The 2013 federal election brings into sharp focus the relevance of the text book to the study and understanding of Australia’s democratic system of government.
Prime ministerial power
Selecting the election date. The power of the prime minister to determine the date for federal elections (see p. 217 of the text book) was in evidence when prime minister Julia Gillard unexpectedly announced at an address to the National Press Club in Canberra on 30 January 2013 that the federal election would be held on 14 September 2013 (see http://www.abc.net.au/news/2013-01-30/gillard-reveals-election-date/4491948).
This surprise announcement eight months out from the election may have been made to discourage the Coalition from trying to push Gillard to the polls as an attack mechanism on her government and to take the heat out of ongoing speculation about a challenge to her leadership.
When Julia Gillard was replaced by Keven Rudd in a caucus ballot on 26 June 2013 it became his prerogative to choose when the election would be held. On 4 August 2013 he set the federal election date as 7 September2013.
Limits to prime ministerial power
Electoral response to the prime minister’s performance is a significant determinant of prime ministerial power. The leader is less likely to come under attack from within if a prime minister is performing well. On the other hand, when a prime minister performs poorly in the polls the electoral prospects for the government are likely to be diminished (see p. 214 of the text book). The impact of the polls on party leadership incumbency is discussed in the case study on pp. 222-224 of the text book.
Poor performance in the polls was the reason why Julia Gillard was replaced by the Labor caucus so close to her chosen date for the federal election. A Newspoll taken 17-19 May 2013 placed the Coalition at 46 per cent ahead of Labor’s 31 per cent. the two-party preferred difference was 56 per cent to the Coalition with Labor well behind at 44 per cent (www.newspoll.com.au). A Morgan poll taken 11-12 June 2013 found that Rudd was preferred as Labor leader by 33 per cent of respondents compared to Gillard’s 14 per cent (www.roymorgan.com/findings/preferred-leader-alp-l-np-june20134-201306130530. As we saw above, a majority of the Labor caucus voted on 26 June 2013 to replace Gillard with Rudd. One reason why Labor MPs voted for Rudd was because they thought the party would do better under his leadership at the forthcoming election because he was more popular with the electorate than Gillard. This included senior ministers Bill Shorten and Penny Wong who switched their support from Gillard to Rudd for that reason. Rudd said ‘many, many MPs have requested me for a long, long time to contest the leadership of the party because of the parlous circumstances we now face…we are on course for a catastrophic defeat unless there is change’ (www.abc.net.au/news/2013-06-26/gillard-calls-spill-after-rudd-backers-move-against-her/4783136.
Immediately after Rudd became party leader and prime minister, Labor’s standing in the polls improved. First preference voting intention increased from 29 per cent to 35 per cent, the two party preferred gap closed with the Coalition declining to 51 per cent and Labor increasing its share to 49 per cent. Satisfaction with Rudd as prime minister was 36 per cent. However, the ‘honeymoon’ did not last and Rudd and Labor’s poll ratings slumped. By 3 September his satisfaction as prime minister dropped to 33 per cent, voting intention for Labor to 33 per cent and the two-party preferred gap had increased with the Coalition moving up to 54 per cent and Labor declining to 46 per cent (www.newspoll.com.au). However, the election is the only poll that matters. The replacement of Gillard by Rudd was successful to the extent that Labor’s two-party preferred vote for the House of Representatives increased to 46.59 per cent in contrast to the 44 per cent under Gillard. However, this did not save them from losing government because the election was won by the Coalition with 53.41 per cent of the two party preferred vote. Labor’s representation in the House of Representatives fell from 72 to 55. Had Gillard remained prime minister and her popularity not improved, Labor’s defeat and loss of seats is likely to have been greater.
Losing an election is the ultimate determinant of lack of power on the part of a party leader when it results in the resignation or defeat by the party room of the incumbent leader. In this instance Rudd immediately resigned as leader of the federal parliamentary Labor Party.
Electing a new Labor leader.
On p.196 of the text book you will see that the procedure for selecting a new Labor leader was formerly the prerogative of the Labor caucus. That system changed when Rudd was prime minister so the incoming leader will now be decided by a ballot of party members and of the caucus. This process was ongoing while this blog was being prepared so students should inform themselves about the result from media coverage.
The electoral system as a function of determining governments
The House of Representatives
The preferential voting system used for elections for the House of Representatives is discussed in the text book (see p. 281 for an explanation and pp. 303-308 ‘a note on counting the votes’).
The 2010 election resulted in a hung parliament with the Labor government relying on the support of cross bench members to pass its legislation. In 2013 the Coalition won majority government with 90 of the 150 seat House. Independents Windsor and Oakeshott did not stand in 2013 and their seats were won by the Nationals. Independent Andrew Wilkie retained his seat as did Bob Katter (Katter’s Australian Party) following the distribution of preferences. The newly-formed Palmer United Party (see Blog May 2013) won a seat in a very close race where Clive Palmer won the seat by only 42 votes after the distribution of preferences. Liberal Sophie Mirabella lost her seat against the general swing to the Coalition to independent Cathy McGowan by 420 votes after the distribution of preferences. Under a first past the post electoral system none of these candidates would have been elected.
Having considered the different electoral systems discussed on pp. 272-276 of the text book and the outcomes of the 2010 (a hung parliament) and 2013 elections, do you think the preferential system used for the House of Representatives should be changed? If so, why and how? If not, why not?
The system of proportional voting used for Senate elections is explained on pp. 281-283 of the text book. The 2013 half-Senate election at the time of writing this blog had not been fully determined but the Palmer United Party (PUP) has won a seat in the Senate for Tasmania (after the distribution of preferences at the 155th count). The PUP and a number of very small parties may win seats in other states, including some parties who received a miniscule number of first preference votes. A significant reason for this outcome is because the vast majority of electors vote for a party ‘above the line’ rather than numbering all of the squares in sequence on the Senate ballot paper. These parties nominate how their preferences are to be distributed. In the 2013 half-Senate election a number of these ‘micro’ parties as they have been called entered into an agreement to exchange preferences with each other to enhance their chances of building a quota. You can see how this worked successfully in their favour by looking at the Tasmanian Senate count on the Australian Electoral Commission web site: http://vtr.aec.gov.au/External/SenateStateDop-17496-TAS.pdf. A modified version of the count can be found on Antony Green’s blog site at blogs.abc.net.au/antonygreen/2013/09/tasmanian-senate-count-summary-of-preference-distribution.html#more.
There is a precedent for this type of result. In 2004 Family First senator Stephen Fielding who secured only 1.85 per cent of the Senate vote in Victoria was elected after the distribution of preferences. This happened because Labor and the Australian Democrats had directed their preferences to Family First.
There has been criticism of the proportional system used for the Senate which delivers these results. This is particularly the case when the cross bench holds the balance of power making it difficult for the incumbent government to pass its legislation. However, this situation has been the norm since 1981, except for 2008-2010 when the Howard government had a majority in the Senate. Having considered the discussion of the Senate as a House of Review and the case study of the Senate as a party political house (pp. 172-178 of the text book ), do you think that the Senate voting system enhances or detracts from Australia’s democratic system of government? If it were to be changed what system do you think should replace it?
Dr Gwyn Singleton