Hung Parliament in Australia

Economist 2


MALCOLM TURNBULL, the fifth Australian prime minister in a decade, urged voters to help end the country’s political churn by delivering “strong, stable majority government” when they cast their ballots in the general election on July 2nd. Australians seem resolutely to have ignored him.

With almost three-quarters of the vote counted, the opposition Labor party was slightly ahead of Mr Turnbull’s conservative Liberal-National coalition. Australia faces the likelihood of a hung parliament, with various independents holding the balance of power.

It was hardly the triumphant occasion Mr Turnbull had anticipated. Nonetheless, he told party loyalists in a boisterous speech in the early hours of Sunday morning that they could have “every confidence that we will form a coalition majority government in the next parliament”.

But the results so far paint a more complicated picture. The government entered the campaign with 89 seats, giving it a 14-seat majority in the 150-seat lower house, the House of Representatives. When counting was adjourned at the weekend, it had won just 67 lower house seats, nine short of a majority, according to the Australian Electoral Commission. The Labor party rose from 57 seats to 71 so far. Independents and small parties won another six seats, leaving six to be decided. Counting is due to resume on July 5th.

Mr Turnbull had much riding on the election. A progressive, he unseated the divisive Tony Abbott as leader of the conservative Liberal Party last September, promising a “different style of leadership”. Initially, the government’s opinion polls soared, having been woeful under Mr Abbott. The economy has been performing well, with growth at 3.1% and unemployment under 6%. But Mr Turnbull then made several miscalculations that sent his campaign off the rails.

His liberal views on gay marriage, professed desire to do something about climate change and preference for making Australia a republic had won him widespread support. After he became prime minister, though, he disappointed many supporters by playing down such issues, Many saw this as the price he paid to appease the coalition’s conservative wing in deals that installed him as leader. In his campaign, he focused instead on the Liberals’ traditional strength of economic management. He offered as his core policy proposed company tax cuts over ten years, arguing they would stimulate jobs and growth. But voters seemed unconvinced.

Bill Shorten, the opposition leader, turned out to be a stronger campaigner than either the government, or most commentators, had anticipated. He pushed Labor’s old strengths: supporting public health and education. Mr Shorten also ran a scare campaign, claiming the government wanted to privatise Australia’s public health insurance scheme (Mr Turnbull labelled this an “extraordinary act of dishonesty”). But the eight-week campaign that Mr Turnbull launched in May, one of the longest in Australia’s history, gave his opponents plenty of time to sell their message. Labor’s gains included three Liberal-held seats that cover much of the island state of Tasmania. Linda Burney, a Labor candidate who won a Sydney suburban constituency, will become Australia’s first indigenous woman to sit in the lower house. “Labor is back,” declared Mr Shorten.

Independents and small parties between them won 23% of first votes, one of the strongest showings for such groups in a federal election; how candidates’ second preference votes are distributed, under Australia’s preferential voting system, could determine the lower house’s eventual make-up. Mr Turnbull has started talking with some independents to secure their support in parliament.

One of the strongest newcomers has been a party founded by Nick Xenophon, an independent senator from South Australia. He is a centrist with a populist policy mix that resonates among many voters in his state, hit hard by the loss of thousands of manufacturing jobs in carmaking and shipbuilding. He criticises free-trade agreements, blaming them for job losses, and supports more immigration, arguing it will stimulate growth. Rebekha Sharkie, a Nick Xenophon Team candidate, snared the prized Liberal seat of Mayo near Adelaide, the state capital.

Mr Turnbull declared before the election that votes for independents and small parties would be a “roll of the dice” that would leave Australians with “no clarity about their future”. Yet the big parties’ infighting and frequent leadership changes in recent times have turned many voters off, prompting many to seek alternatives. Mr Xenophon reckons voters are “disillusioned with tribal politics”. The outcome in the Senate, the upper house, will take longer to emerge. But early indications suggest small parties could hold the balance of power there, too. Australia’s era of churning political leaders is far from over.

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