28 September 2016
The disillusionment of countless Australian voters with their political scene was probably one of the clearest things to come out of the Federal election in July. But all too often, they had nowhere else to go when it came to shunning the established political parties.
It’s true that the Senate, with its system of proportional representation, gives minor parties more of a chance of winning seats, because it depends on the size of their vote in any given state. The House of Representatives, on the other hand, requires a strong base of voter support within a certain region for any minor player wanting to run. Here you’ve got to be well known across lots of rural townships, or many local suburbs, within a concentrated area to have a chance of winning. You need only look at the crossbenchers who sit in the House of Reps now – for example, Andrew Wilkie represents a large group of suburbs within the Tasmanian capital Hobart, while Cathy McGowan represents a large number of rural townships across Victoria’s north-east. This need for concentrated support is why minor parties don’t win seats in the House of Reps as often as they win them in the Senate.
But even though minor parties are more likely to win Senate seats, they still need a large share of the vote across whatever state they’re running in. Over time, minor parties such as the Democrats and the Greens have won Senate seats with solid support bases, but often they’ve needed preferences from others to actually get elected. Not many minor parties or Independents have been elected without preferences.
At the July election, many crossbenchers won seats in the Senate. In fact, there are more of them than before the election. But the overall support for those lucky enough to be elected wasn’t that large.
People point to the success of Pauline Hanson, the controversial political figure now back in Federal Parliament after nearly two decades away from it. She’s won a Senate seat in Queensland, and having formed her own political party, she’s got three colleagues there with her from various states.
But their support wasn’t overly strong. They won two seats in Queensland with around 9.1 per cent of the vote there. They also won less than half of that size of the vote in both New South Wales and Western Australia, and picked up a seat in both state. Despite their success, their vote outside Queensland wasn’t much better than that of some rivals.
Winning less votes than them in NSW was another crossbencher elected, David Leyonhjelm of the Liberal Democrats. Because their vote was quite low, I wouldn’t consider them the sort of people to whom voters would turn if they were unhappy with the established parties.
Nick Xenophon of South Australia was very different. He and his party won more than a fifth of the vote there, which was a big result. It’s clear that he’s the politician for whom South Australian will vote, regardless of whether they lean left or right, when they can’t stand the established parties.
There will be other crossbenchers in the Senate from different states, but their support isn’t as strong as that for Xenophon in South Australia. I believe that the other states could use their own version of Xenophon, capable of winning over disillusioned voters from the left and the right alike, and maybe some of the people elected to the Senate of late mightn’t be there.
I hope that NSW, for a starter, will one day have its own Xenophon. Hopefully it will.