Federal Election Cheat Sheet

Everything you need to know about the next Parliament of Australia

By Erin Mathews. Election Watch journalist

What does it take to win government?

Forming government depends on winning (or negotiating) a majority of the 150 seats in the House of Representatives. Each party is aiming to win at least 76 seats so that it can form government in its own right.

If neither major party gets 76 seats there would be a hung parliament. The party that can negotiate enough support from the crossbench to give it a minimum of 76 votes in the House can form a minority government. This is rare - the 2010 hung parliament under Julia Gillard was the first since the 1940s.  

Electoral maths: the basics

The Coalition goes into this election defending 90 seats; Labor 55. (The other five are held by the Greens (1), Katter's Australian Party (1), Palmer United Party (1), Independents (2). 

Recent electoral boundary changes have shifted the numbers slightly by changing the voting makeup of three seats. This effectively gives the Coalition 89 and Labor gets a boost to 57.

Assuming Labor wins all 57, it needs to pick up 19 extra seats to win government in its own right.

For the Coalition, it can afford to lose 14 seats from its current 90 seats and still retain power.

How likely is a hung parliament?

“I think it’s less likely than it appeared at the beginning of the campaign,” says Jim Middleton, Vice-Chancellor's Fellow at the University of Melbourne and respected political journalist.

“It doesn’t seem that there’s been sufficient momentum towards Labor, particularly in Queensland, to have produced a situation where neither of the major parties win a majority. But, it’s not out of the question because it appears that support for the minor parties is at an extraordinarily high level.”

What about minor parties?

If you’ve even half listened, watched or read election coverage this year you’d have heard about the minor party trend – some polls predict one in four people will vote for a party other than the two majors. 

The Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has devoted a good chunk of his campaign to urging people against electing minor party candidates, saying at his campaign launch, "if you only really know the leader of a minor party, but don't know their candidates, if you don't really know their policies, then don't vote for them."  

Middleton thinks the electorate is on another wavelength. “There is a question as to whether this is, to use a cliché, the new normal. Support for minors has been growing and was at an all-time high courtesy of the Palmer United Party at the last election. With the arrival of the Nick Xenophon Team it will probably be even higher this time. If that is the case, the likelihood of a hung parliament intensifies.  

“It also raises very serious questions about public confidence in the workings of Australian democracy because it shows voter dissatisfaction with a system that favours the major parties, even when the primary votes of those majors has been falling for years.”  

What could the crossbench in the House of Representatives look like?

Jim Middleton says the Xenophon effect has the potential to change the layout of the House. “In South Australia, support for NXT has caused Labor’s vote to collapse. There are a number of seats there that could fall to Xenophon, both from the Coalition but also one or two from Labor. The level of support for Xenophon could also produce an unintended consequence, which is Labor losing the seat of Adelaide, just possibly, to the Liberals.

“At the same time, there is the influence of The Greens in Victoria - not just the potential for them to win Batman but also possibly Melbourne Ports, which would make Labor’s task even harder. On the other side of the coin there’s the question of Higgins, where the Liberals are clearly worried about Kelly O’Dwyer losing to The Greens.”  

What on earth could the Senate look like?  

“The one thing that is for sure is that whoever forms government is not going to have a majority in the Senate,” says Middleton. “A government majority in both houses has only happened once in recent years, after the 2004 election under John Howard.” Howard used his majority to introduce Work Choices, which led to his defeat in 2007.  

Senate results aren’t known on election night, those more complex ballots are counted in the days, and sometimes weeks, after polling day.  

Middleton says we will see a diverse Senate with a larger crossbench than currently. “There’ll be as many, or nearly as many, Greens as there are currently. There could be up to four NXT Senators, but more likely two or three.  

“Other independents and minor parties that have a real shot are Jacqui Lambie in Tasmania and Derryn Hinch in Victoria. Hinch has the number one position on the ticket and has name recognition - give him 1% of the vote for both of those and he’s well on the way to a quota.

“Pauline Hanson has a good chance in Queensland for similar reasons – she has name recognition and is aided by the collapse of the Palmer United Party. Queensland could have also seen Glenn Lazarus returned, but with Pauline Hanson in the field, probably not.

“David Leyonhjelm from the Liberal Democrats in NSW also has a possibility of getting there.”

What effect will the double dissolution have?  

Even though the new voting system for the Senate has made the barriers to entry for small parties higher, the fact that we’re having a double dissolution election helps them,” says Middleton.

In a normal federal election, only 40 of the 76 Senate seats are up for grabs. It’s commonly referred to as a half-Senate election. Senators are elected for six year terms, which usually means they only face re-election every second general election.

In a double dissolution, the entire Senate is declared vacant. Because there are more spots to fill, a candidate can get elected with a smaller-than-usual portion of the vote. That portion is called a quota – usually the quota for a Senate seat is 1/7 of the total formal vote but in a double dissolution this comes down to 1/13. That’s why minor and micro parties and independents are expected to do well.

If you want more information about what a double dissolution means, check out this handy fact sheet from the boffins at the Parliamentary Library.

Who’s going to win?

Let’s let Jim Middleton take this one: “Because of the high minor party vote, it’s a very hard election to make an accurate projection about. It would seem at this stage the most likely result is a win to the Coalition, with a reduced majority.  I’d put a hung parliament as second most likely outcome.”

Image courtesy Alex Proimos/Flickr


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