The workings of our current Parliament are a problem that is not going to go away

Peter Martin writes in The Age:  “The Grattan Institute has identified superannuation as the most important test of Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership, saying if he can’t get the changes he took to the election through Parliament, it will mean Australia’s system of government is “irredeemably flawed”.

It says super should be the Prime Minister’s most important political test, not because our major political parties are at loggerheads, but because they largely agree.

If we cannot get reform in this situation, then there is little hope for either budget repair or wider economic reform.”

The problem lies at the heart of the way we elect our parliaments. With our preferential voting system, the government has been elected with 40% of the first preference votes plus the second preferences of the 25% of voters who did not vote for either of the major parties.

First preference votes for two major parties have been declining for the last 30 years, with the decline most obvious in support of the Labor Party.


The decline in support for the major parties has been matched by a rise in votes for the Greens, Independents and Minor Parties (GIMPS).

Modelling shows that if this trend continues and then stabilises over the next four elections, support for the three main blocs will look like this.

votes 1

Votes for the two major parties will decline to Coalition 36% and Labor 33% with the GIMPS securing 31%.

In 2016, of the 150 electorates, 48 (32%) were won on the primary vote. There were 53 such seats (35%) at the 2013 election. In 2004, 89 seats (59%) were decided on first preferences confirming the shift shown in the graph.

This means that 70% of all seats were decided on preferences or more bluntly 70% of the electorate got their second choice.

If preferences are distributed evenly between the two parties, then the following pattern  of two-party preferred votes will emerge. The preferential voting system in the lower house ensures that, despite a trend towards the GIMPS who will eventually secure just over 30% of the votes, the Coalition will repeat something like the numbers it currently has in the lower house.

votes 2.jpeg

If the Labor Party is able to secure just under 60% of the preferential vote, it will be able to achieve a lower house majority on a regular basis but it will only be on the basis of a 51/49 two-party preferred vote.  This is much the same as the result the coalition achieved in the 2016 election.

votes alp victory.jpeg

So the modelling suggests that that, even if there is a continuation of the increasing support for the GIMPS, the preferential voting system in the lower house will continue to return results very much like the one we have at present.

However, the results in the Senate which has a preferential, proportional representation system will not be skewed in the way that the preferential system skews votes in lower house.

As a result, the representation in the Senate will be a far more accurate reflection of the voting intentions of the Australian electorate with the GIMPS holding 30% of the seats. It follows that the Senate will become a far more important, or perhaps even dominant, influence on legislation that the government is able to pass.

It also means that the party that wins are in the lower house, while claiming it has a mandate to legislate its election policies, cannot be guaranteed of its success in the Senate.

Legislation will become far more contested and negotiated, reliant on collaboration between major voting blocs.

The first week of sitting in the lower house has not produced hopeful signs. The Government continues to persist with its legislation for budget repair, parts of which have very little chance of passing through the Senate. But there is no indication that the Government is prepared to negotiate to address this particular problem.

The Labor Party is proving to be as intractable as the Abbott opposition was when Julia Gillard formed a minority government. Last week’s shenanigans in Canberra may have been great theatre, but it was very poor government.


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