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Sep 15 2013

Australian election 2013 wrapup

The dust is settling after the Australian federal election last week, and I guess I must be out of touch because I am struggling to understand what voters were thinking.

All election statistics in this post are from the Australian Electoral Commission unless otherwise noted.

House of Representatives results

In the House of Representatives, Tony Abbott’s Liberal/National Coalition has won government with 46% of the first preference (“primary”) vote, 53.4% of the two-party-preferred (2PP) vote, and 91 of 150 seats (accounting for close seats gives a range of 89-94).

The incumbent Labor government received just 34% of the primary vote, a -4% swing from the last election in 2010. This is Labor’s lowest vote since 1934 when NSW Labor split from the ALP. If you don’t count the 1930s split, it is Labor’s worst result since 1903. Labor’s 2PP vote is 46.6%, a -3.6% swing and lowest since 1996 when the previous Liberal government was elected. Labor has won only 54 (53-56) seats. Incumbent Prime Minister Kevin Rudd only retained his seat on preferences. Even so, the result is not as bad for Labor as some polls had suggested.

Elections House of Reps 1901-2013

Christine Milne’s Greens received only 8.4% of the vote, suffering a swing of -3.4% relative to its record high vote in 2010. The Greens vote in Tasmania was cut in half in a swing of -8.7%. At this election the Greens attempted to reach out to new constituencies such as farmers and progressive businesses, but it seems they have been unsuccessful.

I confess I didn’t vote 1 Greens in the House of Representatives. I voted for Save the Planet to send a message to the Greens to step up their act on climate change, and gave the Greens my second preference. However, I am sorry to say it is hard to discern any similar message being sent by many other voters. Before the election I categorized the following parties as having strong climate policies: Save the Planet, Socialist Alliance, Pirates, Wikileaks, Secular, Democrats, and Stop CSG. Of those which ran in the House of Representatives, each attracted only a few thousand votes or about 0.03-0.04% of the national vote (bear in mind these parties only ran in a few electorates).

Despite the national swing against them, the Greens have held their one House of Representatives seat with the re-election of Adam Bandt in Melbourne, where for the first time they topped the primary vote at 42%, a 7% swing since 2010, beating the major parties who had directed preferences to each other. In the neighbouring electorate of Batman, the Greens increased their primary vote but fell on 2PP.

Despite the miserable showing for Labor and the Greens, the Coalition’s claim of a strong “mandate” for its policies is questionable because the swing toward the Coalition in primary votes was only 2%. The largest swing was 5.5% toward the new Palmer United Party led by mining billionaire Clive Palmer, which has come out of nowhere to become the fourth party in Australian politics. In Queensland it is the third party with 11% of the vote. Palmer looks likely to win a seat in the House of Representatives, the seat of Fairfax.

In fifth place was Family First at 1.37%, who did not win any seats in the House of Representatives.

Katter’s Australian Party came in sixth with 1.02%. Its leader Bob Katter was thrashed in his seat of Kennedy with a -15% swing against him, and the party won no other seats.

Two independents won seats: Andrew Wilkie in Denison and (possibly) Cathy McGowan in Indi.

At previous elections I’ve complained that the House of Representatives single-member electorate system is unfair to minor parties. This continues to be the case: at this election minor parties and independents won a combined 21% of the vote but just 3% of seats. However, my main complaint this time is not about how the votes are counted, but the way the voters voted. Australians have overwhelmingly voted for parties which oppose climate action – and therefore, parties which are not acting in the public interest.

Senate results

Note that only half of the Senate was up for election, and the Senators elected last Saturday will not begin their six-year terms until next July.

The final Senate results will not be known until several weeks from now, when below-the-line votes will be counted. What is clear is that from next July, when the new Senators take their seats, Australia will have a “hung Senate” with a crossbench of around 18.

Despite having won government in the House of Representatives, the Coalition has actually lost primary votes in the Senate with a swing of -1%, another inconvenient fact for the Coalition’s claim to have received a strong mandate. Its Senate primary vote is 38%, the lowest since 1943 when the Liberal Party’s predecessor the United Australia Party went into a death spiral. In the new Senate the Coalition will have 33 (31-35) of 76 seats, including 16 elected in 2010 and 15-19 elected in 2013.

Labor’s vote in the Senate was just 30%, a swing of -5% and its worst Senate result since 1934. Labor is predicted to have 25 seats in the new Senate (13 old, 12 new). In both South Australia and Western Australia, Labor has won just 1 of the 6 Senate seats up for election, something that has never happened before in any state.

Despite the Greens having campaigned strongly for Senate votes to provide an “Abbott-proof fence”, the Greens’ Senate vote has declined to 8.6%, a swing of -4.6% from its record high in 2010 to the lowest level since 2004.

The Senate votes of the other climate-friendly parties were similarly unspectacular: Wikileaks 0.61%, Pirates 0.30%, Democrats 0.25%, Secular 0.10%, Stop CSG 0.06%, and Socialist Alliance 0.02% – in total 1.34%. Even if all these votes are interpreted as protest votes against the Greens, the total greenish vote is still significantly less than the Greens’ high-water-mark in 2010.

As in the lower house, the Greens appear to have re-elected their existing Senators: Scott Ludlam in Western Australia, Sarah Hanson-Young in South Australia, and Peter Whish-Wilson (former leader Bob Brown’s replacement) in Tasmania. Also, Janet Rice looks to have won a new Senate seat for the Greens in Victoria. However, the Greens have probably not matched their record result of six Senators elected in 2010. In the new Senate the Greens will have 10 (10-12) seats (6 old, 4-6 new).

Labor and Greens have lost their combined control of the Senate, but the Liberal/National Coalition has failed to gain control. Palmer United Party won 5.0% of the Senate vote and appears to have elected 2 (1-3) Senators, Glenn Lazarus in Queensland and Jacqui Lambie in Tasmania. Independent Nick Xenophon has been re-elected in South Australia, outpolling Labor with 26% of the state Senate vote.

The Liberal Democrats won 3.8% of the national Senate vote, mainly due to winning 9.0% of the vote in New South Wales, electing their candidate David Leyonhjelm. This is believed to be a combination of donkey votes (as the Liberal Democrats happened to be first on the ballot paper) and votes intended for the similarly-named Liberals. Even Leyonhjelm himself admits “I don’t think everybody who voted for us thought they were voting for the Liberal Democrats”. Leyonhjelm is also involved in three other parties which were only registered two months ago: the Outdoor Recreation Party (Stop the Greens), the Smoker’s Rights Party, and the Republican Party. All these parties preference each other, but Leyonhjelm denies they are fronts for the Liberal Democrats, saying “It depends what you call a front party.

Family First won 1.1% of the national Senate vote and 3.7% in South Australia where their Bob Day won a seat. The Motoring Enthusiasts’ Ricky Muir may have won a Senate seat in Victoria, despite winning just 0.5% of the vote. The Sports Party’s Wayne Dropulich may have won a Senate seat in Western Australia, despite winning just 0.22% of the state vote and 0.02% of the national vote. All these new Senators will join Democratic Labor’s John Madigan, elected in 2010 with just 2.3% of the Victorian vote.

These candidates have won by vacuuming up preferences from the group voting tickets of a long list of other micro-parties, determined through non-transparent deals between the parties. Consultant Glenn Druery formed a Minor Party Alliance wherein all the micro-parties agreed to preference each other regardless of ideology, turning the Senate vote into a lottery in the hope that one might get lucky and win a seat. The Alliance excluded the Liberal Democrats because of its front groups. Druery also owns a lobbying firm which promises its business clients it can “build a productive working relationship with Independent and minor party MPs.

Some of the resulting preference flows have been totally at odds with the probable intentions of voters. For example, Ricky Muir appears to have been elected on preferences from the Palmer, Sex, Family First, Wikileaks, Rise Up Australia, Shooters and Fishers, Democratic Labor, Animal Justice, HEMP, Katter, Fishing and Lifestyle, Australian Independents, Senator Online, No Carbon Tax Climate Sceptics, Bullet Train, Drug Law Reform, Stable Population, Building Australia, Australian Voice, Bank Reform, Stop CSG, Citizens Electoral Council, and Socialist Equality parties. According to the ABC’s Antony Green, no electoral system other than the Australian Senate’s would have elected Muir and Dropulich with such tiny proportions of the vote.

After each election a parliamentary committee reviews the electoral system, and it is likely that this year’s Senate result will catalyse electoral reform. I agree with the Greens proposal of abolishing group voting tickets and replacing them with optional preferential above-the-line voting. This would give voters the power to easily determine their own Senate preferences instead of the present choice of endorsing obscure backroom deals or numbering dozens of boxes. It would also remove the incentive to form front parties. And unlike other proposals such as threshold quotas for election or higher party registration fees, it would not lock out alternative voices. As Jeff Sparrow points out, the House of Representatives system is already overwhelmingly biased toward major parties and that is where electoral reform is most needed (ie. we need a more proportional voting system).

To pass legislation in the Senate requires 39 votes including the President, so with 33 seats the Abbott government will need 6 votes from the crossbenches (or from Labor). Abbott mercilessly attacked former Prime Minister Julia Gillard for making deals with a diverse House of Representatives, and during the election insisted he would not do deals with minor parties. Now Abbott will find himself having to negotiate with an even more diverse Senate. So far he is trying to bully others into accepting his supposed “mandate”, but whether he will succeed remains to be seen. Although the new crossbenchers are generally right-wing, some such as Palmer’s party do not appear inclined to play nice. Whatever happens, the next Parliament promises to be an interesting one.

Other voting trends

This election saw a record high number of invalid or “informal” votes: 5.93% in the House of Representatives and 3.55% in the Senate. Informal votes can be made intentionally as an indication of protest or disinterest, or unintentionally by incorrectly filling in the ballot paper.

25% of young voters failed to enrol in time for the election.

2.7 million people voted before polling day, taking advantage of what was originally supposed to be a special provision for those who could not make it to a polling booth on election day. Yet major policies were still being announced in the final days of the campaign. It is conceivable that some of those 2.7 million might have voted differently had they known about some of the Coalition’s last-minute policy announcements – and that could have changed the election result.

The high number of informal votes, un-enrolled voters, and pre-poll votes are all suggestive of widespread disengagement from politics. Disturbingly, this appears to be particularly true among the youngest voters, the very group who should be most politically engaged, because we have most to lose from the policies of Liberal, Labor, and Palmer and most to gain from Greens policies.

Over the coming days I intend to write more in-depth analysis on the election aftermath, why people might have voted the way they did, what it might mean for policy outcomes, and what it means for the climate movement.

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