Among the most remarkable outcomes of this election has been Australian voters’ move away from the major political parties, the repudiation of a binary choice. The national primary vote split roughly into thirds, with one-third Labor, one-third Coalition and one-third “other”. This has ramifications for the future of the predominantly two-party configuration of Australian politics. And it raises big questions about who can truly claim the “centre” of the spectrum where political success traditionally lies in Australia.
The trend away from the binary choice has accelerated with this election, but it’s not new – primary votes for both major parties have been heading down for more than a decade. Labor won the 2007 election on a primary vote of 43.4 per cent and retained government in 2010 with 38 per cent. In this election it could well win a majority with just 32.8 per cent of the primary vote, which is less than its losing vote in 2013.
The Coalition has tumbled even faster. Its primary vote was 45.6 per cent in 2013, but fell to 41.4 at the 2019 election. This time, it’s about 35.7 per cent. Australia’s compulsory preferential voting system has the effect of distributing most votes back to the majors, which masks this collapse in support and means that, on a two-party preferred basis, Labor won this time with 52.3 to 47.7 per cent of the vote.
It’s far too early to tell from this result what might be the future of a two-party system that has long delivered stability in Australian politics. The trend away from the Liberal and Labor parties could lead to a more dynamic and, hopefully, more responsive political environment in parliament. It could also lead to a period of unpredictability and protracted negotiation over legislation.
Some results of this shift have already been extraordinary. The Liberals have been wiped out of their heartland seats in inner Melbourne and Perth, by a combination of Labor and independent victories. The perennial Liberal stronghold of Higgins, in Melbourne’s east, has fallen to Labor, with the help of preferences from the Greens, who captured 23 per cent of primary votes.
Instead the “teal” independents have decisively moved in. Independent Zali Steggall’s ouster of unpopular incumbent Tony Abbott from Warringah might have seemed like a one-off. But in this election, from Kooyong and Goldstein in Melbourne, to Curtin in Western Australia, to Mackellar, North Sydney and the wealthy enclave of Wentworth, moderate Liberals have lost to professional female independents.
Virtually all the victims of this wave were moderate Liberals, leaving the party nationally to its right wing, and the likely leadership of Peter Dutton. But the voters in these key seats (and elsewhere) did not care.
The other beneficiary was the Greens, which garnered almost 12 per cent of primary votes nationally and 13.3 per cent in Victoria. In some electorates the figure is much higher. In Melbourne, a Greens stronghold since 2010, party leader Adam Bandt won without having to rely on preferences from anyone. In the inner-Brisbane seat of Griffith, the Greens’ 36 per cent primary vote knocked aside Labor’s Terri Butler. In Cooper and Wills, both covering Melbourne’s inner north, Greens candidates each secured almost 28 per cent of first preferences. In future years, they could well eclipse Labor in traditional working-class areas.
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