Tomorrow the Australians will be electing a new parliament, doing so with the Alternative Vote that we will soon be considering here in the UK. Many of the individual election results will provide examples and points of argument, but one contest in particular is attracting attention, that for the Division of Melbourne, focused on the city's central business district. This is because there is a prospect of a third party making a breakthrough into the House of Representatives, traditionally a very two party place (the Liberal-National Coalition is basically one party in this line of argument). Now people like Antony Green are asking Can the Greens Win Melbourne? Tomorrow evening we will find out. (Unless of course it's really close and we have to wait longer for postal votes and recounts.)
With a coalition in the UK and so many smaller parties in the Commons people are naturally wondering if the introduction of AV will continue the trend or instead reverse it - indeed some Labour members have declared they will vote for AV precisely because of the limited success of third parties and independents in Australia. I am doubtful whether direct comparisons are meaningful in this regard, not least because Australia's elected Senate has given third parties an alternative target, but it seem a good time to look at the success rate of third force elements in Australia.
1949 is the best watershed to pick in Australian electoral history as it saw a change of government (with the victorious Coalition holding power for no less than 23 years) and a significant increase in the House of Representatives, whilst the party system has predominantly stayed the same since then. So what has been the record of the Alternative Vote in electing third parties and independents since then?
Very few is the answer. Only one federal general election since then has seen any MPs from a "third force" party elected at all, and that was in the circumstances of the 1987 election when the Liberal-National Coalition split and the Nationals fought as an independent force. I don't think this one really counts at all.
Only one other third party MP has been elected in the last sixty-one years, and that was Michael Organ who won the Cunningham by-election for the Greens in 2002, taking the seat from Labor. But this was a by-election in which the governing Liberal-Nationals did not stand a candidate whilst there were many minor and independent parties who directed preferences (via "How To Vote" cards) to Organ. He won despite having polled barely 23% of the first preferences. In 2004 it was a return to normal with the Liberals running a candidate who pushed Organ into third place whilst Labor regained the seat.
And that's it for third parties, although we wait to see if that changes at the weekend.
What about independents? Well in 1949 Lewis Nott (who had served as a Nationalist MP in the 1920s) won the Australian Capital Territory division with the help of Liberal transfers, but MPs for the territories did not have full voting rights at the time and this was not as significant a victory as a full voting seat. Nott was defeated in 1951.
The next successful independent was Sam Benson in 1966. He was a sitting Labor MP until expelled from the party for his support for the Defend Australia Committee, a predominantly right-wing body. He polled third but was elected thanks to Democratic Labor Party transfers getting him over the Liberals, in turn getting him over Labor. On both occasions the transfers were over 90% in his favour - a tribute to the effectiveness of How To Vote cards. Benson served one further term before retiring.
No more independents were elected until 1990, when Ted Mack was elected for North Sydney. Mack was the first of several independents who had built up a political profile at other levels of government, first serving as an independent member and then Mayor of North Sydney council. On the back of his profile he then won a seat in the state parliament as an independent. In 1990 he ran for the federal parliament and topped the first preferences, then took Democrats and Labor transfers to defeat the sitting Liberal. Mack was re-elected in 1993 and served until 1996.
Another independent was elected in the same parliament. Phil Clearly was the first independent in the period who did not have a previous political record. He was a former Australian rules football player and coach. In 1992 Bob Hawke resigned from parliament and the resulting Wills by-election attracted 22 candidates, mostly independents. In a crowded field and a high profile election Clearly took a third of the vote and benefitted from most other candidates' transfers. Clearly was subsequently disqualified for being a Crown employee when elected but won the seat again in the 1993 election. He lost in 1996 when boundary changes weakened his position and Labor retook the seat.
The 1996 election saw no less than five independents elected, all of whom can be easily categorised:
* Pauline Hanson was selected as a Liberal candidate in a safe Labor seat but expelled from the party after she gained national fame from calling for the abolition of government assistance for indigenous Australians. She was expelled from the Liberals, but too late for the ballot papers to be changed; however her national fame saw her take nearly half the first preferences and achieve a two-candidate preferred result of 54.7%. She subsequently formed One Nation but was defeated in 1998 due to a combination of boundary changes and the mainstream parties directly tackling both One Nation and the roots of its support.
* Allan Rocher, a sitting Liberal MP who was defeated for renomination (in Australian parties sitting MPs can be directly challenged for nominations) but stood as an independent and held the seat, largely by outpolling Labor and then taking the latter's transfers to defeat the Liberals. He was defeated in 1998.
* Paul Filing, another deselected Liberal MP who held his seat as an independent, though this time using Liberal transfers to beat Labor, before being defeated in 1998.
* Graeme Campbell, a sitting Labor MP expelled for support for various far right causes and organisations. He absorbed Liberal transfers to defeat Labor, subsequently forming the "Australia First", a fringe nationalist party. In 1998 he was defeated.
* Peter Andren, a broadcaster who won Calare from the Nationals after a tight three-way contest in which Andren ultimately benefited from Labor transfers. Andren was the only one of the five independents to retain his seat in 1998 and served until 2007 when the regular scourge of independents, boundary changes, put his parliamentary future in doubt. He announced he would stand down from the House of Representatives at the 2007 election and instead stand for the Senate; however he abandoned his plans when diagnosed with cancer later that year and died just after the dissolution of the parliament.
In 2001 Andren was joined by two more independents, and since his retirement a third was elected in a 2008 by-election. All three have served up to now and are restanding, and all are ex National Party politicians:
* Bob Katter, a sitting National MP (and former state MP and minister) who left the National Party as he disagreed with it on economic and social issues. In 2001 he polled nearly half the first preferences, easily dwarfing his old party whose transfers joined with One Nation's to helped Katter defeat Labor. Katter's primary vote has since stood at about 40% in both subsequent elections but the bulk of transfers have helped him reach the final two and easily defeat Labor each time.
* Tony Windsor was originally picked as a National candidate for the New South Wales state parliament in 1991, but deselected over accusations about drink driving. Standing as an independent he won and held the seat for ten years, before standing for the federal parliament in 2001 in a normally National held seat. He took nearly half the primary vote and absorbed transfers from One Nation and Labor to defeat the Nationals. At the two subsequent elections Windsor has polled a primary vote of around 60% each time.
* Rob Oakeshott was a sitting National state MP in New South Wales when he left the party in 2002 after a period of disillusionment and disputes about influences in his constituency. He held his state seat as an independent until 2008 when a federal by-election occurred in the wider Lynne seat. Oakshott stood and took the seat from the Nationals with 64% of the primary vote (with Labor not standing a candidate) and most small party transfers.
What does this rundown show? Well of the twelve independents elected in the period most were the products of splits within their party (even if the split was localised to themselves). Only three had no background in a major party and only two had no prior political experience at all. None lacked any public profile at all. Furthermore no less than seven were elected in a single decade (even if one was to be re-elected in the following). By UK terms this is predominantly a collection of independents like Sylvia Hermon and the late Peter Law rather than Martin Bell and Richard Taylor.
And the UK practice and culture will likely be different. Some of the Australian independents were able to get a strong enough personal vote to be elected in their own right, but others only won their elections because they were able to outpoll one of the two big parties and then take that party's transfers to defeat the other. A system of optional preferencing where How To Vote cards are (at least initially) likely to be rare (and the British election law about what can be given to voters going into a polling station differs from Australia's) would have made it much harder for some of these independents to be elected. The Greens would also likely have lost in Cunningham had the Liberals stood a candidate in that by-elections - in the UK there is no real tradition of major parties not contesting by-elections, at least outside of Northern Ireland (and that's a repeat of the general election pattern). So in many regards third parties face an even tougher struggle.
On the other hand as I previously explained one doesn't always need 50% of people voting to win under AV, and there are several already established smaller parties along with a greater floating vote that is willing to go outside the big two, so the third parties and independents would have greater scope for election. It is all swings and roundabouts.