Crispin Hull / Hung Parliament & Minority Government Looms

No matter when the next election is held, it is very likely to result in a hung Parliament and a minority government of one sort or another. It will be a good result for Australia.

A few weeks before the 2019 election I put $100 on a hung Parliament at 8-to-1 using Australia’s largest internet betting site. I only missed out by a few votes.

Well, the way things are going now, I thought I’d better get in quick.

Too late, the betting site (which after all, is an aggregation of the views of those betting) accords with my thinking. The election will be a very close-run thing. Not between the Coalition, on one hand, and Labor, on the other. Rather between majority government, on one hand, or minority, on the other. They are a dead heat.

The odds offered by the betting site put the chance of a minority government at 50 per cent, or one in two. And, obviously, says the chance of a majority government was also put at one in two, or 50 per cent.

A Coalition Government (of either sort) is at 53 per cent and a Labor Government at 47 per cent.

balancing stones on white background

It says a lot about our politics and political climate (pun intended) that people think a hung parliament is as likely as not, considering that there has been only one hung Parliament in the 29 post-war elections to 2019.

But hung Parliaments are now going to be the new normal. There are several factors, the most important being the declining primary vote of the major parties.

With preferential voting, minors and independents usually get shut out. The Greens regularly get more than 10 per cent of the vote yet get less than one per cent of the seats.

But in individual seats, a tipping point arrives when the primary vote of either major party falls below that of an independent or minor. In that case the minor or independent picks up nearly all the preferences of flailing major party to put them ahead of the other major party and take the seat.

Since the 2010 election there have been five minors or independents in the House. They look like a permanent feature because, once in, they almost routinely get re-elected.

A related factor is the identity crisis suffered by the major parties. Labor used to be the party of workers, unionists, welfare and the inner city. The Coalition used to be wealth, high-status employment, business and the bush.

Increasingly, workers are becoming aspirational independent contractors and more likely to vote Coalition. Meantime, Labor is attracting a lot of university-educated fairly high income-earners.

Both major parties are having difficulty retaining their traditional base while appealing to their new supporters.

The Coalition, while appealing to aspirational people working in industry but who are no longer unionists, is losing support among highly educated affluent people in the cities and losing support among environmentally conscious farmers.

The Coalition used to get more women’s vote than Labor, which was seen as male and blue collar. Now that has reversed.

Labor is having difficulty retaining its vote in the industrial heartland while it appeals to voters who want more action on climate change among other things. If it goes weak on climate in an attempt to keep them or get them back, it risks losing votes to the Greens. But at least those votes come back in preferences.

The Coalition has a bigger problem. It is called the National Party. The National Party prevents the Coalition having sensible climate and energy-innovation policies. The Coalition also has problems with integrity and attitudes to women.

These problems have resulted in a groundswell of progressive independents standing on these issues in Liberal-held inner-city seats.

These erstwhile Liberals say they have not left the Liberal Party, but that the Liberal Party has left them. They have some wealthy backers, including Simon Holmes a Court.

They do not buy the argument that most of the Liberals whose seats they are targeting – Josh Frydenberg, Trent Zimmerman and Dave Sharma, for example – are small-l Liberals who have argued for strong climate action; better treatment for women and tougher integrity measures.

They say that these small-l Liberals have always voted in the Parliament the same way as Barnaby Joyce. They will be telling voters that a vote for Josh, Trent or Dave is a vote for Barnaby. After all, Barnaby is heading the National Party which is the tail that wags the Liberal dog.

They also do not buy the argument that a vote for an independent is a wasted vote.

The stand-out example is Zali Steggall. In 2019, she took Liberal Tony Abbott’s 11 per cent margin and turned into a 7.5 per cent margin her way. Since then she has led or collaborated with proposed legislation on climate, women and integrity.

At present, the Coalition has a majority and blocked the legislation. If, however, a few more of these independents win seats and there is a minority government, the legislation would pass.

This is why minority government is a good thing that prevents stability causing stagnation. It would help unlock the stalemate we have seen on so many issues in the past decade and a half.

The reason to expect hung Parliaments to be the new normal after the next election is to look at the historical trend.

Two of the three elections since the 2010 election were as close to hung Parliaments as you can get. The Coalition won 76 of 150 seats in 2016 and 76 of 151 seats in 2019.

Polls are showing a continuing decline in the major parties’ first-preference vote. Combined with the policy frustration begot of policy stagnation and emerging cashed-up quality independent candidates, expect the pre-2010 days of 10- to 20-seat majorities never to return.

This article first appeared in The Canberra Times and other Australian media on 2 October 2021.

Crispin Hull BA, LLB (Hons) | Property Convenor  |  ANU School of Legal Practice Lawyer of the Supreme Court of the ACT, on the Register of Practitioners kept by the High Court of Australia