Federal election 2016: Outcome and key players

| July 3, 2016

Australia has voted. With neither of the two major parties having a clear majority, what happens next? Political scientist Dominic O’Sullivan explains.

National opinion polls accurately predicted the overall outcome of Saturday’s election; just enough between the two major parties for the Coalition to form government, perhaps on its own, but quite likely only with the support of the Xenophon party and perhaps one or more independents. Minority government will be difficult; just as it was for the Gillard Government, but voters might reasonably temper their impatience by remembering that this is the Parliament that they alone elected. If neither of the big parties enjoys a clear majority, it is only by the people’s considered choice.

Although the Greens overall vote has declined, it may yet add to its single seat in the House of Representatives with victory over the Rudd/Gillard era’s chief ‘faceless man’ David Feeney, in the seat of Batman. The Greens have said that they would only use their numbers to support a Labor government; support that Labor regards, from past experience, as extreme and a certain path to defeat at the next election. The Independents Cathi McGowan and Andrew Wilkie have quite irresponsibly said that they will not support either party. They are reasonably nervous about the electoral consequences of backing the ‘wrong’ side, but members of Parliament owe their constituents their judgement and they cannot escape that a Parliament’s first task is to provide a government.

Providing confidence does not mean a government must be supported on every piece of legislation. Stability does not require every government Bill to pass the lower House, but it does require the House to give one of its number its confidence to form a government. If a member holding the balance of power fails to take a position, the Parliament fails in its duty and another election is the only possible outcome.

With the Greens, McGowan and Wilkie ruling themselves out, Turnbull may find himself able to govern only with the support of the Independent Bob Katter and/or the Xenophon party. Both have similar positions in favour of a more protectionist approach to free trade and interventions to support manufacturing and agriculture. Katter has been in the Parliament a long time and his positions are well known. The Xenophon member, Rebekha Sharkie, is a disaffected former Liberal party member; her likely victory the subject of Liberal party cautions against voting for candidates of parties named after their leaders. However, unlike the Palmer United Party, Xenophon’s is not a personality cult. It will allow a government to form, but it will be most conscious of doing so on principled terms that allow it to develop a political ‘brand’ larger than the leader himself. Its long term viability depends on crafting for itself a centrist policy niche, just as the One Nation party, which will have between 1 and 4 members in the Senate will need to transcend the simplistic politics of its leader, Pauline Hanson, to establish long term viability.

Hanson is overtly racist. She brings to the Senate an ideology that is necessarily confrontational and divisive. However, her appeal is also to the economically vulnerable and disaffected. She has an appeal to people who believe that mainstream politics has forgotten them, but as people whose votes are essential to the two major parties, they might as a result of this election receive a little more targeted attention. It is 18 years since Hanson last sat in Parliament. The time it has taken her to return suggests a volatile support base that will be an important site of contest between the two big parties at the next election.

Hanson will sit in a Senate that is far more difficult for a Coalition government to work with than the one it positioned as so troublesome as to justify a double dissolution election. There will be a larger crossbench, and although two of the groupings, Xenophon’s and Hanson’s, come with clear policy positions, their members are, apart from the leaders, politically unknown. Little is known about the rigour of either party’s selection processes, the depth and clarity of candidates’ commitments to their parties causes, and with the Palmer United Party’s experience in mind one might ask about the new senators’ capacity to work as cohesive groups, able to put well considered, agreed and consistently principled positions to the Senate. Palmer’s party lasted only a few months, yet serious political influence requires cohesion sustained over the Senate’s full term.

The new Senate’s full constitution will not be known for several days, but already it is clear that the double dissolution was a serious miscalculation on Turnbull’s part. Leyenholm and Day were occasional and mild critics of the Coalition. Lazarus, Muir and Wang took less sympathetic philosophical positions, but never did they refuse to negotiate in good faith and never did they stop the government from governing. Lambie required significant effort, but she was always likely to be returned. In the new Senate, Lambie is indeed back on an enlarged crossbench and the Coalition’s numbers are likely to decline. Derryn Hinch’s politics are clear and assertive. He will support the Coalition more often than not, but will be vocal and vociferous on points of disagreement. Xenophon will negotiate with honesty and integrity but is not naturally sympathetic to the Coalition, and all parties will struggle to find common ground with Hanson whose divisiveness is not simply the contest of ideas that democracy requires but a strike at the heart of human being. Hers is not an objection to another’s ideas, but to another’s presence. It is an ideology that confronts democracy itself.