Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Australian AV deadlock

Australia has one of the strongest two party systems in the world. So it's amazing that yesterday's election has produced a hung parliament and potential deadlock that makes our election outcome look simple by comparison.

Hung parliaments are historically rare in Australia. I can think of only six previous ones - the 1901, 1903 & 1906 elections when the party system was still in flux with three sizeable groups (Free Traders, Protectionists and Labor), the 1922 and 1934 elections when the Coalition between the Nationalists/United Australia Party and Country Party (now the Nationals) wasn't operating but it was soon assembled afterwards, and 1940 when the Coalition and Labor were neck & neck, with two independents holding the balance of power. The two independents supported the Coalition for a year, but then when Robert Menzies was deposed as Prime Minister the independents deserted and Labor took office without an election. The 1901-1910 period also saw a lot of parliamentary musical chairs as three parties vie for an outcome.

This time round the situation could be very messy. Firstly a note on the results figures floating around - these are provisional. Australia counts by the polling station and the formal declaration usually doesn't come for a couple of weeks. In the meantime most results are clear enough but a few knife-edge seats could tip either way, not least because postal votes can still arrive for the next two weeks. (The Australian: Count continuing and state swings notes how in 2007 the initial projection and final outcome varied.)

The second key point is that contrary to the way a lot of the national figures have been presented, one of the Nationals MPs is not going to be part of the conservative Coalition. The Nationals in Western Australia take a different approach from their eastern counterparts and operate as an independent third force focused on the needs of regional Australia. They are willing to work with Labor if it will help their constituents (and their counterparts in South Australia have already done so) and want the federal party to do the same. And if Tony Crook (who ironically defeated the only sitting MP with a criminal conviction) can't get that then he will probably be another independent force.

So the current provisional seat count is as follows:

Labor 72
Liberal/National Coalition 72
Independents 4
Greens 1
WA Nationals 1

Three of the Independents are ex Nationals & sitting MPs re-elected - see Third parties & independents under AV - the Australian experience for more details. The fourth independent is an ex Green candidate and anti-war protester who has won the urban seat of Denison.

So the balance of power rests with a disparate "Gang of Six" on the crossbenches and these six will not all work together as one block. There's also no real clarity over which of the two main parties have at least a plurality - they're equal in seats and the "Two-Party-Preferred" vote is very close and will take to finalise. So there isn't even anything to guide the six towards which party has a stronger democratic basis to form the next government. And whilst the three ex National Independents have publicly announced they will have discussions amongst themselves about what to do, they're giving slightly different signals about their intentions. And of course even if they do work as a block of three they can't deliver a majority in & of themselves. If the WA National joins them then they could at least offer a two vote majority but of the other two floaters the Green says he will support Labor and the the ex-Green independent would probably do the same, though he also wants a redress of the way federal funding goes in his state.

Advocates of hung parliaments and coalitions are fond of claiming that hung parliaments are good for countries because they produce compromises. But I don't think Australia is going to have that in pursuit of a majority. Instead it's likely that whichever party forms a government will do so by pumping extra federal spending into the various crossbenchers' constituencies. It's a great advert for hung parliaments isn't it?

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