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The decline in support for the major parties and the prospect of minority government.



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Research Paper

No. 10 1998-99

The Decline in Support for the Major Parties and the Prospect of Minority Government

Scott Bennett

Politics and Public Administration Group

16 February 1999

Contents

Major Issues

Introductio n

The Decline in Support for the Major Parties

House of Representatives Elections

Senate Elections

Explaining the Loss of Voter Support

Long-term Factors

Scepticism about Government

Postmaterialism

Short-term Factors

Government Performance 

Policy

Probity

Denunciation of Government

The Consequences of a Decline in Major Party Votes

Reliance on Preferences

Election of Non-Major Party MPs

Senate Results 

The Future 

Endnotes

Bibliography

Appendix: Party votes House of Representatives elections 1949-9

List of Tables

Table 1: Major party first preference votes (House of Representatives)

Table 2: 'Incoming' governments 1949-96

Table 3: Major party first preference votes in State lower house elections

Table 4: Major party first preference votes (Senate)

Table 5: I nternational examples of voter rejection of major parties

Table 6: Non-major party House of Representatives victories 1946-98

Major Issues

There has been a significant fall in voter support for the Labor, Liberal and National parties in both Commonwealth a nd State elections—in 1949 the three major parties managed to secure 96.1 per cent of the House of Representatives vote; in 1998 that figure had fallen to 79.6 per cent. The four decades from the 1950s produced average major party House votes in excess of 90 per cent, whereas the elections of the 1990s have seen an average vote of less than 85 per cent, with the 1998 total being the lowest major party vote since 1943. In 1990 the Hawke Government's winning first preference tally of 39.4 per cent was the lowest since the introduction of preferential voting in 1919 and the 39.5 per cent vote for the Howard Government in 1998 was the second-lowest. The Howard Government had the lowest 'incoming' vote since 1931.

The picture is even clearer in Senate elections. Apart from the fact that Australians invariably cast fewer major party votes in Senate than in House of Representatives elections, every decade since the introduction of proportional representation in 1949 has seen a lower Senate vote than in the decade before. In the elections of 1990 and 1996 nearly one Senate voter in five took the minor party or independent path, while one-quarter of voters did so in 1998.

This decline in support for major parties bears a marked similarity to the decline in voter support for major parties in other Western nations. Overseas and Australian research suggests that there are a number of factors that explain it. Among long-term factors, an increasing scepticism about government is combined with a rejection of the gladiatorial nature of party politics. Research has also pointed to the growth of what have been labelled 'postmaterialist' attitudes among younger voters, who are said to be more concerned with social issues than the economic issues that dominated their parents' thinking. Government concerns with managing the economy do not weigh as heavily with such voters as protection of the environment.

Short-term factors that weaken voter support include rising doubts about the ability of government to deliver what it promises, as well as a frustration over occasions when governments and opposition are saying the same thing—as, for example, over gun control in Australia—and ignoring or rejecting all contrary views. Finally, the revelations of the rash of media stories suggesting a lack of probity in government and among politicians has caused much voter disillusionment.

What might be the consequences of declining voter support for major parties? In the short-term the decline has produced a greater major party reliance on preferences from independents and minor parties. The past two decades has seen a marked increase in the number of House of Representatives seats decided on preferences. Over the longer haul, if the major party vote continues to decline there must come a time when the number of major party MHRs will begin to decline. Analysis of the thirteen occasions since 1945 when non-major party candidates were elected to the House of Representatives, suggests that this will begin to occur when such candidates are able to get about one-third of first preferences votes.

The election or near-election of a significant number of non-major party MHRs in the 1990s suggests that the changing nature of Australian voting behaviour may well produce a minority government in the near future, reflecting the appearance of minority gov ernments in New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania and the Australian Capital Territory during the past decade. The Queensland results in the 1998 Commonwealth election are a possible sign of the future, for perhaps as little as an extra five per cent of the State-wide vote might well have seen Pauline Hanson's One Nation win House of Representatives seats in that State.

If Australia is heading towards the position where minority national governments become common, this trend will not be welcomed by the major parties. The problem, however, is that overseas examples suggest that the decline in voter support for major parties, once begun, is very difficult to halt. In fact, some suggest a continued decline is inevitable. The test for Australia's parties, then, is to find strategies to restore their formerly sound electoral health while they still have the chance.

 

Introduction

The election of a minority government in the Queensland election of June 1998, in a contest where the recently-created P auline Hanson's One Nation (PHON) party won more seats than the Liberal Party, suddenly focused attention upon an electoral outcome that has long seemed inconceivable in Australia—the possible election of a House of Representatives in which neither major grouping holds the balance of power. It is this looming threat (from the major parties' standpoint), that forms the backdrop for this Research Paper. It is the thesis of the paper that shifts in voting behaviour, bringing about significant minor party and independent electoral successes of the past decade, may well be causing significant change in Australian parliaments, to the extent that if they continue, Australia may be faced with the prospect of having its first minority national government since the Menzies, Fadden and Curtin Governments of 1940-43.

The Decline in Support for the Major Parties

House of Representatives Elections

House of Representatives elections have long shown a very high voter support for the major parties—only three of the seventeen House of Representatives elections between 1949 and 1987 produced a combined major party vote (ALP+Liberal+National) below 90 per cent. In the nineties, however, the combined major party vote has fallen to unprecedentedly low levels: in 1949 it was 96.1 per cent, whereas in 1998 it was 79.6 per cent. The decline can be illustrated if we look at the elections held over the past five decades (Table 1 and Appendix).

 

Table 1: Major party first preference votes (House of Representatives)

Period

Number of electi ons

Average major party vote

1950s

4

94.2

1960s

4

90.5

1970s

4

92.4

1980s

4

92.2

1990s

4

84.4

Source: Gerard Newman, 'Federal Election Results 1949-1998', Research Paper no. 8 , Department of the Parliamentary Library, 1998-99

Over twenty years ago ac ademic political scientist, Don Aitkin drew attention to the 'massive' stability of the Australian party system which dated from the consolidation of the major parties in 1910, and which reflected the continuing loyalty of voters:

The mortar that binds together the interlocked bricks of this edifice is of course the attitudes and loyalties of the electorate, for the most immediate reason that parties survive is that people keep on voting for them. 1

During the 1960s the emergence of the Democratic Labor Part y (DLP) indicated that this mortar might not be as firm as Aitkin seemed to believe, and Table 1 indicates the impact of this on major party shares of the vote. The DLP's presence can now be seen as an important factor in weakening the loyalties of a significant number of voters—between 1958 and 1969 the party averaged 7.8 per cent of first preferences in House of Representatives elections. In retrospect, a particularly important event may have been the extraordinary drop in the major party Senate vote to 80 per cent in the 1970 election, when the DLP won three Senate seats on a national vote of 11.1 per cent (19.1 per cent in Victoria).

Table 1 shows that the major party vote has fallen significantly in the 1990s—the two lowest House of Representatives major party returns since 1945 have both occurred in the nineties. The figure for 1990 was 82.8 per cent, with the Hawke Government's re-e lection being achieved on a primary vote of just 39.4 per cent, the lowest national winning total achieved since preferential voting was introduced in 1919. This reflected the best return so far for the Australian Democrats of 11.3 per cent of first preferences. This election seems to have had an important effect upon many voters. Some have described the next two elections as polarising elections which restored the status quo, 2 but in fact neither 1993 (89.2 per cent) nor 1996 (86.0 per cent) saw a return to the moderately high levels of the eighties when 91.4 per cent (1980) had been the lowest total of major party votes in a House election. In 1998 the major party vote tumbled even further to 79.6 per cent, the worst performance since 1943, a year in which there had been a massive splintering of the non-Labor side of politics. 3 The Howard Government's re-election figure of 39.5 per cent was the second-lowest winning tally under preferential voting. Clearly, many voters who abandoned the major parties in 1990 had not yet returned by 1996, and it seems that in 1998 they were joined by many voters who chose to support PHON, which managed a nationwide vote of 8.4 per cent.

The decline in the party vote can be illustrated in another, possibly more surprising way. A polarising effect can often be seen in elections that produce a change of government. The winning party or coalition often achieves a very healthy first preference vote, helping squeeze minor parties and independents out of the contest. This held good for all four 'incoming' Commonwealth Governments between 1949 and 1983, but not in 1996 (Table 2). Even though the John Howard-led Coalition won nearly two-thirds of the seats, its first preference vote of 47.2 per cent was in fact the lowest 'incoming' vote since the 36.1 per cent won by the United Australia Party under Joe Lyons in 1931. 4 The 1998 campaign thus saw a continuation of the decline in the major party vote.

Table 2: 'Incoming' governments 1949-96

Election

New PM

First preference votes

Total ma jor party first preferences

1949

Menzies (LIB/CP)

50.1

96.1

1972

Whitlam (ALP)

49.6

91.0

1975

Fraser (LIB/NCP)

53.1

95.9

1983

Hawke (ALP)

49.5

93.1

1996

Howard (LIB/NP)

47.2

86.0

Source: Gerard Newman, 'Federal Election Results 1949-1998', Research Paper no. 8 , Department of the Parliamentary Library, 1998-99

It is not only at the Commonwealth level that the major party vote has declined, for these trends have also been clearly seen in lower house elections in all States except Victoria (Table 3):

Tab le 3: Major party first preference votes in State lower house elections

 

NSW

Vic

Qld

WA

SA

Tas

1970s

93.1

90.5

93.0

93.9

91.7

95.3

1980s

91.4

95.8

96.8

94.6

89.6

85.4

1990s

84.5

92.1

85.0

84.0

80.8

82.5

Source: Statistics Group, Parliamentary Library.

Senate Elections

Senate results show an even greater decline in the major party vote. Every decade since the introduction of proportional representation in 1949 has seen a lower major party vote in Senate than in House of Representatives elections. Each de cade has seen a lower Senate vote than in the decade before. In the elections of 1990 and 1996 nearly one Senate voter in five took the minor party or independent path, while one-quarter of voters did so in 1998 (Table 4 and Appendix):

Table 4: Major party first preference votes (Senate)

Period

Number of elections

Average major party vote

1940s

1

95.3

1950s

4

92.0

1960s

3

88.3

1970s

4

86.7

1980s

4

84.4

1990s

4

80.5

Source: Gerard Newman, 'Federal Election Results 1949-1998', Research Paper no. 8 , Department of the Parliamentary Library, 1998-99

It is therefore clear that the Commonwealth elections held during the 1990s have seen a significant decrease in the number of people voting for the three major parties in both House and Sena te elections, and that the 1998 election merely continued the downward trend. It is important to ask why this has occurred.

Explaining the Loss of Voter Support

The first response of the major parties to such a shift of support has been to blame the voters . People shifting away from the major parties are 'wasting' their votes, according to the oft-repeated words of Prime Minister Hawke during the 1990 election campaign. 5 Influenced by their view of responsible government in Australia, many party spokespeople have seen this voter preparedness to look beyond the major parties as quite inexplicable as it is likely to lead to a hung parliament with its associated unpredictability. In addition, the parties describe such voting as a 'waste', for it could mean the election of MPs who are powerless to do anything for the local area. 6 In adopting these approaches, however, the major parties discount the possibility that such votes might be seen by the voters as quite rational actions. In fact, the careers of many independent and minor party State and Territory MPs suggest that some voters are happy to know that the MP is 'standing up for them', even if that member cannot always achieve what the voters want. 7 Sydney Morning Herald journalist Alan Ramsey notes the modern instance of Peter Andren, independent MHR for Calare:

His incumbency and performance … ensured that his opponents [in 1998] had no chance. And his total vote is proof positive that voters, in their growing alienation from the major parties, aren't content simply to register their disillusion by supporting the shrill prejudices of Hansonism. They can pick the real thing. 8

In any case, the major party view is misleading, for an obvious advantage of preferential voting is that it gives a voter a second bite a t the electoral cherry—as was seen so spectacularly in the 1990 Commonwealth election, when the ALP was returned on the second (and later) preferences of great many voters. 9

Another factor is undoubtedly the large increase in the number of nominations. Nominations for the election of the enlarged parliament in 1984 numbered 629 for the House and 200 for the Senate. In 1998 the respective figures were 1 106 (+75.8 per cent) and 329 (+64.5 per cent). Between 1996 and 1998 the average number of nominations per House division rose from 6.1 to 7.5, the average number of nominations on each State Senate ballot paper rose from 39 in 1996 to 50 in 1996. 10

Others have suggested that this voting behaviour is quite explicable. Writing in 1993, the social commentator, Hugh Mackay, described 'the erosion of commitment' of voters to the major parties, reflecting the possibility that many voters believe the 'two-party' system has lost its way, or even 'lost its point' . 11 In his view, unless voter confidence was restored, an increasing number were likely to look towards non-major party candidates. Interestingly, Mackay dismissed the 'hung parliament' view as missing the point, for his research had found that voters were generally unconcerned with the possibility of an unpredictable parliament. 12 Non-major party voters have been 'seeking vengeance for their humiliation and powerlessness as a consequence of five decades of internationally fostered development' . 13 Political commentator, Paul Kelly agreed, talking of voter 'disenchantment with leadership', of a widespread 'confusion about the national direction', and a general public desire for 're-regulation' of the economy. Kelly believed it to be 'axiomatic' that if public sentiment for this remained strong, new parties would emerge to give it expression. 14 To such views can be added academic findings. These have long noted a weakening of the importance of class in voting behaviour, a development that has begun to shake old loyalties. This is related to a decline in the formerly high levels of voter identification with party that is creating a 'substantial pool of voters, lacking any party ties'. At the same time, voters who support a particular major party in an election are far less likely to turn to the other major party at the following election than they once were. 15

To explore the question as to why many Australians have turned to minor parties and independents, it is instructive to look outside Australia, where a number of writers, including US academics Joseph Nye and Philip Zelikow, have noted the existence of comm on voting trends across most of the developed democracies. The voting-winning efforts of the German Greens, Jean-Marie Le Pen, the New Zealand First Party or Ross Perot are just four examples where voters seem to have been influenced by a loss of respect for the established parties, and it has been suggested that such developments are intimately connected with a general decline of citizens' trust in their government (Table 5):

 

Table 5: International examples of voter rejection of major parties

1995

France

Jean-Marie Le Pen (National Front) won 15% of vote in Presidential election

1996

USA

Ross Perot (Reform Party) won 8.4% of the vote in the Presidential election

1997

Canada

Reform Party won 60 of 301 House of Commons seats (52 of 295 in 1993)

1997

Franc e

National Front won 15% of votes in first round of National Assembly elections (12.6% in 1993)

1997

New Zealand

New Zealand First Party gained 13.4% of vote, winning 17 of 120 seats in the House of Representatives

1998

Germany

German Greens won 5% in Bu ndestag election (7.3% in 1994), winning 47 seats (49 in 1994)

The Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University has embarked on a long-term study designed to ascertain the reasons why trust in parties and government has declined. This project has re cently published its first report, and a paper by Garry Orren, an American political scientist, makes observations that seem to be relevant to the situation in Australia. 16 These are discussed in the following section of the paper.

Long-term Factors

Scepticism about Government

Voters have become increasingly sceptical about their parties and the governments they form. They worry about the lack of apparent difference between the parties, the pushing-aside of philosophy by opportunism, the stealing of policies from each other and what they criticise as the politics of personality. Cynicism about politicians has grown into a scepticism about government: a Saulwick survey has suggested that nearly two-thirds of Australians had little or no confidence in the political system. 17 Parties usually speak as if they can make a difference, yet on some intractable issues, such as long-term unemployment, they struggle to achieve credibility.

In Australia, this scepticism appears to be deepened by the politics of federalism. Premiers capitalise on such sentiment when expressing their determination to stand up for their 'State rights', described by Wiltshire as 'probably the most important cultural expression in the lexicon of Australian federalism' . 18 Voters thus seem quite ready to believe that the distant Commonwealth Government does not understand the needs of their own locality. The 'Joh for PM/Canberra' push in 1987 had its roots in such ideas, as has the frustration with the Howard Government over its gun control policy. A great deal of the rhetoric of PHON has been anti-government and anti-centralism, and the vote of 22.7 per cent for the party's candidates in the 1998 Queensland election suggests that many people's distrust of government is strong enough to encourage them to vote against the established parties in State as well as in Commonwealth elections.

Postmaterialism

As the importance of social factors such as class began to lose their importance in Western societies, researchers detected a rise in issue voting. Ing lehart proposed the 'postmaterialism' thesis, which suggested that self-expression and belonging had greater importance for many younger voters than did the economic and physical security sought by their parents: 'the younger birth cohorts … give a higher priority to non-material needs such as a sense of community and the quality of the environment' . 19 According to Inglehart, this was anchored in the increase in the level of general education, the turbulent anti-Vietnam politics in the 1960s and the emergence of environmental politics in the past two decades.

Australia has not been immune to the infiltration of such views. As long ago as 1972 the United Tasmania Group, campaigning on a platform against flooding nearly won a seat in the Tasmanian parliament. Five years later the Australian Democrats (AD) had bee n formed and had won their first Senate seats, and by 1984 Jo Vallentine had won a Western Australian Senate seat as a Nuclear Disarmament Party candidate. During the 1990s AD and Green Senators have played important roles in the Senate, the Tasmanian Greens have twice held the balance of power in Tasmania and Greens have been elected in New South Wales and Australian Capital Territory elections. All of these results were said to have been influenced by the emergence of postmaterialist factors in voting behaviour, reflecting both a rise in gross voting numbers as well as the steady increase in the proportion of 'postmaterialists' in the Australian electorate since 1990. 20 They certainly indicated a preparedness of such voters to vote against the major parties , behaviour that the early voting behaviour studies regarded as being of marginal importance. 21

Short-term Factors

Government Performance

A general community belief that governments are not performing adequately also helps explain the decline in major party votes. Having stated the obvious, Orren goes on to make the point that governments and parties seem to have a tough time satisfying the modern electorate, for it seems clear that citizens' subjective assessment of governmen t 'does not necessarily square with the actual or ''objective'' performance of government' . 22 We are all familiar with party leaders, resentful at their rejection by voters, pointing to the long list of their successes that seem to have been ignored by the electorate. This indicates that although government and party spokespeople can point to many areas where government policies have had an impact, people can still believe that government is not performing well.

Orren suggests that three factors may help explain this. First, governments will typically draw comparisons with the past: 'things are so much better since we came to power'. Unfortunately, such comparisons are often not as telling as parties fondly believe. In Australia, for instance, rural businesses have resented the 'flooding' of their local markets by cheaper imports, and have roundly criticised the national government for allowing this to happen despite that government's claims that the nation as a whole is better off in a unregulated market economy. Secondly, governments will tend to produce a list of their achievements, but the successes they highlight are unlikely to weigh equally in the minds of voters. It has been suggested that the Keating Government support for the arts that was accompanied with some fanfare, simply left Labor open to criticism of its 'elite arts funding'. 23 Finally, and above all, despite the claims of party spokespeople, it can be very difficult to pinpoint direct government impact upon social problems, and in any case governments are not the only players bringing about social change—the role of volunteers in social welfare service delivery may be as great as any government's. To Orren's list we could add the cynicism of voters who have heard party promises and who feel let down when governments fail to deliver—or else seem to go back on their word. In Australia the disillusion over 'L-A-W' tax cuts or 'non-core' promises can be pointed to as heightening general community cynicism.

Overall, then, Orren speaks of frustration on both sides—from governments, certainly, but especially from voters who seem increasingly critical of their rulers' inability to govern as they would wish. In April 1992, for example, the Saulwick Poll found tha t only 28 per cent of Australian voters believed the ALP had the ability to govern well, while just 34 per cent believed in the Coalition's ability to do so. 24 During the 1996 election the Sydney Morning Herald AGB McNair poll showed that 'more than half of voters do not believe the parties will keep their promises if elected'. 25

Policy

Where considering the impact of policy on voters, Orren notes that this may well relate to government failure, but it can also be connected with government success. He is refe rring here to a government eager to introduce—or keen to persevere with—a particular policy. A Tasmanian example has been the Green vote garnered from the Hydro Electric Corporation—supporting major parties, which has had a long-term effect upon major party votes in that State. At the national level we have had claims about Labor's loss of votes over its Aboriginal affairs policy, or the frustration of some voters over Prime Minister Howard's determination to act on the question of gun ownership. The emergence of the Shooters Party and the high PHON vote in the 1998 Queensland election seem to be a direct consequence of this latter case. Presumably such voter frustration is magnified when the major parties take similar approaches to a particular policy—such as the reduction of tariff protection—thus giving the voter no choice between the major parties. The emergence of Australians Against Further Immigration is a recent national illustration, while a State example has been the emergence of the No Aircraft Noise (NAN) party in New South Wales, which has expressed resentment of both major parties' policies concerning the development of a second Sydney airport. Contesting inner-Sydney seats in the 1995 New South Wales election NAN gained a 23.7 per cent vote in the seat of Marrickville and an average vote of 16.2 per cent in the six seats it contested. There is anecdotal as well as survey evidence that PHON has gained some support from frustrated citizens who feel that the major parties have stopped listening to them—as a recent study on the 1998 Queensland election put it, the PHON constituency is 'a large component of the community that is both disenchanted [and] feels disenfranchised'. 26 Newspoll has reported that between 1993 and 1998 about one-half of the electorate claimed that their dislike of a particular party was the main reason for their choice of vote. 27

Probity

Wherever voters look they appear to see evidence of personal weakness shown by their political leaders—and there have been many recent examples in Western democracies. In Australia, opinion polls inform us that voters are similarly resentful of their political leaders' lack of probity. Politicians fiddle with expense arrangements to maximise their returns, they lie when describing the sins of their opponents and they engage in disreputable sexual behaviour. Typically they apply double standards in many matters, criticising their opponents for misdemeanours to which they turn a blind eye when they occur on their side of parliament—apparent contradictions associated with the implementation of ministerial codes of conduct are a case in point. Voters resent the manner in which politicians do not seem to respect the norms that apply to the rest of society, and the open conflict between parties seems particularly to be resented, notably during election campaigns which are seen by many voters as a time for 'promoting division rather than unity' . 28 There is also evidence that voters are aggrieved by the boorish behaviour on the floor of the various parliaments, particularly at Question Time, the occasion that draws the greatest number of visitors to our parliaments and receives the greatest degree of media attention: 'Personal abuse and gamesmanship—rather than policy issues—seem to the voters to have become the currency of national politics' . 29

All of which might not matter if voters showed they did not care, but this is clearly not the case:

Voters are not in good heart. They are sick of the lies, the shiftiness, the smugness, the policy backflips, the hollow promises and the blatant bidding for their votes. They are wary of the glibness of the spin doctors. 30

Reporting on an apparent Liberal distortion of ALP figures during the 1998 campaign, the Melbourne Age stated how 'distressing' it was 'that abuses such as this are what many voters have come to expect of politicians, regardless of their party affiliations' . 31 According to Orren, the lack of probity shown by politicians can be very important in turning cynical voters to minor parties and independents. The success of the Australian Democrats, pledging to 'keep the bastards honest', and the Greens, describing themselves as fighting to protect the future of the planet, may be due in part to their denial that they are 'politicians'—a reminder of Pauline Hanson's claim that she was a 'parliamentarian' rather than a 'politician'.

Denunciation of Government

Finally, Orren highlights the role played by the modern media. With the development of television as people's main (often only) source of news, there has also developed an images-driven, personalis ed, adversary-based political newscasting, in which the status of the media has altered from observer to participant: it is 'no longer just a narrator, it is very much an actor' . 32 The adversarial nature of the journalist-politician relationship, as well as the emergence of the journalist-as-critic have been changes that Orren believes have played a part in altering people's views of their political leaders and of their governments.

In this context, it is the cynical manoeuvring, the personal weakness or the political blunder by the politician that is often emphasised, with policy matters often pushed aside. Orren notes how the media ' s change to an investigative, probing style of reporting has meant that voters are today possibly better-informed about politicians and governments than ever before, but they also seem to have far less respect for the politicians and their parties, because they are given a constant diet of their policy and administrative errors as well as their personal failings. The outcome for the voter is one of disillusionment and a developing cynicism and, for a growing number, a seeking after anti-politicians who can ' clean up the mess ' made by the major parties—as in the electoral successes of Peter Andren MHR and the recently-elected governor of Minnesota, Jesse Ventura, or the promise of Hanson to scrap the tax system and start again. 33

The Consequences of a Decline in Major Party Votes

Reliance on Preferences

If too many major party votes are lost in Australian elections then there are two things that will occur. First, the parties will have to rely much more on the preferences of minor parties and independents. When results of all elections since 1949 are analysed, it can be seen that as voters' loyalty to major parties has begun to decline, so has increased the proportion of electoral divisions where preferences have been needed to produce a winner. Between the 1949 and 1954 elections, not quite one division in ten needed preferences to be distributed, while in recent years the number has risen to about four in ten, reflecting an increase in the number of marginal divisions, a consequence of a weakening of long-term voter support for major parties. In 1998 the figure jumped to 66.9 per cent, a clear reflection of the PHON phenomenon, particularly in Queensland where 26 of 27 divisions (96.3 per cent) required the distribution of preferences. 34

Election of Non-Major Party MPs

If the number of non-major party votes increases, there must come a time when the number of major party MPs will begin to decline. It had long seemed to be the case that in larger House of Representatives divisions where pre ferential voting was used, virtually all individual contests would continue to be won by major party candidates. Minor party or independent successes were few and far between, and the handful that occurred were invariably explained as being due to special considerations that did not threaten the basic, 'two-party' nature of the political system. For instance, the four that occurred between 1946 and 1966 included a former Premier, and the widow of a deceased Member.

The election of non-major party MPs has not been an issue over the years. An important, but largely unrecognised, development occurred when independents won four lower house seats in the New South Wales election of 1984 and seven in 1988. Interestingly, few wondered about the large number of voters who must have chosen to reject the major parties on these occasions, probably because their presence in the Legislative Assembly was not pivotal in the passage of legislation. 35 In fact, it was not until the election of four Legislative Assembly independents in New South Wales who held the balance of power during 1991-95, and who began to challenge the winner take all culture of the Australian political system, that public attention was drawn to the way in which inroads had been made into the strength of the major parties in that State. For the first time there were some commentators who began to raise the question of whether a new era of electoral politics had begun, though they largely ignored the possible impact upon the national level of government. 36

As the major party lower house vote has dropped, so has the number of such House of Representatives victories increased, quite unprecedentedly. An important break through was the 1990 success of the independent, Ted Mack, in winning North Sydney, the first such result for over twenty years. 37 Overall, though, despite Mack's success in retaining his seat, coupled with the victory by Phil Cleary in the House of Representatives division of Wills (Vic), the national media seemed to regard these events as of little significance, for they were not seen as typical electoral contests. In the Wills case, for instance, the result was said to be largely the consequence of voter discontent with former Prime Minister Hawke, rather than with his party. Little attention was paid to the 1990 fall in the major party vote (see Appendix), except to note how well the Australian Democrats had performed. Indeed, the Mack break through was seen largely as a spin-off of his State-level career, rather than a possible consequence of major party failure. Mack repeated the 1990 feat in the following election, while in Wills Cleary actually won the seat twice—in 1992 38 and 1993.

If more attention had been paid to these results, observers might have read more into the spectacular election of four non-major party MHRs in the 1996 election—five if Pauline Hanson is included. There is no doubt that the fact that four of the five were disendorsed major party candidates played a part in their election, but this cannot hide the extraordinary nature of their joint success, when we remember just how few such MHRs had been elected in the previous thirty years. The usual fate for the disendorsed MP who chooses to stand in opposition to party wishes is usually electoral oblivion.

To sum up, in just three national elections in the 1990s, there occurred eight non-major party House of Representatives victories, plus the voided Wills by-election of 1992. Even the defeat of four of the five in 1998 cannot hide these quite remarkable Hou se of Representatives electoral results of the 1990s (Table 6):

 

Table 6: Non-major party House of Representatives victories 1946-98

Year

Successful candidate

Minor party

or independent

Division

First preferences

Background

1946

Jack Lang

Ind

Reid

(NSW)

3 3.7

Former Premier

1946

Doris Blackburn

Ind

Bourke

(Vic)

26.7

Widow of former

Member

1949

Lew Nott

Ind

ACT

30.9

Prominent local doctor

1966

Sam Benson

Ind

Batman

(Vic)

21.6

Sitting MHR, expelled from ALP

1990

Ted Mack

Ind

North Sydney (NSW)

44.5

Former mayor,

MLA

1992b/e

Phil Cleary

Ind

Wills

(Vic)

33.5

Local

sportsman

1993

Ted Mack

Ind

North Sydney (NSW)

35.3

Sitting MHR

1993

Phil Cleary

Ind

Wills

(Vic)

29.4

Elected 1992 but election voided

1996

Peter Andren

Ind

Calare (NSW)

29.4

Local television

p resenter

1996

Graeme Campbell

Ind

Kalgoorlie (WA)

35.1

Sitting MHR,

disendorsed by

ALP

1996

Paul Filing

Ind

Moore

(WA)

34.1

Sitting MHR,

disendorsed by

Liberal Party

1996

Allan Rocher

Ind

Curtin

(WA)

29.4

Sitting MHR,

disendorsed by

Liberal Party

1996

Pauline Hanson 39

Ind

Oxley

(Qld)

48.6

Disendorsed Liberal

candidate

1998

Peter Andren

Ind

Calare (NSW)

40.5

Sitting MHR

Source: Australian Electoral Commission

If a House of Representatives candidate receives less than an absolute majority of first prefer ences, how many first preferences will ensure a House of Representatives seat? Because of the vagaries of preferential voting and the complicating variable of the number of candidates in each seat, we cannot be categoric about where the crucial figure is located. It is clear, though, that as minor party or independent votes rise in any division to a point where such a candidate remains in the penultimate count, then that candidate will have an excellent chance of election. If we look at the thirteen occasions since 1945 when non-major party MPs were elected to the House of Representatives (Table 6), together with the voided 1992 Wills by-election, we find that although Sam Benson won Batman in 1966 with barely one-fifth of the vote, 10 of the others recorded first preference votes in the range of 26.7 per cent to 35.1 per cent. Only three received more than 40 per cent. The average first preference vote was 33.8 per cent, suggesting that one-third of the vote may be the approximate point at which non-major party MPs may begin to gain election, though to achieve such a figure is not a guarantee of victory as Pauline Hanson found with her first preference tally of 36.0 per cent in Blair in 1998.

There was little public comment about the 1996 results possibly bec ause the impressive victory of the Howard team blinded most observers to the significance of what had occurred. Essentially, these results were seen as isolated, seat-by-seat events that told no general story. In fact, it was not until the 1998 Queensland election showed emphatically that a minor party could break the apparent major party stranglehold in a preferential voting election, that there was much attention paid to the broader picture. In the most significant breakthrough by a new party in the past fifty years, PHON won 11 of 89 seats, two more than the Liberal Party, with a first preference vote only 8.6 per cent less than the combined Liberal and National vote. It was the very visible electoral presence of Pauline Hanson in the lead up to the 1998 Commonwealth election, and the shock of this State result, that finally made commentators wonder about the possibility of minority government in Canberra.

It can be claimed that these victories in the 1990s have been were few in number and do nothing to sh ake the entrenched strength of the major parties. It is misleading to consider victories only, however, because there have also been a number of significant, though ultimately unsuccessful, electoral performances by non-major party House of Representatives candidates over the same period. Among the most notable have been the following:

1990 Former Australian Democrat leader, Janine Haines, sought election in the South Australian division of Kingston. Despite a well-publicised campaign she failed, but managed 24.4 per cent of the vote.

1990 Anti-nuclear campaigner, Helen Caldicott, did al most as well as Haines in securing 23.3 per cent of first preferences in Richmond (NSW).

1993 Green activist Bob Brown managed 14.2 per cent of the vote in Denison (Tas).

1996 Phil Cleary (Ind) gained 27.7 per cent of the vote but lost his seat of Wills (Vic).

1998 Graeme Campbell (Ind) gained 22.8 per cent of the vote but lost his seat of Kalgoorlie (WA).

1998 In 13 of 27 Queensland divisions PHON candidates won over 15 per cent of the vote, including:

  • Pauline Hanson (PHON) topped the poll in Blair with over one third of first preferences, but failed to gain enough preferences from other candidates to win the seat
  • Graeme Wicks gained 26.3 per cent in Wide Bay, and
  • Robyn Cadzow gained 22.4 per cent in Maranoa.

1998 Australian Democrat John Schumann won 22.4 per cent of the vote in Mayo (SA) and only narrowly failed to win the division on preferences.

1998 Bob Johns (PHON) won 22.3 per cent of first preferences in Gwydir (NSW).

It is the combined tally of such successes and near-successes that the changing nat ure of Australian voting behaviour can clearly be seen.

Senate Results

The possible consequences of all this can be seen in Senate results, where, as the major party Senate vote has declined, so has the number of seats won by minor parties and independents increased. In the 31 years between the Senate elections of 1949 and 1980, 4.4 per cent of Senate vacancies were won by non-major party candidates, whereas in the 15 years between the elections of 1983 and 1998, the figure had jumped to 12.7 per cent. 40

Of course, the winning threshold for Senate elections (14.3 per cent) is far less than the tentative figure given above for House of Representatives elections. Still, the votes have shifted, and the consequence has been the inability of the major parties to gain a majority in the Senate. 41 The well-publicised consequence has been the increasingly interventionist style of the Senate when performing its review role. An obvious way of dealing with this is to alter the voting method arrangements, but such an approach would simply turn a blind eye to the seepage in major party votes that seemingly reflects long-term changes in voting behaviour. 42

The Future

In 1990 the major party House of Representatives vote fell to 82.8 per cent, largely due to the Australian Democ rats winning 11.3 per cent of the vote. Three years later the Democrat vote collapsed to just 3.8 per cent, yet the total vote of the 'big three' was still three per cent below the average major party vote during the 1980s. By 1998, the figure was 13.5 per cent less than that for 1983. When we note the decline in most State election figures (Table 3), we are forced to wonder whether we are witnessing a significant change in voting behaviour, where the habit of voting only for one of the major parties has been seriously undermined and may be lost over the long term. Even if the Pauline Hanson One Nation party vote were to collapse in the next Commonwealth election, a return to the major party 1996 figures would see the parties sitting on just 86 per cent of the vote, well below the levels of the 1980s.

If the habit of supporting just the one party is weakening, then the chances of further slippage in the major party vote would appear to be high, with the concomitant likelihood of an increase in minority governments as has occurred in New South Wales, Que ensland, South Australia, Tasmania and the Australian Capital Territory in recent years. Such a development will not be welcomed by the major parties. The question arises as to how this slide might be arrested. Inglehart suggests that there might be little the parties can do. His study of liberal democracies has detected an erosion of the respect for authority, with an associated decline in voter support for mass parties, that he believes is apparently irresistible: '… no longer content to be disciplined troops, the public has become increasingly autonomous and elite-challenging'. 43

Inglehart's view appears relevant to Australia, and it may well be that we are seeing the first serious undermining of a party system that assumed its modern shape as long ago as the second decade of this century. This has not escaped the notice of the major parties:

I have a view that this election campaign is possibly the last chance for Australian politicians to rescue their standing with the Australian people. Both John Howard and I know of the cynicism abroad in the community about politicians. That cynicism is a cautionary note to both of us. 44

Despite such awareness, the fact that significant and probable long-term changes in the attitudes and voting behaviour of voters may be weakening the place of the major parties suggests that this seepage of votes has developed a momentum that will be very difficult for the major parties to withstand, especially as surveys suggest that many young people seem far less prepared than their parents to commit themselves to any single party. 45 Modern parties are large, unwieldy bodies that tend to be focused on the short-term. The fact the major parties' 1998 campaigns made no effort to address the apparent loss of voter confidence in the parties, suggests that it may be very difficult for the Labor, Liberal and National Parties to re-create themselves as vibrant bodies able to win back the voter trust that they once held so solidly.

Endnotes

 

Bibliography

Aitkin, Don, Stability and change in Australian politics , ANU Press, Canberra, 1977.

Aitkin, Don, 'The Changing Australian Electorate' in Howard R. Penniman (ed), Australia at the Polls: The national elections of 1980 and 1983 , Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 1983.

Bean, Clive and Elim Papadakis, 'Minor Parties and Independents: Electoral Bases and Future Prospects', Australian Journal of Political Science , 30 (Special Issue), 1995.

Bennett, Scott, Affairs of State: Politics in the Australian States and Territories , Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 1992.

Bennett, Scott, Winning and Losing: Australian National Elections , Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1996.

Bennett, Scott, Andrew Kopras and Gerard Newman, 'Federal Elections 1998', Research Paper , Department of the Parliamentary Library, 1998-99 (forthcoming).

Beresford, Quentin, and Harry Phillips, 'Speculations in Australian politics: young voters' interest in politics and political issues', Youth Studies Australia , vol. 16, no. 4, 1997.

Coonan, Senator Helen, 'The Senate Safeguard or Handbrake on Democracy?', address to Sydney Institute, 3 February 1999.

Davis, Rex and Robert J. Stimson, 'Disillusionment and disenchantment at the fringe: explaining the geography of the One Nation Party vote at the Queensland election', paper given ANZRSAI Annual Conference, Tanunda, 21-23 September 1998.

Hughes, Colin A., 'The Rules of the Game', in Clive Bean, Ian McAllister and John Warhurst (eds), The Greening of Australian Politics: The 1990 Federal Election , Longman Cheshire, Melbourne, 1990.

Hughes, Colin A., A Handbook of Australian Government and Politics 1965-1974 , ANU Press, Canberra, 1977.

Hughes, Colin A., A Handbook of Australian Government and Politics 1975-1984 , ANU Press, Canberra, 1986.

Hughes, Colin A. and B. D. Graham, Colin A. Hughes, A Handbook of Australian Government and Politics 1890-1964 , ANU Press, Canberra, 1968.

Inglehart, Ronald, 'Postmaterialism', The Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Political Science paperback edn, Blackwell, Oxford, 1991.

Inglehart, Ronald, 'Postmaterialist Values and the Erosion of Institutional Authority', in Joseph S. Nye, Philip D. Zelikow and David C. King, Why People Don ' t Trust Government , Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1997.

Jaensch, Dean and David Mathieson, A Plague on Both Your Houses: Minor Parties in Australia , Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 1998.

Kelly, Paul, The End of Certainty: Power, politics and business in Australia , rev. edn, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1994.

McAllister, Ian and Clive Bean, 'Long-term electoral trends and the 1996 election', in Clive Bean, Scott Bennett, Marian Simms and John Warhurst (eds), The Politics of Retribution: The 1996 Australian federal election , Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1997.

Mackay, Hugh, Reinventing Australia: The mind and mood of Australia in the 90s , Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1993.

Mackay, Hugh 'Mugged by all the lies, punters just too tired to change horses', Sydney Morning Herald , 1 September 1998.

Newman, Gerard, 'Federal Election Results 1949-1998', Research Paper no. 8 , Department of the Parliamentary Library, 1998-99.

Orren, Gary, 'Fall from Grace: The Public's Loss of Faith in Government', in Joseph S. Nye, Philip D. Zelikow and David C. King, Why People Don ' t Trust Government , Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1997.

Porter, Doug, 'On Summits and Unfortunate Attitudes', in Adam Farrar and Jane Inglis (eds), Keeping it Together: State and Civil Society in Australia , Pluto, Leichhardt, 1996.

Walsh , Max, 'The dawning of an Independent era', Sydney Morning Herald , 26 March 1990.

Warhurst, John, 'The National Campaign', in Clive Bean, Ian McAllister and John Warhurst (eds), The Greening of Australian Politics: The 1990 Federal Election , Longman Cheshire, Melbourne, 1990.

Warhurst, John 'Promises and personalities: The House of Representatives election in 1996', in Clive Bean, Scott Bennett, Marian Simms and John Warhurst (ed.), The Politics of Retribution: The 1996 federal election , Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 1997.

 

Appendix: Party votes House of Representatives elections 1949-98

 

Major party votes

Election

House of

Representatives

Senate

Difference

1949

96.1

95.3

-0.8

1951

97.9

95.6

-2.3

1953

 

95.0

..

1954

97.1

 

..

1955

92.3

89.4

-2.9

1958

89.3

88.0

-1.3

1961

90.0

86.8

-3.2

1963

91.5

 

..

1964

 

90.4

..

1966

89.9

 

..

1967

 

87.8

..

1969

90.4

 

..

1970

 

80.4

..

1972

91.0

 

..

1974

95.0

91.2

-3.8

1975

95.9

92.6

-3.3

1977

87.7

82.4

-5.3

1980

91.4

85.8

-5.6

1983

93.1

85.4

-7.7

1984

92.5

81.7

-10.8

1987

91.9

84.8

-7.1

1990

82.8

80.3

-2.5

1993

89.2

86.5

-2.7

1996

86.0

80.2

-5.8

1998

79.6

75.0

-4.6

S ource: Gerard Newman, 'Federal Election Results 1949-1998', Research Paper no. 8 , Department of the Parliamentary Library, 1998-99


1  Don Aitkin, Stability and change in Australian politics , Canberra: ANU Press, 1977, pp. 5-7.


2  Clive Bean and Elim Papadakis, ' Minor Parties and Independents: Electoral Bases and Future Prospects ' , Australian Journal of Political Science , 30 (Special Issue), 1995, p. 116; see also Crispin Hull, Canberra Times , 31 August 1998.


3  Scott Bennett, Andrew Kopras and Gerard Newman, 'Federal Elections 1998', Research Paper , Department of the Parliamentary Library, 1998-99 (forthcoming), p. 4.


4  Lyons did not contest the election as part of a coalition team. The Country Party vote was 12.3 per cent, so that the combined major anti-Labor vote of 48.4 per cent was still in excess of the Coalition's 47.2 per cent vote in 1996.


5   Australian , 5 March 1990.


6  Dean Jaensch and David Mathieson, A Plague on Both Your Houses. Minor Parties in Australia , Sydney, Allen and Unwin, pp. 188-9.


7  Scott Bennett, Affairs of State. Politics in the Australian States and Territories , Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1992, p. 78.


8   Sydney Morning Herald , 31 October 1998.


9  John Warhurst, ' The National Campaign ' , in Clive Bean, Ian McAllister and John Warhurst (eds), The Greening of Australian Politics. The 1990 Federal Election , Melbourne: Longman Cheshire, 1990, pp. 30-32.


10  Bennett, Kopras and Newman, op. cit. , p. 1.


11  Hugh Mackay, Reinventing Australia. The mind and mood of Australia in the 90s , Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1993, pp. 169, 180.


12  Mackay, pp. 180-1.


13  Doug Porter, ' On Summits and Unfortunate Attitudes ' , in Adam Farrar and Jane Inglis (ed.), Keeping it Together. State and Civil Society in Australia , Leichhardt: Pluto, 1996, p. 33.


14  Paul Kelly, The End of Certainty. Power, politics and business in Australia , rev. edn, Sydney Allen & Unwin, 1994, pp. 661 & 663 .


15  Ian McAllister and Clive Bean, ' Long-term electoral trends and the 1996 election ' , in Clive Bean, Scott Bennett, Marian Simms and John Warhurst (eds), The Politics of Retribution. The 1996 Australian federal election , Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1997, p. 176.


16  Gary Orren, ' Fall from Grace: The Public ' s Loss of Faith in Government ' , in Joseph S. Nye, Philip D. Zelikow and David C. King, Why People Don ' t Trust Government , Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1997, pp.88-99.


17  Mackay, pp. 169 & 178.


18  Kenneth Wiltshire, ' Australian State Participation in Federal Decisions ' , in R. L. Mathews (ed.), Federalism in Australia and the Federal Republic of Germany , Canberra: ANU Press, 1980, p. 73.


19  Ronald Inglehart, ' postmaterialism ' , The Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Political Science paperback edn, Oxford: Blackwell, 1991, pp. 488-91.


20  McAllister and Bean, p. 186.


21  Don Aitkin, for example, who described inherited partisanship as 'the sheet-anchor of the system's stability, providing replacement supporters as older generations pass out of the electorate, restricting the possibility of change, and preventing Poujadist outbreaks', Don Aitkin, 'The Changing Australian Electorate, in Howard R. Penniman (ed), Australia at the Polls. The national elections of 1980 and 1983 , Sydney, Allen and Unwin, 1983, p. 12.


22  Orren, p. 89.


23  Tim Bonyhady, 'Grand Prix culture', The Australian's Review of Books , February 1999, p. 4.


24  Quoted in Mackay, p. 176.


25  Quoted in John Warhurst, 'Promises and personalities: The House of Representatives election in 1996', in Bean, Bennett, Simms and Warhurst, op. cit , p. 7.


26  Rex Davis and Robert J. Stimson, ' Disillusionment and disenchantment at the fringe: explaining the geography of the One Nation Party vote at the Queensland election ' , paper given ANZRSAI Annual Conference, Tanunda, 21-23 September 1998, p. 17.


27   Australian , 13 August 1998.


28  Donald Horne, ' The politics of the Australian tribe: a confidential report by an anthropologist from outer space ' , in David Headon, Joy Hooton and Donald Horne (eds), The Abundant Culture. Meaning and significance in everyday Australia , Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1995, p. 136.


29  Mackay, p. 180.


30  Hugh Mackay, ' Mugged by all the lies, punters just too tired to change horses ' , Sydney Morning Herald , 1 September 1998.


31   Age , 12 September 1998.


32  Orren, pp. 96, 97.


33  Orren, p. 99. Jesse Ventura, professional wrestler and independent candidate, won the Governorship of Minnesota in 1998 on an anti-party platform.


34  Colin A. Hughes, 'The Rules of the Game', in Clive Bean, Ian McAllister and John Warhurst (eds), The Greening of Australian Politics. The 1990 Federal Election , Melbourne: Longman Cheshire, 1990, p. 142; Australian Electoral Commission.


35  So unprepared were analysts, that the best some could come up with was to explain the 1988 result as a consequence of a number of popular mayors standing for election as independents.


36  See, for instance, Max Walsh ' s piece, ' The dawning of an Independent era ' , Sydney Morning Herald , 26 March 1990, where Walsh wondered if the two party system was about to ' take its place in the rubbish bin of history ' .


37  Mack had already held North Shore as an independent in the New South Wales parliament between 1981 and 1988.


38  This election was later voided.


39  Hanson nominated as Liberal but lost party endorsement prior to polling day, but too late to have the party label removed from ballot papers. The Australian Electoral Commission includes her votes in the Liberal total, but counts her as an independent in the tally of seats won.


40   Scott Bennett, Winning and Losing. Australian National Elections , Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1996, p. 50; Australian Electoral Commission.


41   It is not only the voting method that is a factor. The decision in 1984 to increase the number of Senators so as to ensure that half-Senate elections would be for an even number of candidates did not help. This virtually guaranteed that half-Senate elections where the major parties won all seats would produce tied results. In Victoria in 1998, for instance, the Coalition (37.9 per cent) won three seats and the ALP (40.5 per cent) won three seats, both gaining enough preferences to secure the necessary 42.8 per cent. To have won four seats either party would have had to secure a total of first and later preferences of 57.2 per cent.


42  For a recent paper see Senator Helen Coonan, 'The Senate. Safeguard or Handbrake on Democracy?', address to Sydney Institute, 3 February 1999.


43  Ronald Inglehart, ' Postmaterialist Values and the Erosion of Institutional Authority ' , in Nye, Zelikow and King, op. cit , p. 236.


44   Kim Beazley, address to National Press Club, Canberra, 30 September 1998.


45  Quentin Beresford and Harry Phillips, ' Speculations in Australian politics: young voters ' interest in politics and political issues ' , Youth Studies Australia , 16, 4, 1997, p. 16.