For some years now, I and a small number of other people have been banging on about an anomaly of Australian democracy hiding in plain sight — the propensity of the system to deliver one party a majority of the seats in the lower house without an overall majority of the vote. This happens in all first-past-the-post systems, but it has happened in Australia more often than in most preferential systems. Crucially, it has happened twice in modern times. The first was in 1990, when Andrew Peacock eked out a narrow 0.2%percentage win against Bob Hawke but fell short by nine seats. In 1998 John Howard gained an even more outrageous victory against Kim Beazley, gaining only 49% of the vote to Beazley’s 51%, but having a truly absurd 13-seat majority.

So the country had a government it had not elected — and each took us in substantially assertive directions, with the Hawke-Keating government starting a new round of tariff reduction, and John Howard gaining the incumbency during the 9/11 period, which set him up for near-certain victory. This is an extraordinary situation, and it is excused by a fiction of the system — that we elect 150 independent members who somehow magically form a government. That would be true if each newly elected member came to Parliament in his charabanc and formed a majority over glasses of hock. In reality, we have the most tightly disciplined party system in the world, most people wouldn’t know the local Labor stooge or Liberal airhead they are voting for, and the major parties are quasi-state apparatuses in any case.

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But most people aren’t aware of the “150 independents” implicit idea of Parliament — and they simply don’t care. Disengagement with the system is so comprehensive that the idea of representation is genuinely decayed. The political elites within the major parties would prefer to take turns, rather than raise wider questions about the system, and mainstream commentators simply treat the system as a game that they master, and don’t want to question the rules. With a simple two-party system in place, that cosy situation could continue for ever.

Trouble is, we no longer have such a system. Absent of any change to the Senate rules, a dozen seats (or 24 in a double dissolution) are up for grabs by small and micro groups, and the number of small party members and independents could rise steadily over successive elections in the House of Reps. This group has already helped form one government in 2010, and it seems quite possible that they may be in a position to do so again in 2017. Should that occur, people may finally start to sit up and take notice, for one of the people making that decision will be Clive Palmer.

“Any multimillionaire can potentially use the particularities of the Australian system to buy their way into power at a discount rate.”

The situation in which Clive Palmer gets to be a kingmaker in the lower house is not too difficult to game out, nor is it too improbable. The Abbott government is current running between four and eight points behind Labor on two-party preferred polling. The Coalition has polled so consistently at that figure that much of its effort from here to the next election will simply be focused on regaining that lost ground. Barring Tony Abbott stabbing someone in the eye with a pencil, that polling will remain likely close to parity. Should that occur, it seems even more likely that the number of small/micro/independent members would rise. The Greens may get a second MP (though that still remains elusive), there could be one or two more Cathy McGowan-style rural independents, Palmer would most likely retain his seat and gain a second, and Bob Katter would remain supreme in Kennedy.

That would leave an implicit House of Representatives crossbench split of 3+ leaning towards Labor (Bandt, Wilkie, MacGowan), Katter towards the Coalition, and Palmer and possible other rural independents in the genuine swing position (and McGowan could also be put in that column). If the major parties tied on 71-73 seats each, then Palmer would most likely be the key vote in deciding who gets to form government. If the Palmer United Party can get a second local member up, that position becomes commanding. That would be an interesting enough situation were the raw majority and the seat tally to match — but what if one party were a full 1%-2% behind the other, yet gained a plurality of the seats? What if a party missed out on government in its own right because of that mismatch? This has already sort of happened — in 2010 — but the effect was muted by the fact that Windsor and Oakeshott, the two true independents, were people who bore a large measure of public trust and respect. I heart Clive more than most, but anyone can see that he is pretty much held in the opposite regard. And of course the conflict-of-interest issues are horrific.

Could the prospect of Palmer holding that sort of power be sufficient to wake people up about the jerry-rigged situation they’ve inherited? For the issue is about more than merely Clive. His role is to show the way — that any multimillionaire can potentially use the particularities of the Australian system to buy their way into power at a discount rate. Surely, surely, one thinks, people could start to think about the system overall, and whether it remains genuinely democratic, before some sort of three-way car crash legitimacy crisis occurs? Probably not. Given that small parties and crossbenchers have an interest in the system remaining gnarly — to make situations in which they have the swing vote more likely — the major parties will, as noted, cop almost anything rather than shine a light on a system where 53% of a two-party preferred vote is considered a landslide and a mandate for change. Maybe, just maybe, the clear result of 2013 — that you can buy your way into substantial power — will make it clear to progressive forces that they have an interest in making the system genuinely democratic.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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