The 2022 Australian Federal Election gives hope to liberal democracies

It’s been said that in a democracy, people elect the government they deserve. For the last 20 years or so, there has been a trend towards major political parties, typically described in polar opposite terms such as conservative and progressive, capitalist or socialist, or along some other similarly binary language, becoming increasingly focussed on more extreme left and right wing views.

There was a time in Australian politics where if you drew a Venn Diagram of the policies of the two major opposing parties, the Liberal-National Party coalition and the Labor Party, the overlap between the two would be substantial. But we’ve seen politics become increasingly divisive with each major party appealing to people through stronger, binary policies.

In Australia, the plight of refugees and asylum seekers is a case in point. While it is well within any sovereign country’s rights to protect its borders from invaders, government policy has made those seeking asylum into effigies for invaders. Successive governments from the left and right, not wanting to appear weak on border protection, have persecuted refugees and asylum seekers.

Apparently, compassion is politically incompatible for parties seeking to win elections. The same goes for being progressive on environmental policy. Or equity for people from minorities. Or so we thought.

The May 2022 Australian Federal Election has the potential to reset these and many other important issues.

A brief primer on the Australian election system

Australia is a representative democracy. We do not directly elect our Prime Minister, unlike the United States which directly elects its President. Here’s how it works (with apologies to any political scientists for the way I simplify things).

Australia has two ‘houses’ in its government: the Upper House or Senate, and the Lower House or House of Representatives. The Prime Minister is the leader of the political party that has the greatest number of representatives in the Lower House.

I’m not going to talk about the Senate in any detail other than to say that any legislation passed by the Lower House must subsequently be reviewed by the Upper House before it can be passed into law. It is rare that a single political party controls both Houses as the electoral process for each is different (this is one of those spots where I have simplified things white a bit).

Australia is divided into 151 seperate electoral areas, each getting a seat in the Lower House. Each covers about 100,000 voters with the boundaries determined by the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) – an independent body. Political parties have no say on where the electoral boundaries are drawn. In fact, to get a job at the AEC you can’t have stood for election at any level managed by the AEC, even if you were an independent (unaffiliated with a political party) candidate.

To highlight this, former Prime Minister John Howard, lost his seat at a federal election because the electoral boundary had moved and included more people who were less likely to vote for him. Even the Prime Minister can’t tell the AEC what to do!

At an election, candidates nominate to represent the constituents of an electorate (there are rules about this such as living in the electorate and so forth). There is a system of Preferential Voting where voters cast their ballot nominating the person they most want to represent their electorate. They then nominate their second preference, then third and so on. Oh – and voting (or showing up at the election and submitting your vote, even an invalid one) is mandatory.

When Australians vote for members of the Lower House, they are voting for a representative that will present their electorate’s views in Parliament, not directly who will serve as Prime Minister.

Once the votes are counted, the party that wins the most seats can form government. In the May 2022 Australian Federal Election, the Labor party won 76 seats, allowing its leader, Anthony Albanese, to form government and become the Prime Minister.

Why this election gives me hope

While the Labor Party won this election, its primary vote actually shrank from the last election which it lost. But the Liberal/National Party Coalition, that led the country before, lost even more votes.

Where did those votes go?

While the Labor Party won 76 seats, the Liberal/National Party Coalition only won 58. The remaining 17 seats went to what is called the cross bench. This is section of the Lower House set aside for independent members (those not members of a specific political party) and members of ‘minor’ parties such as The Greens.

The pool of 17 cross bench members and the fall in votes for the two major political parties tells us something important. It tells us that politics of division are not something the Australian electorate tolerates.

A large number of the independent candidates that won election are financially supported by a group called Climate 200 and have been dubbed the Teal Candidates. The name should tell you what that group is primarily focussed on. But many of those candidates new Members of Parliament are going to give a greater voice to refugee and asylum seeker issues, women’s equity and equality, LGBQTI+ rights, the environment and other issues that successive governments have either ignored, diminished or used for political point scoring.

Those issues can no longer be ignored. They now have a loud voice. And while the Labor Party may be basking in the light of a victory, it would do well the reflect on the significant fall in its primary vote and the rapid rise of the Teal Candidates. Given they have some common backing through Climate 200, which in turn has the significantly backing of billionaire businessman Simon Holmes a Court, it is possible that they will become a more formal alliance or even a political party in the future, with a focus on social justice and environmental issues. It’s easy to see them overtake or subsume The Greens, which are often seen as a one-issue party.

Global implications… maybe

There have been many elections held across the world over the past decade or so that have been fought and one over highly divisive issues. In Australia, successive elections weaponised asylum seekers and refugee policies under the veil of border protection. In the United States, fear and anger fuelled much of Donald Trump’s rise to the presidency and there have been similar results across Europe with the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the European Union built on fear (with a side order of deceit in my opinion).

The rise of the Independents in Australia highlights that two-party systems are flawed and have, perhaps, passed their zenith and are sliding towards and nadir and even oblivion.

Imagine a government without a clear majority (we call that a Hung Parliament). It would mean that for a piece of legislation to be passed it would require negotiation between political parties and independents. A single party’s view would not triumph or steamroll other voices.

It may even give rise to a more civil and inclusive discussion of important issues where diverse points of view are heard and considered. Indeed, when Julia Gillard was Prime Minister and presided over a hung parliament, she was able to achieve the highest rate of any Prime Minister in Australia’s history when it came to passing legislation.

Other countries may take note of this and see that there is a way out of the angry dichotomy of two-party systems.

The next three years or so will tell us if the louder independent voice has changed the Australian political discourse positively. I think it will because, at heart, I am on optimist who believes the vast majority of our elected officials are trying to make our country a better place.