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Australian electoral system

The Australian electoral system has evolved over nearly 150 years of continuous democratic government, and has a number of distinctive features. This article deals with elections to the Australian Parliament. See also: Electoral systems of the Australian states and territories.

In this article, distinctive terms which are widely used in the Australian electoral system are shown in italics.

Table of contents
1 Compulsory voting
2 Preferential voting
3 Gerrymandering and malapportionment
4 Federal Parliament
5 Related topic
6 External links

Compulsory voting

Australia is one of the few countries in which it is compulsory to vote. Compulsory voting was introduced after the First World War, when it was felt that since 60,000 Australians had died in the defence of freedom, Australians had a duty to use the freedoms so dearly bought. The immediate impetus for compulsory voting at federal level was the low voter turnout (69.4%) in the federal elections of 1919. Voting is compulsory both at federal elections and at elections for the state and territory legislatures. In some states voting at municipal elections is also compulsory. Prosecutions for failure to vote are rare and the fine is nominal.

Strictly speaking, it is compulsory only to attend a polling place and have one's name checked against the Electoral Roll (enrollment to vote is also compulsory). Having had his or her attendance registered, the voter is free to place the ballot paper in the rubbish bin if desired. The voter is also free to place the ballot paper in the ballot box unmarked. This is called informal voting. In practice, over 95% of Australians vote at elections, and in most elections only 2 or 3% of votes cast are informal.

Some political scientists believe that compulsory voting benefits the Australian Labor Party, others dispute this. It is argued that most of the social groups who would tend not to vote if voting were voluntary are more inclined to vote Labor (people from the ethnic and immigrant communities, indigenous Australians, people with lower levels of education, and young voters). Occasionally conservative politicians or libertarian intellectuals argue for the abolition of compulsory voting on philosophical grounds, but no government has ever attempted to abolish it.

Preferential voting

Australia uses preferential voting for almost all elections. The prefferential system was introduced in 1922, in response to the rise of the Country Party, a party representing small farmers. The Country Party split the anti-Labor vote in conservative country areas, allowing Labor candidates to win on a minority vote. The conservative government of Billy Hughes introduced preferential voting as a means of allowing competition between the two conservative parties without putting seats at risk.

Preferential voting is used for both upper and lower houses, in the federal, state and territory legislatures, and is also used in municipal elections, and other kinds of elections as well, such as internal political party elections, trade union elections, church elections, elections to company boards, and elections in voluntary bodies such as football clubs.

In other countries, preferential voting is often termed the single transferable vote (STV) or instant runoff voting (IRV). These terms are never used in Australia.

Gerrymandering and malapportionment

Gerrymandering is the drawing up of electoral boundaries in such a way as to favour one party at the expense of another. (The word comes from the American politician Elbridge Gerry, who designed an electoral district in Massachusetts which was said to resemble a salamander.)

Malapportionment is the allocation of more electoral districts to one part of a country or state than its population would merit, and conversely the allocation of fewer electoral districts to another part.

Australian political history has seen very little gerrymandering of electoral boundaries, which have nearly always been drawn up by civil servants or independent boundary commissioners. But Australia has seen systematic malapportionment of electorates, and indeed until fairly recently this was considered a perfectly natural and defensible practice in some states.

All the colonial legislatures before Federation, and the federal parliament after it, saw country districts allocated more representation than their populations merited. This was justified on several grounds: that country people had to contend with greater distances and hardships and thus deserved greater representation; that country people (and specifically farmers) produced most of the nation's real wealth, and thus deserved greater representation; and that greater country representation was necessary to balance the radical tendencies of the urban population.

In the 19th century these assertions usually reflected genuinely held beliefs. By the 20th century, and especially after the rise of the Labor Party, they became increasingly self-serving rationalisations by politicians (ususally conservatives) who benefitted from the malapportionment. In the later 20th century these arguments were increasingly and usually successfully challenged, and the malapportionment was reduced and finally abolished in most places.

The most conspicuous examples of malapportionment were in South Australia and Queensland.

In South Australia the 1856 Constitution stipulated that there must be two rural constituencies for every urban constituency, and this remained in force until 1968, by which time the urban-rural voter ratio was almost exactly reversed: that is, there were two urban voters for every rural voter. As a result, rural seats had on average one-quarter the number of voters that urban seats had. This gross distortion enabled Sir Thomas Playford to hold office as Liberal premier of South Australia from 1938 to 1965, despite losing several elections by wide margins in terms of votes. This arrangment was popularly called "the Playmander," although it was not strictly speaking a gerrymander.

In Queensland the malapportionment initially benefitted the Labor Party, since many small rural constituencies were dominated by rural workers organised into the powerful Australian Workers Union. But after 1957, the Country Party / National Party governments of Sir Frank Nicklin and Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen were able to manipulate the electoral system so that the National Party could win elections with only a quarter of the vote. This "Bjelke-mander" was not overcome until the final defeat of the Nationals in 1989.

Today only Western Australia continues to have a deliberate malapportionment of electorates in both the Legislative Assembly and Legislative Council. Repeated attempts by Labor governments to abolish the malapportionment have been either defeated in the Council or, more recently, successfully challenged in court.

Federal Parliament

The Parliament of Australia is a bicameral (two-house) Parliament. It combines some of the features of the Parliament of the United Kingdom with some features of the United States Congress. This is because the authors of the Australian Constitution had two objectives: to reproduce as faithfully as possible the Westminster system of parliamentary government, while creating a federation in which there would be a division of powers between the national government and the states, regulated by a written Constitution.

In structure, the Australian Parliament resembles the United States Congress. There is a House of Representatives elected from single-member constituencies of approximately equal population, and there is a Senate consisting of an equal number of Senators from each state, regardless of population (there are also Senators representing the two federal territories).

But in function, the Australian Parliament follows the Westminster system. The Prime Minister holds office because he can command the support of the majority of the House of Representatives, and must resign if the House passes a vote of no confidence in his administration. All ministers must be members of Parliament.

The House of Representatives

The Australian House of Representatives has 150 members elected from single-member constituencies (usually called seats in Australia) for three year terms. Voters must fill out the ballot paper by numbering all the candidates in order of their preference. Failure to number all the candidates, or an error in numbering, renders the ballot informal. The average number of candidates has tended to increase in recent years: there are frequently 10 or 12 candidates in a seat, and at the Wills by-election in 1991 there were 22 candidates. This has made voting increasingly onerous, but the rate of informal voting has increased only slightly.

This is because of what appears to be a uniquely Australian institution, the How-to-Vote Card. On election day, volunteers from all the political parties stand outside every polling place in the country, handing every voter a card which advises them how to cast their vote for their respective party. Thus, if a voter wishes to vote for the Liberal Party, they will take the Liberal How-to-Vote Card and follow its instructions very carefully. Australian voters show a high degree of party loyalty in following their party's Card.

The challenge of numbering the ballot paper leads a certain number of voters to simply number the candidates from 1 to 10 (or whatever) straight down the ballot paper. This is called the donkey vote. It gives some advantage (perhaps 1 or 2%) to the candidate at the top of the ballot paper. Before 1984, candidates appeared in alphabetical order, which led to a profusion of Aaronses and Abbotts contesting elections. (The most famous example of this was the 1937 election, in which the Labor Senate ticket in New South Wales consisted of candidates named Armour, Ashley, Armstrong and Arnold: all were elected.) Since 1984 ballot paper order has been decided by lot.

The House Count

When the polls close at 6pm on election day, the votes are counted. The count is conducted by officers of the Australian Electoral Commission, watched by nominated volunteer observers from the political parties, called scrutineers. If one of the candidates has more then 50% of the vote, then s/he is declared elected and no further counting is necessary. This is usually the case in about two-thirds of the seats. Australian politics are class-based. In strong working-class seats, the Labor Party will poll up to 80% of the vote. In strongly middle-class seats, the Liberals will usually poll over 60%. In some rural seats the National Party will poll 60%.

In the remaining seats, no single candidate will have a majority of the primary votes (or first-preference votes. A hypothetical result might look like this:

White (Democrat)     6,000   05.0
Smith (Labor)       45,000   45.0
Jones (Liberal)     35,000   35.0
Johnson (Green)     10,000   10.0
Davies (Ind)         4,000   04.0

In this case, the candidate with the smallest vote, Davies, will be eliminated, and his/her preferences will be distributed: that is, his/her 4,000 votes will be allocated to the remaining candidates according to which candidate received the number 2 vote on their ballot papers. Suppose Davies's preferences split 50/50 between Smith and Jones. Smith would then have 47% and Jones 37%. White would then be eliminated. Suppose all of White's preferences went to Smith. Smith would then have 52% and would be declared elected. Johnson's votes would not need to be distributed.

Two-party majorities, swings and pendulums

Since 1984 the preferences of all candidates in House of Representatives seats have been distributed, even if this is not necessary to determine the winner of the seat. This is done to determine the percentage of the votes obtained by the winning candidate after the distribution of all preferences. This is called the two-party vote. For example, if (in the example given above), Smith finished with 58% of the vote after the distrubution of Johnson's preferences, Smith's two-party vote would be 58% and the seat would be said to have a two-party majority of 8%. It would therefore need a two-party swing of 8% to be lost to the other side of politics at the next election.

Once the two-majorities in all seats are known, they can then by arranged in a table to show the order in which they would be lost in the event of an adverse swing at the next election. Such tables frequently appear in the Australian media and are called election pendulums or sometimes Mackerras pendulums after the political scientist Malcolm Mackerras, who popularised the idea of the two-party vote in his 1972 book Australian General Elections.

Here is a sample of the current federal election pendulum, showing some of the seats currently held by the Liberal-National Party coalition government, in order of their two-party majority. A seat with a small two-party majority is said to be a marginal seat or a swinging seat. A seat with a large two-party majority is said to be a safe seat, although "safe" seats have been known to change hands in the event of a large swing.

Seat          State     Majority     Member                Party
HINKLER       Qld       00.0         Paul Neville          NPA
SOLOMON       NT        00.1         Dave Tollner          Lib
ADELAIDE      SA        00.2         Hon Trish Worth       Lib
CANNING       WA        00.4         Don Randall           Lib
DOBELL        NSW       00.4         Ken Ticehurst         Lib
PARRAMATTA    NSW       01.1         Ross Cameron          Lib
McEWEN        Vic       01.2         Fran Bailey           Lib
PATERSON      NSW       01.4         Bob Baldwin           Lib
HERBERT       Qld       01.6         Peter Lindsay         Lib
RICHMOND      NSW       01.6         Hon Larry Anthony     NPA
DEAKIN        Vic       01.7         Philip Barresi        Lib
EDEN-MONARO   NSW       01.7         Gary Nairn            Lib
HINDMARSH     SA        01.9         Hon Christine Gallus  Lib 


The boundaries of Australian electoral constituencies are drawn up by the Australian Electoral Commission, an independent statutory authority, completely independent of political considerations. Members of Parliament and political parties may make submissions to the Commission on proposed new boundaries, but any interference with the Commission's deliberations would be a serious offence.

The Electoral Act requires that all seats have approximately equal numbers of enrolled voters. When the Commission determines that population shifts within a state have caused some seats to have too many or too few voters, new boundaries are drawn up. This is called a redistribution. Redistributions are also held when the Commission determines (following a formula laid down in the Act) that the distribution of seats among the states and territories must be changed because some states are growing faster than others.

The Senate

The Australian Senate has 76 members: each of the six states elects 12 Senators, and each of the two federal territories elects two Senators. Senators for the states serve six-year terms, with half the Senators from each state being elected at each federal election. The territory Senators serve three-year terms, and are elected at each federal election.

The Senate is elected both proportionately and preferentially. In each state, political parties which are registered with the Electoral Commission present lists of candidates, which appear as a group on the Senate ballot paper. Independents and members of unregistered parties can also nominate, but they cannot appear on ballot paper as a group.

Voters can vote for the Senate in one of two ways. They can number all the candidates, as they would with a House of Representatives ballot: but since there may be 50 or 60 candidates on the ballot paper, few voters do this. This is called below the line voting. Or they can simply tick a box indicating which party list they wish to vote for. This is called above the line voting. Over 95% of voters cast their votes in this way.

The Senate Count

The system for counting Senate votes is very complicated, and a final result is sometimes not known for several weeks. When the Senate vote is counted, a quota for election is determined. This is the number of valid votes cast, divided by the number of Senators to be elected plus one.

For example, here is the Senate result for the state of New South Wales from the 1998 federal election. For greater clarity the votes cast for 50 minor party and independent candidates have been excluded.

The quota for election was 3,755,725 divided by seven, or 536,533.

Enrolment:                              4,031,749
Turnout:                                3,884,333 (96.3%)
Informal votes:                           128,608 (03.3%)
Formal votes:                           3,755,725
Quota for election:                       536,533
Steve HUTCHINS                  ALP     1,446,231   38.5  ELECTED 1
Hon John Faulkner *             ALP         2,914   00.1  Group H
Michael Forshaw *               ALP           864   00.0  Q:2.7073
Ursula Stephens                 ALP         2,551   00.1  

David Oldfield ON 359,654 09.6 Group K Brian Burston ON 570 00.0 Q:0.6729 Bevan O'Regan ON 785 00.0

Bill HEFFERNAN * Lib 1,371,578 36.5 ELECTED 2 Dr John Tierney * Lib 1,441 00.0 Group L Sandy Macdonald * NPA 1,689 00.0 Q:2.5638 Concetta Fierravanti-Wells Lib 855 00.0

Aden Ridgeway AD 272,481 07.3 Group M Matthew Baird AD 457 00.0 Q:0.5142 Suzzanne Reddy AD 2,163 00.1 David Mendelssohn AD 809 00.0

John Sutton Grn 80,073 02.1 Group U Catherine Moore Grn 748 00.0 Q:0.1521 Lee Rhiannon Grn 249 00.0 Suzie Russell Grn 542 00.0 -------------------------------------------------------------------- 128,608 (03.3%) informal 3,755,725 --------------------------------------------------------------------

In this table, the Group number allocated to each list is shown at right. Below that is the number of quotas polled by each list. Thus, "Q:2.7073" next to the Labor Party list indicates that the Labor candidates between them polled 2.7073 quotas.

It will be seen that the leading Labor and Liberal candidates, Hutchins and Heffernan, polled more than the quota. They were therefore elected on the first count. Their surplus votes were then distributed. The surplus is the candidate's vote minus the quota. Hutchins's surplus was thus 1,446,231 minus 536,533, or 909,698. These votes were distributed to whichever candidates received the no 2 votes on Hutchins's ballots.

After Hutchins's surplus votes were distributed, the count looked like this:

                     Votes             Total after 
                     distributed       distribution
HUTCHINS                   E              536,533   14.3  ELECTED 1
FAULKNER *           908,567 (99.9)       911,481   24.3  ELECTED 3
Forshaw *                196 (00.0)         1,060   00.0
Stephens                 130 (00.0)         2,681   00.1

Oldfield 186 (00.0) 359,840 09.6 Burston 6 (00.0) 576 00.0 O'Regan 4 (00.0) 789 00.0

HEFFERNAN * E 1,371,578 36.5 ELECTED 2 Tierney * 13 (00.0) 1,454 00.0 Macdonald * 1 (00.0) 1,690 00.0 Fierravanti-Wells 1 (00.0) 856 00.0

Ridgeway 278 (00.0) 272,579 07.3 Baird 5 (00.0) 462 00.0 Reddy 3 (00.0) 2,166 00.1 Mendelssohn 4 (00.0) 813 00.0

Sutton 66 (00.0) 80,139 02.1 Moore 2 (00.0) 750 00.0 Rhiannon 1 (00.0) 250 00.0 Russell 0 542 00.0 -------------------------------------------------------------------- 909,698 3,755,725 --------------------------------------------------------------------

It will be seen that virtually all of Hutchins's surplus votes went to Faulkner, the second candidate on the Labor ticket, and he was then elected. This is because all those voters who voted for the Labor party "above the line" had their second preferences automatically allocated to the second Labor candidate. All parties lodge a copy of their How-to-Vote Card with the Electoral Commission, and the Commission follows this card in allocating the preferences of those who vote "above the line." If a voter wished to vote, for example, Hutchins 1 and Heffernan 2, they would need to vote "below the line" by numbering each of the 69 candidates.

In the third count, Heffernan's surplus was distributed and these votes elected Tierney. Faulkner's surplus was then distributed, but these were insufficient to elect Forshaw. Likewise, Tierney's surplus was insufficient to elect McDonald.

After this stage of the count, the remaining candidates in contention (that is, the leading candidates in the major party tickets) were in the following position:

HUTCHINS                                  536,533   14.3  ELECTED 1
FAULKNER *                                536,533   14.3  ELECTED 3
Forshaw *                                 375,587   10.0
Oldfield                                  360,263   09.6
HEFFERNAN *                               536,533   14.3  ELECTED 2
Tierney *                                 536,533   14.3  ELECTED 4
Macdonald *                               300,313   08.0
Ridgeway                                  273,109   07.3
Sutton                                     80,186   02.1

All the other candidates were then eliminated one by one, starting with the candidates with the smallest number of votes, and their votes were distributed among the candidates remaining in contention in accordance with the preferences expressed on their ballot papers. After this process was completed, the remaining candidates were in the following position:

HUTCHINS                                  536,533   14.3  ELECTED 1
FAULKNER *                                536,533   14.3  ELECTED 3
Forshaw *                                 450,446   12.0
Oldfield                                  402,154   10.7
HEFFERNAN *                               536,533   14.3  ELECTED 2
Tierney *                                 536,533   14.3  ELECTED 4
Macdonald *                               357,572   09.5
Ridgeway                                  286,157   07.6
Sutton                                    112,602   03.0

Sutton was then eliminated. 80% of Sutton's preferences went to Ridgeway, giving Ridgeway more votes than McDonald. McDonald was then eliminated, and 93% of his preferences went to Ridgeway, thus giving him a quota and the fifth Senate seat. Ridgeway's surplus was then distributed, and 96% of his votes went to Forshaw, thus giving him a quota and the sixth seat. Oldfield was the last remaining unsuccessful candidate.

A final point needs to be explained. It was noted above that when a candidate polls more votes than the quota, their suplus vote is distributed to other candidates. Thus, in the example given above, Hutchins's surplus was 909,698, or 1,446,231 (his primary vote) minus 536,533 (the quota). It may be asked: which 909,698 of Hutchins's 1,446,231 primary votes are distributed? Are they chosen at random from among his votes? In fact they are all distributed, but at less than their full value. Since 909,698 is 62.9% of 1,446,231, each of Hutchins's votes is transferred to other candidates as 62.9% of a vote: each vote is said to have a transfer value of 0.629. This avoids any possibility of an unrepresentative sample of his votes being transferred. After each count the candidate's progressive total is rounded down to the nearest whole number. This means that a small number of votes are lost by fractionation in the final count.

Double Dissolutions

Under the Australian Constitution, the House of Representatives and the Senate have equal legislative powers, except that appropriations (money) bills must originate in the House. This means that a government can be seriously frustrated by a Senate majority determined to reject its legislation.

In these circumstances, section 57 of the Constitution allows the government to call a double dissolution election: an election in which the whole House of Representatives and the whole Senate are re-elected.

Section 57 says: "If the House of representatives passes any proposed law, and the Senate rejects or fails to pass it, or passes it with amendments to which the House of Representatives will not agree, and if after an interval of three months the House of Representatives, in the same or the next session, again passes the proposed law with or without any amendments which have been made, suggested, or agreed to by the Senate, and the Senate rejects or fails to pass it, or passes it with amendments to which the House of Representatives will not agree, the Governor-General may dissolve the Senate and the House of Representatives simultaneously."

Section 57 also provides that if after a double dissolution, the Senate again rejects the bill or bills which where the subject of the dissolution, the government may convene a joint sitting of the two Houses to consider the bill or bills.

There were double dissolution elections in 1914, 1951, 1974, 1975, 1983 and 1987. Only after the 1974 double dissolution was a joint sitting held. In 1914 the Cook government was defeated at the election, and in 1983 the Fraser government was likewise defeated. At the 1951 double dissolution the Menzies government won a majority in both Houses, as did the Fraser government in 1975. The 1987 double dissolution produced a continued Senate deadlock, and the Hawke government decided not to proceed with the bill which was the trigger for the election.

Related topic

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