Saturday, July 30, 2016

Australian election, 2016-Xenophon, Hanson and Singh

Australia held a federal election on July 2 of this year for all members of the Federal Parliament. The Australian Federal Parliament consists of a 150-member House of Representatives and a 76-member Senate. The government is responsible to the House of Representatives, which is elected through preferential voting in single-member districts for a three year term (though it may be dissolved at any time by the Governor-General, acting on the advice of the Prime Minister).

However, all legislation must pass through the Senate, which is elected through the single transferable vote, though with substantial modifications described at the end of the article. Elections to the Senate are usually for 40 seats at a time (six Senators per state for six-year terms, plus four Territory senators elected for three-year terms), but if the Senate rejects a bill passed by the House of Representatives twice, the Prime Minister may advise the Governor-General to call an election for all members of both houses.

The result was the narrow return of the incumbent Liberal/National coalition government, led by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. In the 150-member House of Representatives, the party will definitely have 76 seats, which is a majority of one. If the Speaker of the House is a Liberal, which seems likely, the government will have a majority of 75-74.

The seat of Herbert, in the north of Queensland, is the only seat that could still likely switch between the two parties. Labor candidate Cathy O'Toole narrowly edged out Liberal incumbent Ewen Jones by eight votes on initial counting; the margin increased to 35 following a recount. While a narrow margin of this sort could theoretically be upheld, any minor error in counting or voting that would be ignored in a seat with a wider margin could lead to the election heading to the courts.

Even if Herbert is won by the government, the 77 votes in the House will represent a knife-edge majority almost as close as that won by Robert Menzies in 1961 (62 Liberal/Country, 60 Labor with full voting rights). The Turnbull government will have the advantage, though, that the Labor Party do not have all the remaining MPs. The House of Representatives crossbench consists of one Green, one Katter's Australian Party (Bob himself), two Independents (Andrew Wilkie in Denison and Cathy McGowan in Indi) and one member of the Nick Xenophon Team.

Whether these members will support the government consistently is unclear. The AEC conducts preference counts between the two major nationwide parties in each seat for statistical purposes. At the last election, McGowan's division of Indi split 59-41 to the Liberals, and Katter's division of Kennedy went 67-33. The Xenophon Team's seat of Mayo split 63-37 to the Liberals, though the Xenophon Team's preferences are more of an unknown quantity. Consistent opposition to the government, or supporting the installation of a Labor government, would likely be harmful to the future electoral prospects of these MPs.

The Xenophon Team's result

Before this election, I wrote about the Xenophon Team's prospects. I said that the difficulty Xenophon had in transferring his support to his chosen candidates, demonstrated in the 2014 South Australian election, would make a Xenophon lower house seat unlikely. Nonetheless, the party appears to have won a seat. So, how big was the difference between Xenophon Team House candidates and the support for the man himself?

Measuring the dropoff between Xenophon's House and Senate support simply by comparing their share of the votes in both houses is the obvious way to do this; however, it is something of an unfair comparison, given that there were an average of 6.5 candidates per House seat compared to 23 groups in the Senate. Nonetheless, here it is, though this is based on somewhat incomplete vote totals (as counting and data entry still continues).

In only three seats (Mayo, Barker and Grey) did the Xenophon House candidate outperform the Senate ticket, even with increased choice on the Senate ballot paper. Incidentally, these three seats were the strongest for Xenophon Team House support. On average, the Xenophon Team performed 1.24% stronger in the Senate than the House. This suggests that the dropoff between Xenophon House and Senate support is smaller than the 2014 SA election would suggest, but still substantial.

Incidentally, if you calculate Xenophon Team support as a percentage of the total for the parties that contested all the House seats (that is; Labor, the Greens, NXT, the Liberals, and Family First) in both houses, you get a somewhat different result.

This result moves Grey into the seats where the NXT Senate ticket performed better than the House, and increases the average to 2.3%. In general, NXT did not make much of an impact in the other states, winning an average of 1.8%, and probably not enough to win a seat (though a very strong performance on preferences might give them a chance in Western Australia). However, they won 21.6% in SA, giving them 2.8 quotas and likely three seats.

One Nation, under Palmer?

The other substantial new minor party presence in this election was the One Nation party. This party was formed by Pauline Hanson, elected as an independent in the seat of Oxley in 1996 (with a nearly 20% swing towards her) after being disendorsed by the Liberal Party for making controversial comments about indigenous Australians. One year later, she formed a political party, called One Nation. This party espoused anti-immigration views, though, as is not uncommon with this sort of party, supported somewhat economically leftist policies, especially opposition to privatisation and free trade (a lot of her views are laid out in her maiden speech to the House).

This party first contested the 1998 Queensland election, winning eleven seats and 22.7% of the vote. However, the party soon split into two, with some MPs joining the City Country Alliance (warning: vile web design), and the party lost most of its seats at the 2001 election. 

At the federal election of 1998, the party won 8.4% of the House vote (14.3% in Queensland) and 9% of the Senate vote, though weak preference flows meant that this only translated into one seat, in Queensland. Hanson ran in the seat of Blair, and won 36% of the primary vote to 25.3% for Labor, 21.7% for the Liberals, and 10.2% for the Nationals; however, the Liberal candidate received enough preferences from the National to pull ahead of the Labor candidate, whose preferences elected the Liberal over Hanson 53-47.

This election represented a peak for One Nation, whose vote roughly halved at the next election, and declined to below 1% after that. Hanson continued to contest elections, though often not as a member of the One Nation party; she ran as a member of her own United Australia Party for the Senate in 2007, winning 4.2%. She came close to winning a seat in the New South Wales upper house in 2011, ran for the Senate in 2013 (and would have potentially won had voters not confused the Liberal Party with David Leyonhjelm's Liberal Democrats), and came within 0.2% of winning the Queensland state electorate of Lockyer in 2015).

But now, she appears to have certainly returned to the Senate, as One Nation has secured 9.1% of the Senate vote in Queensland, comfortably above the quota for election to one of the twelve seats. One Nation are also in contention to win a seat in New South Wales and Western Australia with about 4%. They also missed out on a Tasmanian Senate seat by 140 votes off 2.57% of the primary vote.

So, where does this One Nation vote come from? Well, the below chart shows how the One Nation vote correlates to the vote of the party whose vote dropped most dramatically at this election: the Palmer United Party. This party was formed by mining billionaire Clive Palmer leading up to the 2013 election, and won two Senate seats (with an extra member elected in the Western Australia re-election) and one House seat (Palmer himself won the seat of Fairfax). However, two of the party's Senators left, and Palmer did not recontest Fairfax. None of the party's Senate tickets secured as much as half a percent of the vote.

The below chart shows the correlation between the Senate vote for the Palmer United Party in 2013, and the Senate vote for One Nation (based off current counting) for this year.

The two variables have a correlation coefficient of 0.73, suggesting a relatively close correlation. However, this likely reflects the fact that in most electorates, both One Nation and the Palmer United Party are/were a relatively minor presence. In inner-city electorates, both One Nation and the Palmer United Party having roughly 1% of the vote is not an especially meaningful correlation. The below chart shows the correlation for the divisions where the Palmer United Party received more than 7% of the Senate vote (the vast majority of which are in Queensland).
Here, we see much greater variation, and a much weaker correlation coefficient of 0.22. While this is dragged down somewhat by the presence of Jacquie Lambie in Tasmania (presumably taking some of One Nation's constituency), there are only two Tasmanian electorates in that dataset. While both the Palmer United Party and One Nation have substantial support in Queensland, they do appear to have substantial differences in where they win support there.

Lisa Singh wins on BTL votes-could it happen elsewhere?

So far, only two jurisdictions have declared Senate results; Tasmania, and the Northern Territory. The Senate electoral system has changed this year. Amongst other changes, voters now only have to number six boxes in order to cast a formal vote below the line (for individual candidates), though the ballot paper says twelve.

When tickets for the Senate were drawn up for Tasmania, two controversial decisions were made. Labour incumbent Senator Lisa Singh was demoted to fifth on the ticket, a very difficult position to win, while Liberal Tourism Minister Richard Colbeck was moved to the same placing. 

As casting a vote for these candidates individually is much easier under the new system, both Colbeck and Singh either ran, or had campaigns run for them, to encourage people to vote for them below the line. In the end, Singh was returned to the Senate, with 6.12% of the below-the-line vote, while Colbeck was not returned, despite winning 4% of below-the-line votes. The result represents the first time since the 1950s, and the first time since any type of above-the-line voting existed, that a Senator has been elected out of party ordering.

So, could the new system allow this to happen in other parts of the country? My answer is probably not. As I wrote when I was discussing the initial version of Senate reform, that would have required voters to number every box below the line, the states of South Australia and New South Wales both fairly briefly used the single transferable vote for multiple seats to elect their upper houses, without any form of above-the-line voting. While New South Wales required voters to number seventeen boxes, while all were required in South Australia, the systems shared one common characteristic; it was no harder to vote against the party ticket than to fully accept it. In both of these cases, the vast majority of voters appear to have accepted the party ticket.

The fact is that Tasmania is a much smaller state than any on the mainland, and running a statewide campaign for below-the-line votes is therefore much less costly than in any of the mainland states. Given that political parties have expressed an unwillingness to encourage such campaigning, doing it on a larger scale would prove difficult. Colbeck and Singh had the wind to their backs in another way; this election is a double dissolution, for twelve Senators, while most Senate elections would be for six, making it even harder to win a seat.

Though the equal distribution of votes between a party's candidates is often advantageous (if too many votes are concentrated on one of a party's candidates, it can lead to the other candidates of that party being excluded early, thus costing that party seats), Australian political parties appear to remain opposed to individual campaigns. The difficulty a Senate candidate's campaign would face in getting attention in the midst of a House election, with the Prime Ministership at stake, would add to these difficulties. Outside of Tasmania, it will be unlikely for any Senate candidates to be elected outside their party's ranking in the near future.

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