Crispin Hull / What are the Prospects for our Major Political Parties?

The trend away from the major parties continued unabated this month. This week Greens leader Adam Bandt announced the Greens would target 10 safe Labor seats in the cities and push for an end to coal mining by the end of the decade.

Meanwhile, the “Voices Of” movement of independents has 30 independents standing in mainly safe Liberal seats in the cities on platforms mainly of stronger integrity and climate laws, more compassion for refugees and smarter economic policies. They are gaining more financial support by the day.

The nibbling away at major-party support is going to hit the Coalition harder than Labor because various right-wing minor parties are also challenging it, mainly in the bush, on a hotch-potch of Trumpian, male blue-collar, anti-vax, anti-climate action and pro-gun agendas.

This puts both major parties in a bind. The more they appease the right, the more they offend the left and vice-versa.

But the Liberal Party is in a bigger bind for several reasons. First, Labor does not have much to lose in the Bush. It has only five purely bush seats which to do not include a big chunk of a major city, whereas the Liberal Party has a lot to lose in the cities where it has seats that look a lot like Warringah (which Tony Abbott lost to an independent in 2019) and Wentworth (which fell briefly to an Independent in a by-election in 2018).

And they have seats in the bush like Indi in Victoria which has been held by a “Voices Of” independent since 2013.

Secondly, from a policy perspective, it does not matter much to Labor if it loses a few seats to the Greens. After all, many people in the Labor Party would prefer the Greens policy on a lot of things over their own compromised policies.

Whereas, if the Liberal Party loses seats to Voices Of independents, it will be losing to people who stand for things that fly in the face of what have become present-day Liberal Party core values: secrecy; subsidies to fossil industries; no substantive action on climate; misallocation and rorting of public money through grants in marginal seats and giving uncompetitive tenders to mates and donors; and cruelty to refugees.

Thirdly, the recent trends in preferences should worry the Coalition. Since 2004, the percentage of seats in the House of Representatives decided by preferences has gone inexorably up: 40% in 2004; 51% in 2007; 57% in 2020; 65% in 2013; 68% in 2016 and 70% in 2019.

And when you look at the 12 seats which the trailing candidate won on preferences in 2019, none was won by the Coalition; 10 were won by Labor and two by independents.

Fourthly, the preference system, which for two decades from 1949 kept the Coalition in power, now favours Labor for some quite complicated reasons. Labor wins about 60 per cent of all minor-party and independent preferences. This is because 82 per cent of Green preferences go to Labor.

So the Coalition can only garner 18 per cent of Green preferences. But Labor in 2019 captured 35 per cent of each of One Nation and Palmer/United Australia preferences and 50 per cent of others.

That sort of leakage to Labor from what should be a conservative/Coalition vote occurs for a reason unrelated to policies – the public funding of elections. One Nation and UAP really like public funding.

Under public funding, after the election political parties and candidates get $2.87 per vote, but only if they get at least 4 per cent of the first-preference vote. This is why One Nation and UAP will stand in every seat they can get a willing candidate rather than concentrating on a few good possibilities. It boosts their public funding even if they have no hope of winning more than one or two seats, if that.

Importantly, these parties cannot possibly have volunteers handing out how-to-vote cards at every polling station, especially in remote places. So, their preferences leak.

The Greens, on the other hand, have lots of young dedicated volunteers to hand out how-to-vote cards, and Green voters tend to have higher education and know their way through the electoral system, so their preferences do not leak as much.

Fifthly, we have seen evidence of tactical voting or running dead on the Labor side in safe Liberal seats where a “Voices Of” candidate is running. The Labor organisation puts minimal volunteers on the ground and many otherwise-committed Labor voters vote for the Voices Of candidate so that that candidate comes at least second in the first count and in a better position to win on preferences.

And then we had best mention the Senate where the Coalition is really up against it. After a double dissolution, such as 2016, the 72 senators from the states have to be divided into 36 short-term (three-year) and 36 long-term (six-year) senators. The Constitution says it is up to the Senate as to how to do that. There is a fair way provided by the Electoral Act, but it is not mandatory. Or an unfair way that favours the major parties.

Yes, they took the later and more major-party senators than warranted got the long terms. Guess what? Those who got the long six-year terms in 2016 come up for re-election at the next election. The Coalition finds itself defending three senate seats in every state except South Australia where it defends two. It is a big ask.

Expect the Coalition to lose a Senate seat or two to minor parties.

Overall, it points to a strong likelihood of a hung Parliament and a Government that will have to listen and not ignore other voices on things like climate, integrity, public health and education and treatment of women and so on.

But all this is just electoral mechanics. Prime Minister Scott Morrison (who unlike in 2019 is no longer an asset himself) has two other important defensive weapons that might overcome the mechanics: voter ignorance and apathy and a completely uninspiring Labor leader in Anthony Albanese.

That said, given Albanese it yet to inspire and Morrison does not deserve the trust and confidence of voters, a hung Parliament where they have to earn the confidence (literally) of others might be the best outcome for the nation.

This article first appeared in The Canberra Times and other Australian media on 13 November 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


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