Winner takes all, or does it?

Why 51 per cent may not be enough to win

Bob McMullan

PHOTO: AAP

Government and governance | Australia

3 August 2016

Bob McMullan runs the numbers behind the results from the most recent Australian election and uncovers cause for concern over the integrity of the democratic system.

One of the principles which underpins faith in Australia’s democratic system may come under scrutiny if the figures and analysis reflected in the results of the 2016 federal election come to pass at the next one.

The principle is clear. The party which wins the most votes should be able to win the most seats and form the government.

Our independent Electoral Commission and redistribution processes are designed to deliver that outcome.

It can’t be precise but it should generally be the case and no variation from that principle should be too great or go unreviewed.

I remember only too vividly the 1998 election in which the Australian Labor Party (ALP) received 50.98 per cent of the vote but failed to win the majority of seats.

This time it worked satisfactorily.

According to the latest AEC figures the ALP received 49.76 per cent of the two party preferred vote in this most recent election. This would suggest that they should have won more than 69 seats out of 150, but at least those figures show that the party with the most support won the election.

However, the prospects for the next election are more worrying.

The seat by seat numbers suggest the swing seat, the seat that would on a uniform swing deliver 76 seats to Labor, is Banks. This would require a 1.36 per cent swing for the seat to change hands.

Simple arithmetic shows that on this basis the ALP would need 51.12 per cent of the vote to win!

Another way of expressing this is that the Coalition could win the next election with only 48.9 per cent of the vote.

I am aware that the swing is never uniform. But historically the variations tend to cancel each other out and the swing pendulum is quite an effective predictor of overall election outcomes.

More on this: Making change mean something | John Hewson

On this occasion, for example, the ALP won a 3.3 per cent swing, which according to the pendulum, would have won them 14 seats. In fact, on the assumption that the victory in Herbert is confirmed, they gained 12.

The seats gained were not those in order on the pendulum, they never are, but as an indicator of the likely consequences of a swing of a particular size it has once again proved quite accurate.

One possible explanation is that the Labor Party uses up votes building massive majorities in safe seats. However, this does not appear to be the case in this election.

In fact, five of the 10 safest seats are Coalition held seats. Furthermore nine of the 20 safest seats and 16 of the 30 safest are Coalition held.

One small factor is the anomalous situation of the ACT. In the Territory there are two seats that have the most enrolled voters by a very large margin and they are both safe Labor seats.

However, following this election the Coalition holds no seats in Tasmania or the Northern Territory, the two jurisdictions with the smallest enrolments on average.

So the explanation is not clear. It could be just a one-off coincidence of the electoral boundaries. But it is definitely something the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters should examine in its review of the 2016 election.

Our democracy is incredibly precious and it would be very sad if people were to lose faith in its fairness.

We must not allow this to happen.

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Citation

McMullan, Robert. 2016. "Winner Takes All, Or Does It? - Policy Forum". Policy Forum. http://www.policyforum.net/winner-takes-all-or-does-it/.

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