A centre-left revival? Part III: Australia

(This is a multi-part series: here are part 1 and part 2.)

There’s more to say about Europe, but today I want to break off and look at Australia, which went to the polls on 18 May in an election that’s often cited as an instance in the malaise of the centre-left.

You all know the headline result: even Donald Trump is talking about it. The centre-right government was unexpectedly returned, in what was seen as a triumph for its strategy of tacking to the far right. Do the figures bear out that interpretation?

Well, not exactly. Here they are:

Party Votes Seats
One Nation & United Australia (far right) 6.5% Up 5.2% 0 No change
Liberal & National Parties (centre-right) 41.4% Down 0.6% 77 Up 1
Labor (centre-left) 33.3% Down 1.4% 68 Down 1
Greens 10.4% Up 0.2% 1 No change
Independents 3.4% Up 0.6% 3 Up 1
Minor parties 4.9% Down 4.0% 2 No change

Two things leap out immediately. First, apart from a bit of a surge on the far right, there’s very little change, either in votes or seats (the total number of seats increased by one to 151). Second, there’s a huge disparity in the translation of votes into seats: the far right and the Greens are both getting screwed.

But there’s a third thing as well. In European elections (of which the two we’ve looked at this week are fairly typical) we’re used to the parties breaking down into five categories – far right, centre-right, centre/liberal, centre-left and far left – or six if the Greens are included separately. And they tend to have roughly comparable strength; it’s relatively rare for one of those categories (often represented by more than one party) to record less than about 5% or more than about 30%.

In Australia, though, there’s no centre and no far left. The two major parties (counting Liberals and Nationals together) have almost 75% of the vote between them and more than 95% of the seats.

What about those minor parties? Australia’s attitude to minor parties gives with one hand and takes away with the other. It’s very easy to get a party registered and on the ballot paper; the above figure of 4.9% represents 30 different parties. (In Denmark, by comparison, there were only 13 in total.)

But single-member districts make it almost impossible for smaller parties to win seats (it’s a little, but only a little, easier in the Senate), so most voters stick with the majors. The minor parties that do get appreciable numbers of votes tend to be from the far right. Here’s what the table looks like if you break them down ideologically (some allocations could be disputed, but not enough to matter):

Party Votes Seats
Far right 8.8% Up 2.9% 1 No change
Centre-right 42.0% Down 0.9% 77 Up 1
Centre & independents 4.2% Down 1.0% 4 Up 1
Centre-left 33.5% Down 1.4% 68 Down 1
Greens, etc. 11.5% Up 0.3% 1 No change
Far left 0.1% Up 0.1% 0 No change

Half of the far-right surge disappears, having been just shifts from smaller far-right parties (especially Family First). I include the independents with the centre, since that’s where most of the successful ones seem to belong, but even then the centrist total is pretty miserable. And there’s still no far left to speak of, just a couple of Trotskyist groups with minimal support.

The general impression of lack of change is now even more pronounced. But the small change that’s happened is actually decisive. Centre-right and far right together have a majority of the vote, which they lacked in 2016 (although on both occasions the centre-right won the two-party-preferred vote); even if Labor could fully mobilise the centrist and Green vote behind it, it would not be enough.

Voting systems matter. With proportional representation and a European-style party system, the Australian political landscape would look quite different. (As does New Zealand’s.) Nonetheless, the problem just now for the Australian centre-left is its lack of votes.

2 thoughts on “A centre-left revival? Part III: Australia

    1. Well, sort of. That’s not what it was designed for, and what it was designed for – equal representation of the states – interferes with that, because only 6 senators get elected at a time, which is a high bar for minor parties. Even when proportional representation was introduced, it wasn’t done to help minor parties, it was to stop a major party winning a lopsided majority.

      More fundamentally, why should minor parties be confined to the upper house? If democracy is a good thing, isn’t it more important to have it in the lower house?


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