Independents and minor parties in Australian Parliaments

Australian parliaments function principally on a two-party basis with governments being formed either by the Australian Labor Party or the Liberal Party of Australia sometimes in coalition with the Nationals as its partner.  Minor parties and independents, however, have a significant role to play when they hold the balance of power. This has been notably the case in the Australian federal parliament where governments formed by the majority party in the Australian House of Representatives have to secure the passage of their legislation through the second chamber, the Australian Senate.  Government parties have not held a majority in the Senate since 1 July 1981 except for the short period between 1 July 2005 and 30 June 2008.  This has meant that for most of that period governments of the day have had to negotiate with minor parties and/or independents in the Senate in order to pass their bills.  In some cases this has required compromise on the part of the government, but some bills fail to pass.  The recent Abbott Coalition government, for example, had significant elements of its 2014 budget rejected by the Senate.

It is relevant, therefore, that we look at the number of minor party and independent members across all Australian parliaments.  Chapter 10 of Singleton et al (2013) Australian Political Institutions 10e, Pearson Australia, provides the numbers of representatives of minor parties (Tables 10.4 and 10.5) and independents (Table 10.14) as at 2013.  Updated data as at October 2015 is presented below.

Number of minor parties represented in Australian parliaments October 2015

Australian Parliament – House of Representatives                3 out of 150

Australian Parliament – Senate                                              14 out of 76

New South Wales Legislative Assembly                                  3 out of 93

New South Wales Legislative Council                                     10 out of 42

Victoria Legislative  Assembly                                                   2 out of 86

Victoria Legislative Council                                                        10 out of 40

Queensland Legislative Assembly                                               2 out of 89 (there is no upper house in Queensland)

South Australia Legislative Council                                             5 out of 22

Western Australia Legislative Council                                        3 out of 36

Tasmania Legislative  Assembly                                                3 out of 25

Australian Capital Territory Legislative Assembly                      1 out of 17

Number of independents represented in Australian parliaments October 2015

Australian Parliament – House of Representatives                     2 out of 150

Australian Parliament – Senate                                                   4 out of 76

New South Wales Legislative Assembly                                    2 out of 93

Victoria Legislative Assembly                                                    1 out of 86

Tasmania Legislative Council                                                   12 out of 15

Number of members of The Nationals represented in Australian Parliaments October 2015*

Australian Parliament – House of Representatives                    15 out of 150

Australian Parliament – Senate                                                    5 out of 76

New South Wales Legislative Assembly                                    17 out of 93

New South Wales Legislative Council                                        7 out of 42

Western Australia Legislative Assembly                                      7 out of 59

Western Australia Legislative Council                                         5 out of 36

*In Queensland the Liberal Party of Australia and the Nationals merged in 2008 to form the Liberal National Party

Overall it is apparent that there are not a great number of minor party or independent members sitting in the Australian federal and state parliaments.  Significantly, however, there is currently a record 18 cross bench members in the Australian Senate which is the reason why it has been difficult for the Coalition government to craft a majority for contested legislation in the Senate (contested in the sense that the Opposition does not support government bills which means the government has to seek support from the cross bench to gain a majority).  The Gillard Labor minority government (2010-2013) faced the added difficulty of having to craft its majority in the House of Legislation from the cross bench.  It was successful because despite the Opposition contesting 50 per cent of government bills none were defeated on the floor of the House of Representatives, although some bills were withdrawn by the government when it became apparent they would not pass.  The reasons for the Gillard government’s success in dealing with the cross bench can be found in Singleton, G. 2014, ‘The Legislative Record of a “Hung” Parliament’, in Aulich, C. ed The Gillard Governments, Melbourne University Press.

One statistic that stands out from these figures is the fact that 12 out of the 15 seats in the Tasmanian Legislative Council are held by independents and a majority of this magnitude does not occur in any other Australian jurisdiction.  So why do voters for the Tasmanian Legislative Council prefer to support independents?  The nature of the voting system is a contributing factor.  The state is divided into 15 single-member constituencies for elections for the Council.  Each elected member holds office for 6 years and elections are held for only two or three electorates every year using the same type of preferential system used for the Australian House of Representatives where election is secured by the candidate who secures an absolute majority (50 per cent plus 1).  If no candidate secures this majority on the first count, preferences are distributed until the required majority is reached (to see how this works in practice see pp 303-305 Singleton et al 2013).  It has been argued that ‘a combination of never electing the entire House at one time, the lack of a contest for Premier at the time people vote, and single-member electorates have tended to result in a lot of popular local independents winning seats with many of those having local government experience’ (www.tallyroom.com.au/archives/taslc2015).

Why would an elector vote for a minor party candidate or an independent if there is little likelihood that those representatives would hold the balance of power?  The situation was highlighted during debate in the House of Representatives this week when Eric Hutchinson MP remarked of Andrew Wilkie MP who had been a member of the critical cross bench during the Gillard Government’s ‘hung’ parliament: ‘For these 3 years he was, of course, pivotal.  He had a very significant and influential position in this parliament with the balance of power.  To complain now, when he is effectively irrelevant, is just beyond the pale’ (House of Representatives Hansard, 14 October 2015, p 29).

Reasons for supporting a minor party or independent candidate include support for the ideas or particular policies being enunciated, disillusionment with governments that fail to keep their promises but voters not being prepared to cross the two-major party divide and the knowledge that their vote may not be ‘wasted’ because they can direct their second preference to either of the major parties (Singleton et al 2013, p352).  Analysis of the vote for minor parties at the 2013 federal election can be found at  Antony Green’s Election Blog, http://blogs.abc.net.au/antonygreen/2013/11/record-vote-for-minor-parties-at-2013-federal-election.html).

At the 2013 House of Representatives election the Coalition increased its representation from 73 to 90 seats, a shift in support reflecting voter dissatisfaction with the Labor government.  Independent Andrew Wilkie, however, successfully recontested the seat of Denison in  Tasmania with a swing of 16.82 per cent in his favour.  Greens’ Adam Bandt increased his support by 7.3 per cent to retain the seat of Melbourne (http://results.aec.gov.au/17496/Website/House/DivisionFirstPrefs-17496-228.htm). The Tasmanian result could be a reflection of the Tasmanian predilection for voting independent and Andrew Wilkie promoting issues to the advantage of Tasmania.  The Greens’ vote reflected the nature of this inner-city Melbourne electorate and voter concern with particular issues. For example, one voter who said she was not a ‘rusted-on Greens supporter’, ‘shaped her decision based on issues such as foreign aid and asylum seekers’ while other voters said ‘climate change and better transport was also a critical factor’ in their decision to vote Green (Tomazin, F. 7 September 2013, http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/federal-election-2013/adam-bandt-claims-victory-for-greens-in-seat-of-melbourne-20130907-2tcmr.html). Because the Coalition secured a majority in its own right and neither of these MPs have sway or influence over government business it remains to be seen whether they can sustain voter support in their respective electorates.

The Greens achieved 8.65 per cent of the primary vote at the 2013 election for the House of  Representatives. Poor polling support for the Abbott government has seen an increase in first preference support for the Greens which has not reduced significantly in the short time since Turnbull took over the leadership:   Galaxy 20-23 August 2015 13 per cent, 17-20 September 11 per cent (Turnbull became leader).  The Essential Report 15 September 2015, 11 per cent, 13 October 2015 10 per cent.  Roy Morgan 12-13 September 2015 16 per cent, 26-27 September 2015 14 per cent.  Newspoll-The Australian 17-20 September 2015 11 per cent, 8-11 October 2015 12 per cent (www.galaxyresearch.com.au/polling; http://www.essentialvision.com.au; http://www.roymorgan.com/morganpoll/federal-voting-primary-voting-intention-recent-2013-2016; Newspoll and the Australian sourced from http://cdn.newsapi.com.au/image/v1/3c73dc25700419231d1eee53925d9820). However, it is early days yet for Turnbull so the full impact of the change in Liberal leader on voter intentions  in relation to minor parties and independents has yet to be realised.

Dr Gwynneth Singleton

16 October 2015

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