Charting the 100-strong rise of Australian minor parties and independents

Australia heads to this weekend’s federal election with more independents and minor party members than at any time in the past 60 years, new data shows.

Figures collected by analyst and commentator Greg Earl quantify for the first time the rise of members outside Australia’s two-party system.

The data shows that the number of independent or minor party members with seats in an Australian federal or state legislature has now passed the symbolic 100-seat mark. Australia’s two dominant forces, the Australian Labor Party (ALP) and the Liberal–National Coalition, each hold between 300 and 400 seats. The total number of seats has changed little in the past 30 years.

Depending on how parties from before World War II are categorised, Earl said, Australia now has more independent and minor party members of parliament than at any time in its history.

Earl, a former deputy editor of The Australian Financial Review, is now a Lowy Institute contributor and a member of the Australia ASEAN Council; he published the graph in the Lowy Institute’s Interpreter blog. He says he began keeping records of seat numbers for all parties after finding that political journalist colleagues were frequently unable to back up their intuitions with hard numbers.

The number of independent and minor party members of parliament rose at the March election for the state of New South Wales, where the Greens won five seats, the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party two seats, the right-wing One Nation Party two seats and other groups and independents four seats.

It may rise again at Saturday’s federal election, where the Greens, One Nation, the populist United Australia Party and a large number of unaligned local-seat independents are all considered to have a chance of winning seats.

Depending on the result, these members could end up holding the balance of power in the Senate and even the House of Representatives, whose numbers determine the identity of the government.

Among the new candidates is Australia’s most successful alpine skier, Zali Steggall, who is running as an independent against former prime minister Tony Abbott in his Sydney seat of Warringah.

Previous prominent minor parties have included:
• the Democratic Labor Party in the 1960s and early 1970s
• the Liberal Movement in the 1970s
• the Australian Democrats between 1977 and 2008

Most of these earlier minor parties were centrists, Earl notes. But recent decades have seen the emergence both of the Greens on the left and of a group of populist right-wing parties based in Queensland and New South Wales.

Such parties can win seats in Australian parliaments because of its system of preferential or ranked-choice voting in the lower house and multi-seat elections in the upper house. The US federal government and states, by contrast, mostly uses a first-past-the-post system or a run-off system; only Maine uses the ranked-choice system.

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