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The election in numbers 2: minor parties and independents

By Ken Wolff

A number of commentators made the point after the election that almost a quarter of voters did not vote for the major parties in the House of Representatives. But that is misleading on two counts. It ignores the 5% informal vote and the 10% vote for the Greens who I think are now entitled to be considered a major party — they do contest every seat after all. That leaves about a 10% first preference vote for other than major parties and, given that there were almost 150 smaller parties and independents, that is not a significant vote — an average of about 0.07% for each of them. Many of them garner only a few hundred votes: it is the sheer number of smaller parties and independents that contributes to the overall magnitude of their vote and that was not unique to this election.

We have heard most about the success of the Nick Xenophon Team (NXT) and One Nation but they contested only a limited number of seats. Two parties that contested more seats were Family First and Fred Nile’s Christian Democratic Party, which contested 65 and 55 seats respectively. Family First gained 1.5% of the vote nationally (just over 201,000 votes) and Fred Nile’s group 1.3% of the vote (about 178,000 votes). If we consider their vote against the number of seats they contested, then Family First averaged about 3,100 votes per seat and the Christian Democratic Party about 3,240. By way of comparison, the ALP averaged 31,350 votes per seat and the Liberal Party 36,300 in the 107 seats it contested (that is the Liberal Party only, not the full range of Coalition parties). And there are about 100,000 voters per seat, give or take 10%, except in Tasmania.

Nationally, NXT achieved 1.85% of the vote, or 250,400 votes, but it contested only 18 seats (11 in SA) giving it an average vote of 13,900 per seat. But NXT was not as successful outside of SA: for example, in Queensland in Moreton, it achieved 4.8% of the vote (4,072 first preference votes) and 7.6% in Groom (6,960 votes). While those Queensland results are reasonably good for an independent or minor party, they are not extraordinary. In the 11 SA seats, however, NXT averaged 21.3% of the vote or 20,120 votes. Xenophon has been an independent Senator for SA since 2007 and his high profile and popularity translated into votes for his Team but that did not extend to success beyond SA.

One Nation contested only 15 seats, of which 12 were in Queensland, to obtain 1.3% of the vote or 175,000 votes nationally, slightly less than Fred Nile’s Christian Democratic Party and significantly fewer than NXT, at an average of about 11,700 per seat. One Nation did marginally better in Queensland, averaging about 12,300 votes (13.9%) but this varied from 6,775 (7.6%) in Leichhardt (Warren Entsch’s seat) to 18,461 (20.9%) in Wright (a conservative seat that stretches west from the edge of the Gold Coast). Ironically one of the seats in which One Nation fell below its Queensland average was Pauline Hanson’s old seat of Oxley: it obtained just over 7,000 votes or 8.4% (admittedly the boundaries have changed since Hanson first won it).

So for NXT and One Nation, their ‘success’ largely came from targeting only a small number of seats, of which the majority were in their leader’s home state. At a seat level, they actually averaged more than the Greens who, in contesting all 150 seats, averaged 9,200 votes per seat.

There was also Bob Katter, who has his own party (Katter’s Australia Party) but is perhaps more like an independent. His party contested 12 seats in Queensland but obtained only 72,900 first preference votes of which Katter himself, in the seat of Kennedy, obtained 34,300. Katter is a sitting member with a high profile but his party did not fare so well averaging only 3,500 votes (a similar average to other minor parties) in the other 11 seats.

Also at a national level, over 100 independents, not linked to any party, achieved a total of 2.8% of the vote (about 381,000 votes), more than both NXT and One Nation but at an average of about 3,400 votes per independent candidate. Even that figure is inflated by high profile and successful independents like Andrew Wilkie and Cathy McGowan, and even the unsuccessful like Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott. Those four alone accounted for about 116,000 (or 30%) of the votes that went to independents: if they are removed, the vote for other independents was about 2,500 per candidate which does not suggest a major shift to independent candidates.

They are still independents I hear you say and that is true. But the more successful ones had a high profile in the seats they were contesting and two, of course, were sitting members (or three if we count Katter as an independent). A vote for Wilkie or McGowan was not a genuine shift away from major parties to independents but simply support for a sitting member (a rejection of the major parties could be said to have occurred in the year they first won their seat). And Windsor and Oakeshott, although not sitting members, were previous independent members in the regions they contested. The key to successful independents seems to be their public profile and/or a grass roots movement within an electorate, such as when McGowan won Indi from Sophie Mirabella in 2013 — she was drafted to run against Mirabella by a community organisation that felt Mirabella was not paying sufficient attention to the electorate. Once they do win a seat, as a sitting member they retain that advantage in subsequent elections. Another successful independent ploy is to move from a major party as Windsor, Oakeshott, Katter and Pauline Hanson the first time around, have done, often after having first been elected as a party candidate, so their profile has already been enhanced by party support (noting, however, that Hanson was selected as a candidate but lost party endorsement prior to the election).

In the Senate there are now 20 Senators (26%) not from ALP or L/NP: 9 Greens and 11 others from minor parties — and they are each minor parties although a few of them, like Katter in the HoR, are more like independents. That number would superficially seem to justify the argument that a quarter of voters did support non-major parties but, as I said in relation to the HoR vote, whether the Greens can still be considered a minor party is debatable. In the Senate the Greens secured 8.7% of the national first preference vote (almost 1.2 million votes) behind only the L/NP and ALP and double the vote of the next highest of the other parties — One Nation with 4.3% or 593,000 votes. The Senate, however, is determined at a state level and by a complicated preference distribution process, not by national first preference votes but the national figures give an indication of the actual support across the nation for the minor parties. In that regard, at the national level, NXT secured 456,000 first preference votes (3.3%), the Liberal Democrats (Leyonhjelm’s party) 299,000 votes (2.2%), and Family First and the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party each secured just over 190,000 votes (1.4%). I would describe most, but not all, of the minor parties as ‘niche’ parties because they focus on only one or two key issues and so can attract a small percentage of voters who feel strongly about those particular issues — they are often issues not picked up in the broader agenda of the major parties.

But we do need to consider how the minor parties fared at the state level and achieved the outcomes they did.

NXT won three Senate seats all in SA. A first preference vote in SA of 21.7% matched its SA vote in the HoR and gave it 2.8 quotas, so it did not require a high level of preferences to achieve its three seats. NXT did contest every other state but did no better than 2.2% of the first preference vote (0.28 of a quota) in WA. So despite the high profile of NXT, it is a profile and success limited to Nick Xenophon’s home state.

Similarly, Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party contested all states but had no success outside Hinch’s home state of Victoria — 6.1% of the vote and a starting quota of 0.79. Otherwise his party did no better than 0.7% of the vote in WA and was as low as 0.2% in SA.

The Jacqui Lambie Network ran candidates in four states but like Xenophon and Hinch had no success outside her home state of Tasmania, securing a highest vote of only 0.4% in Victoria.

So it is clear that some successful ‘independents’ and their associated parties do not have national appeal but rely solely on the profile and local popularity of their principal candidate in their home state. It would appear that they formed ‘parties’ only to secure the option of an ‘above the line’ vote.

Family First won one Senate seat in SA, for its sitting Senator Bob Day, but from a 2.9% first preference vote (0.37 of a quota). Its results in other states were significantly lower, ranging from 0.64% of first preference votes (0.08 of a quota) in WA to 1.97% (0.25 of a quota) in Tasmania.

One Nation is the party that is a little different to the other minor parties because it appears, on the surface, to have had success across the country, with two Senators from Queensland, one from NSW and one from WA. Because One Nation contested all states it was able to increase its national vote to 4.3% from the 1.3% it achieved in the HoR (where it contested only a small number of seats) but again it did best in Hanson’s home state of Queensland, securing 9.2% of votes (250,000 votes) and a quota on first preference votes alone. It gained a second Queensland seat although its provisional quota (from first preference votes) was only 1.2 — so somehow it managed to make up 0.8 of a quota from preferences. By comparison the ALP went from 3.4 quotas to four elected Senators and the Greens from 0.9 to achieve only one Senator. Beginning with 0.4 of a quota is often considered the lower base from which a full quota can be gained, so a second One Nation Senator from Queensland is not really an indication of the strength of the One Nation vote but arises from the lengthy and complicated preference distribution process. Similarly, its successful candidates in NSW and WA both came from an initial position of 0.5 of a quota to win their seats (4.1% and 4.0% of the vote respectively) — although they were the highest starting quotas among the non-major parties. In NSW, however, the ALP had almost eight times One Nation’s first preference vote and in WA was seven times higher but the seat ratio became only four to one. In the other states, One Nation received only 1.8% of the vote in Victoria, only marginally more than the Animal Justice Party; in SA it achieved 3.0% of the vote, only 0.1% more than Family First; and in Tasmania 2.6% — so, for whatever reason, it performed little or no better than other minor parties in those states.

David Leyonhjelm (of the Liberal Democrats) was also re-elected to the Senate from NSW and he came from a lower starting position than the One Nation candidate in that state, with only 0.4 of a quota (139,000 votes or 3.1%) after first preference votes.

The number of Senators from the minor parties is largely a result of Turnbull calling a double dissolution election. For example, if it had been a half-Senate election, the votes received by the parties in Victoria suggest that the outcome would have been 3 L/NP, 2 ALP and 1 Green — no Derryn Hinch. And in NSW, there would also likely have been 3 L/NP, 2 ALP and 1 Green (although there could have been a battle for two spots between the third L/NP candidate, the Greens and One Nation) — so no Leyonhjelm and possibly no One Nation. For the mess the Senate seems to have become Turnbull has no-one to blame but himself. Some of the new Senators appear as if they will be more difficult to negotiate with than the likes of Glen Lazarus and Ricky Muir as they have stronger personal agendas.

In the HoR, I expect that independents like Wilkie, McGowan and Katter will continue to have success as sitting members. Whether more independents are elected in future appears to depend very much on the quality of the candidates of the major parties: the example of the reaction against Mirabella when voters perceived she was not paying sufficient attention to her electorate is instructive in that regard, as is the fact that when she recontested at this election she suffered the biggest swing against the L/NP of any seat in the country. So major parties cannot ignore independents but neither can they ignore the response of the electorate to their own candidates or they will see more independents elected.

The ALP almost shot itself in the foot in Tasmania when it moved sitting Senator Lisa Singh to the almost ‘unwinnable’ sixth position on the ballot paper but Tasmanian voters chose to vote ‘below the line’ and gave her 20,741 first preference votes in her own right: she became the fourth ALP Senator to be elected with the candidate in the fifth position being earlier excluded and the other candidate above her, in fourth position on the ballot, winning the fifth Senate place for the ALP. Although not an independent, I give that as another example of the electorate’s response to individual candidates. If she had run as an independent, after being moved down the ballot the way she was by the ALP power brokers, there is a strong possibility that she would still have won a place. That is often how successful independents are ‘born’ and if the major parties wish to keep the number of independents and minor parties as low as possible they need to heed such examples of electoral responses to their candidates.

Although minor parties and independents had some success, in both the HoR and the Senate, the overall ‘best’ average seems to remain around a 3‒4% vote for minor parties except in the home states of the key principal candidates (Xenophon, Hanson, Hinch, Lambie) and for sitting members. So it seems to come down to the local public profiles of individuals and can also be influenced by the quality of individual candidates put forward by the major parties, not simply a reaction against the major parties.

What do you think?

Is Ken right in suggesting that it is the public profile of ‘independents’ that has most influence?

Is the Senate system ‘fair’, if people can win a seat starting with only 3‒4% of the vote?

This article was originally published on The Political Sword

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  1. Steve Laing -

    I personally believe that the success of many candidates/parties, irrespective of their political persuasion, reflected the amount of primetime tv coverage they received. Fairly simplistic perhaps, but I’d be interested to see any collated figures. The media largely ignored the Greens (except in a few seats where they were up against Labor), but seemed happy to give air-time to Hanson, Lambie, Leyonhjelm and indeed Xenophon. Joyce got much more than Windsor, and Oakshott was almost totally ignored.

    By and large the electorate are “lazy”, whether due to lack of time, or lack of interest, or both. They just don’t have time to do the research needed to understand the various policy options (and where do you even go about finding them!), so just go with what they know. In the safe Liberal seat where I live, I received two brochures from the sitting duck, sorry member, and that was it. I don’t even know what the other candidates looked like, and indeed if you asked me their names, I wouldn’t be able to tell you – and there were only three others!

  2. wam

    A good read, ken. I never got past the loonies voting in nsw under 8, qld under 7(hanson over 9) sa under 6(the slimey X over 3:1 at 21.7) but if diludbran want to be called major with these numbers go ahead.
    Fair? I am a supporter of the preference system, which allows the ranking of candidates, so first is but a preference rather than an end.
    Therefore no candidate can win without a quota or 50%+1.
    The idea that candidates who do not get the quota or over 50%, can be elected is unfair.
    The clp in the territory have taken some decisions that they hope will save a seat by introducing optional preferential voting and banning election material within 100m of booths ie the poor printers, no how to vote cards?????
    oops a facebook search or a website will give you some idea of all candidates

  3. Ken Wolff

    Steve Laing: I agree that the amount of ‘air time’ candidates receive can have a major influence. As you point out, people like Lambie, Hanson, Leyonhjelm and Xenophon appear on our teevee screens regularly. One issue, however, is that even though some of them appeared on national television, that still did not translate to national success. Then of course we have Hinch who is a media personality in his own right (it would be a bit like Jones running in NSW based on a pre-existing media profile). It is also possible for candidates to have a high profile within a single electorate, as McGowan now has. As I argue, I think it is this ‘profile’ that has a significant influence.

    wam: Thank you for your comment. I also like preference voting but the Senate system is quite complicated. And in both Senate and HoR voting, much can depend on who is eliminated first, especially when it comes down to the final few candidates. Someone can correct me if I’m wrong, but my understanding is that Senate preferences for ‘excess’ quotas are allocated proportionally — that is, if someone, after achieving a quota, still has, say, 0.3 of a quota then the preferences are distributed at a value of 0.3 of a vote. I can see the logic of that but I’m not sure that it gives a ‘fair’ indication for the final count. I honestly don’t know and will have to read up a lot more to understand it in detail. If I can do that reading later today I will get back to you.

  4. diannaart

    One of the better analyses I have read. Although, I do believe the trend away from the two-party system will continue to gain momentum as, Steve Laing pointed out – TV exposure counts for a lot. Expecting the average voter to put in the necessary research doesn’t count for much at all.

    My electorate is/was one of the marginals. I received one or two brochures in my letter box from the LNP, I think I saw one from Labor and nada from anyone else. I did get about 4 auto-call polls on the landline, 2 slanted towards the LNP and 2 towards Labor.

    I don’t think I would be completely wrong in suggesting the 2 larger parties aren’t all that interested in comprehensive background information, although Labor did do significantly better this time around. Still not enough – could be more due to MSM than Labor’s efforts, maybe 50-50 for each. Reality check – the MSM IS majorly compromised, Labor know this and must find a way to work around the Murdocracy.

    While the dust settles on the Aus election, I will be watching the US presidency campaign between the Republican-Lite and the redheaded one continue to stagger to its conclusion.

  5. Peter F

    Since the Senate is supposed to be the states house, I do not have trouble with senators being successful within their state alone. I do have a problem with the situation where an unknown can latch onto a high profile candidate and get elected without any real input or scrutiny. This, of course, applies to ALL candidates and their support base including the big 2, though in the major parties the candidates get a bit more of an airing.

  6. Ken Wolff

    diannaart: thank you for your kind comment. I think for the average voter to go into any sort of in-depth research on a candidate would require major issues occurring at a local level — perhaps such as those concerned about CSG in some rural electorates. Otherwise they may simply vote according to what they see and hear in the media or along the lines that occurred in the old days when people would vote for “that nice Mr Menzies”. There’s a PhD or two in working out how and why people vote the way they do.

    Peter F: I agree that individuals being supported just in a single state is consistent with the purpose of the Senate. I was simply using the nuumbers, however, to show how that support can be limited to a single state and be reliant to a significant extent on an individual’s public profile. Perhaps the difference not knowing much about candidates from the L/NP and the ALP is that at least you know what they are meant to stand for and that radically different views would not get past party-room meetings.

  7. Anomander

    I would hazard a guess that 70% of voters will never alter their vote across their entire lifetime. Their vote was formed by their parents or close circle of friends and they see little reason to change because “all politicians are liars, “both parties are the same” and “a vote for a minor party is a wasted vote” – as the two majors and the media are want to repeat.

    The duopoly parties know this and therefore have very little reason to change.

  8. Carol Taylor

    Steve Laing, I agree with your statement that the success of some and especially Hanson “reflected the amount of prime time tv coverage they received”. I would be fairly certain that all that most knew of Hanson was from her appearances on Dancing With The Stars and from her (paid) appearances on Sunrise. As far as TV ratings go, Hanson is wonderful click-bait. But how many genuinely knew who and what they were voting for?

  9. Matters Not

    hazard a guess that 70% of voters will never alter their vote across their entire lifetime

    Perhaps. My parents followed the example provided by my grandparents (shopkeepers) who always voted Labor. A couple of forces involved I suspect. First, Labor was not for ‘big’ business. Second, Labor was predominately ‘Catholic’.

    All of that changed when the ‘split’ occurred in Queensland – circa 1957. Then came the rise of the Catholic Vince Gair leading the Queensland Labor Party (QLP), later merged with the Democratic Labor Party (DLP). This emergence of a new political force was the vehicle they used to exit the ALP and their allegiance to their own class background. With the demise of the DLP, there was only one way to go, (given that a return to a ‘communist’ tainted ALP was out of the question), the Liberals thus inherited new supporters.

    My path was somewhat different. Sure I was urged to join the QLP. But didn’t. Religion was never my ‘weakness’. Went to the Brisbane Public forum most Sundays in the heart of the city to listen to all types of debates. There were those who advocated ‘Social Credit’. Other were into ‘religion’ of various types. Ted Wixted was a regular.

    Humphrey McQueen was an occasional speaker. My ‘political’ grounding was then reinforced by Salvatore (Ted)D’Urso who at that stage of his life was a ‘radical’ of some repute. We met up again and again even when he moved academic establishments. He was a ‘brain’.

    For 40 + years I never voted anything but Labor. While never a member of the ALP, I was closely connected – providing policy advice, working in senior capacities to various Labor Ministers and the like. Met with delegations from ‘branches’ and other groupings – deputising for Minister(s) who had a profound dislike for the … Now I vote Green, albeit with Labor as second preference.

    So I, like my parents, have shifted my vote, but while they went to the Right, I have gone to the Left. (Or maybe, I haven’t shifted. Perhaps it’s them?)

  10. wam

    ken. The ‘who is eliminated first’ affect the end result. As does the who is not excluded. But neither affect the original need for preferences.
    I spent 40 years as a scrutineer and helper in territory elections. With 20 of them as a campaigner for my darling as an alderman and president of the local gov association.
    The council was free from party politics. So there was no party support (or interference) within the council.
    Indeed labor did put up a candidate but preferences never favoured him and independents won.
    When the greens contacted me, for advice, I fully intended to help him with his entry.
    Well, he was honest, if somewhat arrogant, in telling me my wife was the candidate they were targeting. I answered his questions but offered no advice. Labor and the loonies lost.
    The next election saw a popular laborite became the greens candidate and relegated my darling to 3rd spot with the labor and green preferences.
    The labor gov decided to amalgamate councils and brought up a southern ‘expert’. To explain the ‘senate’ system that was the next election.
    the result in the bush was sad. There were plenty of candidates before and good turn outs. Anmatjere elects 4 councillors. In 2008 there were 8 candidates. After the southern expert’s visit only 1 candidate. In my electorate the Aborigine gained over 10% and was not excluded therefore all who voted for him did not have their preferences counted. But now there are a couple of loonies, labor and clp and more in the next election till, eventually, the council is run by outside influences
    ps what a great confession? Religion drove the lie which became truth and drove the religion.
    I fought the dlp stupidity(remember bullock talking the rabbott out of joining labor) with all the failure as I am fighting the loonies.
    Both are labor spoilers supported by spoiled labor..

  11. paulwalter

    With Xenophon, you are actually seeing the symptoms of the breakdown of the SA Liberals..he is where small l and some disillusioned Labor voters have fled, en masse, for sanctuary.

    It is parallel a little to the flight of the ALP left and some liberals to the Greens that has already happened- the people are fed up with duopolies.

    It easy to see the better indies, from Andren through Windsor and Oakshott to Wilkie and Katter also rock ‘n roll Lambie with the centre right as well as some Greens to the left, as a response to big party monocultures, where people capable of independent thought are kept out through preselection processes in both big party monocultures.

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