Major changes in the house as the mice all roar
Published March 1st 2003 in Sydney Morning Herald, Australia

With the big three's popularity at record lows, the minor parties have exploited electoral changes to snap at their heels, writes Paola Totaro.

Bob Carr and his Labor Government begin their tilt at winning a historic third four-year term from a significant advantage - a 17-seat majority. At present, the lower house has 93 seats: 55 are held by the Labor Party, 20 by the Liberals, 13 by the Nationals and five by independent MPs.

Despite this seemingly unassailable head start, historically the vote for Labor - indeed all major parties - has been in long-term decline in NSW.

In 1950, for example, the ALP gained 46.7 per cent of the vote, climbing to a high of 57.8 in 1978 and then falling inexorably to a low of 38.5 in 1988, 39.1 per cent in 1991, 41.3 per cent in 1995 and just a little higher to 42.2 per cent last time around, in 1999.

The Liberals have experienced an even more dramatic slide, staying in the mid to high 30s, reaching a peak of 38.5 per cent in the 1968 poll and dropping to a historic low of 24.8 per cent in 1999. The Nationals, as junior partners in the Coalition, have never gained more than 13.7 per cent of the primary vote (in 1988), hovering around the nines and tens, and recording just 8.9 per cent last time round in 1999.

Clearly the old generational credo which wedded children to their parents' votes no longer exists, providing fertile ground for the emergence of more and more single-issue candidates, unaligned independents and minor parties like One Nation, the Democrats and the increasingly significant Greens movement.

Today, say a number of respected NSW political strategists, the National Party's natural vote in NSW has probably declined to somewhere around 8 per cent of primaries - estimated to pretty much equal what the Greens could manage in some seats on March 22.

According to the ABC's election analyst, Antony Green, the really big explosion in candidate numbers began in 1991 in NSW when party names were allowed to appear on the ballot paper for the first time.

The Democrats, for example, increased their candidates from 35 to 85. Before party names could be printed, it was pointless for parties like the Democrats and Greens to run in electorates where they could not staff polling booths with how-to-vote cards.

"Since 1991, it has meant they could attract votes simply with the presence of their names," says Green. "And if they get 4 per cent of the vote, they get access to cost recovery through public funding."

In 1999, he says, the massive increase in candidates was partly the result of the upper house ballot, as parties like Unity, One Nation, the Greens, Australian Democrats and Christian Democrats also contested lower house seats to maximise the number of votes in the upper house.

However, he also points out that the explosion in candidates during the past decade has been aided and abetted by a peculiarly NSW electoral rule. "A unique feature of NSW how-to-vote cards was introduced by the Unsworth government as it tried desperately to hold onto office in 1988," he says.

"It meant that an independent in the lower house cannot hand out or have a how-to-vote card recommending a vote for the upper house. Nor can a party contesting a lower house seat recommend a vote for a different party in the upper house.

"That is why minor parties have begun to contest more and more lower house seats ... because an independent cannot suggest preferences for their upper house ticket."

The minor parties phenomenon has sparked big problems for all three major parties, and usually by independent or small party candidates who exhibit similar political colours to the sitting MP but who campaign on a more extreme agenda.

For instance, One Nation created the greatest heartache for conservative candidates across the country, while, as Premier Steve Bracks saw in the recent Victorian election, it was the Greens which fractured Labor's vote.

In NSW, the optional nature of the preferential voting system throws up further gambits to be exploited.

For example, the Greens may well run an active campaign asking their voters in marginal seats not to allocate their preferences. Because at least 70 per cent of Green preferences usually flow to the Labor Party, in a close contest this could dramatically alter the result.

The seat of Tweed, which is held by Labor by 2.6 per cent, or Kiera, held by 7.9 per cent, are good examples.

Ultimately, the preferential system - as opposed to first-past-the-post systems - is also a reason why we have not seen the creation of governments based on coalitions of similarly inclined smaller parties, as has happened in some European countries.