Has the rise of Australia's minor parties hit a ceiling?

March 23, 2018

The recent elections in Tasmania, South Australia and the byelection in Batman have left an impression that the advance of the minor parties has stalled. This is not necessarily the case, writes Nick Economou in The Conversation.

The graph (shown above) indicates a trend-line towards parties outside the major party duopoly. The South Australian state election on Saturday resulted in over 28% voting against the duopoly. Replicated federally, this would result in a massive shake-up of federal representation.

Mr Economou wrote:

In general, the vast majority of Australians vote for the three main parties - the ALP, the Liberal Party and the National Party. The dominance of the three parties’ representatives in state and federal parliaments reflects this.

The total national primary vote cast for the main parties though, has been in decline.

But this in itself is no guarantee of inevitable change in the representational share between the major and minor parties, especially in single-member district electoral systems.

The shift of voter support away from the major parties has been variable and spread over a large number of alternative minor parties. In the 2013 and 2016 federal elections, more than 50 organisations registered as parties with the Australian Electoral Commission. Few of these parties polled over 1% of the vote. Only a handful polled over the 4% threshold to qualify for public funding.

But as the Batman by-election reminds us, even a primary vote approaching 40% does not guarantee victory. Bland references to declining support for the major parties tend to obscure just how difficult it is for minor parties to win lower house seats, especially if their electoral support is evenly spread over a wide range of districts. By the same token, the increasing proportion of the Australian electorate casting a primary vote for a party other than Labor, Liberal or National is a significant development and appears to be a recurring theme in recent elections.

The real locus of minor party impact is to be found in those parliamentary chambers elected under a proportional system. The SA-Best result in South Australia is an example of this: while his party failed to win a lower house seat, Xenophon’s latest venture did secure two seats in the proportionally elected Legislative Council.

The Greens might have suffered an adverse swing in the last state election in Tasmania, but still hold two seats in the House of Assembly.

Meanwhile, the minor parties have a significant impact on national policy debate by holding the balance of power in the Senate. This has been the reality in the Senate for some time.

The recent elections in Tasmania, South Australia and the by-election in Batman have left an impression that the advance of the minor parties has stalled, maybe permanently. This is not necessarily the case.

If the demographic patterns to the voting alignments in Batman are repeated at the Victorian state election on November 24, the Greens could win at least four lower house seats. Meanwhile, the current rate at which electors are voting for minor parties can still have significant representational consequences for proportionally elected chambers such as the Senate.

The sense of minor party failure associated with these recent election contests has been due in part to the tendency to make hyperbolic claims about their prospects in the first place.

The flipside of this is to guard against hyperbolically pessimistic conclusions on the basis of recent electoral events. Tasmania, South Australia and Batman were not good elections for SA-Best or the Greens (or, indeed, Rise Up Australia, the Jacqui Lambie Network or the Australian Conservatives), but that may have been due to the peculiarities of the particular elections.

There is a significant non-major party vote in the Australian system. The place to observe its impact is in the contest and representational outcomes for Australia’s proportionally elected upper houses, including the Senate.

Nick Economou is Senior Lecturer in the School of Political and Social Inquiry at Monash University.

This article was originally published in The Conversation. To read the original article, click here.

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