Sam Thorogood

Three Fun Facts on Australian Federal Elections

Some fun facts on voting in Australia, one of the world's few democracies to enforce (lightly) compulsary voting. (That isn't a fun fact—it's well-known and not really that interesting.)

The Facts

1. We're a federation or federalist state

The federal government exists at the behest of the states, not the other way around. It's conceivable but highly improbable that a state could secede: if all states seceeded, then the federation would arguably cease to exist.

This seems incredibly unlikely and I'm quite sure that I've oversimplified this possibility. 🤔

2. How to vote cards used to serve a purpose

On your way to vote in-person, you'll be hounded by what feels like hundreds of overeager volunteers who want to present you with a guide on how to vote for their candidate. Some large number of people (anywhere between 10-50%) vote in a way that matches the guide: yes, put your preferred party first, and number the rest of the boxes as suggested.

But ballot papers did not actually contain party names until 1983 (source: AEC) ❕

Yes, our preferential system is more complex (and better) than most of the world. And that combined with a lack of party affilations—I don't care who I'm voting for, just let me vote for Labor or Liberal or Greens or whoever—meant they were absolutely a necessity, for a time.

3. IRV was introduced in a response to the split conservative vote

Our lower house system uses IRV, which is a pretty good way to choose a single winner from a group. (It's still bad though—if you're a party that gets 10-15% average in every seat in the country, you don't get 10-15% of the representation.)

And compared to first-past-the-post, sadly used by the other big English-speaking democracies—the UK, Canada, in the US, it's… well, it's miles past the post. 🥁💥

But IRV was introduced in 1918 by a conservative government to avoid splitting the vote:

The conservative government of Billy Hughes introduced preferential voting as a means of allowing competition between the two conservative parties without putting seats at risk. (source)

So if you find strategic voting a bit depressing, then perhaps encourage your local conservative parties to splinter. They'll be tweaking your country's constitution to better enable themselves to continue holding power in no time.

Oh, I made myself sad.

Australia, depite this change, still basically has a two-party system: yes, we have a conservative coalition, which I guess IRV enables, but we're seeing more and more independents and the rise of the Greens. So that's nice.

🎊 Bonus 🎊 Fun Fact

According to the ABC, there's 1624 candidates running in the 2022 lower house election. That's a staggering 10.75 per seat.

So, 1987 was in fact the last time a voting Australian was able to number only a single '1' in a box. (The AEC don't publish this fact widely, but your vote will be counted if you order 1 through N-1 candidates—if there's two candidates, you just have to number one. With a 1️⃣.)

These low numbers are now rare because we now have this baseline of parties running a candidate in almost every seat:

Why? If I had to guess, it's because there's honestly not a lot of cost to it, and these smaller parties have classically angled mostly for senate seats. And if you're going to be doing promotion across the country anyway, you may as well have a local face—even if they're not practically going to win.

That's all

Go and vote. It's the law! (For Australians.)