More exciting than a velociraptor tearing into a flock of hyenas, more important than vital, icky surgery. A BBC News reporter once described Australian politics as resembling "a Soap Opera directed by Quentin Tarantino." Well, here goes:
Australia's political system is something of a hotchpotch, because when the Constitution was being written, its authors freely pillaged from other working democracies:
- Like the UK, Australian uses the Westminster system. One effect of this is unlike presidential electoral campaigns, citizens only vote (officially) for their local candidate, or (unofficially) for political parties. The head of government is just whoever happens to lead the party that wins. Of course, this doesn't stop people voting based on personal charisma of political leaders.
- Like the US, Australia is a federal system of states plus a few territories, and the federal government has elected upper and lower houses:
- The Senate (or, as Paul Keating once called it, the House of Unrepresentative Swill) is the upper house, where each state is represented by twelve senators and the Australian Capital Territory (or ACT) and Northern Territory by two each.note
- Note that like the US Senate and unlike the Canadian Senate or British Lords, the Australian Senate is effectively equal in power to the House, with the full and virtually unrestricted power to introduce and amend billsnote and block legislation (although by convention the Senate refrains from blocking bills whose failure would bring down the Government. Except for that one time).
- The House of Representatives is the lower house, for which each state and territory is divided into named divisions (neat, eh?) of roughly equal population of electors, each of which elects one member of parliament (MP).
- The Senate (or, as Paul Keating once called it, the House of Unrepresentative Swill) is the upper house, where each state is represented by twelve senators and the Australian Capital Territory (or ACT) and Northern Territory by two each.note
- Like the US, Australia has a written Constitution. This forms the ultimate authority which no laws or state actions can validly conflict with.
- Like Switzerland, amending Australia's Constitution requires:
- The amendment to be proposed by Parliament, and:
- The Australian people to approve in a referendum, with a majority in the overall population, and a majority of states (which in practice means four out of six states). Referenda in Australia are notorious for failing (36 out of 44 as of 2019), but only have passed — in 1967, an amendment was passed with 90.77% approval to recognise Australian Aborigines as human beings.note
- Like many countries, Australia has the judiciary as an important check-and-balance for the government. The High Court of Australia has declared government legislation illegal if it contravenes Australia's legal obligations. It is the highest court of appeal, and also specifically tasked with interpreting the Constitution.
- Australia is one of the very few nations on the planet to have compulsory voting at all levels. As such, voter turnout at Australian elections in generally in the 98%-99% range (there's always a few), which — along with the preferential voting system — means that it can take literally weeks to count all the votes for the Senate. (Although the rules that say postal votes can take thirteen days to arrive is more of a reason.) One of the odder side effects of this is that pre-election polls in Australian are more reliable than in many other democracies, because almost everyone polled is going to vote. Additionally, the major parties in Australia need not worry so much about their respective bases being too disillusioned or apathetic to vote, something which has often lost elections for parties in other democracies.
Australia's six states, and, to some extent, two of its territories (the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory), have a degree of independence, and have their own parliaments with an upper house (except in Queensland, where they abolished the state-level upper house) and a lower house, which, like the House of Representatives, has a name for each seat. Tasmania is also different: the lower house is elected like the Senate while the upper house is elected like the House of Representatives.
The system has often been called "Washminster" (a hybrid of Washington and Westminster), which is actually a very good way of looking at it.
Depending on who you ask, Australia became a "nation" anywhere from 1854 to 1986. Australia's nationhood and independence, like that of most of the "Old Commonwealth" countries (e.g. Canada and New Zealand) developed throughout a gradual process of self-governance and separation from the UK rather than in a flashpoint like a revolution.
- 1854 or 1886: The first (New South Wales) or last (Western Australia) of the colonies became self-governing.
- 1901: One of the most often-cited dates, including by the government itself: on 1 January 1901, the six separate colonies became states and federated to form a single self-governing Commonwealth. At this point however, it was still subservient to United Kingdom as a 'Dominion' of the Empire, although how subservient was never clear (as although the British Parliament and Government officially retained certain powers over over Australia, these were never exercised, except as regarded foreign policy—and even that was in the process of being let go).
- 1915: Australian troops first went into battle as part of an Australian army.note This is considered by historians as the period when Australia forged its own national identity and proved itself to the rest of the world, and indeed ANZAC Day, a memoriam of 25th April 1915 when Australian troops landed in Gallipoli, is one of Australia's most important holidays. Some refer to it as Australia's "baptism by fire."
- 1931 or 1942: With the Statute of Westminster, the Parliament of the UK abolished its nominal right to legislate for Australia and its other Dominions. Of course, this was theoretically self-abrogating, until Australia adopted the Statute as Australian law in 1942.
- 1986: The other most often-cited date. The Australia Act severs the last powers of the UK government over Australia. Namely, the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council is no longer a partnote of the Australian judiciary.
Leaders and Government
The Prime Minister of Australia is the head of government. They are, as a rule, a sitting MP in the federal House of Representatives and the leader of the majority party in that chamber — they are in charge of the Cabinet (which consists of Ministers drawn from the House or the Senate) and generally run the whole show. The current Prime Minister is Scott Morrison.
There is also a Deputy Prime Minister. In a Labor Government the Deputy PM is also the deputy leader of the Labor Party, and in a Coalition government s/he is the leader of the smaller party in the Coalition (the Nationals). The Deputy PM's main responsibility is to step in as Acting PM in the event of the Prime Minister being overseas, incapacitated or dead. The current Deputy Prime Minister is Barnaby Joyce.
The Prime Minister also has their own opposite number on the other side of politics: the leader of the second-largest party in the House of Representatives is designated Leader of the Opposition, and is in charge of their own Shadow Cabinet with Shadow Ministers from their own party. This is much less cool than it sounds: the purpose of the Shadow Cabinet is to criticise the real Cabinet, with each Shadow Minister focusing on their opposite number. The current Opposition Leader is Anthony Albanese.
The Senate is rather more powerful than its equivalents in other parliamentary systems and any law must be passed with approval from both chambersnote . The House of Representatives does have the sole power to effectively decide which party goes into government, but many governments get frustrated when the Senate amends or rejects their bills.
- The House of Representatives can sit for up to three years. Because the chamber doesn't start sitting until one to two months after the election, and that an election isn't held for up to two months after the dissolution, the actual gap between two elections can in theory be over three years and four months. The Governor-General orders the election to be held when requested by the Prime Minister.
- The two territories each elect their two senators in each House election.
- Out of the seats representing the states in the Senate, half of them will change over every three years on 1 July. Each state will elect six of its twelve senators to six-year terms in a normal Senate election, which can be held up to 11 months before the changeover on a date chosen by the government. Most governments have tried to hold the elections of both chambers on the same day.
Since this sets up room for plenty of conflict, there exists a procedure called a double dissolution. If the Senate rejects bills from the House of Representatives under certain conditions, the government can dissolve both chambers. In this case, each state elects twelve senators at once and they take their seats immediately. The next Senate changeover takes place in the third month of July to occur after the election, so another Senate election must be take place before then. There have been seven double dissolutions in the history of Australia — the most recent was in 2016. If a double dissolution still leaves Parliament deadlocked, the government can then call a joint session in which the two chambers sit as one and vote on legislation together. Since the House of Representatives is required to be twice the size of the Senate, this gives the latter a big advantage. There has only ever been one such joint sitting, in 1974.
The head of state of Australia is Queen Elizabeth II: her official title in this country is "Queen of Australia", and technically Australia is in personal union with the UK (that is, we are two separate countries which happen to have the same person as our monarch).
Australia has probably the largest republican movementnote out of the former British colonies. This movement is very old. It antedates the federation of modern Australia and has been supported by key Australian cultural figures throughout history. For example, in 1887, Henry Lawson (one of Australia's two most revered poets) wrote his first-ever poem, "A Song of the Republic", urging Australians to free their land of "old-world errors and wrongs and lies". However, a referendum to institute an Australian republic in 1999 was only supported by 45% of Australians — some republicans refused to support it because they wanted to elect a president directly, whereas the choice offered was to allow a two-thirds majority of Parliament to appoint a president. Those hoping for an upswell in republican sentiment in future generations were disappointed — support for an Australian republic has dramatically decreased, particularly since the Royal Wedding of Prince William and Kate (everyone loves a good wedding). Thus, the position of Australia's monarch may be a little contentious, but it remains secure.
In practice, all the responsibilities of the head of state are delegated to the Governor-General of Australia, who is an acting head of state (in official terminology, a "viceroy", i.e. representative/stand-in for the Monarch) appointed in practical terms by the Prime Minister for a single five-year term.note All the Governor-General normally has to do is officially sign bills into law, although they do have certain emergency powers which have been exercised before — most notoriously in 1975, when Governor-General John Kerr sacked Prime Minister Gough Whitlam and appointed Opposition Leader Malcolm Fraser in his place.
The Governors-General did not get off to an auspicious start (the first one, Lord Hopetoun, tried to unconstitutionally appoint the then-Premier of New South Wales as caretaker Prime Ministernote ), and were pretty much one boring British peer after another until Sir Isaac Issacs was appointed to the position in 1930: he was both the first Jewish Governor-General, and the first Governor-General to have been actually born in Australia (naturally, Britain was shocked and appalled). The last Governor-General from Britain, William Sidney, ended his term in 1965 — since then Australia has been generally opposed to appointing non-Australians to the position: there has been one Governor-General who was a member of the Royal Family (Prince Henry, son of George V, immediately after World War II) but when both Prince Charlesnote and Prince William expressed interest in the position (in the 1980s and 2000s respectively) both were told "Um... how about no." The current Governor-General is David Hurley.
From 2010 to 2013, the three people with the most power in Australia — the Monarch, the Governor-General (Quentin Bryce) and the Prime Minister (Julia Gillard) — were all women, as well as the Attorney-General at the time (Nicola Roxon). Of course, the richest person is also a woman...
- Interestingly, in 2010/2011 the residents of the Federal Division of Sydney had a female member, Lord-Mayor, State Premier, Governor, Prime Minister, Governor-General, and Monarch all at once.
As they are based off the same system, each state mirrors the federal government in its structure (except for Queensland, whose parliament is unicameral). The head of a state government is the Premier,note and each state also has its own appointed Governor who acts as the Queen's representative for that state.note
There are currently two major political parties and a few significant minor parties. The current ruling party is the Coalition, the alliance between the Liberal Party and the National Party, which gained power after the Labor Party lost the 2013 election after maintaining power for six years (Australian Prime Ministers can stay in power for as long as the public votes their parties in and their parties continue to support them). (NB: Australian spell labor "labour" unless it's the Labor party, named the American way from a charming early twentieth-century vogue for 'modernized spelling' — the disco of its day. This does allow for the joke that the Labor Party can't spell and the Liberal Party can't use a dictionary.)
- The Coalition: Made up of two parties: the Liberal Party of Australia, the larger and more powerful partner, and the National Party of Australia, the smaller hanger-on. Despite its name, these days the Liberal Party is generally more conservative than Labor (hence creating awkward terminology, such as "small-'l' liberal"); they have historically claimed to be a classical liberal party but have since become more closely identified with social conservatism. The National Party originated as the "Country Party", and in principle stands for the interests of rural people, which can coincide with pork-barreling. The Coalition gains much of its support from rural voters and richer suburbs, although in recent years they have gained increasing support in outer suburbs. Generally, the Liberals represent urban and suburban districts while the Nationals represent rural districts; as part of the coalition agreement, each party will not run candidates against an incumbent MP from the other party. Members of the coalition parties will have a very wide range of political views ranging from Christian social conservatism to classical liberalism to 'third-way' centralism, averaging out to centre-right.
- In some regions of Australia the Coalition parties are formally merged into a single party, apparently to present a more coherent political front. There is the Liberal National Party, unique to the state of Queensland, and the Country Liberal Party, unique to the Northern Territory. The latter dates back to before the National Party's name change; the former was established in 2008. It may be noteworthy that Queensland and the Northern Territory were the only places where the National Party were more powerful than the Liberal Party...
- Labor: The Australian Labor Party is Australia's oldest political party, having formed during the late 19th century. The ALP began as (and to a degree still is) the political arm of the Australian worker's union movement. Support from union bosses is still an important political commodity within the ALP. Initially, they were relatively strong socialists who advocated the nationalization of the means of production. They had a rather brutal split with the Catholic-dominated Democratic Labor Party in the 1950s, which shed them of much of their socially-conservative base and caused them to become more identified as the party of social liberalism (but also led to them being out of government for all but three of the next 23 years); by the time they returned to power, they had shifted to a social-democratic party that was accommodating to a certain measure of privatization and deregulation. The Labor Party most recently held government from 2007 to 2013. Its support bases are the outer suburbs of the major cities, industrial provincial areas (the Hunter Valley, the Illawarra, and Geelong are the most prominent), and certain gentrified inner-city seats. As with the Coalition, Labor members have a very wide range of political views ranging from old-style socialism to Christian social conservatism to 'third-way' centralism, averaging out to a more or less centre-left position. The parliamentary party is split along explicit factional lines — the Socialist Left and the Labor Right being the major ones. Traditionally the party leader is a member of the Right faction while the deputy comes from the Left, although there have been exceptions (Julia Gillard was a member of the Left, for example, and Right-aligned leader Bill Shorten was replaced by the Left-aligned Anthony Albanese in 2019) to this.
The important minor parties include:
- Australian Greens: Essentially like Greens everywhere, the Australian Greens promote the environment, but are also notable in some circles for its socialist wing led by Lee Rhiannon (her parents were both members of Australia's Communist Party and Lee herself was a member of the Communist Party's youth wing as a child). Internationally famous for being one of the few Green parties to exert any meaningful pull at all, they tend to have very strong support in the inner-most city suburbs. Federally, they hold one seat in the House of Representatives and nine seats in the Australian Senate; under the 2010-13 Labor minority government the Greens held the balance of power. On a state level the Greens have elected representatives in at least one chamber of each Parliament except in the Northern Territory, and also hold balance of power in the ACT Legislative Assembly.
- One Nation: A party standing for the age-old Australian values of intolerance, ignorance, and fish and chips. Received massive publicity in the late '90s, until it became apparent that all involved had no idea what they were doing. Led by Pauline Hanson, a former fish-and-chip-shop owner from Queensland, who unexpectedly won a seat in Parliament as an independent in 1996. From her maiden speech, claiming that Australia was 'swamped' with Asians, the party went through an inexplicable storm of popularity. At its height, the party won 23% of the vote in Queensland in the 1998 state election, second only to Labor. (If you visit Queensland, and you look around, one in four of them voted for One Nation.) Hanson lost her seat in Parliament in 1998, and later left the party. One Nation spent more than a decade in the political wilderness until Hanson returned as leader - they made a massive comeback in the 2016 federal election, winning four Senate seats. One Nation now effectively holds the balance of power in the Senate along with NXT.
- How did Hanson win as an independent in 1996, in a safe Labor seat? She was a Liberal who was dropped when they realized what she thought. Before the election, but too late to take her off the ballot.
- Pauline Hanson went on to run again in the 2007 election in Queensland, under the banner of a new political party "Pauline's United Australia Party" (not to be confused with the original United Australia Party listed above) of which she seemed to be the sole member. Her most famous opponent (as far as the press seemed to think) was an ex football player who dropped out when someone forgot to register him. She lost.
- Irony of ironies, she immigrated to Britain. But then came back to run for a seat in the New South Wales senate. She lost, and claims there was a (deliberate) miscount of the votes to keep her out.
- Speaking of which, a video of her was released with her saying, "If you are watching this, it means I have been murdered." She believed her life was threatened due to her politics.
- Hanson attempted another political comeback in 2015, returning as One Nation leader and contesting a seat in the Queensland Parliament. She lost by 200 votes. However, she finally won a seat in the 2016 federal election, being elected as a senator from Queensland. It was a double-dissolution election, so thanks to the reduced quota a second One Nation senator from Queensland (Malcolm Roberts) was elected along with her, along with one senator each from NSW and WA (Brian Burston and Rod Culleton, respectively). But the gravy train didn't last long, as the WA One Nation senator was found to be in the process of being convicted over the theft of a vehicle key in NSW. This led to a public falling out between the senator and Hanson, leading to him eventually quitting the party. The court eventually ruled him bankrupt in early 2017, rendering his position in the Senate vacant. One Nation regained the seat after a vote recount.
- Despite the above issues as well as some questionable comments by her other senators, One Nation continued to ride high in the polls, encouraged by Donald Trump's victory in the USA. They hoped to translate this into seats in the Western Australian election in March 2017, where some polls had them picking up to 13% of the vote in a largely conservative state. The campaign ended up backfiring after One Nation arranged a controversial preference deal with the now-unpopular but governing Liberal Party where they would preference each other in a number of marginal seats. A number of candidates from both parties were critical of the deal, resulting in Hanson kicking some of the candidates out of the party while others resigned. The party ended up wining less than 5% of the statewide as a result.
- One Nation's biggest state-level humiliation has to be the time they forgot to register for the state-level election at all. No, seriously.
- Nick Xenophon Team or NXT (no, not that NXT): A political party founded by South Australian politician Nick Xenophon, as one of the latest in the trend of high-profile independent politicians forming minor political parties in their own image. Xenophon was first elected to the federal Senate in 2007, and is known for being centrist, anti-gambling and pro-pork-barreling for his state. Thanks to Xenophon's popularity in South Australia, NXT's status in that state has rapidly risen to rival the major parties: in the 2016 federal election they won three of South Australia's Senate seats and one House seat. (Outside the state, their results were respectable but unimpressive.) This has effectively given them the balance of power in the Senate along with One Nation.
- Katter's Australian Party: Founded in 2011 by federal MP Bob Katter and his Nice Hat, the party's positions are heavily based on those of Katter himself. A former Independent from North Queensland well known for his eccentricity, Katter shot to national fame in 2010 when the federal election resulted in a hung parliament. The party is best described as "agrarian socialist", with strong social conservatism combined with a protectionist and anti-privatization economic policy. Originally named "The Australian Party", it was forced to change its name because it was too generic. They currently hold Katter's own seat in the federal House of Representatives, plus two seats in the Queensland Parliament (one of which is held by Katter's son). Made their strongest showing to date in the 2012 Queensland state election, where they first won those two seats and got 11.5% of the primary vote. However, while their sitting MPs have all since been re-elected, their primary vote share plummeted in subsequent elections as voters turned to other minor parties: first Palmer United, then One Nation. They have also consistently failed to win a Senate seat, and haven't caught on at all outside Queensland.
- Katter's problems only got worse in 2018 with his recruitment of ex-One Nation Senator Fraser Anning. Anning's maiden speech included a "Final Solution" reference that even Pauline Hanson condemned. Katter initially backed Anning's speech to the hilt, only to sack him within two months — saving himself at least a little humiliation when the now-Independent Anning went on a taxpayer-funded trip to Melbourne to attend a neo-Nazi rally, defamed the victims of a mass shooting in New Zealand and viciously assaulted a teenager who egged him over said defamation. While Katter managed to get re-elected in 2019, Anning himself went home empty-handed, with the number of people who voted for him heavily outnumbered by a change.org petition.
- Family First: Founded in 2002, Family First has grown to become a significant minor party. Although it is technically secular, it is the "Christian" party of Australia, standing for such secular policies as reducing abortion, increased censorship, and thinking of the children. However, they're not exactly Pat Robertsons in
cowboyAkubra hats. Examples include Indigenous issues and immigration policy — in both instances they take a more liberal (not Liberal — it's confusing) approach and as such line up with the "left", for various reasons (for instance, on the Indigenous issues, quite a lot of Indigenous people are socially-conservative Christians). The party currently holds one Senate seat in the federal Parliament, and two seats in the South Australian upper house.
- Christian Democratic Party: Even more the Christian Right than Family First, this is a small but rather persistent party under the Reverend Fred Nile, who keeps up from his sinecure in the New South Wales Legislative Council.
- Democratic Labour Party: Successor to the original DLP, which was an extremely important third party in the mid-20th century before disbanding. A remnant re-founded the DLP and claimed continuity with the old party, but remained completely unnoticed for about thirty years afterwards. However, in 2006 the DLP inexplicably made a comeback in the Victorian state election, winning one seat in the upper house; then, in the 2010 federal election, they again won a seat in the national senate (on only 2.2% of the primary vote, thanks to preference deals, rather like Family First six years before). Changed their name to the correct spelling of "Labour" in 2013 to better distinguish themselves from the ALP. They have no elected representatives on the federal level since their sole senator left the party in 2014, but have since won a single seat in the Victorian upper house again. Like the original DLP they are socially conservative and economically left-wing.
- Australian Sex Party: Assuredly not Exactly What It Says on the Tin. A new party which grabbed a lot of attention long before any electoral success, due to the name. Its official launch was conducted at Sexpo in Melbourne in 2008. The party was initially founded as a double issue party opposed to an Internet filter and for the legalization of gay marriage; they're also in favour of compulsory and accurate non-biased sex education in Australian schools, an R18+ video game category, legalizing abortion, making the laws regarding pornography more consistent with other sex related laws, decriminalization of prostitution, creating Federal anti-discrimination laws for employment and (as a Take That! to Family First) ending the tax exemption status to religious institutions that are not primarily a charity or some other community aid organisation. Finally, in 2014, they won one seat in the Victorian upper house.
- Liberal Democratic Party: Another new party which gained a federal Senate seat in 2013, representing New South Wales (where it notably outpolled the Greens). Formed in the mid-2000s by economist John Humphreys and allied with the Australian Libertarian Society. Unlike the British party of the same name, the LDP supports both social liberalism (being socially to the left of even the Greens; supporting ending the drug war, monopolizing the gambling market, and supporting same-sex marriage and freer immigration) and economic liberalism (in the classical liberal sense of the term (being economically to the right of the Australian Liberal Party); supporting free markets, deregulation of the labor market, ending barriers to international trade). Roughly the Australian equivalent to the Libertarian Party in the United States or the Free Democratic Party in Germany.
- Australian Motoring Enthusiasts Party: A micro-party that no one expected to win anything, least of all themselves, until they did: thanks to a complicated web of preference deals, Victorian candidate Ricky Muir was elected to the Australian Senate in 2013 with just 0.5% of the primary vote. The party's policies are meager, amounting mainly to "We like cars!" Muir initially formed an electoral alliance with the Palmer United Party before striking out on his own; he ran for re-election in 2016 and lost.
- Rise Up Australia Party: Another 2000s Christian party which can be described as Pat Robertsons in Akubra hats. It's a fringe party which opposes gay marriage and abortion and supports cuts to immigration (despite its founder, Pastor Danny Nalliah, being born in Sri Lanka) under the tagline of "Keep Australia Australian." It currently holds no seats.
In the technical sense, Australia does not have a two-party system. It's just that only two parties ever form government, two parties win the overwhelming majority of seats, and the only other party to have held a ministry in any government in the last 90 years is in a permanent, unending coalition with the Liberal Party. Other minor parties gaining any seats in the federal lower house at all is a very recent development, with the Greens first winning their single seat in 2010, Palmer United also winning one seat in 2013 (since lost), and NXT winning one in 2016.
Of course, not all politicians belong to political parties. Independents are also influential as singular freelance politicians with no ties to any particular party, and historically are far more successful than minor-party candidates. The larger parties may bend over backwards to get independents to vote in their favour whenever they hold the balance of power in a house of Parliament, as seen most recently in the 2010-13 hung parliament. There are currently two independent MPs in the House of Representatives, Andrew Wilkie and Cathy McGowan; additionally, the House's sole KAP member Bob Katter was formerly an independent. There are technically no independents currently in the Senate, thanks to a recent trend of well-known independent politicians forming minor parties named after themselves hence the Senate now contains the ex-independents Nick Xenophon of the "Nick Xenophon Team" (along with two other NXT senators), Jacqui Lambie of the "Jacqui Lambie Network" (also ex-Palmer United), and broadcaster Derryn Hinch of "Derryn Hinch's Justice Party".
Here are a few formerly-important major parties and third parties which are now defunct or as good as defunct:
- Protectionist Party — one of the original two main political parties, and the first to form government: home to Australia's first two prime ministers (Edmund Barton and Alfred Deakin). As the name suggests, their main thing was protectionism — otherwise, the party had both liberal and conservative wings. While it existed, it governed as a minority government with Labor's (conditional) support. Dissolved 1909.
- Free Trade Party, later known as the Anti-Socialist Party — the other of the original two main political parties. Again, their main issue was free trade, and the party had both liberal and conservative wings — but with the emergence of Labor as a major party they began to position themselves specifically against them (hence the name change). Spent most of their time in Opposition — only ever formed government once (under the leadership of George Reid), and even then it was for less than a year. Also dissolved 1909.
- Commonwealth Liberal Party, also known as The Fusion — formed from the Protectionist Party and Anti-Socialist Party merging in 1909, when they apparently realised they had more in common with each other than with Labor (who had now officially become a major party). Could be called the original ancestor of the modern-day Liberal Party.
- National Labor Party — a short-lived offshoot of Labor, formed in 1916 from members expelled from the party over the issue of conscription... including the then-Prime Minister, Billy Hughes. Immediately entered into coalition with the Commonwealth Liberal Party, giving them the majority and therefore the government.
- Nationalist Party — the new major party, formed when the Commonwealth Liberal Party and National Labor officially merged in early 1917. Governed for the next twelve-and-a-half years total, with two Prime Ministers (Billy Hughes and Stanley Bruce), and remained in opposition for two years afterward before dissolving.
- Australian Party — a short-lived offshoot of the Nationalists, formed in 1930 from members expelled from the party over the issue of industrial relations... including former Prime Minister Billy Hughes. Sound familiar? Once again, Hughes's defection led to the bringing-down of the sitting government — except this time Hughes et. al. didn't join the opposition but stayed as a minor party for a year or so before being absorbed into the Nationalists' successor, the United Australia Party.
- Lang Labor — a minor party formed as an offshoot from the ALP, founded by Jack Lang during the Great Depression. Composed of a left-wing branch of the ALP who were dissatisfied with the ALP government then in power — so they helped to bring it down and let the conservative opposition in instead. Eventually diminished and lost all significance, but hung onto existence until Jack Lang died.
- United Australia Party — another old major party, founded in 1931 from the merging of the Nationalist Party with a group of defectors from Labor as well as the Australian Party and several conservative independents. Governed for nine-and-a-half years total, with two Prime Ministers (Joseph Lyons and Robert Menzies), before finally dissolving in 1944. The immediate predecessor of the Liberal Party.
- Democratic Labor Party: The original incarnation. The DLP dates back to 1955 when they split from the ALP, claiming that the ALP were too communist for their tastes. A rather large third party of socially-conservative social democrats, the DLP consistently directed their voter preferences to the Coalition in front of Labor, and therefore guaranteed that the Coalition could stay in permanent power for 23 years despite losing the popular vote twice. The original DLP finally disbanded in the mid-70s, although a remnant lived on and has successfully got several candidates elected since 2006 (see above).
- Australian Democrats: Originally created in 1978 out of a merger of two left-wing splinter groups from the Liberal Party. Started off intending to be a happy medium between Labor and Liberal, maintaining a roughly centrist political view; over the next twenty years they steadily drifted to the left until they effectively ended up more left-wing than Labor (which had been drifting to the right at the same time). The party barely exists now, although it was the largest of the minor parties during the 1990s. They disintegrated spectacularly in the early 2000s, once it became apparent that all the party's major figures loathed each other and their own party. Famous campaigned under a pledge to "keep the bastards honest", the 'bastards' being either the major parties or politicians in general — which became somewhat amusing on reflection when they imploded. De-registered as of 16 April 2015.
- The Wikileaks Party: Well you can guess who ran this party. Gained a fairly decent amount of media attention but mostly collapsed after several of its candidates quit because to the parties preference deals (see below) were revealed to have included some unsavoury groups.
- Palmer United Party: Founded in 2013 by Queensland billionaire Clive Palmer after his very public split from the LNP; originally named the United Australia Party, ostensibly as a relaunch of the older party of the same name, it had to change its name due to a conflict with an existing micro-party called the Uniting Australia Party. Performed better than anyone expected in the 2013 federal election, winning three seats in the Senate (giving them the balance of power in that chamber) and one seat in the House (held by Palmer himself). Their policies were best described as "right-wing populist": they include saving $5 billion on boat people sea patrols and detention by flying applicants to Australia for processing, supporting the Gonski education reforms, axing the carbon tax, and better exploiting Australia's natural wealth. Proved to be a complete Wild Card, basically becoming a massive thorn in the Abbott government's side by opposing most of the more radical measures in the infamous 2014 budget, and Palmer basically doing anything on the spur of the moment that might get him attention and/or to fuck around with the government to get what he wants. Collapsed within a couple of years due to Palmer's control-freak tendencies: two of the three senators split from the party and became Independents, making the party's name hilariously ironic. The (likely) final nail in the party's coffin arrived in the 2016 election when (at time of writing with ~80% of the votes counted) they failed to break 300 votes nationwide Palmer himself refused to stand for re-election, and ex-PUP Tasmanian independent senator Jacqui Lambie was the only one to be re-elected. In 2019 Palmer made a brief resurgence during the election campaign, spending to the hilt to make sure no Australian could turn their head without seeing one of his ads. He failed to gain any seats, but since he'd struck a preference deal with the Coalition, he's effectively governing from the sidelines.
- The Australian Conservatives: Founded in 2017 by ex-Liberal member Cory Bernardi, whilst riding high on the 2016 election results. Their entire platform is basically opposing anything that could be considered remotely progressive, including LGBT rights, reproductive rights and anything to do with the environment or sustainability. Wants to enforce freedom of religion, so long as said religion is Christian and believe that racial discrimination laws are an attack on free speech (which given Australia's reputation, leaves you wondering exactly what it is that's being kept quiet). Bernardi eventually disbanded the party in 2019 after failing to secure a single seat in the federal election, with media outlets speculating that he might just go crawling back to the Liberals.
Because there aren't so many sensitive issues in Australia as in the United States or the United Kingdom, most of the issues in Australian politics are relatively immediate. The only potentially divisive issue between Labor and the Liberals is the economy. Whilst both parties fundamentally accept a mixed economy, the Liberal party is (in general) slightly more likely to gravitate towards markets, whereas Labor is slightly more likely to gravitate towards government-based measuresnote . This varies between individual members of the parties, and it also varies depending on the issue. For instance, whilst the Hawke-Keating Labor governments did a lot of deregulation and privatisation, Howard's government made a move towards a less regulated labour market and the unions within the ALP were not remotely happy.
Amusingly, the Taiwanese provided a better summary of the events in the lead-up to the 2010 election than the Australian media did. You don't even need to understand Chinese.
As a result of compulsory voting (see below) the Australian system is designed to reward broad support (i.e. from a large amount of the population, compared to, for example, the American system, which is designed to reward deep support (the people most invested in a cause. Of course, neither is necessarily better - the Australian system tends to mean that change on controversial issues is glacially slow, for good or ill, because there's no incentive for a politician (especially one from the major parties) to not take the status quo side on any controversial issue until the overwhelming majority of the population want change, while in American-style systems, change can happen in fits and starts - it may take a while for someone on your side of the issue to get in, but once they're in, they have maximum incentive to make sweeping changes, to the best of their power - again, for good or ill.
Australia uses "preferential voting" also known as "Instant-Runoff Voting" (which disappointingly doesn't involve forcing pudgy middle-aged politicians to sprint) or as the "Alternative Vote" system in the UK. Rather than voting for a singular candidate and have them win through a plurality (i.e. whoever wins the most votes) such as in other countries, Australians are made to vote for their members in order of preference, ranking them 1, 2, 3 and so on. If no one wins a majority (i.e. more than 50%) of #1 votes first off, then whoever got the least number is eliminated and those votes are distributed to whoever the voters ranked as #2 instead — the process is repeated until someone gets a majority.
To prevent confusion, there are television and print ads explaining how a ranking ballot works ("put a '1' in the box of the candidate you prefer the most, etc. etc. etc."). On voting day, party supporters hand out "how-to-vote cards" at polling booths showing how each party prefers candidates from the other parties so that unsure people can just vote according to what their party wants.
The system is slightly different in the Senate: it's a different preferential voting system called Single Transferrable Vote (STV). Voters still rank their preferred candidates in order but because each state elects six senators in an election, candidates need to win a quota of one-seventh of the total vote to win a seat. note If a candidate wins more than a full quota, the remaining votes are transferred to the next preference and the process repeats. (The transfer is totally proportional, meaning that candidates can get fractions of votes on preferences.)
Also of note is that voting is compulsory. You can generally get away with not voting but legally you're expected to vote. A $AUS 20 fine applies for not voting.
- Technically, you're not obliged to mark the ballot in any way. If you genuinely don't care about your vote, you can just write "All politicians are wankers" on your ballot and put that in. Of course, if you vote correctly and write "All politicians are wankers" on the ballot, than the vote counters, while recounting everything, will see your vote half-a-dozen times.
- There is a joke: "For Christ's sake don't vote informal! I wrote 'Useless bastards!' on a ballot paper in 1971, and they've been in office ever since."
- "Donkey voting" is nothing to do with the US Democratsnote , but rather a type of formal (valid) vote, where the voter just numbers each box, consecutively 1-onwards, this is usually an "I don't care vote" but it can be helpful if there is a lot of candidates in a lower house election because a lower house ticket must be completely filled to be valid. Unfortunately, most media outlets, and thus most voters, use the terms informal and donkey interchangeably. They are not.
- A variation of donkey voting is to rank your favourite parties at the top, then rank all the others in the order they appear on the ballot paper, which is done by voters who have a preference but not interested in ranking the other candidates.
- Some people intentionally vote informal because they feel that both major parties are positioned in the centre, where to be fair, most Australian voters are . They might also feel that regardless of which way they vote, there won't be a recognisable change in leadership; just in the voice doing the 'leading', and so their 'say' is pointless regardless. (The fact that by doing so they are in fact making damned sure that their vote won't count rarely seems to occur to them.)
- The preferential voting system is worth noting because it means there's no such thing as a minor candidate "splitting the vote". If somebody really likes the Greens but would rather Labor win than Liberal, he can vote 1 Greens and 2 Labor, and
ifwhen the Greens candidate doesn't get in, that vote goes to Labor rather than being wasted. Plenty of people vote for all the minor parties first, and their actual contribution to the election comes from whether it's Labor 7, Liberal 8 (or Labor 139-145, Liberal 146-151, as in some states' interminably long federal senate ballot papers) or vice versa.
- Even so, not everyone realises this is the case. You still hear people saying they're going to give their first preference to a major party because "they need it more" (in fact, the opposite is true since the votes will eventually make their way, with their full power, to the two-party preferred statistic anyway).
- One term you might come across, when watching election night results coverage and suchlike, is "preference leakage". An example of this in action: the (right-wing) Liberal Party candidate receives 49% of first preferences, the (left-wing) Labor Party candidates receives 41% and the (left-wing) Greens candidate receives 10%. In this scenario, the Labor candidate would win after preferences are distributed if all of the Greens' preferences flow to Labor. However, there is always a minority that goes against the "how-to-vote" card of their first preference party, and instead preferences the bigger party that is (ideologically) further away. Thus, in this case, the Liberal candidate would probably scrape over 50% after the distribution of preferences and thus be elected.
Unfortunately the system has its weaknesses. You have to number every single candidate to choose which ones get your preference and in certain high-profile seats that can have over a dozen candidates running, this makes things complicated.
- It used to be worse, when voters had to number every single candidate on their Senate ballot who could number over a hundred. Even though the Senate ballot arranged candidates in groups according to party, informal voting was still through the roof.
- So, in the 1980s they introduced Group Voting Tickets, and you could now vote either "above the line" or "below the line". Above the eponymous horizontal line, each group had a single box: voters would just put a 1 in that box and it would be equivalent to ranking all preferences in the predetermined GVT order. Alternatively, below the line you could rank every single candidate in order just like before so naturally over 95% of people stuck to above-the-line voting.
- The trouble was, the party's predetermined preferences as ranked on their Group Voting Ticket often didn't reflect what their supporters actually wanted. Additionally, in the 2000s the minor parties and microparties began banding together to strike "preference deals", where they would all rank each other first regardless of ideology in the hope that one of them would luck into a Senate seat. Things came to a head in the 2013 election when the Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party won a Senate seat with just 0.5% of the state's primary vote, and it became apparent that the Senate voting system was no more representative than pulling names out of a hat.
- In 2016 they changed the system yet again. Group Voting Tickets were abolished; voting for a group above-the-line became equivalent to ranking the candidates in that group from the top down; and voters no longer needed to rank every Senate candidate. Now, voters must rank a minimum of six groups above-the-line or twelve candidates below-the-line. If all their ranked candidates get eliminated during the count, their vote becomes "exhausted" and from then on is treated as informal.
A now quite serious but previously quite informal tradition around election time is the "Democracy Sausage," where as a reward for doing your civic duty you could thereafter chow down on a BBQ sausage in a piece of bread with optional toppings. They would be provided by whomever was hosting the ballot space (usually the local public school, scout hall, or other similar civic place) for less than $5, with profits going to the host. Cakes and soft drinks are often also provided. Millenial voters use photos of their sausage rolls as informal "I voted" stickers on social media, and there is a central community run webpage telling you where you can get your Democracy Sausage all across Australia. Polling day is a very relaxed and pleasant affair, with very little of the vitriol that might afflict other countries and very little of the seriousness that might attend a US election.
Since they're all interchangeable bastards, we don't bother remembering any politician's names, so the only ones the average Aussie will know (apart from Harold Holt above, or WWII PM John Curtin, or Robert Menzies post-WWII) are the last dozen-or-so Prime Ministers: Gough Whitlam, Malcolm Fraser, Bob Hawke, Paul Keating, John Howard, Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard, Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison.
- Edmund Barton if you're 20 years or older. That did cost a few million dollars for the TV ad campaign though.
- Most are also able to remember Peter Garrett, but that's only because he was part of the band Midnight Oil.
- As well as for the, ah, Pink Batts scheme. Does anyone actually know of this, aside from Australians?
- It will be a long time before Queenslanders ever forget their infamous premiernote Joh Bjelke-Petersen either, as much as they'd like to. He shamelessly dished out favours to developers, openly referred to an Aboriginal activist as "Mr. Witchetty Grub", openly supported South Africa's apartheid regime (and responded to protests by bringing in rural cops and stuffing jails until protesters had to be kept in paddy wagons), considered blasting shipping lanes through the Great Barrier Reef with ''nuclear weapons'', involved in the allegedly corrupt pro-development 'white shoe brigade'...and somehow managed to remain in power for nearly 20 years. And even then he was only forced to step down due to a growing bribe scandal in the State Police. He certainly didn't help improve Queensland's red-neck stereotype.
- How did he stay in power for so long? Mainly due to a parliamentary map known as the "Bjelkemander", which was biased towards the rural areas where his National Party was popular. In some elections, they won the most seats despite taking only the third-highest number of votes. Other factors were his genuine popularity among staunchly right-wing voters and the fact that Queensland was enjoying an economic boom. Before his time, Brisbane and the Gold Coast were little more than large country towns.
- As a side note, most Prime Ministers until John Gorton have a suburb in the Australian Capital Territory named after them, and all Prime Ministers up to Malcolm Fraser have electoral divisions named after them.
- Joseph Cook is the sole exception, being the only deceased former PM not to have an electoral division named after him. This is because there already is a division named Cook - named after Captain James Cook, and also happens to be current Prime Minister Scott Morrison's seat. There have been plans, however, to rectify this by having the division jointly named for both Joseph and James - though as of now, that hasn't come to pass.
- Billy Snedden — who was leader of the Liberal Party from 1972 to 1975, and the Speaker of the House from 1975 to 1983 is well remembered.... for the circumstances of his death in 1987. Let's just say that he died "on the job" with his son's ex-girlfriend.
- Anyone who is not a Liberal supporter would be familiar with Bronwyn Bishop, former Speaker of the House. A real life Dolores Umbridge (Labor MP Tony Burke said as much,) untouchable Hanging Judge who delights in attacking the opposition through My Rules Are Not Your Rules, and had gained the ire of non-Liberal voters. She was forced to resigned at the request of the Prime Minister after "Choppergate", a parliamentary expenses scandal. She was replaced by Tony Smith.
- Bill Shorten (Opposition Labor leader from 2013-2019) was the first prime ministerial candidate to refuse to play ball with Rupert Murdoch. Despite the media playing him up as a charisma-challenged tax-feeder, his steadily rising popularity was enough to drive several right-wing parties and their voters to vote entirely in the Coalition's favour. So while the resulting government is more right-wing than before, the socially conservative aspect is much weaker.
- Nationals senator and deputy PM Barnaby Joyce is well known for causing a scene revolving around Johnny Depp and Amber Heard bringing their dogs into the country. He also voted against same-sex marriage on the grounds of family values, which blew up in his face in February 2018 when it was revealed he impregnated his mistress, a former staffer. This led him to resign from the Nationals Leadership position, but as of June 2021 he has taken it back from Michael McCormack
For a (relatively) brief summary of each Australian Prime Minister, see our article on the Prime Ministers of Australia.