The Cambridge Handbook of the Social Sciences in Australia

By Ian McAllister; Steve Dowrick et al. | Go to book overview
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Chapter 16
Political Parties and
Electoral Behaviour
Simon Jackman

Australian electoral politics is dominated by the country's two largest parties, the Australian Labor Party (ALP) and the Liberal Party, the latter aided by a coalition with the National Party (formerly the Country Party). Since 1910, when anti-Labor forces united to form the first Liberal Party, Australian electoral politics has centred on the contest between the ALP and a series of anti-Labor parties (the first Liberal Party, the Nationalist Party, the United Australia Party and, from 1944, the Liberal Party).

The durability of the Australian party system can largely be traced to institutional features of Australian politics. The use of single-member districts for elections to the House of Representatives decided by absolute majorities, before or after preferences greatly limits minor-party representation. On the other hand, the Senate supplies minor parties and independents with more fruitful avenues to representation, via its Hare–Clark or 'quota-preferential' electoral system, with the states and territories serving as multimember districts (Papadakis and Bean 1995; see also chapter 17, this volume). Indeed, minor parties such as the Democratic Labor Party (DLP), the Australian Democrats and the Australian Greens (as well as independents) have won sufficient Senate seats to have usually held the balance of power.

A second institutional feature is compulsory and preferential voting, requiring that each citizen turn out and record a preference for the ALP or the Liberal–National Coalition (see Rydon 1968). The combination of compulsory and preferential voting may well bolster party loyalty among the mass public, further enhancing the stability of the party system (Aitkin 1982). However, it is just as likely that the minor parties are beneficiaries of compulsory and preferential voting, because compulsory voting ensures that citizens who are dissatisfied with the major parties must nonetheless turn out, guaranteeing a supply of voters for parties and candidates presenting themselves as alternatives to the major parties. In turn, the minor parties can trade their preferences in return for policy concessions from the major parties.

Despite these avenues for minor parties, major-party dominance remains the most compelling feature of Australian electoral politics. Since 1946, there have been just thirteen independent members of the House of Representatives, most since 1990 and most have been former members of major parties. Until the Greens' victory in the Cunningham by-election of October 2002, no minor party had won a House of Representatives

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