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Federal Elections in Australia - The House of Representatives
by Manuel Álvarez-Rivera

The Australian House of Representatives is currently composed of 150 members chosen in single-member electoral divisions with approximately equal numbers of electors, using the full preferential version of the Alternative Vote (AV) system.

For the 2004, 2007, 2010 and 2013 federal elections, House of Representatives seats were distributed among the states and territories in the following manner:

   State/Territory       Seats   
         2004       2007       2010
   New South Wales       50       49       48   
   Victoria       37       37       37   
   Queensland       28       29       30   
   South Australia       11       11       11   
   Western Australia       15       15       15   
   Tasmania       5       5       5   
   Northern Territory       2       2       2   
   Australian Capital Territory       2       2       2   
   Total       150       150       150   

To cast a formal (that is, valid) ballot under full preferential AV, voters must rank all the candidates in order of preference. A candidate who receives an absolute majority (50% + 1) of the formal first preference votes cast in a division is immediately elected. Otherwise, the candidate polling the smallest number of votes in the division is eliminated, and the votes obtained by the eliminated candidate are transferred to the remaining candidates according to the preferences on the ballot. The process is repeated until one candidate secures an absolute majority of the formal votes. Nonetheless, the distribution of preferences is carried out in all divisions, including those where a candidate has obtained an absolute majority of first preference votes. The result of the full distribution of preferences is used to calculate the two-party preferred vote between the Australian Labor Party (ALP) and the Liberal-National Coalition.

To illustrate the functioning of AV, the results of the November 2001 general election in the state of Victoria division of Melbourne Ports are presented here in detail. Candidates from five parties - the Australian Democrats, the Citizens Electoral Council of Australia, the Australian Labor Party, the Australian Greens and the Liberal Party of Australia - contested this suburban Melbourne seat, with the following results:

   Count       Greg
         Votes       %       Votes       %       Votes       %       Votes       %       Votes       %   
   First       7,328       9.3       305       0.4       31,110       39.4       8,912       11.3       31,384       39.7   
           +100               Excluded       +60               +92               +53           
   Second       7,428       9.4               31,170       39.4       9,004       11.4       31,437       39.8   
           Excluded               +2,022               +4,452               +954           
   Third                       33,192       42.0       13,456       17.0       32,391       41.0   
                           +10,826               Excluded       +2,630           
   Fourth                       44,018       55.7               35,021       44.3   

Since no candidate obtained an absolute majority of first preference votes, the candidate with the least votes was eliminated on the first count, and his votes were transferred to the remaining candidates. The process was repeated on the second and third counts, until one candidate - the ALP's Michael Danby - obtained an absolute majority of votes on the fourth and final count. With an overwhelming majority (80.5%) of minor party preferences, Danby won the seat despite polling slightly fewer first preference votes than Andrew McLorinan, the Liberal candidate.

Because AV allows voters to give their first preference to a minor party with little or no possibility of victory, and then use their second (and lower) preferences to support one major party candidate or the other, minor parties can significantly influence the outcome of an election when neither of the two major political groups has an absolute majority, as shown by the results of the 2001 federal election in Melbourne Ports.

Nonetheless, AV is a majoritarian electoral system that - like the first-past-the-post (FPTP) system - favors larger parties at the expense of smaller groups. It is difficult for minor parties to secure representation in the House under AV,unless their support is regionally concentrated; even then, the AV absolute majority requirement presents an additional hurdle that smaller parties have to overcome in order to win House seats. In fact, minor party victories in House elections have been few and far between: save for the occasional success of one or more independent candidates, nearly all seats in the House of Representatives are won by either the ALP or the Coalition.

Under AV, Australia has developed a party system dominated by two major groups, with a number of smaller parties with significant electoral support, yet largely excluded from the House of Representatives - but not from the Senate, where the Single Transferable Vote (STV) system provides minor parties far greater opportunities to attain parliamentary representation.

Copyright © 2004-2013 Manuel Álvarez-Rivera. All Rights Reserved.
Last update: August 31, 2013.