On Elections

How people elect parliaments

It actually happened: independent surge in Australia as government changes

Representation in Australia’s Parliament has undergone a remarkable sea change after last Saturday’s elections.

The previous government has lost around 20 seats in the 151 seat House of Representatives, taking it from the barest of majorities (76 seats) to the smallest share of House seats held by the conservative element of Australian politics since conservative parties coalesced in 1910, excluding the anomalous war-time parliament elected for 1943-46. It is a political catastrophe which has devastated the urban and regional component of the Liberal Party, which had around 44 seats in the last House but now emerges with 28 or fewer. In contrast, the election has not significant affected the other components of the coalition, the Queensland Liberal National Party and the NSW-Victorian National Party.

Overall, total nationwide Coalition voter support has crashed from 41.5% at the 2019 election to around 35.6% – easily the lowest level of support for Australia’s conservative parties since federation in 1900.

Despite the collapse of their opponents, the Labor Party has yet to fully secure a majority, with only around 73 seats clearly won, up from 69 they previously held. Australia’s House of Representatives is elected through a system of preferential (ranked choice) voting in single-member electoral divisions. Counting of votes in the close seats can take up to 13 days. However, expectations are that Labor will reach around 78 seats.

Meanwhile, the cross-bench expands dramatically, with the Greens rising from 1 seat to 4, and the independents from 5 seats to 12.

Despite the continuing counts, the previous Liberal Prime Minister Scott Morrison has already proceeded to resign his commission, and promptly advised the Governor General to commission Labor Labor Leader Anthony Albanese to form a government, which took place rapidly on Monday.

Labor’s assumption of government is all the more remarkable in that it actually lost vote share at the election, falling from a vote share of 33.3% in 2019 to (tentatively) only 32.8% this year, also their lowest voter support since the early 20th century. No new government in Australia has even come to office while losing voter support in this way, nor has any Australian national government been formed by a party with such a low national first preference vote total, the previous record being 38% by Labor in 2010. The explanation is that the millions of voters supporting other candidates who grew their support this year – Greens and independent voters, and some supporting other micro parties – went on to list Labor above Liberal candidates in the order of preferences on their ballots, meaning numerous Labor candidates have ultimately been elected in many electoral divisions.

The Greens, a fairly stable third force in Australian elections for a few decades now, have had their best election result ever, at 11.8% of the nationwide vote (previous best 11.7% in 2010), and will win 3 new seats in inner-urban Brisbane. Two other seats (Richmond* in north-east NSW, and Macnamara in inner Melbourne, Vic) might also be added to the Greens’ tally after late counting. The party’s growing success in these places, plus some inner-city Sydney seats where they regularly run second to Labor, provide them with long-term base for growth in House of Representatives places (they also have strong representation in the national Senate, but that’s a seperate story).

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

But the most remarkable outcome of the election was the dramatic rise in the vote for independent candidates. Their presence in the House has leapt from 3 seats to 10 (and possibly more). Vote support for leading independents has grown from 3.3% nationwide to at least 5.0% (and add a little more to that tally from the dozens of minor independents also on the ballot) – easily their strongest result ever.

The independent pack has been led by its three incumbents. Andrew Wilkie (electoral division of Clark, Tas) won 46% of his division’s voters’ first preferences and has secured 69% of the vote after preferences, making him one of the safest MPs in the country since his initial election in 2010. Zali Stegall (Warringah, NSW) and Helen Haines (Indi, Vic), two independents who set key policy agendas on climate change and integrity in the previous parliament, have each won over 40% on first preferences and around 60% after preferences.

Seven new independents have won their seats with final-preference totals of between 52% and 55% on the current counting. Strongest in initial voter support was paediatric neurologist Dr Monique Ryan in the division of Kooyong (Melbourne, Vic), winning 42% of the first preference vote and ousting the former federal Treasurer in the outgoing government. In Mackellar (Sydney’s northern beaches, NSW) local GP Dr Sophie Scamps won 39% first preference support; in the much-contested division of Wentworth (eastern Sydney, NSW) businesswoman Allegra Spender won nearly 38%; and in Goldstein (Melbourne, Vic, named after one of the first women to run for federal Parliament in 1903), prominent journalist Zoe Daniel won 36%. In Curtin (Perth, WA) businesswoman Kate Chaney won from 30% vote start.

All of these candidates won dramatic support from former Liberal voters, as well as traditional Labor voters sensing an opportunity. These were contests in previously safe Liberal seats, where Labor was rarely competitive. There is a theory that Labor’s poor nationwide vote is only temporary, due to Labor voters strategically supporting independents. That’s surely true in local contests; the Labor vote in Goldstein drops from 28% in 2019 to 10%, in Mackellar 17% drops to 8%, and in Kooyong 17% drops to 6%. These are clearly Labor voters shifting to the independent column, and overall in the 20 clearly ‘teal’ independent seats Labor vote share fell by an average of 4.5% of total vote share, while nationally it was roughly unchanged. But whether these are only one-off vote shifts, or the emergence of a permanent taste for independent representation, must remain an open question. In any case their total number nationwide would not exceed 100,000 voters.

The impact of Labor voters brings us to one more independent victory, with charity leader Kylea Tink winning the formerly safe Liberal seat of North Sydney (NSW) in a three cornered contest where the Labor candidate remained in the race and preserved Labor voter support. Starting votes were Liberal 38%, Independent 25% and Labor 21%. Tink’s win is an unusual case of success with a starting vote below the ‘threshold’ of 29% of the first preference votes, above which independent candidates rarely fail, but below which they rarely succeed (more on this here).

Finally, there is a rare case of an independent taking a seat from Labor, not the Coalition. In the division of Fowler (western Sydney, NSW), local businesswoman Dai Le won 31% of the first preferences and knocked off prominent Labor figure Kristina Keneally.

Five more independents have finished in the final two places. Of these, at the time of writing the division of Cowper (northern NSW) might still fall to independent Caz Heise. The outcome in Bradfield (northern Sydney, NSW) is currently being reported as secure result for the Liberal candidate, but initially stated preference flows to the independent Nicolette Boele are clearly anomalous; Boele will get a lot closer, but probably not prevail. In Wannon (western Vic), second-attempt independent Alex Dyson has come close, starting with 20% first preferences and finishing on an estimated 45%. In Nicholls (northern Vic) Rob Priestly has started with 25% and also reached an estimated 45% facing both Liberal and National coalition candidates whose supporters will have strongly cross-preferenced. These close outcomes will encourage independent challenges at the next election in 2025, in these seats and many others.

Two other current MPs, Rebekha Sharkie (Mayo, SA) and Bob Katter (Kennedy, Qld), while nominally members of micro-parties, have also been easily re-elected, and will continue to sit with the independents on the cross bench.

Roughly a dozen seats remain ‘in doubt’, but most should be clear within a few days, and the new Parliament will meet in about four weeks.

The whole independent performance is clearly the largest in Australian history. While only representing 5% of the nationwide vote, being concentrated in fewer than 30 of the 151 single-member divisions brings disproportionate success. The 2022 result also represents a major psychological threshold crossed, with independents no longer to be regarded as a curiosity or locally rare. There is much discussion in the commentariat about whether this now represents a permanent choice of voter representation, likely to manifest in yet more seats in the 2025 elections, as well as upcoming state elections.

Previous posts for background: Independent prospects in today’s Australian election (May 21); Australia’s growing habit of Independents (May 20)

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This entry was posted on May 24, 2022 by in Australia, Election results, Preferential voting.
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