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. 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.
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 proportional single-member constituencies with a system of alternative vote known as preferential voting.
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 linked to two elections for 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.
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. After the House is dissolved or expires, writs for election must be issued within 10 days 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. 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.
|Informal votes at
federal elections (%)
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.
Voting in Australian federal and state elections is compulsory for all enrolled Australians. 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. The visually impaired were able to access electronic voting machines for the first time in a federal election in 2007. Western Australia introduced a form of postal voting in 1877, followed by an improved method by South Australia in 1890. At the 2007 federal election there were 7,723 polling places open for voting. 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. 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.
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.
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. Federally, independent candidates are required to provide 50 signatures to be eligible to stand. An unsuccessful challenge to the 500 member requirement was heard by the High Court of Australia in 2004. 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.
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. 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. Minor parties have played a greater role in the politics of Australia since proportional representation was progressively introduced.
Elections in Australia are seen by parties as a chance to develop and refine policies. 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.
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.
|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|
Election campaigns typically involve a televised policy launch, 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. Major political parties in Australia use databases created from census data, voting records and their own canvassing to shape their direct mail. Quantitative surveys of samples from the wide population as well as focus groups are used by the parties for market research during election campaigns.
The Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 stipulates that political advertisements display the name and address of the individual authorising them. The Broadcasting Services Act 1922 bans the broadcast of advertisements in the three days prior to an election. 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. Party registration rules have become stricter, especially in New South Wales.
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.
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.
Australia's first partial public election funding was introduced in 1981 by the then Premier of New South Wales Neville Wran. 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. Amendments to legislation were needed due to the changing nature of election campaigns in the late 1960s and 1970s. 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. 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. 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. In South Australia, Tasmania, and the Northern Territory there is no public funding for parties and candidates at elections. 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.
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
|Primary vote||TPP vote||Seats|
|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.
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|Library resources about
Elections in Australia
- Australian Electoral Study
- Adam Carr's Election Archive
- Archived websites from Australian electoral campaigns since 1996
- Guidance on Caretaker Conventions – Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (Australia)