The sharp fall in the Coalition’s primary vote in the Longman by-election and in the polls after Malcolm Turnbull lost the Liberal leadership may well be the harbinger of politics in which majority government becomes the exception rather than the rule.
This is because we are reaching a tipping point where the primary vote splits more evenly into the three boxes: Labor, the Coalition and Minors.
So in an increasing number of seats it will be possible for the minor parties to harvest preferences so that the last minor party or independent left standing would be ahead of the worse major party candidate and pick up their preferences to beat the other major party candidate.
Take an example. Say the Labor candidate gets 36 per cent in a seat, the four or five minor party and independent candidates get a total of 34 per cent and the Coalition candidate 30. If the five minor candidates held tight preferences for each other the one left after the other four were eliminated would have up to 34 per cent and be ahead of the Coalition. That candidate would pick up nearly all the Coalition’s preferences and win the seat.
This sort of thing has happened occasionally in the past, notably when the present independents and minor party candidates were first elected.
But if the slide in major party vote continues it will be much more commonplace. The experience of preference harvesting in the Senate before the system was changed suggests that minor party and independent candidates would be open to tight preference deals even if it meant doing deals with candidates with sharply different political philosophies.
Moreover, once an independent or minor party candidate wins a House of Representatives seat, they usually hold it at subsequent elections. Good examples are the Greens' Adam Bandt, Independents Cathy McGowan and Andrew Wilkie, the Centre Alliance’s Rebekha Sharkie and Katter’s Australian Party’s Bob Katter.
So the trend is for an increasing number of minors and a greater likelihood of minority government.
Still the present group of minors have only a tiny three per cent of the seats for quite a large 26 per cent of the total vote for minors and independents. But as the non-major vote increases, expect a tipping point to be reached where the minors and independents get a larger number of seats for their vote, making majority government much more difficult – a thing of the past.
The two-party preferred vote statistic masks these possibilities.
Everyone looks at the two-party preferred vote and assumes that Labor will be the main beneficiary of the Coalition’s chaos. But when you look at the primary vote, it seems that the minor parties and independents are equally winners.
In the Longman by-election the Coalition’s vote dropped 9.5 per cent but Labor’s primary vote went up just 4.5 per cent.
However, Labor did pick up all of the further decline in the Liberal vote since Malcolm Turnbull was deposed to put Labor’s primary vote over 40 for the first time in months.
Even so, if the minors and independents can hold their noses and stay together with preference deals, significant changes on the political landscape are likely.
Preferential voting is fairer, but it has certainly helped minor parties and independents and in 2016 helped Labor. Without it, the Coalition would have had a comfortable majority of 16 at the 2016 election, even though it had only a tiny 0.7 per cent more of the two-party preferred vote than Labor.
In the past, especially between 1955 and 1972, preferential voting helped the Liberals.
But it has always helped the minors. This is because without preferential voting, voters see a vote for a minor party as a wasted vote.
In the UK, for example, the centrist Liberal Democrats are routinely shunned by voters who do not especially like Labour but want to keep the Conservatives out.
In Australia you can vote first for a minor party and still get to choose between the Coalition and Labor.
Further, minor party candidates and independents would almost invariably be wiped out by the major parties if the candidate with the most votes won the seat without having to get 50 per cent after preferences.
But that does not mean we should end preferential voting or compulsory voting. In any event, neither of those options would be acceptable to the minor party and independent MPs who will hold the balance of power more frequently in the future. And they would never get through the Senate.
At present the only thing saving the two major parties from significant losses to minor parties and independents is that Green preferences go overwhelmingly to Labor, and One Nation and other rag-tag populist preferences go significantly to the Coalition.
Overall, the latest Newspoll has Labor on 41, the Coalition on 33 and minors and independents on 26.
The other disruptive but less likely possibility is that the Coalition splits into conservatives and liberals.
In any event, if the vote for the major parties continues to bleed and minority governments become more commonplace, we can only hope the major parties start broadening their appeal to the electorate as a whole rather than their corporate and union backers, but don’t hold your breath.
The other sleeper here is that the role of the unelected Governor-General will become more significant if neither major party gets a majority. The Governor-General would have some discretion about who to commission to form a government.
In all, the niggling, disruptive right-wing of the Liberal Party which cannot grow out of student politics and unite to govern the country well, and Labor’s failure to inspire voters rather than pick up the disaffected, will mean that we will be bestowed with the curse of interesting times in the next eight or nine months.