A Little Overview Of The Upcoming Australian Elections

After looking through the archives of The Consul (before we renamed to the Penn International Relations Journal), there has been a lack of news or analysis regarding Australia. This is simultaneously strange and depressing, since there is actually a lot to talk about regarding the country (and its neighbor, New Zealand, and honestly, more articles should be written about that country as well). Between its intriguing (and at times nutty) political system, and its position as a country oscillating between the yokes of American hegemony and the nascent hegemony that China is developing, Australian politics is interesting (and, at times, insane) enough to warrant some mention on this site.

And the political situation right now is quite interesting. The 2016 elections were rather unpleasant for the ruling center-right coalition between the Australian Liberal Party and the Australian National Party, the previous party leader’s (and previous prime minister) Malcolm Turnbull lost massive support both nationally and within the Coalition (leading to Scott Morrison, becoming prime minister in late August), and polling for the 2019 elections looks very good for the Coalition’s opponents: the center-left Australian Labor Party (and its leader: Bill Shorten).

But I think I’m getting a bit ahead of myself. Perhaps a good overview of current Australian politics is in order.

A Brief Overview And History Of Australia’s Politics

            Let’s start off with a brief overview of the electoral system. The Australian Parliament has two houses: the electoral district-based House of Representatives, and the proportionally seated Senate. The Senate utilizes the single-transferable vote, allowing for proportion representation. That is not the case for the House of Representatives. While House elections utilize instant-runoff voting, which does help in reducing the effect of vote-splitting. On top of that, unlike the United States, voting is compulsory. All of this leads to a system that allows for more ideological diversity, and (weirdly enough) a variety of parties centered around a single person (ranging from the Nick Xenophon Team, to Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party, to Katter’s Australian Party).

            Within the House, the 2016 elections have not been good for Malcolm Turnbull and the Liberal-National coalition. They lost fourteen seats (all gained by the Australian Labor Party and the Xenophon Team), eventually losing a majority in both houses in the upcoming years. Much like the Labor Party during the premierships of Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, there has been a fair amount of strife within the Coalition, eventually leading to leadership challenges in the Summer of 2018, leading to Turnbull’s resignation as premier, giving us Scott Morrison (who has, for some ungodly reason, the nickname “ScoMo”).

            To be fair, things have not been as hot for the Labor Party as they should be, especially since they seem likely to win the upcoming federal elections. There have been some divisions within the Labor Party (aside from the division between the more left-leaning Socialist Left and the more right-leaning Labor Unity), and despite the disasters going on with the Coalition, while support has increased for Labor, it is not as much as would be expected in this situation.

How Things Are Going Right Now

            That depends on who you ask.

            If you ask the ScoMo or the rest of the top brass in the Liberal-National coalition, things are not looking so good. In fact, things are looking really bad. Most of the country does not seem to have much love for either the Liberal-National Coalition or ScoMo. Based off polling over the past few months, giant swaths of the population have developed a negative view towards both the federal government and the Liberal-National Coalition. Negative perceptions have also affected ScoMo himself. Voters are more inclined to think that the premier is both erratic and arrogant, and voters are less inclined to say he is intelligent. To be fair, Shorten is more likely than Morrison to be considered erratic, arrogant, and superficial.

            At the moment, both the Liberal-National Coalition and Labor have a similar number of marginal seats: 24 for the Coalition, and 23 for Labor. For the crossbenchers and independents in the House of Representatives, there are three marginal seats. As of February 2019, when choosing between the two primary parties, Labor polls around seven points higher than the Coalition. The primary vote (which now factors in all the other parties in Parliament) has Labor leading slightly with a two percent lead against the Coalition.

            Looking at the polling, and the somewhat disastrous situation that the Coalition is in, Labor is in a good position, and Bill Shorten is likely to be the next prime minister.

            The situation in the Senate is slightly different, but things still look good for Labor. As mentioned before, unlike the single-member districts for the House of Representatives, the Senate utilizes a single-transferable vote. As a result, the number of third-party Senators is much larger than in the House of Representatives, and the single-transferable vote makes it easier to third-party politicians to become Senator. Furthermore, only half the seats in the Senate are up in the 2019 elections. With this in mind, two scenarios seem likely.

            First, given the polling (even the primary polling), Labor is likely to gain seats, and potentially have a plurality in the Senate. Given all of the polling throughout much of 2018 and 2019, this seems to be likely.

            Second, given more local elections, the role of third parties could be much more significant in after the 2019 federal elections. This is coming from the upcoming elections in New South Wales (which contains Australia’s largest city, Sydney). While Labor has a slight lead, the more interesting information is the number of voters willing to vote for third parties (one in four). Eight percent of voters are considering giving the right-wing One Nation their first-preference vote. Nine percent are considering that for the center-left Green Party. Nine percent are considering giving a first-preference vote to independents.

            This could carry over to both houses of Parliament, but because of the single-transferable vote in the Senate, this could lead to a much larger group of crossbenchers in the Senate. Given the overall polling, this could work in Labor’s favor, since this could lead to an increase for parties with similar ideologies to Labor (for instance, the Greens). It could also lead to more people from parties like Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party (which deserves an article entirely about them). Likely, Labor will do well in the Senate, but it is much more up in the air compared to the House of Representatives. This could be concerning because, unlike the relatively powerless Canadian Senate, the Australian Senate has a fair amount of power (it is nowhere close to the power that the United States Senate has, however).

            Over the past ten years, Australian politics has seen its fair amount of drama, and it has been extreme ever since the 2016 elections. On top of that, due to lack of space, this overview is still omitting major issues that could affect the election (the main issue that comes to mind is the issue of migrants, and their detention, which has led to some international criticism). Regardless, it will be an interesting eight months between now and the November 2 elections (it could happen earlier, but it is likely that an early election will not be called).

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