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Australia’s 2013 election: A divided left and a step to the right

The following is a post-election report on the 2013 Australian parliamentary elections, which were held Sept. 7, 2013. The report is written by Northwestern University political scientist Georgia Kernell.


Australia’s conservative Liberal/National Coalition won a landslide victory in the House of Representatives on Saturday, Sept. 7.  The Coalition led by Tony Abbott was expected to win; it had been polling 10 percentage points ahead of its main rival, Labor, for more than a year:

Within a half hour of the final polls closing, outgoing Prime Minister Kevin Rudd conceded the Labor Party’s defeat and announced that he would not stand for his party’s leadership in the new parliament.  In total, the Coalition secured 90 seats in Australia’s 150-member House of Representatives, while Labor won only 55 seats.  Full results from this and the previous election are displayed below.  Abbott’s government was sworn in last week.

Abbott’s positions are more conservative than those of many members of his own party, and he has a history of making sexist remarks.  (Previous Prime Minister Julia Gillard made international headlines last October when she said during a parliamentary address, “if [Abbott] wants to know what misogyny looks like in modern Australia, he doesn’t need a motion in the House of Representatives, he needs a mirror.”)  Yet he ran a highly disciplined campaign over the past few months, avoiding any major gaffes.  Ultimately, Abbott portrayed himself as a viable prime minister to about half of the voting population, which was sufficient to guarantee victory.

This election should lead to a significant shift in the policies of a country that has managed to sustain sizeable growth while almost every other industrialized democracy has suffered financially.  Most of Australia’s recent economic success can be attributed to a boom in commodity prices, particularly iron ore and coal, driven by a steady demand from their largest export partner, China.  Yet, sensing a future economic slowdown, voters worried that Labor could lead the country in the wrong direction.  One potential concern was that the incumbents pledged to return the budget to a surplus by now – a promise they were unable to keep.

Abbott’s first order of business?  Repeal taxes on both the mining industry and carbon emissions.  The Labor government instituted a 30 percent “super tax” on companies that mine non-renewable resources and make a profit exceeding $75 million annually.  The country has also installed one of the most comprehensive carbon emissions programs in the world by taxing the biggest polluters.  Although the government planned to transition from the tax to a cap-and-trade system (linked with Europe’s) by 2015, Abbott has vowed to repeal the tax altogether and start from scratch.  Australia is the largest per capita emitter of carbon dioxide on the planet, and an outright repeal would be a major step back for those fighting climate change.  However, the carbon emissions tax was widely unpopular, and many voters blamed it for rising electricity and gas prices,

Abbott will need support from members of the Senate to repeal either tax.  Final results on Senate seats will not be available for a month, but it appears as though he will have to rely on the support of several Independent and small party candidates – once the Senate is sworn in during July of next year.  Until then, Labor and Green party members have vowed to vote against the Coalition’s plan to scrap the carbon pricing scheme.  Abbott is already putting pressure on members from both parties to “respect” the people’s “mandate” and abolish both taxes.

Immigration also took up much of the campaign’s focus.  Thousands of asylum-seekers from the Middle East and South Asia travel each year to Indonesia, Malaysia or Thailand by plane and then embark on a perilous journey by boat to Christmas Island, a remote Australian territory that is significantly closer to Indonesia than mainland Australia.  While the number of immigrants seeking asylum is steadily increasing, the absolute number is still quite small – 16,000 in 2012 – compared to the total number of annual immigrants – 200,000 in 2012.  Nonetheless, 52 percent of voters reported that this issue was “very important” to their voting decision – a number higher than climate change, national security or interest rates. Abbott threatened to prevent Indonesian boats from entering Australian waters, and in his victory speech he reiterated his promise to “swiftly implement Operation Sovereign Borders” and turn boats around that can return on their own to Indonesia.  During the campaign, Rudd countered with his own hardliner plan to send asylum seekers to refugee camps in Papua New Guinea, where the conditions are, in many cases, reportedly below international standards of living.

Abbott is also opposed to gay marriage, and he campaigned on promises to cut foreign aid.  He has questioned the existence of climate change in the past.

The electoral system

Australia is a parliamentary democracy in which the lower chamber, the House of Representatives, is responsible for forming the government.  Members of the House are elected via an alternative vote system in which voters rank their preferences for all candidates.  If a single candidate receives an outright majority of first place votes, s/he wins.  If not, first place votes for the least popular candidate are reallocated to those voters’ second place choices, and so on, until a candidate receives a majority.  Elections are held at least every three years, but the House may be dissolved with new elections held at any time.

There are 76 members of the Australian Senate – 12 from each of the six states, and two each from the two mainland territories.  Senators typically enjoy six-year terms, unless there is a “double dissolution,” in which the governor general dissolves both houses and calls for a new election.  The Senate also employs preferential voting, yet because states are multimember districts, seats are allocated through proportional representation.  Voters have the option of voting “above the line” by indicating their preference for a single party, or they can rank all of the candidates (across all parties) “below the line.”  If they vote above the line, a voter’s ranking is allocated according to the party’s preferred ordering across all candidates – an ordering that is made public by the Australian Elections Commission before the election.  (An example of the Liberal Party’s ranking in New South Wales [NSW] is shown below. While the text is too small to read individual names, it gives a nice sense of the complexity of the ballot. The entire document listing every party’s ranking in NSW alone is 105 pages long.)

Voters who rank all of the candidates themselves are only afforded a few mistakes.  (For example, if voters correctly rank 90 percent of candidates, and only places a “1” next to a single candidate, their ballot stands.  If not, it is considered invalid.  Details of this process are made available by the AEC.)  In some cases, like NSW, voters who opt to vote below the line must rank over 100 candidates.  It is no wonder only 3.9 percent of voters chose to fill in their own rankings in 2010, although this percentage varied significantly by state according to the number of candidates running.

Australia has compulsory voting.  The fee for noncompliance is $20 ($19 U.S.), and is significant enough to get 94 percent of registered voters to the polls.  Of these, five percent cast spoilt/invalid ballots.  With compulsory voting, parties cannot simply rely on mobilizing their base.  In comparison with the United States, candidates typically cater less to their core supporters, and more to swing, middle-of-the-road voters.  Ironically, this centripetal tendency means that voting is less consequential for policy outcomes.  Although they turn out, voters may have a smaller stake in the outcome of an election between two parties that are relatively centrist.  The Coalition will certainly pursue more conservative policies than the previous government, especially if they successfully eliminate the carbon and mining taxes.  But voters in Australia also care about valence factors that have little to do with a party’s policy positions.  In particular, I am referring to internal party dynamics.

Labor’s intraparty problems

Background.  After more than 11 years in opposition, in November 2007, the Labor Party returned to power in a landslide election.  As party leader, Kevin Rudd assumed the position of prime minister, with Julia Gillard named as his deputy prime minister.  In the summer of 2010, with an election coming up and Labor support slipping in the polls, Gillard requested that Rudd call a leadership election.  Rudd initially planned to run against Gillard, but once he realized he did not have the votes to defeat her, he resigned and she took over as prime minister and Labor Party leader.  The August 2010 general election led to a 72-72 tie between Labor and the coalition.  Drawing support from four Independent and Green party representatives, Labor was able to form a minority government for the first time since 1943.  In her post-election cabinet, Gillard appointed Rudd to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  In February 2012, Rudd resigned from the cabinet and requested an election for the party leadership.  He lost to Gillard 71 to 31.  Gillard ran unopposed and was reelected as party leader in March 2013, but by June, Rudd had mounted a second campaign to take over.  On June 26, Rudd defeated Gillard in the party election by a vote of 57 to 45, and he assumed the position of prime minister the following day.  (For a look at social media’s reaction to Gillard’s unseating, see this earlier post by Joshua Tucker.)

Implications. These battles within the leadership raise uncertainty about the party’s future direction.  While turnover often leads to short-term jumps in voter support (see, for example, Figure 1), internal party divisions are largely unpopular among voters.  Divided parties may appear less capable of collectively enacting policy, and intraparty struggles air candidates’ “dirty laundry” before the general election campaign.  Partisans of the losing faction may be so disenchanted that they change their vote, or at least withdraw their campaign support.  (Admittedly, the evidence is mainly anecdotal.  Voters say they dislike intraparty fighting, but I know of no studies that estimate the effects of leadership contests on voting behavior aside from the American Politics literature on divisive primaries.)  On Friday, Sept. 13, Gillard published an op-ed in the Guardian in which she touts Labor’s achievements over the years and argues that the Coalition has no agenda on education or climate change.  But she also criticizes Labor for sending the Australian public a “very cynical and shallow message about its sense of purpose” by allowing intraparty contests and a focus on winning elections to take over constructive policy debates.

Previous leadership elections between Rudd and Gillard were all decided by elected members of parliament.  In fact, in both the Liberals and Labor a simple majority of House and Senate representatives could depose and replace the incumbent party leader.  After assuming the position of party leader in June, Rudd’s first item on the agenda was amending the party rules so as to solidify support for the party and secure his own position as leader.  (Of course the previous rules are what allowed him to replace Gillard so quickly.)  Rudd and the parliamentary group agreed to amend leadership elections to require 50 percent of the vote to come from the party’s parliamentary caucus and 50 percent  from rank and file members.

Given Labor’s defeat, a campaign under these new rules is currently playing out.  Bill Shorten, a moderate member of the party and former minister under both Gillard and Rudd, will compete against Anthony Albanese, outgoing deputy prime minister.  Albanese, who is ideologically more to the left, is expected to win a majority of the members’ votes.  But Shorten appears more popular among MPs.  Every Labor member whose association fees were up to date on Election Day (9/7) is eligible to vote.  Details of the ballot are still being worked out, though it sounds like votes will be conducted by postal mail.

A change in party rules will likely make leadership elections less frequent, slower and more transparent.  Gone are the days when a group of Labor parliamentarians request a vote on Monday and overthrow the prime minister on Tuesday.  Additional time will allow candidates to accumulate more information about the preferences of caucus members and the party membership.  Once it becomes known who the front-runner is, the second place candidate(s) may drop out.  And the party may appear more democratic to the public – driven by voter demands, not quibbles among party elites behind closed doors.

It is increasingly common for parties around the world to allow their rank and file members to select parliamentary candidates and party leaders.  The choice of selection rules is usually not mandated by the government, allowing for significant variation across, as well as within, countries.  William Cross and André Blais hypothesize that parties will devolve authority to party members more often when they are in the opposition or have recently suffered an electoral defeat.  In this case, Labor Party representatives were not yet in the opposition, but they knew their prospects were grim.  Changing the rules insulated Rudd as leader should they win the election, but it also gave the party a last-ditch attempt at appearing more transparent.  Opening up selection to party members may also stimulate participation and greater enthusiasm among the rank and file.  However, the change in rules could backfire if cleavages that were once limited to the leadership permeate and divide the rank and file.