Sarah Gall is a political data scientist and membership secretary for the UK’s Conservative Friends of Australia. She previously headed up political and policy research for the Prime Minister of Australia.
On Saturday, Australians head to the polls after a fairly uneventful campaign. Neither of the major blocs – the incumbent conservative-leaning Liberal and National Party Coalition and the opposition Labor Party – have landed any substantial blow to their opponents.
Nor have either cut through to the electorate with any substantive policy that differentiates between the two.
This campaign has instead seen a greater focus on a number of conservative-held inner city seats being targeted by ‘teal’ independent candidates; reflective of the growing palpable disdain for the two major parties.
For British observers, the idea of independent or minor party candidates wielding any significant power or posing any threat to electoral success of a major party is foreign. But in Australia, where compulsory voting generally creates a narrow margin of victory, independents can and do hold the balance of power in both the lower and upper houses.
This is particularly problematic for a government seeking re-election for a fourth term and whose formal majority in the lower house had been wiped due to the redistribution of electoral boundaries (the abolition of a Coalition-held constituency in Western Australia and creation of a notionally Labor-held constituency in Victoria).
As the numbers currently stand, the Coalition requires a net gain of one constituency to win a majority and the Labor Party, a net gain of seven constituencies to win in its own right.
For the Coalition, there was at best an exceedingly narrow path to victory. This pathway however, has not been aided by successive scandals involving rorts and rape allegations, the feeling by many voters that Scott Morrison, the Prime Minister comes off as ‘cringeworthy’ and untrustworthy, or even the internal factional war within the New South Wales division of the Liberal Party which delayed the preselection of candidates in key seats.
For the Labor Party, who have not been taking the same hubristic stance as they did during the 2019 campaign, their gaffe-prone leader, Anthony Albanese, still remains behind in the polls as preferred prime minister.
This is despite a relatively less ambitious reform agenda than in 2019, which promised higher taxes and divided their own supporter base (particularly traditional blue-collar voters in coal-mining areas) with their un-costed climate change policy – and failure to address the potential job losses and energy price hikes it would create.
Pundits have therefore been led to believe in the very real possibility of a hung parliament in which Labor is required to negotiate a minority government with the independent and minor party crossbench.
This is made possible with Australia’s preferential voting system. Unlike First Past the Post, which does not require a candidate to attain a majority of the votes to win, Australia’s system requires voters to rank every candidate on the ballot paper in order of their preference.
If a single candidate does not achieve 50 per cent of the vote share from first preferences, the second, third, etc. preferences are transferred to the top two candidates until one candidate wins the majority.
This means that if a candidate has the highest number of first preference votes, they may lose after preferences are distributed to the final two, whereas they would have won under FPTP.
As a consequence of Australia’s preferential voting system, the election of independent and minor party candidates has become relatively common in Australia.
This has been particularly prevalent over the last 15 years, which have seen a bleed of first preference votes from the two major parties growing after an extended period of instability and leadership changes resulting in increasingly high levels of voter disenfranchisement.
A quarter of voters are now preferencing independent or minor party candidates ahead of the two major parties.
With both Labor and the Coalition suffering from a dealignment of many of their voters, some estimate that the first preference vote for independent and minor party candidates could increase from a quarter of all voters to a third this Saturday.
It is therefore not surprising that the so-called ‘teal independents’ – a group of mainly high-profile and successful female candidates, backed by billionaire Simon Holmes à Court’s Climate 200 – have seized the opportunity to attempt to sweep up these disillusioned voters.
These independents have run effective campaigns in primarily wealthy urban seats against moderate Liberal MPs, including in the Australian Treasurer’s (equivalent to the UK’s Chancellor of the Exchequer) electorate of Kooyong in Melbourne and former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull’s old electorate of Wentworth in Sydney.
They hope to entice voters with a commitment to tackle climate change and to bring in a series of integrity measures to hold politicians to account, while also making claims that their Liberal opponents are ineffective in standing up against their more-conservative colleagues who represent rural and coal-mining constituencies.
This tactic highlights an important and difficult position that the two major parties find themselves in: key policies, like action on climate change, seem no longer capable of uniting the entirety of their modern support bases.
Unless they can change this, challenges by minor factions will continue to become more significant, especially if Australians become accustomed to a larger crossbench and the usual warnings of chaos and instability start to lose their power.