Sydney Morning Herald
Summary: In the New South
Wales region of Australia, which includes Sydney, small parties are
gaining ground on the biggest three parties (Labor, Liberal, and
National.) The Parliament of New South Wales is divided into two
houses, the Legislative Assembly, or lower house, and the
legislative council, or upper house. Elections to the lower house
are divided into 93 single member districts, using instant runoff
voting, and the upper house is elected by choice voting in one
Sydney Morning Herald, Australia
Major changes in the house as the mice all roar
March 1, 2003
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
"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
"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
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.
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
In NSW, the optional nature of the preferential
voting system throws up further gambits to be exploited.
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.
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.