Which Parties Matter in Australian House Elections


My ultimate purpose in undertaking this exercise is to develop a model to forecast the upcoming election results on a district-by-district basis. There is a plethora of parties littering the political landscape making it necessary to cull out those parties that don’t matter from those that do.

We saw in the previous section that under the preferential voting system candidates excluded from further consideration in a given round distribute their votes to the remaining candidates. These votes in effect flow from the excluded candidate to the remaining candidates and those votes become part of the vote total of these remaining candidates in the same way that water from a small stream that flows into a larger stream becomes part of the larger stream. Thus we can use the analogy of a river system to think about the relative position of each Australian political party in the political system. I will use the terms upstream, midstream and downstream to describe these positions. Rivers that are downstream are naturally the larger rivers in the system and I will define the downstream political parties as those parties routinely electing candidates to the Australian House of Representatives. As we will see in more detail below, there are two downstream party groupings namely the Labor Party and the Liberal Party groupings. These parties generally finish first or second in most districts where they field candidates and therefore they infrequently experience preference distributions. Midstream rivers are in nature those bodies of water flowing into major downstream rivers suggesting that a midstream political party is one whose preference distributions flow primarily to the downstream parties. To this concept I will add one more requirement for a political party to truly be midstream. Not only should the bulk of a midstream party’s preference distribution flow to the downstream parties but also that this downstream flow must be biased towards one of the major political groups. This means that midstream parties have some measure of power in the election system and the extent of this power can be measured by the ability of these parties to hold the balance of power in election districts. This brings us to the upstream political parties. Like their counterparts in nature, upstream political parties tend to be small and their preference flows are often to other small parties. Even when their preference flows head in a downstream direction, much of this flow is to midstream parties and even in those instances where preference flows are made to downstream parties, these flows are fairly evenly distributed to the two major party groupings. In the end therefore, upstream parties wield little power in the political system and they can safely be ignored when modeling the House of Representatives election process.

Downstream Parties

The following is an inclusive list of Australian downstream political parties:

Labor Party Grouping

  • Labor Party
  • Country Labor (New South Wales)

Liberal Party Grouping

  • Liberal Party
  • Country Liberal Party (Northern Territories)
  • National Party
  • Liberal National Party of Queensland

The Country Labor Party is an extension of the Labor party in rural areas of New South Wales State while the Country Liberal Party is an extension of the Liberal Party in the Northern Territories. The National Party, another exclusively rural party, is independent of the Liberals but they routinely work with the Liberals. The Nationals are an exclusively rural party. The Liberal Nationals are a coalition of the Liberals and Nationals in the state of Queensland. With the exception of the Country Liberal Party, all of the above parties have at least one seat in the current House of Representatives. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_political_parties_in_Australia).

As noted earlier, downstream parties finish first or second in the vast majority of districts in which they run candidates, therefore they seldom experience preference distributions. In those cases where a downstream party makes a preference distribution, such a distribution is almost invariably tactical and designed to minimize the downstream party not making it to the final round in a district. We saw earlier the 2010 example of the Tasmanian district of Denison where Liberal party voters overwhelmingly directed their preference flow to the independent candidate successfully denying a seat to the Labor party candidate. The figure below shows tactical voting by Liberal voters when the top two positions are held by Green and Labor candidates and when the top two positions are held by National and Labor/Country Labor candidates (Figures 1 and 2 respectively). Facing a choice between Labor and the Greens, Liberals choose the Greens by a 3 to 1 margin and when forced to choose between Labor and their Nationals coalition partner, they choose the latter by a 6 to 1 margin (note that all figures are produced from 2010 election preference distributions):

Figure 1

Figure 2

Since the Labor party is roughly comparable with the US Democratic party and since the Liberals/Nationals are roughly comparable with the US Republican party, I have used the blue and red scheme familiar to most Americans to represent their Australian political soul-mate counterparts.

The following two figures demonstrate that Labor voters play the same game with their preferences when their own nominee ends up in a losing position heading into the final round of voting. Figure 3 shows the preference distribution when the Labor party candidate finishes in third place and the first and second place candidates are Liberals and independents respectively. Figure 4 is the ultimate nightmare situation for a Labor voter forced to choose between what for them must have been Lucifer and Satan. However, the decisive nature of Labor voter’s choice in favor of the Nationals suggests a clear sense of the lesser of two evils in the minds of these voters (I have made the greater evil for Labor the darker red in the figure below). This set of four figures taken as a whole demonstrates the high level of sophistication and understanding the average Australian voter has concerning the preferential voting system.

Figure 3

Figure 4

Upstream Parties

I noted earlier that upstream political parties are relatively unimportant part of the political landscape since their preference distributions tend to go either to other upstream parties (this is especially the case for most independent candidates) or to midstream parties. I also noted that when distributions are made from upstream to downstream parties they tend to be fairly evenly distributed between the two downstream party groups. While these parties tend to be small, size is not the defining criterion for upstream parties. The following figures will provide a flavor of what makes an upstream party upstream. Figures 5 and 6 show the preference distributions of representative upstream parties[1] [2]. Both parties send about 70% of their vote distributions to midstream or upstream parties; only 28% of Socialist Equity Party and 31% of Socialist Alliance Party votes are distributed to downstream parties.

Figure 5

Figure 6

The voters for these parties are, in the whole, members of fringe groups with relatively little interest in mainstream politics and/or in influencing the outcome of elections.

Midstream Parties

Midstream parties are those parties that seldom win elections but which can potentially influence election outcomes. Midstream parties do this primarily by tilting their votes towards either of the two downstream group parties and secondarily by the total size of their vote. As we will see, several of these parties draw relatively few votes but they are nonetheless midstream parties because they attract voters who on the whole have a clear preference for one of the two downstream groups. Based on the 2010 election results, four parties meet these midstream party criteria with three of these parties tilting their preference distributions towards the Liberal party group and a single party, the Greens, tilting towards the Labor group:

Labor Group

  • Green Party

Liberal Group

  • First Family Party
  • Christian Democratic Party
  • Liberal Democratic Party

The Greens

The Greens are Australia’s most important midstream party. The Green party ran candidates in all 150 House districts in 2010 and finished in third position in 132 of those 150 House districts. The Greens distributed nearly 1.5 million votes (nearly 12% of all votes cast) to the final two candidates in these 132 seats with the Labor candidate being favored in the overall distribution by a more than 3 to 1 margin:

Figure 7Labor received a majority of the preference distribution from the Greens in every single one of these 132 seats. I will provide details of the impact this Green to Labor distribution had on the outcome of individual districts in my next post.

Family First

Family First is the most important right-of-center midstream party in Australia based on the 2010 election results. Family First would fit comfortably inside the US Tea Party movement as its platform includes tax reduction, ending affirmative action for native Australians, repealing the carbon tax and a prohibition on gay marriage (http://www.familyfirst.org.au/). The party ran candidates in 108 of 150 House districts nationwide and in 68 of those districts the Family First candidate finished in fourth position distributing nearly 244,000 votes to Labor, Green and Liberal group party candidates. Nearly half of this distribution went to Liberal group party candidates:

Figure 8

Given the party’s unabashedly conservative platform, it is curious that Family First’s vote distribution to Labor and the Greens actually exceeds the preferential flow to the Liberal Group. It is especially interesting that the preference distribution to the left wing Greens exceeds that of Labor. It appears that there is a midstream/upstream split among Family First voters with an upstream protest segment preferring the Green Party over that of the Liberal group and a midstream segment strongly favoring the Liberal group. Unfortunately for the Family First Party this split considerably diminishes the potential impact the party has on House district elections.

The Family First impact is diminished further when the party’s candidate finishes in the 5th position. There remains a preference distribution bias towards the Liberal Party group but it is significantly muted compared with the distribution when the party’s candidate finishes in the 4th position.

Figure 9Christian Democratic Party

The Christian Democrats represent moderately progressive economic views, moderately conservative views on the environment and on the carbon tax and very conservative social views. Regarding the latter, the party is opposed to abortion and believes that retail activities should be forbidden on Sunday’s (http://www.cdp.org.au/). The party ran candidates in 42 of 150 House districts nationwide and in 18 of those districts the CDP candidate finished in 4th position distributing nearly 54,000 votes to Labor, Green and Liberal group party candidates. In addition, the party finished in the 5th position in another 18 districts.

A majority of the Christian Democrats preference distribution votes, from both the 4th and 5th positions, went to Liberal group parties with a 60% distribution to the Liberals from the 4th position and a 55% distribution from the 5th position. This minor loss in Liberal distribution in the 5th position occurred in spite of the remaining “Other” parties grabbing 23% of the CDP distribution in the 5th position distribution. In contrast, Labor and the Greens saw their distribution shares plummet in the Christian Democrat’s 5th position. This suggests that the CDP would be far more influential on the national stage than are the Family First party was the former able to attract as many first preference voters as do Family First.

Figure 10

Figure 11

Liberal Democratic Party

The Liberal Democratic Party is a secular, free-market, libertarian political party (http://ldp.org.au/). The LDP is also surprisingly small in numbers given the opportunities for minor parties under the Australian political system and the rugged individualism that seems to be an important part of Australian society. The party ran candidates in only 22 House districts in the 2010 election and these candidates ran in 5th position or better in only 8 districts.

Figure 12

Figure 13

In spite of its small size, the LDP’s 4th position preference distribution is virtually the same as the Christian Democrats while its preference distribution when its candidates finish in 5th position or higher is definitely midstream. The LDP is definitely a midstream political party.

[1] Other includes all parties other than Labor, Greens and the Liberal Group.

[2] The preference distribution values for Figures 5 and 6 are for final positions of fifth place and higher.