Australia Elections 2016


Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull called an early double dissolution election on July 2, 2016, in an attempt to unblock legislation, obtain a direct mandate from the people and consolidate his position as prime minister. Instead, it appears Turnbull's right-of-center Coalition will return to office with the narrowest of margins in the House and significant opposition in the Senate. Turnbull's poor performance in the election may lead to internal and/or external challenges from critics in the year ahead. Australian voters appear to be continuing a trend away from the main political parties. While defense and foreign policy were not major issues in the campaign, the results could signal changes that could potentially affect Australia-United States relations. There appears to be mounting concern, particularly in rural regions of Australia, over immigration and the economic impacts of globalization. Australia's political instability has led Standard and Poor's to downgrade the outlook for Australia's AAA credit rating from stable to negative.

Government Structure and Double Dissolution Elections

Australia has a bicameral parliament consisting of the House of Representatives and the Senate. The House has 150 Representatives, who are elected through a preferential ballot. Australia's preferential ballot reapportions votes until one parliamentary candidate has over 50% of the vote in a given "electorate" (i.e., electoral district). The Senate has 76 seats, with 12 senators from each of the six states and two senators from each of the two territories. They are elected on a proportional basis. Normally, one half of the senators are elected every three years and all territory senators are elected every three years. Although the government must call elections every three years, it may call early elections. A double dissolution, where all members of both legislative bodies must stand for election, may be called if government legislation is blocked twice in three months. Turnbull became prime minister through a party room "spill," or vote of Liberal Party MPs, in September 2015. Both former Labor Party Prime Ministers Kevin Rudd (2007-2010, 2013) and Julia Gillard (2010-2013) became prime minister in this way.

The Election Result

Preliminary results indicate Prime Minister Turnbull's Liberal Party in coalition with the National Party will be returned to office following the results of the July 2, 2016, election, though with a reduced mandate. The Coalition likely dropped from 90 to 76 seats while the Australian Labor Party, led by Bill Shorten, likely increased its representation from 55 to 69. The Greens, the Australia Party, and the so-called Nick Xenophon Team (founded by independent centrist Senator Nick Xenophon) are expected to each win one seat in the House with two independents.

The Coalition's diminished presence in parliament led Turnbull to seek the support of crossbenchers outside the political mainstream. Bob Katter's Australia Party is giving qualified support to the Turnbull government. Katter announced he would offer support with regard to supply [the budget] and confidence votes adding that he did so "with no great enthusiasm ... and I maintain my right to move at any point." Victorian Independent Cathy McGowan has also reportedly made commitments to the government. Nicholas Xenophon and Turnbull also reportedly discussed the future of the steel industry after the election. The composition of the Australian Senate is projected to be 30 Coalition, 27 Labor, 8 Green, 3 Xenophon, 3 Hanson, 2 independents, and 3 seats still undecided as of July 11. Labor leader Shorten has predicted that Australia will go back to the polls by year's end.

Turnbull, who the Australian electorate had initially thought of as a moderate within his party for supporting legalized gay marriage, for previously supporting an emissions trading scheme in Australia, and for believing that Australia should become a Republic, appears to have disappointed many Australian voters for adopting the more conservative policies of his predecessor former Prime Minister Tony Abbott. Conventional wisdom as presented in the Australian media is that voters trust Labor on health care and education while they trust the Liberal Party on economic management of the country. It appears the Labor Party gained relative to the Coalition in 2016 in part by highlighting the possibility that the Coalition would privatize Medicare.

Rising Influence of Smaller Parties and Independents

Australian voters appear to be increasingly disillusioned with both the Coalition and the Labor Party and as a result are turning to support independents, the Greens, and other smaller parties. The 2016 election continues a trend in the Australian electorate away from the political mainstream. Nearly one quarter of Australian voters are now choosing alternative parties when casting their primary vote. This gradual but steady move away from the major parties, who largely share a common outlook on foreign, defense, and trade policy, could potentially impact immigration, defense, or trade policy.

This could, if the trend continues, eventually challenge Australia's broad political consensus on a range of issues. For example, MP Katter supports a significant reduction in immigration as does Pauline Hanson, leader of the One Nation Party, who will return to the Australian Senate after having polled 9.1% of the vote in Queensland. She appears to be viewed in the Australian media as representing disaffected, xenophobic, anti-globalization, middle-class voters who are alienated by the political process and the neo-liberal economic agenda. Some observers have compared the return of Hanson to Donald Trump's candidacy—Hanson also opposes Muslim immigration—and the British Brexit vote.

Independent centrist Senator Nicholas Xenophon is concerned with the impact of globalization on Australia and is an advocate for protectionist policies for South Australian steel producers. The Green Party would like to challenge the Labor-Coalition bipartisan consensus on Australia's alliance with the United States as it believes that Australia's foreign policy should be independent and non-aligned. The Green party has fairly steadily increased its electoral performance, as measured by first preferences, from 2.92% in 1996 to 9.82% of first preference votes in 2016. While not likely at present, the inclusion of the Green Party in government, most likely in a future Labor Party government, could potentially have implications for Australia's defense and foreign policy.