The Australian Electoral Process Explained

Posted on Sun 07/18/2010 by

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With a general election called at the Federal level here in Australia, to be held on August 21, it’s worthwhile looking at the electoral process here in Australia.

In the run up to this vitally important election, I will be contributing regular posts, both about the campaign, and especially the result. To give you a better idea about what is happening, it’s worthwhile to look at the process itself.

It might not mean all that much in the big scheme of things in the U.S. and even though the process might sound completely alien to those of you in the U.S. there are surprising similarities that parallel the political process in the U.S.

As you understand, Australia is a small Country in respect of the population, which is only 22 Million, and even though small by that standard, the Continent of Australia is a very large place indeed, in fact roughly the same size as Continental U.S. This vast area of itself throws up problems that some of you may even find puzzling.

Australia does not directly elect the person who leads the Country, the Prime Minister. That Prime Minister is the Leader of the Party who wins the most number of seats in the House of Representatives.

Elections are not held on a fixed term basis as they are in the U.S. Here in Australia, the election period is three years. That time can be extended by up to 6 months. Having said that, an election can be called for at any time in that three year period. This is a distinct advantage for the party who is actually in Government, because they can call the election at a time that best suits them, when opinion is in their favour. The Prime Minister is the one who actually calls the election, and it is usually something worked out in the Party room by those members who make up the Government side of politics. In the main, there is usually a short period for the campaign, in the main averaging out to around 4 to 7 weeks. In this case the campaign will be of five weeks duration.

THE PROCESS

Firstly, voting is compulsory in Australia for all persons over the age of 18. You may actually find that astounding to actually believe, but in fact, it is a system that works very well. Each person of voting age must register as soon as they turn 18, or if they move to a new area. If you do not vote, there is the facility for you to be fined, and that fine is around $20, admittedly only minor, and usually not often enforced.

There are around 14 million people eligible to vote, and the fact is that almost 95% of that total turn out on Polling day to vote. Because voting is compulsory, all elections are held on a Saturday, not being a work day in the main. Voting is usually carried out at Public schools, and polling opens at 8AM, and closes at 6PM. Of those who do vote there some whose are votes are classified as informal, usually incorrectly filled out, either unintentionally or intentionally. This Informal number is usually in the vicinity of 3 to 4%. This again accentuates the fact that this compulsory voting actually does work, and work quite well.

THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES

This House of representatives is where the main politics is carried out, as the Senate is the House of Review, or the State’s House. The Prime Minister is an elected member in this House. The Party who wins the most number of seats in this House is the Party who forms Government, and the Leader of that Party then becomes the Prime Minister.

There are 150 electorates for Representatives. These electorates are named in differing ways, unlike in the US, where they are all just Districts with a number. In Australia, they can be named for a major place name in that area, a river name, an area name, or even named after public figures from any field of life from history. The electorate I currently reside in is called Fadden, named after a politician who in fact was the Australian Prime Minister for a short time in the late 30′s.

The number of people enrolled in each of those electorates is around 90,000 to 95,000, and this throws up the first of those problems you may find difficult to believe. Because this number is so close to ensure relatively fair elections, the physical size in area of the electorates vary. Because some States are more populated than others, then some States have considerably more electorates than the smaller States. In densely populated areas those electorates are quite small, and in the major cities there are many electorates. However, as you move out into regional and rural areas, the size in area of some electorates can be quite huge. For an example, there is one electorate in Western Australia which covers an area of almost 900,000 square miles, which is one quarter the size of the whole of Continental U.S. and in that electorate there are only 80,000 enrolled voters, so you can see there are vast areas that are quite sparsely populated.

In the main, the major parties make up the total number of Representatives with a small number of Independents.

The voting slip for this House is the smaller of the two, with just the names of those running. In some electorates, there may be as few as three names, while in some electorates that number may be as high as ten or even more. There is no ‘First Past The Post’ system here. To win the seat, a member needs to have 50% plus 1 vote minimum. To work out who wins, we have what is called Preferential voting. Poll counting is done manually. Whoever gets the least number of votes is the first eliminated. His vote is then distributed to the person that the voter placed the number 2 against. Then the next lowest gets eliminated and so on until there are are only 2 left, and the person with the greatest number of votes at that stage has won the seat. Most electorates are fairly cut and dried, and seldom is it that an electorate takes more than a couple of days to finalise, most of those being on the night of the election itself. Some doubtful seats have taken up to a week to finalise after the pre Poll and Postal votes all come in.

THE SENATE

Unlike the House of Representatives, where the electorates are based on population figures, the Senate consists of 12 Senators from each of the 6 States, and 2 each from the two Territories, 76 Senators in all.

At a General election, all the Representatives are up for re-election, but only half the Senators are up for re-election. This is to ensure that the Party who is popular at the time does not steamroller both houses, effectively making the Senate just a rubber stamp. Senate numbers again are made up of numbers from the main Parties, but here, smaller parties have a better chance of gaining a seat, as the results here are percentage based. Hence, The Greens who struggle to win a seat in the House of Representatives, have a number of Senators. There are also some Independents as well, so Senate numbers are spread differently than they are in the House of Representatives, which does in fact mean that the Senate is actually a house of review, rather than a rubber stamp for a Government who controls the House of Representatives, and makes up the Government.

The Senate voting slip can be quite unwieldy, and in times as recent as the 70′s there were up to 100 names on the sheet, and that made for a high informal vote as people regularly made mistakes. Now there is the facility to vote ‘above the line’. Below the line is the list of all candidates, and if you wish to vote in that area, then you have to number every square. Above the line, you only need to place the number 1 for the Party you wish to vote for. The votes are then distributed on a percentage basis. So, in a normal half Senate election, then there are 6 Senators from each of the States, hence you need a quota of around 16%. Once that percentage is reached then the vote carries to the second name on that Party list until exhausted. The results are usually cut and dried with the Senators coming from the major parties, and the only real struggle is for that very last Senate seat, sometimes not known for up to 10 to 14 days after the election, and after all preferences are distributed.

THE PARTIES

THE AUSTRALIAN LABOR PARTY (ALP)

This is the party of the left side of politics, and in fact is almost identical to the Democrat Party in the U.S. in ideology, background, and policy makeup and direction. Within that party, however, there are numerous factions. These factions can be from the right, and the centre right of the ALP, the center, the centre left, the socialist left, and the far left as well as independents and those unaligned, so from that you can see that even within the one party, there are many facets to that party. Each of these factions, in the main, are made up with the support of the numerous Trades Unions within Australia, who back the member at his electorate level. In fact many of those electorates held by the ALP are indeed made up from ex trade union officials and leaders.

The Labor Party currently has Government in Australia, and the Parliamentary party leader is Julia Gillard, who is currently the Prime Minister. In a recent Party room coup, and really, that’s about the best description of it, she deposed the former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.

THE (CONSERVATIVE) COALITION

This is made up of two Parties.

THE LIBERAL PARTY (LP or LNP)

Now, the normal thinking in the U.S. associates the word ‘liberal’ with the left side of politics. Here in Australia, the Liberal Party has always been the name of the main Conservative party. Their principles, ideology, policy intent and direction are virtually the same as for the Republican Party in the U.S. It’s a hard thing to try and wrap your head around, so when I refer to the Liberal party, I always have to explain that for readers in the U.S. Here in my home State of Queensland, the Liberal Party has joined with The National Party, hence the title LNP above. This Liberal Party is the major party of the Coalition and the leader of this Party is currently Tony Abbott, and he is referred to as The Leader Of The Opposition.

THE NATIONAL PARTY

This party is again a Conservative party, and where they differ from the Liberal party is only minor. They used to be called The Country Party, which gives an idea of where they are coming from. They represent the conservative values of the people who live in regional and rural Australia, who in the main are farmers and graziers, both cattle and sheep, and as Australia is such a huge size in area, then that sector is quite a large one. They are understandably not as large as their Liberal Party members from the city areas, but they do make up a considerable number and in fact are the third major party in Australian politics.

There are other smaller parties, but in the main, they struggle to gain traction with such tiny backing. The Greens are slowly becoming the fourth major party in Australian politics.

This election is important on so many fronts, that even though seeming Australian centred, actually have impact in the overall World scene. Australia is a very important piece in the puzzle of South East Asia, and while of only passing interest in the U.S. actually can provide an indicator as to the ‘feeling’ of the people in general.

It will be well worth keeping an eye on this election and the result, and this blog will be one that will be keeping you informed on just how things are going.

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