1. Too soon to declare the two-party system dead?
Lots has been said about the independent and Greens vote in this election. In fact the major party first preference vote has been declining for a long time (see this report from 1999, on the “The Decline in Support for Australian Major Parties and the Prospect of Minority Government”, when the two major parties still attracted what is by today’s standard a fairly healthy 80%+).
We have seen the growth of minor parties and independents in the Senate over a couple of decades, where proportional representation offers a better reflection of the broader views of the electorate (preference whispering not withstanding).
What is different now is that that decline has reached a point where House of Reps seats are on the table.
Remarkably this election Australia’s first preference lower house votes were roughly divided into thirds: one-third ALP; one-third Liberal/National; and one-third ‘other’. (The Melbourne seat of McNamara which appears to be the difference between a minority and majority Labor government is a case in point: currently at 32% ALP, 29% Liberal, 29% Green).
And while I think it is too soon to declare the death of two party system (one of those two major parties will still form government for a long time to come) it is nonetheless significant. The sheer number of so-called ‘cross-benchers’ (or better: elected local representatives who are not major party aligned) makes for a much more interesting and – if Labor doesn’t end up with a majority – unpredictable and dynamic legislative process, by opening the door for negotiation beyond the party room (albeit already the case in the Senate).
Either way (as the 1999 report suggested) one can see minority government being more common feature of Australian parliaments, thanks to a combination of the electorate, the perception of a conservative shift of the coalition, and preferential voting. And it is not necessarily a bad thing. Easy to forget that multi-party coalitions are much more common in many international jurisdictions (see example the recent German election… even New Zealand with its mixed member proportional system tends to have more ad hoc coalitions than Australia). On the whole these are successful. True that less constructive examples exist (see: Israel) and belligerent minor (or major for that matter) parties can be a handbrake on action, but recent examples in Australia (Gillard minority government, ACT minority government) have proven legislatively successful, and even reformist.
A more colourful House of Reps does better represent our views as a nation even if not fully: 15 or 16 non-major party representatives might sound like a lot, but it is only about 10% of the lower house seats, well short of the 31.5% who voted ‘other’.
Which brings us to …
2. Does the parliament finally reflect the demography of our communities?
Not yet. But it is getting closer. The new Parliament will see the first member of Vietnamese background (Vietnamese make up 1.4% of community, and now about 0.7% of House of Reps), more Muslim members and a record number of Aboriginal members: three in the House of Reps (about 2% of that chamber, compared to 2.8% of Australian population) and six in the Senate.
The Aboriginal representation is particularly noteworthy: Marion Scrymgour succeeding Warren Snowdon in the sprawling NT seat of Ligniari. In Victoria, Mutthi Mutthi and Wamba Wamba woman Jana Stewart from Labor joins Gunaikurnai/Gunditjmara woman Lydia Thorpe from the Greens in the Senate. Indeed it will be the first time the Indigenous Affairs portfolio has changed hands from an Aboriginal person to an Aboriginal person: Linda Burney succeeding Ken Wyatt (who lost his seat in Perth).
And pleasingly the electoral result was far more diverse (and particularly gender diverse) than the candidates. Less than 40% of candidates were women while acording to the Guardian “The Senate is set to have a majority of women, and 14 new women have been elected to the House of Representatives (3 lost their seats)”.
3. “How good is Australia?”
Yes I deliberately borrowed a catchphrase from the recently departed PM. But I want to focus on something else he said on election night: “Though there are many votes still to count, that is true. There are many pre-poll and postals still to come in. But I believe it is important to this country has certainty.”
The (now former) Prime Minister quickly and decisively conceded. He called a congratulated his successor even while the ALP, at that point, had not secured an outright majority (at the time of writing still hasn’t). And Albanese by the same measure thanked Morrison for his service, and the sacrifice his family has made to support that service.
Now none of this is new. None of this is unique or unusual. Indeed it happens every election (the victory speech given by Peter Malinauskas after the recent South Australian election is an excellent example). But it is easy to underestimate how important this is for the functioning of democracy. The smooth transfer of power. Mutual respect and tolerance. Recognition that politics is a contest of ideas, not a battle for existence. Unfortunately in 2022 we don’t need to look too hard to see just how precious this is, and how fragile: even in nations borne of the same democratic traditions.
Something not to be taken for granted. How good is Australia?