How do elections work in Australia?

Dylan Difford, guest contributor. Opinions and research are solely the author's and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the ERS.

Posted on the 15th May 2022

British voters may have to wait up to five years for a general election, but, for Australians, the opportunity comes no later than every three. On Saturday 21st May, Australia’s House of Representatives and roughly half of its Senate are up for election, with voters able to reward the Liberal-National Coalition with a fourth term or return Labor to power after nine years in opposition.

Due to Australia’s system of compulsory voting, turnout will likely be high – the 2019 figure of 92% was considered low by Australian standards! Those who fail to vote without a satisfactory reason will have to pay a $20 penalty (roughly £11.50). But, for those who do vote, how will they be voting and who will they be voting for?

The Voting System: House of Representatives

The 151 members of the House of Representatives are elected in single-member constituencies by the Alternative Vote (AV), otherwise known as Instant Runoff Voting (IRV), Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) or simply Preferential Voting as it is often called in Australia.

Voters rank candidates in their order of preference (1, 2, 3, etc). But, unlike in other countries that use preferential voting systems, Australian voters must rank all candidates listed on the ballot paper for their vote to be valid or ‘formal’. To help with this, it is typical for parties to produce ‘how to vote’ cards that indicate how they would prefer their voters to rank the other candidates.

If a candidate wins more than half of first preference votes they are elected outright. If not, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and the votes for them are transferred to each voter’s next preference. This continues until one candidate has a majority of votes, at which point they are elected.

Over the last five elections, an average of 57 constituencies (38%) have been decided on first preferences alone and 92% of seats have been won by the candidate who won the most first preference votes (i.e. the same result as a First Past the Post election).

The Voting System: Senate

In total there are 76 members of the Senate – with twelve Senators from each state and two each from both of the internal territories. But, unless a special ‘double dissolution’ is called, only 40 Senators are elected at each election – six from each state and all four from the territories.

Senators are elected using the proportional Single Transferable Vote (STV), with the states and territories serving as the constituencies.

While STV elections usually see voters simply rank candidates, voters in Australia have two options. They can vote ‘above the line’ for parties or ‘below the line’ for individual candidates. Unlike in the House of Representatives, it is not compulsory to rank every party or candidate – but at least six parties or twelve individual candidates are expected. You can ‘practice’ completing a Senate ballot paper here. Most voters vote ‘above the line’, with just 7% voting ‘below the line’ in the last two Senate elections.

Counting of ballots is carried out as per an ordinary STV election, with ‘above the line’ votes treated as a bloc vote for that party’s candidates in the order they appear on the ballot paper.

Parties and Government

Australian politics is dominated by two political forces – the social-democratic Labor Party and the conservative Liberal-National Coalition. The Coalition is technically made up of two parties – the Liberals and the more rural-focussed National Party (alongside merged state parties in Queensland and the Northern Territory) – but, as with the CDU/CSU in Germany, the Coalition is usually regarded as a single party for most intents and purposes.

The hold of the two parties on Australian politics is clearest in the House of Representatives where they have jointly held nearly all seats in the post-war era – the lowest two-party seat share being 96% in 2010. As such, nearly all recent Australian governments have been single-party majorities.

Although no third party has won more than a single seat in the House of Representatives for over eighty years, the use of STV for the Senate has allowed some such parties to gain representation at the national level.

The largest third party by far are the Greens who generally win around 10% of first-preference votes. They are the only other party to have had a consistent presence in both the House of Representatives and Senate over the last decade and are currently the only third party with national- or state-level representatives in all six states.

Smaller parties that have recently won seats in the Senate include various right-wing populist parties that often largely serve as vehicles for a particular individual – including Pauline Hanson’s One Nation, Katter’s Australian Party and the United Australia Party of eccentric billionaire Clive Palmer – as well as the liberal Centre Alliance and the religious Family First.

The relative power of the Senate and the rarity of a single-party majority there (the most recent majority was won in the 2004 election) means governments have to ensure their policies have broad support to pass both houses.

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