On Elections

How people elect parliaments

Preview – ACT election 2016

image - ACT LA.jpg
The chamber of the ACT Legislative Assembly

On 15 October 2016 around 222,000 voters in the Australian Capital Territory – which consists almost entirely of the city of Canberra – will go to the polls to elect the 25 members of the territory’s Legislative Assembly for terms of four years*.

(Personal note: this is my old stamping ground. I grew up in Canberra, went to the Australian National University, was a regular polling place officer for the Australian and ACT Electoral Commissions at national and ACT elections from the 1988 referendum to the 1996 federal election, and worked for nearly seven years as an adviser to an independent member of the Assembly; many fond memories.)

The ACT Legislative Assembly is one of the few in the world where members of a government-forming house are elected by the single transferable vote (STV) method; the others are those of Éire, Northern Ireland, Malta and the Australian state of Tasmania.

Under this voting system Canberra’s voters get a broad range of choice of parties and of individual candidates at elections, up to 80% of enrolled voters get representation in the elected assemblies, and the influence of every vote is as close to equal as it is possible for an electoral system to be.

It’s one flaw – and it’s a modest one – is the breakup of the electorate into electoral divisions with small numbers of seats. During the current term the Assembly passed legislation to expand its number of members from 17 to 25. The previous configuration of three electoral divisions with 7, 5 and 5 members will be replaced by a new configuration of five divisions each of 5 members.

In common with all Australian jurisdictions, the political system of the ACT has two major parties – the Australian Labor Party (ALP) and the Liberal Party – and a significant minor party in the Greens. Other minor parties and independents were prominent in past ACT elections, but the territory seems to have settled into a stable three-party system.

The decision of the two major parties legislating in the current term for 5-member seats is in part aimed at decreasing the number of Greens and others who will be elected in 2016 and future elections.

The ALP has now held government in the ACT for four electoral terms, but has governed in loose coalition with the Greens for the most recent two terms. In 2012 the vote for the ALP and the Liberals was almost identical (the Liberals won just 41 more votes across the territory), and resulted in the two major parties winning 8 seats each with the Greens winning the final seat, a result that allowed the Greens and the ALP to retain government.

Extrapolation of the 2012 election results onto the new boundaries is a good starting point for predictions for 2016. When the new boundaries were first released in April 2015 a post by Australia’s leading psephologist Antony Green included such an extrapolation, and I have attached done similar calculations and attach a table of the relevant data. The result of the 2012 vote on the 2016 boundaries would probably have been 12 Liberal members, 10 ALP and 3 Green – also a narrow win for the ALP-Green coalition.

In 2016 the ALP is seeking the electorate’s support for a 5th term, having been in government since 2001 with three successive party leaders serving as Chief Ministers. If the ALP retains government in October 2016, by the 2020 election the party will have governed the territory for 19 years – an exceptionally long period by modern Australian standards.

The 2012 result appeared to be a high-water mark for the Liberal vote in current conditions, against the background at the time of a troubled federal ALP government. Had the current federal Liberal government continued to be led by Prime Minister Tony Abbott, expectations were for a major crash in the Liberal vote. His replacement in late 2015 by Malcolm Turnbull – a leader much more acceptable to Canberra’s middle income, politically moderate demographic – has probably stabilised Liberal support.

Compared to the extrapolated 2012 vote, the challenge for the Liberal party in taking government is to find a 13th seat in addition to the imputed 12 they would have won on the new boundaries. This will not prove easy, as historic party support in four of the new electoral divisions makes it almost impossible to expect an additional seat would be won, and indeed the party will need to defend its 3rd seat in the (new) northern division of Yerrabi from the Greens.

The Liberal’s only real prospect lies in the new central division of Murrumbidgee, based on the urban regions of Woden and Weston Creek. The Liberal Party’s leader Jeremy Hanson is standing in this division, which may help a bit. But what will matter more is the relative vote shares won by the party’s second and third-placed candidates, because in 5-member divisions greater advantage during the counting process, where candidates are sequentially eliminated, lies in having two candidates with similar votes than in the second-placed candidate having a much larger share than the third-placed one. This applies equally to both the Liberals and the ALP.

The ACT election rule that ballot papers have a randomised set of orders in which the candidates’ names appear on the ballot paper tends to equalise vote shares for less well-known candidates.

All in all, the next government of the Territory may most likely be decided in this Woden-Weston Creek electoral division.

The key concern for the ALP and the Greens, outside of both being interested in the collective vote and number of seats won by their informal coalition, is the relative number of seats between the two. The ALP will be hoping to keep the Greens to 1 or 2 seats, since a 3rd Green seat, and certainly a 4th, would create a case for them to have a second place in the territory’s governing ministry.


* Note: a federal election is also anticipated during the second half of 2016. If a federal election date would clash with the ACT elections, the date for the ACT election is deferred by a number of weeks.


Malcolm Baalman
20 January 2016



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