You can tell we’ve just had an election — the government is brimming with talk of mandates and “respecting the will of the people”. The opposition is brimming with dissent.
On the energy front, Energy Minister Angus Taylor has rejected calls for compromise and asserted, “We’re firmly committed to the policies we took to the election. We now have a clear mandate to implement those policies”. Claiming a mandate on tax reform, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg has declared that “Australians voted for tax cuts as opposed to tax increases” and accused Labor of “seeking to deny the will of the Australian people”. He wrote as much in The Australian today.
The purpose of these mandate claims is self-evident: to pressure non-government MPs and senators to enact the government’s legislative program. But is there any meaningful authority for these claims?
What we talk about when we talk about mandates
Plainly, they have no legal basis. There is nothing in Australia’s constitution, or elsewhere in the country’s laws, requiring parliament to pass the government’s bills. At the end of the day, the government either has the numbers in parliament or it doesn’t.
Similarly, there is no established convention that parliament should implement a new government’s election policies. The idea of an electoral mandate does not have the consistent support of either the Coalition or Labor. The attitude of the major parties changes depending on whether they’re in government or not. In any event, an electoral mandate would make a nonsense of both the Senate’s review role and the different electoral rules that apply to the House of Representatives and the Senate.
Absent law and convention, the only authority for any mandate claim is an appeal to democratic principles. The argument is that the election result constitutes an endorsement of government policies by the voters — that those policies reflect the will of the people. The will of the people should be respected in a democracy and therefore those policies should be implemented.
In pressuring Labor to support the personal income tax cuts currently proposed by the government, Josh Frydenberg argues that in the election “the Australian people decided to back in our plan to provide tax relief for all working Australians”.
But is that really what happens in an Australian federal election? Do “the Australian people” really endorse the policies of the winning party?
The truth behind an election win
Many Australians eligible to vote don’t enrol and many of those who are enrolled don’t vote. Of those Australians who do vote, a significant number vote informally and their ballot papers are not counted. Among the formal voters, a significant number are not very familiar with the policies of the competing parties and could not be seen as endorsing any particular policy of the winning party.
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Even among those voters who are informed about party policies, many are not “policy voters” — that is, their vote is determined not by policy preferences but by other factors such as historical loyalties or the personalities of individual politicians.
Significantly, even among informed policy voters there are many who support some of the policies of the party that they vote for but oppose others. For example, in the latest election there were undoubtedly many Coalition voters who supported its income tax policies but rejected its energy policies, and vice versa.
This reflects the increasingly multidimensional nature of our politics — diverse economic, social, cultural and environmental issues mean that policy voting is no longer a binary left/right, Labor/Coalition decision. A vote for a party cannot be taken as an endorsement of all its policies.
Of course, the major limit on the level of electoral endorsement of government policy is the number of voters who do not give their primary vote to the government. It is the primary vote that best reflects a voter’s personal policy preferences; the vote that constitutes a true policy endorsement. For example, in the last election many voters gave their primary vote to United Australia Party, One Nation, the Greens and a host of independents but their preferences ultimately contributed to the Coalition’s two-party-preferred vote. Many of those voters would have disagreed with many of the Coalition’s election policies.
The percentage of the primary vote won by minor parties and independents has been trending upwards over the last 15 elections, from around 7% in the 1980s to more than 25% in 2019. An increasingly smaller proportion of voters are giving their primary vote, and hence their primary policy endorsement, to one of the two major parties. This is reflected in a long-term downward trend in the primary vote won by the incoming government.
As that primary vote declines, so too does the level of any potential policy endorsement and hence the legitimacy of any claim to a policy mandate based on such endorsement.
Take the Coalition’s policy of cutting personal income tax on a three-stage basis through to 2024/25. Was the 2019 election result an endorsement of that policy by “the Australian people”? The Coalition won just 41% of the primary vote. (That represented only 36% of all enrolled voters and just 34.8% of all eligible voters.)
If you subtract the significant number of Coalition voters who did not know or understand its tax policy, or who voted for non-policy reasons, or who opposed the tax policy but liked other Coalition policies, the proportion of Australians who actually endorsed the tax policy becomes a pale shadow of “the Australian people”.
Under Australia’s federal electoral system, the party that wins the election has an unequivocal mandate to govern. However, claims of a mandate to have election policies enacted by parliament are increasingly difficult to justify on electoral endorsement grounds. Politicians would be better off not making them.
That would be consistent with the view expressed by the last leader to win more than one election, John Howard: “The mandate theory of politics from the point of view of proper analysis has always been absolutely phoney”.