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?
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