On Elections

How people elect parliaments

Independent prospects in today’s Australian election

It’s Election Day in Australia, and one of the key outcomes to watch is the fate of a historically large number of independent candidates with real chances of getting elected.

Background and history of independents in Australia explained in yesterday’s post. While small in numbers, party-independent candidates and members of parliaments have become a settled part of Australia’s political landscape. Indeed, Australia probably has one of the strongest traditions of independent parliamentary politics in the world. Success by independent candidates at both state and national elections began rising significantly from around 1990, and is universally expected to reach record high votes and members elected at today’s national election.

Australian voters enjoy preferential (ranked choice) voting, which allows us stronger choice in selecting a representative (even in single-member electoral divisions, although it works far better in multi-member ones).

The Australian electoral systems are based on nomination of individual candidates, not parties or party lists. This year there are around 90 independent candidates running across the nation, but that total includes many with shoestring campaigns and low profiles, as happens at every election, as well as nominees of micro-parties that failed to get registered as official parties.

The strong interest in this election is in a list of around 25 candidates with more serious prospects. The boom in 2022 has been driven by two new factors – the Voices community movement, and a significantly stronger volunteer and donor movement.

For the past two years or so, a nationwide surge of community-level organising through the ‘Voices’ movement, promoted by former MP Cathy McGowan, has led to the creation of over 40 electorate-based Voices local groups, and associated campaign committees. About half of the Voices groups got to the point of nominating a candidate. The electoral divisions with Voices-backed candidates include:

  • In New South Wales, the electoral divisions of Bradfield (candidate Nicolette Boele), Calare (Kate Hook), Cowper (Cas Heise), Hughes (Georgia Steele), Hume (Penny Ackery), Mackellar (Sophie Scamps), North Sydney (Kylea Tink), Page (Hanabeth Luke), Warringah (sitting MP Zali Stegall) and Wentworth (Allegra Spender)
  • in Victoria, Casey (Claire Ferres-Miles), Flinders (Despi O’Connor), Goldstein (Zoe Daniel), Indo (sitting MP Helen Haines), Kooyong (Monique Ryan), Wannon (Alex Dyson), Mallee (Sophie Baldwin), and Monash (Deb Leonard).
  • In Queensland, only Groom (Suzie Holt)
  • In South Australia, Boothby (Jo Dyer)
  • In Western Australia, Curtin (Kate Cheney)

(For non-Australian readers, we have the practice here of naming electoral divisions after historical people, with some occasional geographical names).

Some independents are less based in a Voices community committee, such as in Nicholls, in central Victoria, where prominent local councillor Rob Priestly is running. The degree of endorsement by the Voices movement does vary a bit, and some Voices groups specifically prefer not to endorse a campaign, aiming to become more of a local forum that will engage with all political parties. The movement is not uniform in nature in every region.

In the Queensland division of Groom there is a second significant independent (Kristie Smolensk). Likewise in the NSW division Hughes, where two strong independents (Georgia Steele and Linda Seymour) have been active for months in a seat where the normally dominant Liberal Party’s former MP defected to the United Australia micro-party, and the Liberals failed to finalise their candidate until just weeks before the election.

In South Australia, keep an eye on the division of Grey, not a ‘Voices’ division, but one where just two months ago independent Liz Habermann almost won election to the South Australian parliament in a state division. The independent vote in the state divisions mapping onto the enormous boundaries of Grey (which covers over half the state) was very strong, electing two independent state MPs.

In Tasmania there is the division of Clark, where long-established sitting independent MP Andrew Wilkie is expected to be comfortably returned again. No Voices movement emerged in his division because his own long-established profile and community support made it unnecessary.

Lastly, there are two more sitting MPs, Bob Katter in Kennedy (Qld) and Rebekha Sharkie in Mayo (SA), who have their own micro-parties as support, but in practice their campaigns and parliamentary work is similar to that of independent MPs.

The above listing is all about candidates for the House of Representatives. Independents are also running for state and territory Senate seats, notably in the ACT, Victoria, and Tasmania, running similar campaigns, but the crowded fields in those contests (conducted using STV voting) have a different character, and I won’t cover them in this post.

This cast of around 25 candidates make up the serious prospects tonight, although we should not rule out any of the lesser-known candidates having some success in the current climate of dissatisfaction with major parties. (For comparison, past national elections have usually seen less than half a dozen ‘serious prospects’ of independent wins, taken as results greater than 20% first preferences or finishes in the final two places.)

Overall, there is no doubt that this is the largest performance by independent candidates in Australian history. One of the most striking changes in 2022 is the sheer scale of the independent volunteer movements, with several claiming support of over 1,000 volunteers, likely to well exceed the support base for the major party candidates.

Another new factor is the surge in public donations gathered by the Climate200 organisation, which they pass on to independent candidates with commitments to climate change action, integrity and corruption issues, which is more or less all of them (although less so in the rural divisions, and some rural candidates specifically decline to accept funds from this source). This donation-aggregation has meant many of the independent campaigns have dramatically more financial resources than in past years, in addition to their volunteer army.

In the past few weeks the collective term ‘teals’ has come to be used as a collective reference to many of these independents, derived from the team colour adopted by Zali Stegall (Warringah, NSW) in 2019, and copied by several other independent campaigns (although ‘Voices’ orange is also prominent, and there are other colours).

So how will we know on election night which ones have won?

Turning to the actual vote targets for victory, we noted in yesterday’s post that the data over the past 30 years for other independent contests gives us a few handy heuristics that can indicate whether an independent has made it or not:

  • firstly, an independent who wins 29% of the first preference vote only fails to get elected in exceptional circumstances, and one winning below 29% only wins in exceptional circumstances.
  • that rule arises largely because votes for the variety of other minor candidates in each race typically amount to around 30% of the total vote; and independent candidates tend to win around 70% of all the votes re-allocated from the pool of less-supported candidates
  • independents are typically competing with an incumbent major party candidate, most often from the conservative parties; 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.

There has been some seat-specific opinion polling as the campaign has unfolded. Some examples which illustrate what to watch for tonight include:

  • Some independent campaigns have been polled, and seem to be doing very well. In the division of Goldstein (Vic), polling indicates that independent Zoe Daniel has support more or less equal to sitting member, Liberal Tim Wilson, both in the mid-30% range. Daniel should easily win from that position, and the polling has also attempted to measure a final two-candidate outcome, which indeed shows Daniel winning. On election night, any independent in this sort of position should be expected to win.
  • Other polling examples have shown independents polling in the low-to-mid 20s. This is not an impossible position to win from, for example note Andrew Wilkie’s win (Denison/Clark, Tasmania) in 2010, from just 21% as a starting vote, and in third place on first preferences. (Starting from third place does not rule out winning, if voters supporting even lower-placed candidates prefer the candidate in third to the one in second place, but such wins are quite rare). However, to win from this sort of starting point will require the leading incumbent major party candidate to also poll very low first preferences, say in the low 30s.
  • In the cases where there are two independents, it can’t be assumed that the voters supporting the lower-placed one will strongly transfer their votes to the higher-placed one. This will be the situation in the divisions of Hughes (NSW) and Groom (Qld). If the leading independent is not off to a very good start – in the high 20s – then their chances are not strong. (However the seat of Hughes is a bit special, with a late-starting Liberal candidate, the national leader of the UAP micro-party, two independents, and a lot of campaigning over recent months – this will be an unusual division).
  • It’s worth noting another general tendency: in contests that feature incumbent independents, or independents with established profiles, where the conservative major party has had a few years to work on a fightback strategy (often assisted by supportive media), the vote for all other candidates tends to be lower, reflecting a more pitched battle. This makes it harder for the independent to win from just 29% or the low 30s. The defeat of Kerryn Phelps MP in Wentworth (NSW) in 2019, and the failure in 2016 of long-standing independent Tony Windsor to win back his old seat (New England, NSW) are cases of that kind.
  • Finally, in some rural seats there may be two major party candidates in the field, with both the Liberal and National parties running. Voters for both tend to cross-reference very strongly, meaning their vote can be more or less summed before comparing it to a strong independent result. The division of Nicholls in central Victoria will see such a situation this year

So overall, we can set up the following general expectations for election night:

  • Most of the contests involving first-time independents, including most of the voices and ‘teal’ candidates, should be in the ‘29% threshold’ and ‘45% safe for incumbent’ scenario.
  • The contests in Indi (Helen Haines), Warringah (Zali Stegall), and Mayo (Rebekah Sharkie) should require the sitting independents there to need somewhat more than 29%, since the battle with their major-party opponents have become sharper. But these incumbent independents should also be expected to poll better because of their established standings in the community. Likewise for Kennedy (Bob Katter) and Clark (Andrew Wilkie), both of which have popular members who will receive preferences from many voters for other candidates, and should very likely be returned safely.
  • The division of Nicholls in Victoria is a bit of an anomaly; independent candidate Rob Priestly may be capable of winning from a lower starting vote, depending on how the supporters of the two conservative major parties split their preferences.

Finally, there is one useful advantage in the way the AEC handles election-night counting. The Electoral Commission (AEC) always selects a pair of candidates which it predicts will be the leading two in each race, and on election night counting staff will sort all the ballots initially supporting every other candidate into an indicative final tally between those two. That means that in many key independent races, we may get a clear ‘two-candidate-preferred’ outcome on the night.

But that requires the AEC to guess that a race will not be a ‘standard’ Labor-vs-Coalition race, and identify a leading independent. It keeps secret in advance which pair it has selected, but almost certainly will do this for the five sitting independents recontesting their seats (divisions of Mayo, Kennedy, Clark, Indi and Warringah), and it will probably do it for up to half a dozen more contests where the campaign has indicated that that is the state of play, but it certainly will not do this for all of the prominent independent races. For a rough guess, the AEC will also count Coalition-vs-independent in the divisions of Goldstein, Kooyong, Mackellar, North Sydney, Wentworth, and Curtin, and maybe Bradfield, Cowper and Groom.

Such indicative election night results are not conclusive, and the real counting unfolds as per the rules in the days that follow.

That’s about all we can say at this moment. Individual seat polling is not usually a reliable indicator of real results. The Australian people are voting right now, and we’ll see what happens tonight.

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This entry was posted on May 21, 2022 by in Australia, Preferential voting.
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