How people elect parliaments
One to the key interests in Saturday’s Australian national elections is the sharply rising prospects of independent candidates, running without endorsement from any political party. This situation requires some explanation, especially for non-Australian readers.
I’ll cover the background in this post; a second post will deal with the immediate prospects of success of the leading independent candidates in this election. And if – as some anticipate – the total number of independents make up a parliamentary crossbench with numerical leverage after Saturday, I’ll write a third post about their role in forming and influencing an Australian government, as well as ongoing responsible government.
The institutional landscape is this: Australia’s national House of Representatives, where a responsible government is formed, has 151 seats (the exact number gets reviewed every three years, but is typically 150 or 151). As a result of legislation passed in 1902, these are set up as 151 single-member electoral divisions. As a result of legislation from 1919, the method of voting and counting is preferential, (also known as ‘alternative’, or ‘ranked choice’) voting. Legislation first applied in 1925 also makes it mandatory for voters to mark a ranking for every candidate running in the voter’s electoral division (if not, the ballot is held to be invalid).
Finally, legislation from 1922 also makes it compulsory for every eligible voter to be enrolled (‘registered’ to vote), and to actually cast a vote. This rule has resulted in Australia having an electoral roll containing just under 97% of the estimated eligible population, and a turnout rate of around 93-95% in most elections. Informal and invalid voting is around 1-2% of the total (a bit higher in some localities). This all means that Australian parliaments have final valid participation rates of around 90% – extraordinarily high by international standards.
Five of Australia’s six states and one of its two territories use the same institutional approaches for electing their Legislative Assemblies (lower houses, where government is formed), which is relevant for the story of independent MPs since community movements often develop ‘upwards’ from lower levels of government. One state (New South Wales) has the notable difference that it does not use the rule of compulsory ranking of all candidates , and until recently Queensland also did not.
The remaining state and one territory (Tasmania and the Australian Capital Territory) use the single transferable vote (STV) system to elect their lower houses, and we’ll leave them out of the story for this post.
Also relevant is that the national Parliament and those in most states also have an upper house – the Senate nationally and the Legislative Councils in the States – elected by STV methods. We’ll also leave them out of this story, other to note that they provide an outlet for minor party viewpoint diversity which other nations would normally expect to see in their main democratic chamber, and they probably help strengthen the sense that single-member division MPs are framed as representing local concerns as much as national policies, which is a contributor to the story of independents.
It’s important to understand that the idea of the ‘independent member’ of parliament never got invented – it IS the original concept of a member of parliament in the tradition which arose centuries ago. Every candidate in the Australian electoral systems – as in many other nations – is legally an individual candidate first and foremost, and party-identifying only for certain additional legislated purposes.
Political parties as we know them only emerged in the second half of the 19th century (a bit earlier in the United States). Australia’s democratic state (or ‘colonial’) parliaments were mostly formed in the 1850s as part of the movement for ‘responsible and representative government’ – the approach which was embedded in all the state constitutions as well as the Australian national constitution adopted in the 1890s. Strict party identification of politicians was never a part of this constitutional design – which exists to this day – but only emerged later.
Around the beginning of the 20th century two dominant parties emerged in Australia. A centre-left or ‘democratic socialist’ Labor party (or “ALP”) developed after around 1890 and took settled form in the first decade after federation in 1900, and (party in response to the rise of organised Labor) a series of centre-right/conservative parties developed, known by multiple names but since 1946 as the Liberal Party. A rural and regional party known as the National Party (formerly the Country Party) formed in around 1920 and quickly became associated with the conservative party in a “Coalition” which has endured for a century. (The acronym “LNP”, for Liberal-National Party, applies specifically to the merged conservative party in the state of Queensland, and has come to be used as a convenient handle for the Coalition nationwide.)
Australia has thus had a very stable system of two dominant “major parties” for a century, with for several decades these parties winning around 95% of the vote between them, and swings of voter support between them rarely stepping outside of the band 45%-to-55% for each side.
However, that system began to break down in the 1970s, and today we see a prominent and stable Greens party regularly winning around 7-10% of the vote population-wide (but much more in urban areas), and a varying flotilla of “micro parties” (that is, generally, any party with a very small vote performance or a limited geographical nomination range) of the conservative right or populist movements. Other centrist or progressive micro-parties also exist; for example the Animal Justice party sometimes wins seats in the NSW and Victorian upper houses.
But alongside this party history, party-independent candidates have always been present, getting elected in small numbers. In the early days, MPs associated with a party might pride themselves in their ‘independence’ of character. Others who did not secure (or lost) the status of being their party’s nominated (or “preselected” in Australian terminology) candidate for an electoral division might nominate themselves, and perhaps be elected. And the occasional entirely party-free candidate might also be elected.
From federation to the Second World War, independents used to crop up in Federal Parliament in small numbers – 1 or 2 after each election. Often they went by the description “independent Labor” or “Independent Nationalist”, reflecting their political character. The most significant role they are remembered for is the situation in 1941, where the House was neatly divided between the two major parties just as the war needed to be faced. Two independents watched the incumbent Nationalist (liberal-conservative) Party collapse into disunity, and in response shifted their confidence to the more unified Labor Party to form a government (a story for another post).
Then, from the 1949 election all through to the 1990 election, independents disappeared from the federal Parliament (except for a single one in 1966), as the nation went through a long period where politics was entirely the domain of ‘two-major-party’ framing. The underlying electoral law about candidates did not change, but independents simply did not run in significant numbers, nor attract voter support. In 1983-84 the complete rewrite of the federal electoral legislation took place, creating various new status and systemic privileges for parties, but nothing stopped independents from running. It was simply that few did, and only 1 was elected during over 40 years.
1990 was a turning point, marking the return of independents to federal Parliament, with the election of Ted Mack to the division of North Sydney. Mack had developed a public following at local and state political level, which presents a reminder that independents had not died out at state level, and in particular had remained significant in the New South Wales Parliament.
Since then, independents have returned to every state parliament that uses the single-member division electoral system, and each of these parliaments has experienced one parliamentary term where independents held the balance of power between the two major parties – which has typically been accompanied by some degree of democratic system reform.
Independents in the New South Legislative Assembly have been largest and strongest of the independent tendency, and it has featured in several geographic regions including the north coast/New England, the centre-west of the state, Newcastle and the mid-coast area, and harbour-side eastern Sydney and the leafy northern suburbs. Four independents held the balance of power in the 1991-95, insisting on a range of reforms to the parliamentary system and accountability institutions which have lasted to this day.
Victoria has a weaker independent tradition, strongest in regional areas in a band running from the north-west to north-central Victoria, and also manifesting in Gippsland, but hitherto barely present at all in urban Melbourne. Regional independents held a balance of power after the 1999 election, changing the government from Liberal to Labor after negotiations with the party leaders of the day.
Independents have also had a continuing presence in the Queensland Parliament, from a scattered variety of geographic areas, perhaps reflecting the demography of Australia’s most decentralised state. A balance of power leverage has occurred once, surprisingly when just a single MP formed the independent crossbench.
Western Australia and South Australia’s elected Assemblies have also featured independent presence through this period. In the West it seems to have petered out (the incumbent Labor Party won a staggering landslide result in the most recent elections in 2021), but in South Australia the recent election was a high-water mark, with 4 independent MPs elected to the 47-seat House of Assembly, and two more candidates only narrowly missing out – just falling short of a historic high of 10% of the seats in an elected chamber going to independents. (This strong South Australian performance may flow into this weekend’s federal outcome, with one of the candidates who narrowly missed election to the state chamber having prospects in a federal division.)
The level of voter support for independents in the national Parliament reached a mini-peak in 2010, with 4 elected, and again in 2019, with 5, and it now looks certain to surge in this weekend’s 2022 federal election (see next post). The 2010 Parliament saw independents negotiate with the two major party leaders about which would form a government, but the process unfolded quickly; despite several day’s uncertainty in counting the vote in close seats, and the need for a serious dialogue with the party leaders, a decision emerging a mere 17 days after election day.
It’s important to set this voter support for independents in the context of simultaneous support for micro-parties, which has also been present in recent decades; they are sharing the protest vote against major parties in various ways. Also to note that there is some overlap between the two; single members elected under the name of a registered micro-party (for example Rebekah Sharkie and Bob Katter in the last Parliament) are in many ways in the same parliamentary position as a technical independent. Bob Katter was elected several times as an independent, then created a party around himself and ran candidates in nearby electoral divisions; Rebekah Sharkie experienced the opposite, running first as part of the South Australian Centre Alliance party, then seeing that entity largely dissipate while she remained in parliament.
Since 2010, federal independent support took a dip in 2013, then grew in 2016 and again sharply in 2019.
The nationwide vote in 2010 for ‘significant’ independents (I’m using an arbitrary measure here, taking those candidates who secure more that 5% of the vote, simply to avoid variations in the stats being driven by the varying numbers of low-success independent candidates) was 1.6% – obviously a low figure as a national outcome, but concentration in just a handful of key seats is the key to understanding the return of MPs to parliament. Leading independent Tony Windsor (New England, NSW) won 62% of the first-preference vote in his division, followed by Rob Oakeshott (Lyne, NSW, 47%) and Bob Katter (Kennedy, Qld, 46%), the latter two easily returned after preferences were distributed.
The fourth independent elected in 2010 was the remarkable result for Andrew Wilkie (Denison, Tas), with a starting first preference vote of just 21%, and in third place on the tally of first-preference votes (winning from a third-place start has happened just 10 times for the federal House since 1919). But all manner of voters who had first-preference voted for less successful candidates preferred Wilkie to the leading Labor and Liberal candidates, and he eventually reached 51% of the final vote tally against the Labor candidate in what had previously been regarded as a ‘safe’ Labor electoral division. Wilkie has gone on in every election since to win larger and larger voter support, and is universally expected to again be re-elected tomorrow.
The total ‘significant independent’ vote fell to 0.7% at the 2013 federal election, before rising to 1.8% in 2016 (then a record) and 3.3% in 2019 (ditto). (Again, I am leaving aside votes for small-vote independents and micro-parties in these stats).
Those records will fall tomorrow. Polls in recent weeks (which have difficulty capturing independent vote nationwide, or distinguishing from vote that will concentrate and be effective in electing a ‘significant’ independent from vote which will not) have the nationwide independent vote at somewhere ranging from 5% to 9% – obviously around or even more than double what has ever occurred before, and likely to concentrate behind numerous successful candidates.
Let’s wrap this post up with something very relevant to this weekend’s result: what vote support does it actually take for an independent to get elected?. A few key realities emerge from examining the statistics of the serious contests seen in the past 30 years (taking those where an independent won voter backing to make it to the last two candidates in the tally, around half of which won their contest).
First, a very strong trend emerges that securing 29% of the first preference vote is a key threshold: an independent who wins 29% only fails to get elected in exceptional circumstances, and one winning below 29% only wins in exceptional circumstances.
Another key factor is that in modern contests, especially ones where the incumbent major party has sharply lost support, the vote tends to fragment among many candidates, leading to a large pool of votes with first preferences for candidates other than the incumbent party and the leading independent. In fact, this averages around 30% of the total vote, which will need to be re-allocated during the vote counting process.
And here we see a second clear trend: independent candidates tend to win around 70% of all the votes re-allocated from the pool of less-supported candidates. This is strong and consistent; independent preference gains during the counting are rarely below 60%, and there are only a few instances of it being below 50% (typically where the Liberal and National parties have both run in a rural division, and their supporters cross-reference strongly).
Part of the reason for this is that almost all prominent independent performances occur in ‘safe seats’, where some frustration with the performance of the incumbent has become a key issue in the election. Hence, preferences tend strongly to be looking for some alternative to the incumbent. This occurs much more often in conservative-held seats than in Labor-held ones. Reasons for this difference are probably that in Australia’s current political culture, voting for an independent is the primary viable alternative by which an uprising of frustrated voters in a ‘conservative’ division can actually change the result. In Labor-held seats, the option of voting for the Greens presents another practical form of protest against an incumbent Labor candidate (strong Greens support is happening also at this time, but not for exploring in this post)
All of this means that independents rapidly overtake the incumbent as ballots are re-allocated through preferences. Of course, an incumbent party’s candidate can win outright with more than 50% on first preferences – this does happen sometimes – but another clear rule of thumb can be stated: if the major party candidate wins 46% of the first preference vote or more, they are safe; if below that mark, they are in danger.
Of course, between those thresholds lies a ‘killing zone’, where the relative first preference votes of the independent and the major party candidate are crucial, as is the size of the all-other-candidates pool of votes. And in some cases, two Coalition candidate contests can make it safer for the leading Coalition party. But the extent to which the independent starts with more than 29%, and the incumbent below 46%, will determine the result. If they both win around 35% of the first preferences, the independent will win easily.
All the above gives us a pretty clear guide to what will emerge on Saturday from this historically large surge of support for independents. The tendencies just outlined are highly likely to be repeated, but with 20-25 examples in this election, instead of just 3-5 as in the past.
And we do have some useable polling results which can help us predict which independents may prevail.
I’ll explore these potentials in a second post, hopefully out by Saturday morning.