Elections in Australia

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Elections in Australia take place periodically to elect the legislature of the Commonwealth of Australia, as well as for each Australian state and territory. The elections for the Australian Parliament are held under the federal electoral system, which is uniform throughout the country, and there are different systems for each Australian state and territory.

Part IV of Chapter 1 of the Australian Constitution briefly deals with eligibility for voting and election to the federal Australian Parliament. It does not prescribe how elections should be conducted.[1] Election campaigns and associated political advertisements have some regulation. Public election funding and party registration was introduced in 1983.

Voting is almost entirely conducted by paper ballot and is compulsory for adults. The informal vote is not usually significant, but a donkey vote is more common. They may, however, have a deciding impact in marginal seats.

Federal Parliament[edit]

The Parliament of Australia consists of two chambers, the House of Representatives and the Senate. The House of Representatives has 150 members, elected for a maximum term of three years in single-member constituencies (each approximately equal in population). Elections are conducted by a system of preferential voting (specifically, the alternative vote).[2]

The Senate has 76 senators, elected through a preferential system of proportional representation in 12-seat state constituencies and two-seat territorial constituencies with a system of single transferable vote. Electors in the two territories elect senators for non-fixed terms that are defined by the term of the House of Representatives. State senators serve fixed six-year terms, except in the case of a double dissolution, with half of the seats in each State expiring every three years.

In the event of a double dissolution, the terms of all the members of the Senate and the House of Representatives seats end immediately.

Election timing[edit]

Although elections for the House of Representatives have usually corresponded to half-elections of the Senate, the rules which determine when the elections occur differ. Under the Constitution, the House of Representatives lasts no more than three years after it first meets, but may be dissolved earlier.[2][3] After the House is dissolved or expires, writs for election must be issued within 10 days[4] and the next House must meet within 140 days of the writs being issued. The election must be held on a Saturday between 33 and 58 days after the writs have been issued.

The terms of senators representing the states are of fixed duration (unless Parliament is dissolved in a double dissolution), and elections must occur within a year before the term expires. The terms of senators representing the territories are not fixed, and are tied to the dates of elections for the House of Representatives. Where a House is dissolved early, House and Senate elections may be asynchronous until either the House is again dissolved sufficiently early or a double dissolution occurs.

The Australian Constitution requires that in half-Senate elections the election of State senators must take place within one year before the places become vacant.[5] As the terms of half the senators end on 30 June, the writs for a half-Senate election cannot be issued earlier than the previous 1 July. There is no constitutional requirement for simultaneous elections for the Senate and the House of Representatives, and elections for half the Senate only have taken place in the past. There is a government and electorate preference for Senate elections to take place simultaneously with those of the House of Representatives. Whether held simultaneously with an election for the Senate or separately, the next election for the House of Representatives must be held on or before 14 January 2017.

By Westminster convention, the decision as to the type of election and date on which an election is to take place is that of the Prime Minister, who 'advises' the Governor-General to set the process in motion by dissolving the House of Representatives (if it has not expired) and then issuing writs for election.


The Australian Electoral Commission holding a blind ballot to determine the order of candidates on the ballot paper
Informal votes at
federal elections (%)
Year Senate House
1990 3.4 3.2
1993 2.6 3
1996 3.5 3.2
1998 3.24 3.78
2001 3.9 4.8
2004 3.8 5.2
2007 2.55 3.95
2010 3.75 5.55
2013 2.96 5.91
Source: Australian
Electoral Commission[6]
Women voting for the first time in the Queensland state election, 1907

The Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) is the federal government agency responsible for organising, conducting and supervising federal elections and referendums. State and Territory Electoral Commissions perform the equivalent role for State and Territory elections.

Enrolment on the electoral roll is compulsory for all Australian citizens aged 18 years and over, and can be done online or by completing a form and sending it using regular mail. From 1984, eligible people had seven days after an election is called to enrol or update address details. For the 2007 Federal election, the grace period for new enrolments was reduced to 8 pm on the same business day as the issue of the writs, and 8 pm on the third business day to update address details.[7]

Voting in Australian federal and state elections is compulsory for all enrolled Australians.[8] Voting can take place by a person attending in person at any polling place in their State on the election day, or by mailing in a postal vote. Absentee voting is also available. Voting was made easier in remote areas through the use of mobile polling places from the 1980s.[9] The visually impaired were able to access electronic voting machines for the first time in a federal election in 2007.[10] Western Australia introduced a form of postal voting in 1877, followed by an improved method by South Australia in 1890.[9] At the 2007 federal election there were 7,723 polling places open for voting.[11] In practice, voter turnout is compulsory as the paper based voting method and privacy arrangements allows informal and protest votes. At the 2010 federal election more than 1.5 million people did not vote or voted incorrectly.[12] Academic Brian Costar, from Swinburne University claims the rate of donkey votes in Australia is around 2% of all votes, however the figure is hard to determine accurately.[13]

Voting is almost entirely conducted by paper ballot. If more than one election takes place at the same time (for example, for the House of Representatives and the Senate), separate ballot papers are used. These are usually of different colours and are deposited into separate boxes.

How-to-vote cards are usually handed out at polling places by party volunteers. They suggest how a party supporter might vote for other candidates or parties. Electors now routinely receive how-to-vote materials through the mail or by other means.

Sausage sizzles are a regular feature of election days in Australia,[14] with local schools and charity groups taking advantage of the election for fundraising purposes.


A polling place in New South Wales on election day, 2010

Political parties have certain benefits in Australia's electoral system, including public funding. Political parties must register with the AEC. To be eligible for registration a party must have at least one member in the Australian Parliament or 500 members.[15] Federally, independent candidates are required to provide 50 signatures to be eligible to stand.[9] An unsuccessful challenge to the 500 member requirement was heard by the High Court of Australia in 2004.[9] Other Australian jurisdictions require political parties to have a minimum number of members. For example, New South Wales requires at least 750 members while the ACT and the Northern Territory require 100 members.[16]

Australia has a de facto two-party system, with the Australian Labor Party and the Coalition of the Liberal Party of Australia, National Party of Australia, the Liberal National Party and Country Liberal Party dominating Parliamentary elections. It is very difficult for other parties to win representation in the House, let alone form the government, though they may have a strong influence if they hold the "balance of power". However, minor parties and independent candidates have been elected to the Senate by virtue of its more favourable voting system. In recent decades, several parties besides the ALP and the Coalition have secured significant representation in the Senate, notably the D.L.P (1955–1974); the Australian Democrats (1977–2007); and the Australian Greens and its predecessors (1990–present). Independent and other individual senators have also exercised influence, e.g., Brian Harradine (1975–2005), Family First's Steve Fielding (2005–2011), and Nick Xenophon (2008–current); and, variously from 1984, representatives of the Nuclear Disarmament Party and One Nation.

Many voters use elections to reaffirm their party allegiance.[1] Party affiliation has declined in recent decades. Voters who voted for the same party each election made up 72% of the electorate in 1967. This figure had declined to 45% by 2007.[16] Minor parties have played a greater role in the politics of Australia since proportional representation was progressively introduced.[9]

Elections in Australia are seen by parties as a chance to develop and refine policies.[1] Rather than a procedure where the best policies win the day, elections are contests where parties fight for power. Elections are not part of the process in which specific decisions on policy are made. Control of policy and platforms are wholly determined within the party.[1]

Candidate selection is a significant factor in the democratic process in Australia because the majority of voters base their decision at election time on the party rather than the candidate. In Australia the decision of who may be a candidate is decided by the party in any manner they choose. It can range from a postal vote to the whole party membership through to a decision made by a small select committee.[16]

Election campaigns[edit]

Electoral management bodies
Jurisdiction Management body Year established
Commonwealth Australian Electoral Commission 1984
New South Wales New South Wales Electoral Commission 2006
Victoria Victorian Electoral Commission 1995
Queensland Electoral Commission of Queensland 1992
Western Australia Western Australian Electoral Commission 1987
South Australia Electoral Commission of South Australia 2009
Tasmania Tasmanian Electoral Commission 2005
Australian Capital Territory Australian Capital Territory Electoral Commission 1992
Northern Territory Northern Territory Electoral Commission 2004
Electioneering during the 2007 Australian federal election campaign

Election campaigns typically involve a televised policy launch,[1] which, despite the name, have increasingly been held towards the end of the campaign. In the 2013 federal election campaign, for example, the Liberal/National and Labor launches were held only 13 days and 6 days respectively prior to election day. From the 1980s onwards direct mailing was seen as a successful way to market, particularly in marginal seats.[1] Major political parties in Australia use databases created from census data, voting records and their own canvassing to shape their direct mail.[16] Quantitative surveys of samples from the wide population as well as focus groups are used by the parties for market research during election campaigns.[16]

The Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 stipulates that political advertisements display the name and address of the individual authorising them.[16] The Broadcasting Services Act 1922 bans the broadcast of advertisements in the three days prior to an election.[16] A ban on broadcast election advertising was imposed under the Political Broadcasts and Political Disclosures Act 1991 but was overturned in the High Court of Australia in 1992.[1] Party registration rules have become stricter, especially in New South Wales.[9]

Television is the preferred media for campaign news in Australia.[16] At the 2004 federal election more than three-quarters of money spent on advertising was television based.[16]

Incumbent candidates and government have significant benefits compared to non-incumbents. These include substantial allowances and access to staff whose travel is covered by parliamentary allowances.[9]

The Australian Election Study coordinated by the Australian National University was introduced in 1987. The series of surveys are conducted post election and provide a unique take on political behaviour during election campaigns.[16]

Public funding[edit]

Australia's first partial public election funding was introduced in 1981 by the then Premier of New South Wales Neville Wran.[17] The Commonwealth Electoral Legislation Amendment Act 1983 brought forward by the Hawke Government introduced public election funding and the requirement that all minor donations to parties be disclosed.[1] Amendments to legislation were needed due to the changing nature of election campaigns in the late 1960s and 1970s.[18] Opinion polling, widespread advertising and the rise of the hired campaign professionals meant campaigning had become far more expensive than in previous decades.

Public funding is the preferred means to cover costs rather than corporate donations.[18] However, the majority of the major parties funding is still sourced from private donors. If a candidate or party receives at least four per cent of the primary vote at a federal election they are eligible for public funding.[19] The amount of funding paid is calculated by multiplying the number of first preference votes received by the rate of payment which is indexed in line with the Consumer Price Index.[20] In South Australia, Tasmania, and the Northern Territory there is no public funding for parties and candidates at elections.[9] It is possible for a candidate to receive more public funding than what was spent on campaigning as was the case in Pauline Hanson's 2004 attempt to win a seat in the Australian Senate.[21]

Caretaker convention[edit]

A series of conventions has evolved covering the conduct of the business of government by ministers, their departments of state, and the Public Service during the "caretaker period" of the election. This period begins after the announcement of the election date, when the Governor-General of Australia dissolves the federal parliament on advice from the Prime Minister. It ends after the election result is known and clear, when a newly elected government is sworn into office.

Primary, two-party-preferred (TPP) and seat results since 1937[edit]

ALP = Australian Labor Party, L+NP = grouping of Liberal/National/LNP/CLP Coalition Parties (and predecessors), Oth = other parties and independents.

House of Representatives results and polling
Primary vote TPP vote Seats
ALP L+NP Oth. ALP L+NP ALP L+NP Oth. Total
7 Sep 2013 election 33.4% 45.6% 21.1% 46.5% 53.5% 55 90 5 150
3–5 Sep 2013 poll 33% 46% 21% 46% 54%
21 Aug 2010 election 38.0% 43.3% 18.8% 50.1% 49.9% 72 72 6 150
17–19 Aug 2010 poll 36.2% 43.4% 20.4% 50.2% 49.8%
24 Nov 2007 election 43.4% 42.1% 14.5% 52.7% 47.3% 83 65 2 150
20–22 Nov 2007 poll 44% 43% 13% 52% 48%
9 Oct 2004 election 37.6% 46.7% 15.7% 47.3% 52.7% 60 87 3 150
6–7 Oct 2004 poll 39% 45% 16% 50% 50%
10 Nov 2001 election 37.8% 43.0% 19.2% 49.0% 51.0% 65 82 3 150
7–8 Nov 2001 poll 38.5% 46% 15.5% 47% 53%
3 Oct 1998 election 40.1% 39.5% 20.4% 51.0% 49.0% 67 80 1 148
30 Sep–1 Oct 1998 poll 44% 40% 16% 53% 47%
2 Mar 1996 election 38.7% 47.3% 14.0% 46.4% 53.6% 49 94 5 148
28–29 Feb 1996 poll 40.5% 48% 11.5% 46.5% 53.5%
13 Mar 1993 election 44.9% 44.3% 10.7% 51.4% 48.6% 80 65 2 147
11 Mar 1993 poll 44% 45% 11% 49.5% 50.5%
24 Mar 1990 election 39.4% 43.5% 17.1% 49.9% 50.1% 78 69 1 148
11 Jul 1987 election 45.8% 46.1% 8.1% 50.8% 49.2% 86 62 0 148
1 Dec 1984 election 47.6% 45.0% 7.4% 51.8% 48.2% 82 66 0 148
5 Mar 1983 election 49.5% 43.6% 6.9% 53.2% 46.8% 75 50 0 125
18 Oct 1980 election 45.2% 46.3% 8.5% 49.6% 50.4% 51 74 0 125
10 Dec 1977 election 39.7% 48.1% 12.2% 45.4% 54.6% 38 86 0 124
13 Dec 1975 election 42.8% 53.1% 4.1% 44.3% 55.7% 36 91 0 127
18 May 1974 election 49.3% 44.9% 5.8% 51.7% 48.3% 66 61 0 127
2 Dec 1972 election 49.6% 41.5% 8.9% 52.7% 47.3% 67 58 0 125
25 Oct 1969 election 47.0% 43.3% 9.7% 50.2% 49.8% 59 66 0 125
26 Nov 1966 election 40.0% 50.0% 10.0% 43.1% 56.9% 41 82 1 124
30 Nov 1963 election 45.5% 46.0% 8.5% 47.4% 52.6% 50 72 0 122
9 Dec 1961 election 47.9% 42.1% 10.0% 50.5% 49.5% 60 62 0 122
22 Nov 1958 election 42.8% 46.6% 10.6% 45.9% 54.1% 45 77 0 122
10 Dec 1955 election 44.6% 47.6% 7.8% 45.8% 54.2% 47 75 0 122
29 May 1954 election 50.0% 46.8% 3.2% 50.7% 49.3% 57 64 0 121
28 Apr 1951 election 47.6% 50.3% 2.1% 49.3% 50.7% 52 69 0 121
10 Dec 1949 election 46.0% 50.3% 3.7% 49.0% 51.0% 47 74 0 121
28 Sep 1946 election 49.7% 39.3% 11.0% 54.1% 45.9% 43 26 5 74
21 Aug 1943 election 49.9% 23.0% 27.1% 58.2% 41.8% 49 19 6 74
21 Sep 1940 election 40.2% 43.9% 15.9% 50.3% 49.7% 32 36 6 74
23 Oct 1937 election 43.2% 49.3% 7.5% 49.4% 50.6% 29 44 2 74
Polling conducted by Newspoll and published in The Australian. Three percent margin of error.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h Stewart, Randal G.; Ian Ward (1996). Politics One (2 ed.). South Melbourne: Macmillan Education Australia. pp. 232, 240–241, 246–247. ISBN 0732931843. Retrieved 13 June 2013. 
  2. ^ a b "About the House of Representatives". Commonwealth of Australia. Retrieved 19 September 2015. 
  3. ^ Section 28 of the Australian Constitution
  4. ^ Section 32 of the Australian Constitution
  5. ^ Section 13 of the Australian Constitution
  6. ^ "Informality (%) House of Representatives and Senate". Australian Electoral Commission. Retrieved 14 June 2013. 
  7. ^ "Close of Rolls". Australian Electoral Commission (www.aec.gov.au). 2007. Archived from the original on 19 October 2007. Retrieved 22 October 2007. 
  8. ^ AAP (17 July 2010). "Enrolling deadline on Monday night". news.com.au (News Limited). Retrieved 13 June 2013. 
  9. ^ a b c d e f g h Sawer, Marian; Norman Abjorensen; Philip Larkin (2009). Australia: The State of Democracy. Federation Press. pp. 107–114. ISBN 1862877254. Retrieved 13 June 2013. 
  10. ^ Jo Best (17 July 2007). "E-voting comes to Australia". ZDNet (CBS Interactive). Retrieved 14 June 2013. 
  11. ^ AAP (22 November 2007). "Australians reminded to vote tomorrow". PerthNow (News Limited). Retrieved 13 June 2013. 
  12. ^ James Glenday (12 June 2013). "Political uncertainty is changing the preparations for the 2013 federal election". ABC News (Australian Broadcasting Corporation). Retrieved 12 June 2013. 
  13. ^ Christian Kerr (17 August 2010). "Donkey votes to go to Coalition in key marginal Labor seats". The Australian (News Limited). Retrieved 18 May 2015. 
  14. ^ Calligeros, Marissa. "Victorian election 2014: Guide to best election day sausage sizzles, school fairs and fundraisers". The Age. Retrieved 29 November 2014. 
  15. ^ "Party registration overview". Australian Electoral Commission. Retrieved 13 June 2013. 
  16. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Smith, Rodney; Ariadne Vromen; Ian Cook (2012). Contemporary Politics in Australia: Theories, Practices and Issues. Cambridge University Press. pp. 127, 145–147, 174. ISBN 0521137535. Retrieved 13 June 2013. 
  17. ^ "Donations a dilemma of modern democracy". Australian Times (Blue Sky Publications). 2 May 2014. Retrieved 2 May 2014. 
  18. ^ a b Gauja, Anika (2010). Political Parties and Elections: Legislating for Representative Democracy. Ashgate Publishing. pp. 43–44. ISBN 1409497275. Retrieved 13 June 2013. 
  19. ^ Ward, Alan J. (2014). Parliamentary Government in Australia. Anthem Press. p. 122. ISBN 178308121X. Retrieved 5 May 2014. 
  20. ^ "Election funding". Australian Electoral Commission. Retrieved 13 June 2013. 
  21. ^ Hughes, Colin Anfield; Brian J. Costar (2006). Limiting Democracy: The Erosion of Electoral Rights in Australia. UNSW Press. p. 62. ISBN 0868409480. Retrieved 5 May 2014. 

External links[edit]