As most of my readers will know, Australia’s federal election campaign has begun, with polling day scheduled for July 2. The campaign has been rather uneventful so far, but there is one interesting event that could take place in South Australia.
Nick Xenophon is a Senator from South Australia. His political career started when he was elected to the South Australian Legislative Council (which is elected eleven members every three years, using the single transferable vote) as a candidate opposed to ‘pokies’ (slot machines). He received 2.86% of the vote, which represented only about a third of a quota; nonetheless, he received group ticket preferences from seven other parties, and was elected.
During his six-year term, he developed substantial popularity in the state, and when his seat came up for election in 2006, his ‘Independent Nick Xenophon’ ticket received 20.6% of the vote for the lower house, only six points behind the Liberal Party. This allowed him to be elected, as well as his running mate Ann Bressington.
Following this result, he decided to run for the Australian Senate in 2007, as an independent candidate. He won a seat with 14.8% of the primary vote: just above a quota.
The results of that election saw the Labor Party win a majority in the House of Representatives, and form government. However, the party was relatively weak in the Senate; they had only 32 seats, to 37 for the Liberal/National coalition. With 39 votes needed to pass legislation, this meant that Xenophon shared the balance of power with five Green Senators and one member of the religious conservative Family First Party.
This meant that Senator Xenophon was in a position to heavily influence government legislation. And, as a Senator without a particularly strong ideological affiliation, he used this power to direct Federal funding to South Australian projects; for example, when the government needed to pass an economic stimulus bill, Senator Xenophon blocked it at first, in order to increase funding for conservation of the Murray-Darling River.
Following the 2010 election, the Labor Party lost its majority in the House of Representatives, but was able to come to agreements with a number of independent members of the House to hold onto a majority. However, in the Senate, Labor and the Greens together had a majority, allowing the government to avoid negotiation with the other Senators.
Despite this reduction in his influence, Xenophon was easily re-elected in 2013, securing 24.9% of the vote, narrowly beating the Labor Party. Such a vote put him well on the way to a second seat; however, most parties (including Labor and the Greens) submitted group tickets against his running mate, allowing Family First’s Bob Day to be elected off 3.76% of the primary vote.
Much has changed in the Senate since then. The 2013 election brought the Liberal/National coalition to power, but the government only won 33 seats in the Senate, meaning that they needed six other Senators to pass a bill. Assuming Labor and Green opposition to a bill, this meant that Xenophon and two other Senators could block a bill.
During this parliamentary term, Xenophon announced he would form a national political party. While he had registered a party before his 2013 election called the ‘Nick Xenophon Group’ (in order to have his name appear above the line on the ballot paper) it only contested the Senate in South Australia. In 2014, the party was turned into the Nick Xenophon Group, which would contest elections outside South Australia and without Xenophon as a candidate.
The government also made substantial changes to the electoral law towards the end of this parliamentary term. The electoral system for the Senate was changed from the single transferable vote with compulsory preferences, where voters could either number every single candidate, or vote for a party’s ticket of preferences. Large numbers of candidates mean that most voters voted for a party’s ticket of preferences. This system meant that small parties were able to swap preferences to other small parties with very strong preference flows, allowing candidates to win with very small shares of the vote. Dr Kevin Bonham sums up the issues with the system very well here.
The system was replaced early this year, following an agreement between the Liberal/National government, the Greens and Xenophon. It was replaced by an optional preferential system, where voters can either vote preferentially above the line (with a preference for a party representing a vote for the candidates of that party in order) or for individual candidates below the line.
Shortly following this change, the government announced that they would recall Parliament in order to put several industrial relations bills to a vote. This was the second time these bills had been put to the Senate (they had been rejected the first time), and if they were rejected again, the government would have a trigger for a double dissolution (an election for all members of both houses of Parliament). As it turned out, the bill was blocked, and a double dissolution was called.
The Xenophon Team has been announcing candidates for selected House of Representatives seats, and will run a Senate ticket in every state. The fact that this election is a double dissolution will have a number of advantages for this party.
First of all, the threshold for election in the rest of the country will be halved, as twelve seats will be up for election. This will make it easier for minor parties of all sorts to be elected, and Xenophon’s party is minor outside of South Australia.
Second of all, and more importantly, it will allow Xenophon himself to be attached to the party’s Senate ticket in South Australia for all twelve Senators, rather than just six. Why is this important?
Well, when Xenophon was re-elected to the South Australian Legislative Council in 2006, his ticket won two seats. While his original running mate turned out to be a disaster, the replacement for his seat (John Darley) ran for re-election in the 2014 election as the “Independent Nick Xenophon Team”. He received only 13% of the primary vote, but held his seat.
From that result, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say that there is a dropoff in support for Xenophon-affiliated candidates when Xenophon himself is not on the ballot, and thus him being on the ballot for all Senators could boost the party’s representation somewhat. While this may be extrapolating too much, I also think that this dropoff makes it unlikely that the Xenophon Team, despite optimistic polls (I suspect voters may be confused between the Senate and the House, but to be honest this is mostly speculation).
The other interesting thing about the Xenophon Team is that it has the possibility to lead to some very interesting results. While his House candidates are likely to be irrelevant outside of South Australia, his Senate support in the state, as well as strong polling, suggests that his party could be competitive in House seats.
The most positive individual seat polling for the Xenophon Team took place before the Liberal Party replaced Tony Abbott as leader with Malcolm Turnbull. Seat polling commissioned by trade unions a year ago suggested that a Xenophon Team candidate could win Education Minister Christopher Pyne’s seat. However, more recent polling has been somewhat less optimistic.
What will be interesting is that we will get a better picture of how preferential voting works in a multi-party environment. The importance of finishing order will be substantial, and there could be opportunities for tactical voting.
In most of the seats the Xenophon Team is targeting, the Liberal Party will almost certainly finish first in the primary vote. It is who finishes second that will be important. If, after all the other candidates are excluded, Labor is second, then the Liberals will have a good chance of victory. While the Xenophon Team is still undecided about how it will distribute their preferences, one key candidate has said that they will not file a specific how-to-vote card, and it seems likely that voters for the Xenophon Team will be more centrist.
If the Xenophon Team is second, however, then all bets are off. Labor has not yet announced its preference decisions in South Australia; however, I think it likely that they would not be too unhappy to see the defeat of a prominent Liberal MP.
Tactically speaking, it would be sensible for Labor to run a minor campaign in those seats, to ensure that the Xenophon Team finishes second on primary votes. On the other hand, the Liberals might want to surreptitiously encourage people to vote Labor (although such a campaign has not, to the best of my knowledge, been tried in Australia before).
How preferential voting works in a three-way race will become more relevant if Canada adopts it, as part of the Liberal electoral reform process. The results in South Australia, and the campaigns in the districts, might give a clue as to whether it works effectively in a multi-party environment.