It was not until I ran as an Australian Labor Party (ALP) candidate in the 2013 election that I realised many of my friends of culturally diverse backgrounds (especially those from Chinese backgrounds) do not understand how the Australian electoral system works. I have found that when I talk to them about politics, I often have to explain the Australian political system first.
The Australian political system is very different from that of China, Hong Kong, Taiwan or even the United States. Many people do not understand how our Prime Minister can change without a vote from the people of Australia –in the United States this cannot happen. I’ve written my thoughts down in the hope it will help others who are trying to understand the Australian political process for the first time.
The Westminster system
I will focus only on the Australian Federal Parliament. State Parliaments are all slightly different, so I will not go into the detail of each state parliament, or for that matter, local councils. The Australian political system is based on the Westminster system, originally from the United Kingdom. Parliament consists of three components: the Monarch (the Queen), the House of Representatives, and the Senate.
The Queen of Britain is also the symbolic head of state for Australia, known as the Queen of Australia. Her representative to the Australian people is known as the Governor-General of Australia, and is appointed by her (though advice is taken from the Federal government). The functions and responsibilities of the Governor-General include appointing ambassadors, ministers and judges, giving Royal Assent to legislation, issuing writs for elections and bestowing honours.
The House of Representatives
Parliament is made up of two houses – the House of Representatives and the Senate. The House of Representatives has 150 members, each elected for a flexible term of office not exceeding three years. Each person represents a single electoral division, commonly referred to as an electorate or seat. For example, in 2013, I ran as a candidate for the electorate of Higgins in Victoria.
The party or a coalition of parties that wins a majority of members of the House of Representatives forms government. The party or coalition of parties with fewer seats form what is known as the ‘Opposition’ party. I don’t like the term Opposition, because it almost provides them a mandate to ‘oppose’ everything the government does. For example, this was what Tony Abbott did when he was part of the Opposition, when the ALP was in power. He was an opponent with no solid policies, only slogans. In a perfect world, the Opposition should be providing alternative policies from the ruling government.
There are two major political parties in Australia – the Australian Labor Party (ALP) and the Australian Liberal Party (LIB). However, you hear the word ‘Coalition’ a lot, because the Liberals and National Party (NAT) have had a long-standing Coalition. Without the Coalition, they would never have enough seats to win government. There are also a number of minor parties and independents.
When I was running for a seat in Higgins in 2013, some people asked me, ‘If a person wins a seat in Parliament, does that mean they are in government?’ The answer is that it depends on which political party the person who won the seat is in. If the person is a member of the ruling government party, then they are in government, otherwise, they are either in Opposition, or they are a member of Parliament as an ‘independent’ or from a minor party.
In Australia, it is compulsory to vote. If people do not vote, they will get a fine. The voting system used for the House of Representative is a ‘preferential’ system. In this piece, I won’t go into details on how this system works, because it is very complex, but in practical terms, this means that voters are asked to number the candidates on their ballot in order of preference. If not every box is numbered, then a person’s vote will not be counted. People who do not understand this system, especially many from migrant backgrounds who are unfamiliar with the Australian Westminster system, will sometimes just tick the name of the candidate, or just put ‘1’ beside their preferred candidate. Unfortunately, this means that their vote is wasted.
Due to the compulsory voting system and the preferential system – it means election results are relatively predictable. Popular opinion and elections always come down to a contest between ‘two party preferred’, and this is the number of votes after the distribution of votes. So during my campaign, when people told me “I’m not going to vote for you”’. This could mean many things. It could mean ‘I’m not voting you as number 1, but I will still have you above the other major party candidate’. Or it could also mean, ‘I will put the other major party candidate above you.’ It is never clear.
There are three (3) types of electorates: safe, marginal, and safe for the opposing party. In Higgins, when I was running for a seat in 2013, although it had never been held by ALP before, the swing was at 5.4%, so I treated it as a marginal seat and ran the campaign as such. What this swing figure means is that I needed to change the views of 5.4% of all my voters (which translates to around 4,900 actual voters). In this case, I needed to change the views of those who preferenced LIB in the last election to preference me (as an ALP representative) above LIB this time. It was a difficult task, especially when people usually vote for the party in a Federal election and follow the national campaign – rather than the local one.
Many candidates from one party running in another party’s safe seat do not always work hard, because it is very unlikely for them to win the seat. I cannot accept that. I think it is disrespectful to voters. Regardless of the chances of winning the seat, candidates should still work hard to engage voters, and also to use their strengths to help candidates in their own party who may be campaigning in other electorates. I had many ALP voters who came up to me and thanked me for working hard because they do not always see ALP candidates in the area. They felt they had been neglected.
In 2013, at the time of my campaign, Australia had a minority government. What that means is that after the 2010 election, neither ALP nor the Coalition had a majority to form government. To form government, the ALP, led by Julia Gillard, negotiated with the Greens and the Independents to support the ALP to form government. Tony Abbott also attempted to do the same, but failed. For that reason, the ALP formed a minority government with the Greens and a few other minority parties.
It is also because of having a minority government that there was a fragile environment for the ALP. They had to balance party interests carefully to ensure legislation was passed. It also gave the Coalition, headed by Tony Abbott, the opportunity to focus on bringing down a fragile government by opposing everything.
After government is formed, the leader of the party usually becomes Prime Minister. This is very different from the President of the United States, who is directly elected by the people. It also means that the Prime Minister in Australia must be familiar with all legislation being proposed or implemented by their party, be able to debate it in Parliament, as well as able to communicate this to the people of Australia. It is a very difficult role.
The Australian Senate has 76 members. The six states return twelve senators each, and the two territories return two senators each. The Senate is seen as a ‘house of review’, where the review of proposed legislation happens before it turns into law. It is possible for the government to not have the ‘balance of power’ in the Senate, which means they have the majority in the House of Representative, but not in the Senate. If that is the case, it is possible that the government cannot pass any legislation if they are blocked in the Senate. It is also easier to elect smaller parties to the Senate because of the voting system. Senate candidates are preselected by the party. The system used for the Senate is a ‘proportional’ voting system. Because this system is even more complex than the preferential system, so I won’t go into detail here.
Elected representatives and the business of government
The role of elected representatives is to debate legislation in parliament and develop policies that guide and provide directions to government Departments. People who work in government departments (known as ‘public servants’) must work for the government of the day to implement policies – regardless of any political allegiances. This provides relative political stability in Australia, as the obligations of public servants means that nothing can just change overnight, just because a new government comes into power.
Having said that, a change of government may mean a change of policies, and may disrupt the normal running of Departments. For that reason, if the government is an experienced one, and if they understand the running of Departments, this will mean a smooth transition, otherwise, transition can be disruptive and sometimes even destructive.
For example in Australia, many non-profit organisations rely on government funding. For some, 100% of their revenue comes from government (local, state and Federal). Social support services are outsourced through government departments, and funding is only allocated if it meets the priorities of the government of the day.
When I was a senior manager at a disability organisation, I saw how changes in government can affect people and organisations who rely on government funding. Organisations that receive funding from government cannot plan programs beyond the term of government (especially when the government is fragile). People who rely on government funding can suddenly change with short notice. The effectiveness of a government depends on how well government understands this process.
It is very important for new migrants, including those from Asian Australian backgrounds, to understand the way the political system works, particularly so we are able to participate meaningfully in elections. I hope this gives readers further insight into the workings of the Australian political system.
The Asian Australian Democracy Caucus (AADC) is a non-partisan organisation. One of our ongoing commitments is to contribute a monthly blog in collaboration with Peril magazine. To find out more about this collaboration read here. If you want more information or would like to write for us, get in touch with us, Jen Tsen Kwok or Shinen Wong at firstname.lastname@example.org