The Magic Three

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How Australian Elections Work (you’re not going to like this).

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Why Malcolm Turnbull and the Liberal/National Coalition will win at least the next two, if not three or four, elections.

Most elections in Australia – Local, State, and Federal – operate on a Preferential Voting system. For a variety of reasons, a significant proportion of the population (>80%) vote for one of the two major parties, Labor and the Liberal/National Coalition. This means that in almost all elections, the vast majority of seats, if not all seats, will elect a Member from one of these two major parties. Minor parties and independents, in some cases getting more than 20% of the vote, will be eliminated when preferences are allocated. I’d prefer to have a system with more proportional representation of minor parties, independents, etc, however arguments about a lack of proportionality and representation are not the focus of this piece, so I’ll leave them aside.

The vast majority of voters will vote the same at every election – their world view, whether stated in two dimensions as Progressive vs Conservative, or in more sophisticated systems, will be the major influence over their choice. So people who feel strongly about one end of the political spectrum or the other, will preferentially vote for the parties that traditionally support those views. If you fall into one of those categories, your vote essentially doesn’t matter.

By logical extension, if a significant proportion of voters don’t change their vote, then due to the nature of the preferential voting system, it is the small proportion of voters who DO change their vote from time to time, who determine the outcome of any election.

To give a simple example, if there is an electorate of 100 voters, and in an election, let’s say they vote like this:

Independent or other party3

Once preferences are allocated, let’s say we end up with 53 Labor and 47 Coalition. Labor wins. Let’s call this Election 1.

Let’s say 9 of these voters who voted for Labor decide to change their vote at the next election: 3 switch to the Liberal Party, 5 to the Palmer United Party, and one to the Greens. One of the independent voters decides to just decides to write “screw you” on the ballot paper this time, adding to those who make a mistake, intentionally mess it up, or just leave it blank.

Palmer United5
Independent or other party2

Once preferences are allocated, you have 53 Coalition vs 47 Labor. Let’s call this Election 2.

So with only 9 voters (or 9%) changing their vote, and ONLY 3 of those voting Liberal, you have a change of government.

It’s when we look at those 3 who changed their vote from Labor to Liberal that it becomes interesting, and slightly depressing. Australia is a first world country. Life is very good compared to most of the rest of the world. Low crime rates, good healthcare, high employment, generally a good outlook on life. We can always debate the fine detail, but things are generally pretty good for the vast majority of the population. There are quite a lot of Australians who don’t care about politics in the slightest, because they don’t see that it has any effect on their own lives. And for the most part, they’re right – if they are middle class, have a reasonably well paying job, and are relatively healthy.

The general orthodoxy in Australian politics is that governments are voted out, rather than in. That is, when those 3 voters decide they’re sick of the current mob running the show, they kick them out and let the other mob have a go. As long as the other mob don’t stuff things up in a major way, they can look forward to running things for quite a while. Until eventually those 3 voters, let’s call them the Magic 3, get sick of the now current mob, and decide it’s time for a change of scenery.

After all, it’s the government that sets the policy agenda, not the opposition. It’s up to them to do what they think will take the country forward, while at the same time not doing anything to piss off the Magic 3. Rock the boat a little too much and you might find yourself out of a job. Just ask Gough Whitlam. Malcolm Fraser did ok, nothing too challenging, so he got to stick around for 8 years. The Hawke/Keating Labor government were in power for 12 years. They didn’t really do anything much to upset the Magic 3, and generally made life better for them through most of the major economic reforms of the late 20th century. The Magic 3 just finally got sick of seeing them in Power. The same thing for the Howard government. But the Rudd/Gillard government? All that infighting and backstabbing was a bit too much, so the Magic 3 turfed them out after two terms. Tony Abbott was on track to achieve the same level of pissing off the Magic 3 after only one term. That’s quite an achievement.

Until Malcolm Turnbull decided that he didn’t really want to spend years in opposition. Because he realised that, after the Magic 3 threw out the baby along with the bathwater, the last thing that Boring Bill Shorten was going to do was piss off the Magic 3. And you can be sure that Malcolm is smart enough to steer along with a steady hand and not rock the boat enough to make the Magic 3 seasick. He’ll have be a steady hand, nothing too controversial, and will hopefully structurally steer the economy towards the industries of the future instead of those of the past (yes, I’m looking at you, Tony), because after all, he’s pretty savvy when it comes to business.

But the point of all of this is that we have set up a system in which 3 people out of 100, who have no interest in politics, or any of what we (those who do care or are interested) think are the issues, decide who forms government. That’s the slightly depressing part.

If those numbers above look familiar, it’s because Election 1 is the 2007 Federal election, and Election 2 is the 2013 Federal election. The preferential voting system distorts the numbers game even further. It doesn’t matter if you get 5%, 10%, 20% of the vote, unless you get a majority of preferences in any one seat, you get no seats. This enormously favours the two largest parties. Election 1 (2007) seats: 83 Labor (55%), 65 Coalition and 2 independents. Election 2 (2013) goes: 90 Coalition (60%) vs 55 Labor, with 1 Green and 1 Palmer United. So with only 3% voters switching from Labor to Liberal, you get 25 seats out of 148 (17%) changing hands.

Updates: 2016 & 2019 Federal Elections

The Liberal Party swapped Malcolm Turnbull for Scott Morrison in 2018. Same same.

My case is looking very, very rested.

Palmer United510030
Independent or other party238445

% = primary vote percentage.