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What just happened in the federal election?

A tight race between Labor and the Liberal/National Coalition was predicted when Australians headed to the polls on Saturday, but few commentators anticipated such a significant swing against Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. The election result is currently too close to call, with neither party securing enough seats in the House of Representatives to form a majority government yet. And potentially neither party will. As a result, we are now facing the possibility of a hung parliament.

What is a hung parliament?

A political party needs 76 of the 150 lower house seats to form majority government in Australia. A hung parliament occurs when neither party has the majority in the House of Representatives. After all the votes are counted, if both the Coalition and Labor fail to achieve 76 seats, there will be a hung parliament. The Coalition will remain in the caretaker government position until the final count is completed.

If there’s no clear majority, the leaders of both parties will talk to minor parties and independent MPs to gather support to form a minority government. The last time this happened was 2010, when Julia Gillard negotiated with three independents and Greens MP Adam Bandt to become a minority government. Before 2010 this hadn’t happened since 1940.

Can either party form a minority government?

Potentially, yes. Bill Shorten and Malcolm Turnbull will likely both talk to independent MPs and minor parties to establish whether they can form a minority government. In the event that Bill Shorten could gather an alliance, the Governor-General would swear in Shorten as prime minister after Turnbull resigned. If Turnbull gathers enough support, he would tell the Governor-General that he has a majority and remain prime minister.

According to Dr Geoffrey Robinson, senior lecturer in Australian studies at Deakin University, ‘Labor is more skilled at negotiating with independents. We saw this in 2010.’ Although he points out that with the exception of Adam Bandt and Andrew Wilkie, the current independents are ‘ideologically closer to the Liberals and would be aware that their seats are Liberal-inclined’. This means that the Liberals would be more likely to maintain their position through negotiation.

Dr Robinson doesn’t anticipate Australians returning to vote again soon; at this stage the government is more likely to be formed through alliances and negotiation.

Will a minority government be effective?

Commentators often note that the problem with minority government is that it can be difficult to pass its legislation and lead effectively. Dr Robinson says that if a minority government is formed, it would still be in a position to pass legislation through the House of Representatives, though. It will simply require more negotiation to do so, but we have seen minority governments, like Gillard’s, do this with great success in the past.

What does this result say about the state of Australian politics?

Dr Robinson points out that the result of this election shows that fewer people in Australia are ‘rusted on’ to a specific party than they were in the past. ‘There is greater voter volatility and a feeling that neither party has solutions to current problems, such as worries about living standards, jobs and services,’ he points out.

If nothing else, such a tight race for power highlights the fact that Australians are overwhelmingly disillusioned with the major parties. A hung parliament forces both parties to think less of their own objectives and more of the sentiment from their constituents.

Interested in politics and policy? Find out more about studying politics at Deakin University.


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Dr Geoffrey Robinson
Dr Geoffrey Robinson

Senior Lecturer in Australian Studies, Deakin University
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