October 7, 2010 § Leave a comment
Who lives there?: 22 million people. 400,000 are indigenous Aborigines, the rest are primarily of English origin. For a long time Australia operated the “white Australia” policy of purposefully limiting non-white immigration. This policy was slowly phased out but only finally came to a stop in 1976. Contrary to popular belief less than a tenth of immigrants from the UK were forced convicts – the rest were economic migrants.
How does the system work? (the theory): Australia is a constitutional monarchy. The monarch is also the monarch of the United Kingdom. She is monarch of Australia in its own right but as she cannot be expected to be in Australia much of the time she appoints a Governor General as her representative on the island. In theory the Governor General exercises power in name only and will always obey the wishes of the Prime Minster – but there was a famous exception to this rule which we will discuss below.
Voting is compulsory. All voting is done using various preferential systems. Voters are allowed to vote “below the line” by ranking the candidates in order of preference until they are indifferent or “above the line” whereby they rank the parties in order of preference until they are indifferent and that is taken as a vote for all the candidates of that party (in whatever order that party sees fit).
Australians have an almost unique attitude to preferential voting (Fiji being the only other country that does this). In a preferential voting system the vote is counted for the first preference candidate until it is transferred to the second and so on until the voter no longer expresses a preference. At this stage in every other preferential voting system the vote is discarded and calculations made accordingly. In Australia, at this stage the vote is instead considered to be the property of whichever party it is currently counting for and that party can do with it what they please.
Clearly their first choice will be to use it to elect any candidate from their own party that are still in the running. But if all their candidates have been either elected or eliminated then they can choose to give it to another party of their choice. Parties are required to publish a book before the election (which no-one reads) of what they would do with a ballot under every possible hypothetical circumstance – this is the only constraint as to what they will do with them. Clearly mutual assistance pacts between parties are the order of the day. This system can also lead to extraordinary situations such as the New South Wales Legislative Council election of 1999 where, in an election with lots of only partly completed ballots, a candidate who was very good at forging pacts with other parties (Malcolm Jones of the Outdoor Recreation Party) managed to pull off a stunning victory despite the fact that virtually nobody (0.19%) voted for him. In 2004, in similar circumstances a candidate (Steven Fielding of the Family First Party) was actually elected to the Australian Senate with only a little over 1% of the vote.
The Prime Minister is the head of the executive and appoints a cabinet. The Prime Minster is elected by the more powerful lower house: the House of Representatives. Elections to this body are called at the Prime Minister’s discretion but must happen at least once every three years. Elections are by the Alternative Vote method of first past the post (another feature it shares only with Fiji in elections to the main house). There are 150 seats of equal size.
The upper house is the Senate. Half the Senate is elected every three years for six year terms. However if there is a period in which the Senate and the House of Representatives cannot agree and there is impasse then the Prime Minister can call a general election of the entirety of both houses. If this happens then half the senators are given terms of only three years to restore the electoral cycle. Each state of Australia elects 12 senators (6 every 3 years) regardless of its size. Each territory (or area not incorporated into a state) elects two senators – these senators uniquely must contest their election every three years. In total therefore there are 76 senators. Election is by Single Transferable Vote using the droop quota and fractional transfer.
Australia is a federation in which states and territories have an enormous amount of autonomy. The most populous areas of Australia are divided into six states. The less populous Northern Area is considered a territory as is the capital area of Camberra and as is collectively a collection of small islands, dependencies and the Australian Antarctic territory. States can determine for themselves how they are governed whist the territories have rules which are laid down. Moreover the Federal government can overrule laws which are passed by territories whereas they cannot overrule laws which are passed by states.
Five states have bicameral systems whilst Queensland and all the territories have unicameral ones. States use a mixture of STV and AV systems although only Tasmania uses STV in the lower, or only, house. In every system the lower, or only, house elects a Chief Minister who is the executive head of the state.
Perhaps because federal government is so strong, local government is actually very weak. Systems of election and powers for local government are decided by the states. Powers tend to be restricted to the “3 Rs”: roads, rates and rubbish.
How does the system work? (the practice): Aborigines were only given the vote in 1967 and there remains a significant problem of aboriginal underrepresentation.
How did we get here?: Australia became independent from Britain in stages starting in 1901. Initially centre-right parties dominated elections and preferential voting was introduced to allow candidates from the right to run against each other without splitting the vote. This led to the political parties we have today. There are three centre-right parties: the Liberal Party whose support tends to be suburban and middle class, the more rural National Party and the northern based Country Liberals. Together these parties form a tight electoral pact known as the coalition. In the more left-wing Queensland where resources for the centre-right are scarcer these groups have bounded together to form the Liberal National Party of Queensland. The centre-left meanwhile is represented by the Labour party.
Labour were out of power from 1949 to 1972 when Gough Whitlam took power on the back of one of the greatest election campaigns of all time:
He won a second term in 1974 but his radical tenure was controversial and by 1975 the senate were refusing to pass his budgets causing constitutional deadlock in the hope of securing early elections. Whitlam saw this as anti-democratic strong arm tactics and refused to do so. Extraordinarily the Governor-General then took matters into his own hands – dismissing the Whitlam government and calling fresh elections himself. A shocked British Monarchy quickly sought to distance themselves from the decision whilst a furious Whitlam famously made this speech:
In fact things did not end well for either of them. Whitlam was defeated in a landslide and the Governor-General (Kerr) was reviled by many, retired early two years later and lived out much of the rest of his life in self imposed exile. Whilst anti-monarchy feeling was at its height just after this action it wasn’t until 1999 that a referendum on moving to a republic was held. Despite the fact that there had been a clear majority in opinion polls for a republic for a number of years the result was a narrowly victory for the monarchy – a result which many put down the the unpopularity of the suggested alternative (a president with few powers selected by a supermajority in both houses). The current government of Australia still expresses the wish to turn Australia into a republic – although they have suggested that the end of the reign of the current Queen might be an appropriate time to do this.
There was another long period of coalition rule in the 1990s and early 2000s in which John Howard became Australia’s most electorally successful PM. He finally lost power to Labour in 2007 but the Labour PM, Kevin Rudd, struggled and was deposed in an internal coup. His replacement, Julia Gillard, called an election almost immediately.
Who’s in charge?: Gillard was returned in 2010 – just. Labour won 72 seats to the coalition’s 73 so for the first time in history there would be a pact between non-coalition parties. The Greens won their first seat and, as had previously been agreed, joined with Labour as did one former green independent. That left the choice of Government to three former National party independents – all were from rural areas (one represented a seat the size of Spain), all were mavericks (one had pelted the Beatles with eggs), all had personal gripes with the coalition but all were also centre-right or right. In the end it came down to two of the three deciding they agreed with Labour on the issues of the day. However with a majority of only one it remains to be seen if the government can survive the three years. As one of the independents said “nobody can be said to have a mandate after this”.
No party has overall control in the Senate. The coalition holds 37 seats to Labour’s 32. The balance of power is held by five Green members, one member of the right-wing Family First party and one centre-left independent. Thus Labour can only get legislation through without coalition support if they persuade every other member to support the bill.
What does it look like?: The outback takes up much of the landmass but virtually no-one lives there. Most people live in the plains in the temperate corners. 85% live in urban areas and 75% live by the coast:
What are the issues?: Two major issues dominated the last election campaign: carbon trading and a mining tax. Australia under Labour had plans for a landmark scheme of carbon trading to halt global warming but it has been bogged down in a political quagmire with opponents concerned over the effect it will have on heating bills, energy prices and business – as well as whether it is fair. Similarly mining, particularly open-cast mining, had been seen to be undertaxed – particularly given the damage it does to the environment. However there was concern that Labour’s proposed plan – a 40% (later reduced to 30%) tax on profits – would cost jobs and damage the economy. both debates are ongoing.
A good source of impartial information is: There are a number of good news sources – papers are about as biased as they are in the UK. This is the land that gave birth to both Rupert Murdoch and John Pilger – indeed Murdoch was cub reporter in Melbourne only a few years before Pilger was a cub reporter in Sydney. I think Anthony Green’s election blog is particularly good – he has a very good grasp of facts and statistics.
I wrote a piece on what the Australian elections mean for electoral reform in the UK. It was an attempt to redress what I saw as being an increasingly one-sided debate on a party political blog so it’s a bit ranty and doesn’t have quite the neutral voice I strive for in this blog but since this is my blog I’m plugging it anyway. It’s worth reading for the comments alone – my favourite bit is when with no provocation at all I am described as a walnut-loving Nazi traitor.
A good book is: Heroes is one of my favourite books of all time and addresses Australia quite well in the opening chapters. A Dictionary of Australian Politics gives a great insight into Australian politics in the course of explaining a lot of the phrases the Australian political elite love to use.
When are the next elections?: Elections have to be called by 2013 and you would be brave to bet against them having to happen sooner.