A minor issue?: minor parties and independents in the 2019 Australian election
There’s so much coming out of last weekend’s 2019 Australian federal election that pundits will be writing about it for months.
But there are a few points worth noting here.
Both major parties saw their primary vote fall
While the Coalition has won the election and a majority in the House of Representatives to form government, the fact is that both major political parties saw their primary vote fall.
At the time of writing the Liberal-National Coalition, despite winning government, saw a national swing against it of 0.4% while the Australian Labor Party (ALP) suffered a swing of 1.0% against it.
Source: Shawview Consulting chart from ABC News, “Party totals”, https://www.abc.net.au/news/elections/federal/2019/results/party-totals, accessed 22/5/2019.
However, this national swing was not repeated uniformly across the country. Different states saw different patterns.
For example, in New South Wales and Queensland the Coalition saw its vote increase slightly and the ALP saw significant falls, while in Victoria the ALP had a swing to it and the Coalition saw a fall.
Other states saw falls in both major party votes of varying sizes.
Minor party and independent vote record
The House of Representative vote for minor political parties and independents (that is, excluding the vote for the major parties: Liberal-National Coalition and Australian Labor Party) was 24.6% of the formal vote at the 2019 election.
That means last weekend one-in-four of Australians gave their first preference vote to someone other than the two major political parties.
And that’s a new record.
It’s the highest vote for minor parties and independents since the 1940s and the minor party/independent vote has been growing steadily since the Second World War.
Prior to last weekend, the previous highest vote for 'other' parties and independents in Australia since the War was recorded at the last election in 2016.
Votes for Australian political parties, House of Representatives 1950 - 2016
Source: ABC, “Election results: Here's how the 2016 figures stack up historically”, 4/7/2016, https://mobile.abc.net.au/news/2016-07-03/election-results-historical-comparison/7560888, accessed 20/5/2019.
So, what’s going on?
There are many different stories buried in this complex issue.
Over the years we’ve seen the growth of minor parties and independents on both the left and the right.
The Greens have been rising as political party through the 1990s and 2000s.
The high minor party vote in 1990 coincided with the peak in support for the Australian Democrats, while 1998 coincided with a high vote for anti-immigration party One Nation and the growth of the Greens.
More generally, there’s been a long-term trend of more and more Australians voting for someone else other than the traditional major political parties.
In this most recent election, the United Australia Party, led by billionaire mining magnate Clive Palmer, and Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party, featured in the polling.
As a gross over-simplification, both parties campaigned on a simple, populist agenda of anti-politician, pro-development, jobs and – particularly with One Nation – an anti-immigration platform. Both parties played on concerns in some parts of the community about the impact of globalisation.
Some have suggested that minor parties and independents over the years have played on the ‘pox on both your houses’ argument as anti-establishment groups against the traditional mainstream political parties.
We have also seen a significant number of high-profile independent candidates succeeding at elections in the last few years, providing another option for voters who do not wish to vote for the major political parties.
There are six independents and minor party members elected to the current House of Representatives.
At this most recent election, we’ve also seen for the first time an independent member hand over a seat on retirement to another independent candidate, where in the seat of Indi new independent candidate, Helen Haines, took over from retiring independent Cathy McGowan.
Of course, in the Senate, minor parties and independents have played a role in the Senate for many years.
Loss of trust
As in many parts of the world, Australians have seen a growing distrust in their political leaders over time.
The rise of anti-establishment politics is fracturing the voting patterns in many countries including Australia.
A recent study by the Grattan Institute examined why the protest vote against the major parties has grown in Australia since the Second World War.
This study argued this was due to factors such as falling trust in government, regional economic decline, globalisation and dissatisfaction and concerns about immigration.
Such dissatisfaction gives rise to ‘outsider politics’.
Of course, Australia is not unique here.
Political scientists have identified that in many Western democracies, the rise of anti-establishment, outsider politics is on the rise in other countries.
The election of Donald Trump as US President and the Brexit vote in the UK are given as examples of this.
Right now one opinion poll in the UK for the impending European Parliament elections shows that the two traditional major political parties, the Conservatives and Labour, are polling poorly behind parties that would normally be considered ‘minor’, including the new Brexit Party and the Liberal Democrats, with Labour only just ahead of the Greens.
In the UK, this is in part influenced by the fact that the two major traditional political parties are just not structured to deal with the biggest political, economic and social issue facing the UK since the Second World War, namely Brexit. Both the Conservatives and Labour are split down the middle on how to respond to Brexit.
In many OECD countries there has been a decline in trust in government over the last decade or so.
Source: OECD. 2017, Government at a Glance 2017, https://read.oecd-ilibrary.org/governance/government-at-a-glance-2017_gov_glance-2017-en#page1, p. 215, accessed 22/5/2019.
And this year’s Edelmann survey, whilst detecting something of an increase in trust in government, found that in 16 out of 26 countries the majority of people distrust their government.
Source: Edelmann Trust Barometer 2019, Global results, https://www.edelman.com/sites/g/files/aatuss191/files/2019-03/2019_Edelman_Trust_Barometer_Global_Report.pdf?utm_source=website&utm_medium=global_report&utm_campaign=downloads, accessed 22/5/2019.
The bottom line is that there’s been a long term trend in Australian politics of a growing vote for minor parties as the political landscape has shifted.
All of this means that, like many things these days, politics is in a state of flux and will be full of surprises now and in the future.