The Australian federal election will be held on 21 May 2022 to elect members of the 47th Parliament of Australia. All 151 seats in the lower house, the House of Representatives, and 40 of the 76 seats in the upper house, the Senate, will be up for election.i
The Liberal–National Coalition government, led by Scott Morrison, is seeking a fourth consecutive term in office and the Labor Party opposition is led by Anthony Albanese. However, polling has repeatedly shown that Australia’s major parties are facing a serious challenge to their ‘two-party system’ due to unpopular covid pandemic policies and the perceived abandonment of traditional family values and democratic freedoms by both major parties.
The rise of an increasingly coordinated and in some cases well-funded cohort of minor parties, independents and ‘unofficial coalitions’ of independents (e.g., ‘Climate 200’ candidates) has raised the possibility of a ‘hung’ parliament in the House of Representatives and an ‘unpredictable’ Senate. Critics warn that a ‘hung’ parliament will lead to incoherent policy agendas and a ‘tyranny of the minority’.ii
Advocates argue that breaking up the power of the Liberal/Labor ‘duopoly’ provides stronger government oversight and promotes democratic reform (e.g. establishment of the Parliamentary Budget Office (PBO)).iii This shifting political landscape was facilitated by changes to Australia’s voting system in 2016, which give voters control over their preference flows rather than political parties (who can only use ‘how to vote’ cards as recommendations). iv
The ‘House of Representatives’, where the party or coalition with a majority of seats forms government, is decided using ‘full preferential voting. Preferential voting is used in all single-member electorates in Australia, and is advantageous to the major parties, primarily because of the size of the vote needed to challenge for a seat. The major parties have won 99.4 per cent of all House of Representatives seats in federal elections since 1949.”v
Under proportional voting, voters must rank every candidate on the ticket from highest to lowest. If a candidate achieves 50% of the ‘1st preference’ votes they win that seat. If no candidate achieves 50%, the lowest scoring candidate is excluded and those who voted for the excluded candidate have their vote transferred to their ‘second’ preference. If no candidate achieves 50% following that round, the next lowest scoring candidate is excluded and those who voted for them have their vote transferred to their ‘third’ preference. This process is repeated until a candidate gets 50% of the vote and is declared a winner.
The Senate, where “each state and territory acts as a single, multi- member electorate” is decided using ‘proportional representation’. Proportional Representation (PR) is designed to be ‘representative’, so that parties win seats in proportion to the percentage of the vote they receive. Under PR, voters must rank a minimum of 6 parties ‘above the line’, OR a minimum of 12 candidates ‘below the line’. Voting above the line allows a political party to direct your votes to their own candidates in an order that you may not agree with. For example, those who voted for the Liberal Party based on the promise of a ‘Religious Discrimination Bill’ at the last election were dismayed to discover that the Liberal party had chosen 5 candidates who opposed freedom of religion (and who ultimately sank the Bill entirely). Voting ‘below the line’ allows you to vote candidate by candidate, regardless of political party or party rankings. However, historically, only 3% of Australians choose this option and so it has very little effect in changing the order of a party’s candidates and the chances of making a mistake and having one’s vote ‘disallowed’ increases.
In the first round of counting, all candidates/parties that achieve “quota” (14.3% of the vote) win one seat. The major parties, (Liberal and Labor) typically have enough support to get two quotas each from 1st preferences, and often have enough surplus votes to contest the fifth seat. Typically, the Greens, who have the next largest percentage of votes, win the 5th or 6th spot with a combination of first preferences and surplus Labor votes (which usually preference Greens above Liberal). This means that ballots of those voting #1 for minor parties are usually only counted when determining the final Victorian Senate seat. It would take an unprecedented number of voters giving the same minor party or independent their first preference votes for the final seat be allocated in the first round. If voters only rank minor parties/candidates, it is likely that their vote will be ‘exhausted’ (thrown out with failed candidates/parties) early.
Thus, whether voting above or below the line, it is recommended that people number as many boxes as they possibly can, and include at least one of the two major parties- so that their vote will be continuously ‘transferred’ to their next preference until it contributes to a seat victory, rather than ‘exhaust’ itself.