Almost there. In the four weeks since the federal election, the Australian Electoral Commission’s count of the national two-party-preferred vote has been bouncing around, although never straying very far from the 50-50 mark. It’s now stabilised at a figure that will be very close to final: 50.15% for the ALP, 49.85% for the Coalition.
The totals have previously been incomplete for two reasons. First, declaration votes — that is, postals, absentees, provisionals and out-of-seat pre-polls — have been gradually added in to the totals for each seat recorded on polling day. There are probably still a few postals and provisionals out there somewhere, but this process is now basically complete.
Second, there was initially no two-party-preferred count in the eight seats that were not fought out between a Labor and Coalition candidate. We have had to wait for the AEC to recount those seats on a two-party-preferred basis, which it does for information purposes only — it plays no role in deciding the seat, but it’s necessary to get a complete national tally. That has now been finished for seven of the eight (Batman, Denison, Grayndler, Kennedy, Lyne, Melbourne and New England), and almost finished in O’Connor.
O’Connor is a safe Coalition seat (although “Coalition” probably should be in scare quotes, since its new MP plans to sit on the cross benches), so the remaining 11,000 votes to count there (as of deadline time) should favour them, but that’s still not enough to move the national total by more than one or two hundredths of a percentage point. We’re on very safe ground saying that Labor has won the national two-party-preferred vote with at least 50.1%.
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Does that matter? Where two-party-preferred vote is concerned, pundits tend to divide into sceptics and believers, and I confess that I’m a believer. Yes, it’s an imperfect measure and can be misleading in a host of ways, but ultimately it’s the best thing we’ve got for putting a number on what people actually voted for. Put to a choice between a Labor and a Coalition government, the majority of voters — very narrowly, but still clearly — voted for the former.
When the only options on offer are majority government for one side or the other, it seems plain to me that government should go with the two-party-preferred vote. That doesn’t always happen. Five times in our postwar history — in 1954, 1961, 1969, 1990 and 1998 — the side that lost the two-party-preferred vote has formed a majority government (figures from before 1983 are AEC estimates, but 1969 is the only one that’s really debatable). In 1990 it was the Coalition that lost out; in the other four it was Labor each time.
If minority government is an option, things are a bit different. It would clearly be less than fully democratic if Labor had won a majority with just 38% of the primary vote. (Although hardly unprecedented — the Liberal Party did it in 1977 with 38.1%.) Voters did not choose to give either side a majority, so it would be unfair for the system to artificially construct one.
Even so, given that the cross-bench MPs had to choose one way or the other, there should be at least some presumption in favour of them going with the two-party-preferred choice. While they didn’t have the benefit of those figures last week when they made their decision, it has been probable for some time that Labor would come out ahead — as my colleague William Bowe calculated back on August 31.
That was never going to be the independents’ only consideration; they have a duty to use their own judgement and to consider the interests of their own electorates. And it stands to reason that the closer the two-party-preferred vote is, the less weight it should have. But it’s worth remembering that because Australian electoral behavior is very stable, close results are the rule rather than the exception: it’s more than 30 years since either side won more than 54%, and 1990 — when the Coalition lost with 50.1% — was at least as close as this year.
This year, the system got the right result. But that was due more to chance than to design.