In Australia, as in the UK, the voting system is at breaking point

Chris Terry, Former Research Officer

Posted on the 4th July 2016

In 2010 Australia delivered its first hung parliament since 1940. A seemingly freak one-off, the election followed a period of unrest in the incumbent Labor Party (ALP) who had replaced their Prime Minister Kevin Rudd after just two and a half years in the job. The opposition Liberals had themselves faced major internal tensions – but shocked observers by running the ALP close. A hung parliament resulted and the ALP returned to power after securing support from Green and independent MPs.

I mention this bit of Australian political history because six years later it appears as if history – as it is often wont to do – has repeated itself. After taking power a mere three years ago, the Liberals dumped their leader and PM Tony Abbott in favour of more moderate and seemingly more popular Malcolm Turnbull. But after an initial wave of popularity, Turnbull, widely expected to win his first election as leader with ease, has failed to win a majority against an opposition many had written off. It is not quite clear what the final result will be (for a variety of reasons, Australian elections are often slow to count) but it is clear that neither party will win a majority.

Australia is, therefore, heading towards its second hung parliament in three elections, when previously the last hung parliament had been during WWII.

Australia uses the Alternative Vote electoral system for its House of Representatives, which is superior to the system we use, First Past the Post, in that it makes sure that MPs are elected by a majority of their constituents. But because only one MP is elected per constituency, it is not proportional overall (in fact it can produce even more lopsided results than First Past the Post in some circumstances). So hung parliaments are supposed to be a rarity in Australia, as in the UK.

But, again like in the UK, recent decades have seen an increasing fragmentation of politics. While this has often been particularly seen in Australia’s proportionally elected Senate, recent years have seen this extend to the House of Representatives too.

In 1996 we saw the election of Pauline Hanson on a hard-line anti-immigration platform, leading to the formation of her party One Nation which temporarily gained notable support. This was followed by the Palmer United Party which won a seat in 2013 but has since imploded. The Greens have since become the third party of Australian politics, regularly winning around 8-12% of the vote. Independents are popular, with two likely to be elected this year and Senator Nick Xenophon’s new party, the eponymously named Nick Xenophon Team, winning two seats. All in all, around 22.8% of votes were cast for parties other than the main two, both of which have reached near-historic lows.

If this story sounds familiar, it should. Like politics in the UK, Australia is experiencing a fragmentation away from traditional parties. Those same traditional parties are struggling to maintain unity as they try to hold together diverse groups of voters and politicians. Anger at the establishment has made itself felt in support for new parties. The result in both countries is a more fragmented politics and a higher chance of hung parliaments and more difficult to control political parties.

These phenomena are not merely aspects of the politics of the home country, but part of an international trend that makes itself felt in different ways in almost every country. Yet we’ve also learnt that systems which aim for one party rule – majoritarian systems like First Past the Post and AV – are perhaps the least suited for adapting for the challenges of these new movements and partisan arrangements.

As parties in power are not represented in line with their true public support, they can fail to take account of or fully reflect mounting public anger or emerging trends until a sudden (and potentially highly disruptive) breakthrough, with some parties advantaged against others – witness the differing Parliamentary representation of the SNP vs. UKIP.

The solution can only be to represent people properly in line with their votes – and to make sure every vote has value, rather than trying to force people into two parties that many feel no longer represent them.

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