Senate, both using preferential (ranked choice) voting.
It will be a poignant event after the death Thursday of former Prime Minister Bob Hawke, aged 89, who led the reforming Labor government from 1983 to 1991.
Hawke’s passing has been widely mourned, and his achievements celebrated by figures across politics and by ordinary Australians – a rare politician to be widely loved and admired in retirement.
Australians today will be going about their democratic tasks under the stewardship of one of the Hawke government’s under-rated legacies, the 1984 Electoral Act and the national Australian Electoral Commission which it created. Australian elections are professionally and independently administered by a permanent non-partisan public authority, one of the most respected institutions in the nation.
The Commission is also independently responsible for regularly reviews of electoral division boundaries, in stark contrast to the situation in the United States where partisan gerrymandering continues to dramatically advantage dominant political parties.
The political prognosis
It’s thought to be close, but Labor is widely expected to replace the six-year old conservative Liberal-National Coalition government today.
But prediction is harder than usual, with diverse political vectors at work in different parts of the country.
Three broad factors are most significant: a general, but modest, national swing towards Labor; the fragmentation of the political right; and an apparent surge of leading independent candidates, almost all in conservative-held electoral divisions.
Australian elections are conducted using preferential voting – for single member electoral divisions in the lower house, and using multi-member STV preferential voting for seperate elections of six senators for each state (and two senators for each non-state territory).
Preferential voting means that despite the public support for each of Australia’s two major political parties each trending downwards below 40%, it’s possible to calculate a simple aggregate figure of which of the two major parties is most supported, including the opinions of voters who primarily back minor parties and independent candidates, producing “two-party-preferred” statistics. Continuous opinion polling tracks that practice.
At the last election in 2016 the Coalition just held on to office with just 50.3% of the aggregate two-party preferred vote. But from only a few weeks after the 2016 election, the Labor opposition has been in front in opinion polling, with generally between 51% and 54% support.
Labor surged up to 56% support briefly when the Liberals changed leaders for the second time in August 2018, but since the new year the polls have been very stable, with Labor at between 51% and 52%. (In fact leading Australian poll-pundits such as Mark the Ballot are even noting that the polls aggregates are too stable, never even exceeding their collective margin of error.)
With such consistency over an extended period, the polls have created the general expectation that Labor is in the lead and likely to win.
Labor has chosen to campaign on significant reform policies to close tax loopholes, address climate emissions, and increase spending on health, among other matters. Much of the campaign debate from both sides has been about Labor’s positions. The Coalition has largely exercised itself not with its own policies but with claims that Labor’s policies represent a set of new taxes – a line which has not stood up to detailed scrutiny very well.
Perhaps significantly, this is the first election in two decades where the campaign has not featured – and the Coalition has not run on – issues of immigration, interception of immigrant boat arrivals, and challenges of international security.
The second issue is increasing fragmentation on the political right in Australia. For many years there has existed a small group of conservative ‘Christianist’ parties – the Christian Democrats, Family First and Rise Up Australia. But the voters backing these parties almost all preference their votes towards the Liberal and National parties.
More recently we have seen the (re-)emergence of right-populist movement One Nation, a Liberal right splinter party named Australian Conservatives, and again this election a privately funded populist movement formed by businessman Clive Palmer (more on the latter below). But in recent months more seriously right-wing, hyper-‘nationalist’ movements have also emerged. These micro-parties are all eating away largely at the Coalition’s base vote, much more than Labor’s. Their existence also complicates the ability of the Coalition to stand for policies aimed at winning the political middle ground.
Finally, the last decade has seen a steady rise in the prospects of individual independent candidates. Over 100 have nominated for this election. In particular, a novel degree of collaboration has emerged in recent days between a dozen of he leading incumbent independents and prospects, even resulting in a joint online advertisement (promoted through Twitter hashtag #IndependentsDay) highlighting their common interest in breaking the two-party system, reforms on political ethics issues, and action on climate change, among other issues.
The result, at least for the Coalition, has been extensive time and treasure spent campaigning in electoral divisions under threat from a leading independent. The most talked-about race is perhaps that to oust former Prime Minister Tony Abbott in his division of Warringah in northern Sydney. Andrew Wilkie in Clarke (Hobart, Tasmania) and Rebekah Sharkie in Mayo (South Australia) are regarded as highly likely to be re-elected. Kerryn Phelps in Wentworth (eastern Sydney) seems to have a closer fight to retain her seat.
Others include Rob Oakeshott in Cowper (northern NSW), the attempt by Helen Haines to success retiring independent Cathy McGowan in Indi (north-central Victoria), Adam Blakester in New England, Oliver Yates in Kooyong (inner Melbourne), Julia Banks in Flinders (south-eastern Melbourne), Ray Kingston in Mallee (western Victoria), Huw Kingston in Hume (southern NSW), and Kevin Mack in Farrer (south-western NSW), and others.
In races for Senate seats, Rod Bower (NSW) and Anthony Pesec (ACT) were also members of this joint independents ad.
(A note for overseas reader: Australia’s parliaments have the unique international practice of naming their electoral divisions in memory of prominent historical figures, particularly past prime ministers, notable other parliamentarians and colonial-era historical figures. 120 of the current House of Representatives electoral divisions therefore have names such as Barton, Robertson, Cowper and Cook. Only 31 divisions still have geographical names such as Sydney, Newcastle and Riverina, (including several with indigenous, names such as Berowra and Werriwa).)
The House electoral system
The 151 members of the new House of Representatives will be elected in 151 single-member electoral divisions. The method of voting is preferential, with voters required to mark a ranking for every candidate running in their local division for a ballot to be valid.
If no leading candidate scores 50% of the ‘first preferences’, ballots marked for candidates who did least well are eliminated in turn, and added to the tally of the next-most-preferred candidate, until a winner appears, which may require reducing the contest to just the two best-places candidates. The final tally is termed the ‘two-candidate preferred’ aggregate, and this is calculated for statistical purposes even where a winner emerges earlier in the count.
If the two final candidates are not those of Labor and the Coalition – which occurs in several seats where independents, Greens or minor party candidates are one of the two best-places candidates – the Electoral Commission will also perform a special count to determine the Labor-Coalition two-party balance, to support national aggregation two-major-party totals (a statistic which has no direct significance on electoral results, but is often used for psst-election political commentary).
The Senate electoral system
40 of the 76 senators will be elected today. Voters in each of the six Australian states elects two sets of 6 senators every three years, with each group serving a six-year term. In addition voters in the two smaller territories elect two senators each, at every general election.
The senate voting systems is the single transferable vote. A quota of 1/7th of the number of voters is needed for a candidate to win a Senate seat for a state. Australia’s two leading political parties almost always win two of the six seats each quite quickly, with the final two seats being contested by the 3rd-placed candidates of each major party, the Greens (which generally poll somewhere between 8% and 12% nationwide), and other candidates of the minor parties.
The two senators for each territory have always split one Labor and one Coalition since they were added to the Senate composition in the 1970s.
As with preferential counting for the House seats, ballots cast for candidates who rate poorly are transferred to more successful candidates, and over-quota ‘surpluses’ for candidates who reach the quota are also transferred, until all the ballots settle into tallies for six candidates achieving the quota, together with a seventh-placed candidate who misses out.
Senate ballot papers are divided into two sections, of which each voter chooses to vote in one or the other. ‘Below the line’ voters can mark numbered rankings for each individual candidate across all the parties. Candidates are displayed in party columns for convenience, but voters can skip across columns as they please to select and rank specific individuals in the order of their support.
Votes choosing the ‘above the line’ option may select from party boxes at the head of each party column, again marking them with numbered rankings in order of their preference. These ballots are interpreted as votes for the lead candidate of each party column, passing on to the second party candidate once the first reaches a quota, and so on.
Recent analysis and leading electoral system commentators
The most extensive analysis of election preparations is that hosted by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Elections pages, authored by ABC elections specialist Antony Green. Green does not, however, comment on campaign events or partisan controversies, but restricts himself to the electoral system and related issues.
Other leading Australian independent psephologists include Dr Kevin Bonham in Tasmania – a master of preference flow and polling breakdowns, Ben Raue’s Tally Room site – which has pre-election seat analysis more extensive than Greens, and William Bowe’s Poll Bludger site (behind a paywall of the Crikey.com magazine – itself a highly recommended source of Australian political commentary), which focuses on polling analysis and predictions. (Note: Bonham and Raue are independent amateurs, so feel free to locate their reader donation links and chip in some support for them!)
Election night coverage
The main Autralian television stations and online newspapers will all have thorough coverage, but the premier source of coverage has for 30 years been the ABC, led by Antony Green, the nation’s leading electoral commentator and widely acknowledged as a ‘National Treasure’. It’s not going to far to say that Green ‘calls’ election results conclusively, usually at around 9:30pm on election night. There is usually no appeal!
So – who will win?
Australians are today electing 151 House parliamentarians, not directly electing a government. If the result has a substantial cross bench – which remains a real possibility – there will need to be detailed negotiations.
In any case, Australia’s Parliament is a place of diverse representation, negotiation and compromise, not one where any one party wins absolute power. Claims by major parties of a policy ‘mandate’ (or of their opponents lacking one) can pretty much be ignored. Indeed, it seems likely that for the first time since Federation, the major parties will both receive lower than 40% of the aggregate vote for House seats. The population is restless, and looking for alternatives.
The governing Liberal-National Coalition should poll around 39% nationwide, and their candidates will then receive preferences from many more voters initially backing the fragmented minor right-wing parties. Present estimates are that it will secure between 65 and 70 House seats, but it may do a little better.
Labor is polling to win slightly less of the aggregate national vote than the Coalition – around 36% – but then receive solid preferential support from voters backing the Greens. Most protections see Labor winning at least the 76 seats that would give it a parliamentary majority, and it may do better.
At least a dozen very close seats could fall either way.
The Greens will win at least their present one seat in inner Melbourne, but are potentially competitive for as many as 4-5 more there, including two seats traditionally regarded as ultra-safe Liberal seats.
And the emerging surprise result is that independent candidates could do very well in regional seats and also in parts of Sydney and Melbourne, all at the expense of Coalition incumbents. Mentioned earlier, as many as a dozen are believed to be seriously competitive, running on generally similar platforms of local issues as well as action on climate change policy, on which the Coalition has proved to be continually disappointing.
There were four independents in the last House (ending at six after a defection and a by-election.) Somewhere between five and seven elected independents might be a reasonable guess for tonight.
On the political right micro-party stakes, the Australian version of seeking a ‘populist alternative’ seems mild in comparison to various European alternatives, or the US tendency towards political extremes.
The One Nation party is polling only around 4%, though it will be stronger in Queensland. But it is not believed to be a serious competitor for any specific seat.
Minor Christianist and conservative parties are running, but ballots for them will almost inevitably end up in Coalition candidate tallies.
Finally, there is the bizarre case of mining businessman Clive Palmers’s ‘United Australia Party’. Overseas readers may struggle to categorise Palmer’s ‘party’ at any point on the political spectrum. Reprising his effort in 2013, this is partly a vanity project and partly a vehicle to protect his mining industry asset interests by intimidating the Coalition into policy concessions. At a staggering cost said to be around $70 million, Palmer has nominated 151 house candidates and flooded the electronic, print and online media with advertising for months now.
Palmer’s advertising pushes a grab-bag of populist promises about tax cuts, massive infrastructure spends and woolly talk about standing up against ‘the politicians’. No mention that Palmer was a National Party operative, supporter and donor for decades until falling out with them earlier this decade. He is also, frankly, a colossal fabulist. His return for his massive spending – which will no doubt trigger reconsideration of political finance laws after the election – is polled support of a mere 3%, not enough to win any House seat and hardly likely to affect preference results in all but a few Queensland seats.
Palmer’s one hope is to secure the seat for which he himself is personally a candidate – the last of six seats for senators for Queensland. That remains a possibility, although the One Nation candidate in the same race, Malcolm Roberts, seems to be in a stronger position.
The final outcome of the Senate turns on minor party outcomes. In general, each state returns three candidates of the political left and three of the political right. If either loses one spot to a centrist or independent, or worse still to the ‘other side’, the results can be very significant for the balance of power in the full Senate.
The leading Senate races to watch are:
All up, the above amounts to a series of serious risks to ‘final seat filled’ Coalition Senate places, but shows very few risks for the Labor and Greens side of the senate counts.
Vale Bob Hawke
What to make of the impact of the sudden death of former PM Bob Hawke 48 hours before election day? It’s impossible to tell, although it has clearly dominated the media and the attention of the ordinary public, and at the very least cast a shroud over the usual political hype and animosity, resulting in more respectful discourse and political behaviour over the last days of the campaign.
But Australian voters have to be at least 45 years old to actually remember Hawke’s government. The impact of this news on younger voters is impossible to assess.
And yet, Hawke’s passing will surely be of some assistance to Labor’s vote prospects, not only because of a sympathy vote for a much-admired figure. Reminiscences of Hawke also focuses attention on a period when Labor was highly regarded as an effective, economically-reforming government that managed public business and finances well, which plays into the battle between Labor’s policy offering and the Coalition’s attacks on its credibility.
Hopefully research efforts such as the Australian Election Study will eventually study the impact, as perhaps will ordinary polling in the field today actually seeking the opinions of young voters on the impact of the Hawke remembrances of the past few days.
Hawke was replaced as leader of his party and as Prime Minister mid-term in 1991, after winning four successive elections. He went out trying to convince his party that he could win them a fifth election. Today, after so many years, he may finally help achieve that last goal.