Friday, January 22, 2021

The Federal Government's Majority Is Three Seats, Not One

(23 FEB 2021: Scroll down for Craig Kelly update; the headline is now out of date!)

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I have a number of pieces half-written, in the pipeline, or mostly written but not quite right yet, and hopefully most of them will see the light of day sooner or later, though I am extremely busy with contract work and other things through to about mid-February.  However having seen quite a few people making false claims about the size of the federal government's majority on social media lately, I thought I would just correct them and also make the case for using one convention of defining a majority instead of some of the others some people are using. 

The best way to define a government's majority, conventional in the UK especially, is the number of government seats minus the number of non-government seats.  In this case, 77-74=3.  In Australia it is fairly common to see alternative methods used involving the number of MPs who have to vote with the other side for a bill to be defeated.  However, these methods are inferior, because the mathematical consequences of every possible majority in the conventional form are different, but for the votes-to-swing methods this isn't always true. As a result, the votes-to-swing methods lose useful information and create confusion.   


Similar confusion persisted through the 45th parliament, which the Turnbull government started with a majority of two (76-74=2) but was widely claimed to have a majority of one.  Temporary vacancies during by-elections excluded, that government suffered either two or three seat losses to the crossbench, depending on definition, and became a minority government at some stage of its rule:

- Kevin Hogan moved to the crossbench in August 2018, but remained a partyroom member of one of the governing Coalition parties (National) despite this.

- The seat of Wentworth was lost to independent Kerryn Phelps in a by-election in October 2018.

- Julia Banks quit the government and sat as an independent in November 2018.

Even if Hogan isn't counted as having really left the government, the government was in a two-seat minority after Banks left (74-76=-2).  

As Australian majorities go, the current government's majority of three is a very small one. 35 of the previous 45 federal elections had resulted in governments with larger majorities (in one case as a result of a post-election coalition).  However the difference between a three-seat majority and a one-seat majority is an important one in terms of parliamentary voting.  

To illustrate why one-seat, two-seat and three-seat majorities in the House of Representatives by the conventional definition are different:

* A government with a one-seat majority and providing the Speaker needs to have every member vote in favour of any Bill which all other MHRs are opposed to, or the Bill will not pass the House.  If one Government MHR is absent or abstains, and all other MHRs are opposed, the Bill fails.  Even with all members in favour, the government still needs the Speaker to then vote to break the tie in its favour.  A common Speakership convention requires the Speaker to vote to continue debate while that is possible, and then when no further debate is possible to maintain the status quo, but the latter part of the convention doesn't apply to governments elected with a one-seat majority.  

* A government with a two-seat majority and providing the Speaker can pass Bills in some situations where a government with a one-seat majority cannot.  For instance, if one Government member crosses the floor but a non-Government member votes with the Government, the Bill passes on the floor without relying on the Speaker's interpretation of the casting vote convention.  Likewise if one Government member and one non-Government member each abstain.  In a one-seat majority parliament both these situations would trigger a casting vote, and the Speaker might well refuse to vote in favour in such cases.

* A government with a three-seat majority can pass Bills on the floor where one of its members abstains, or where one crosses the floor but a non-Government MP abstains or is absent.  In a one-seat majority parliament both situations would result in defeat on the floor, and in a two-seat majority parliament they would both result in a tie on the floor in a case where a Speaker would probably not assist.  

* A government with a four-seat majority can pass Bills on the floor even where one of its members crosses the floor and votes against the Bill.

The relevance of the government's majority being exactly three was seen recently when Bass MHR Bridget Archer abstained on a vote to expand trials of the cashless welfare card.  Had the government's majority been one seat, Archer's abstention would have caused the Bill to be defeated on the floor.  Had it been two seats, there would have been a tie on the floor, and Speaker Tony Smith has stated he will not use his casting vote to fish the government out of the slop in such cases.  Had it been more than three seats, however, Archer could have voted against the bill and it still would have passed.  A three-seat majority exactly meant it was possible for Archer to abstain without defeating the Bill, but impossible for her to cross the floor.  As with situations involving George Christensen in the past, it's very likely the Archer situation was managed behind the scenes by party whips to give her tacit permission to abstain but indicate that crossing the floor would result in serious consequences.

It is often also useful to talk about a floor majority.  A floor majority refers to the situation in the Parliament after disregarding the Speaker.  If the Government provides the Speaker, it is the parliamentary majority minus one.  Thus, the Turnbull government after the 2016 election had a floor majority of one seat, and the Morrison government after the 2019 election had a floor majority of two.  Those using the seats-to-swing definition would say that both governments had a floor majority of one, but this loses the useful information that the Morrison government can withstand an abstention without depending on the Speaker, while the government before could not.

The false claim that the current government has a one-seat majority overall appears to result from people combining the concept of a floor majority with the seats-to-swing definition - either of which count it as having a two-seat majority if applied by themselves.  The spurious nature of the one-seat majority claim should be clear based on the following hypothetical: what happens if the government loses a seat in a by-election?  Then the government would have 76 seats, which is still a majority of the seats in Parliament, albeit not a majority on the floor if the Government continues providing the Speaker.  So a government with an unqualified "one-seat majority" loses a seat but still has a majority of seats in the parliament?  Doesn't make sense.  

There are also good reasons to keep the concept of majority in general and "floor majority" separate.  One of these is that although the Government wants to provide the Speaker if it can, it doesn't have to, and governments that are struggling for numbers will sometimes appoint a willing independent as Speaker to improve their position on the floor.  In Tasmania in the 1950s a situation even existed for a while in which the Opposition in deadlocked parliaments with 15 seats apiece provided the Speaker thereby giving the government a floor majority, although that government didn't have a majority overall.  

The Government Is Not That Precarious

Social media claims that the government has a "one-seat majority" have ramped up on account of the Prime Minister's lack of action regarding backbenchers George Christensen and Craig Kelly and their spreading of disinformation, conspiracy theories and pseudoscience concerning the US election and COVID-19.  The suggestion is that if the government's majority was larger, Kelly and Christensen would be brought to heel with threats of expulsion. As it is, the government needs every vote it can get in the House and dare not kick them out.  Whether or not the government would actually want to kick them out if it did easily have the numbers, the relevant claim can be made just by saying the government has a slim majority, without needing to falsely claim its majority is only one seat.  After all, if one government MP was kicked out, the government would still have a majority of one, but would lack a floor majority if it chose to continue providing the Speaker.  If two were kicked out, the government would become a minority government.  

The "one-seat majority" claims often also seek to portray the government as having only barely flopped across the line at the last election and being very close to losing office should anything adverse happen.  But at present, this is false.  The 2019 election was fairly close but not especially close by historic standards.  Although the government stands two defections and/or by-election losses away from losing its majority, this does not make it all that close to losing office, unless something extraordinary happens.  

This should have been clear from the previous term in which a government that started with a two-seat majority (one less than Morrison's) lost a by-election and had one member defect and start voting against it, and yet still remained in office for several months until an election was called.  The current parliament has an unusually large crossbench by recent standards.  If the government were to drop to 75 seats it is unlikely that the entire crossbench would vote with Labor to bring on a change of government or an early election, especially since some of the crossbenchers would be at high risk of losing their Liberal-leaning seats as a result.  Even supposing the government lost three by-elections to Labor and ended up with a 74-71-6 parliament, that wouldn't necessarily be the end (it survived several months at 74-70-6 in the previous term).  And with the declining mortality rates among sitting MPs in recent decades, no government has lost more than one by-election in a term since the Lyons-Menzies UAP in 1937-40 lost three.  

The government also isn't that precarious as concerns the coming election at the moment, though redistributions in Victoria and Western Australia could lead to a closer notional picture heading into the next election.  The reason for this is the size of the crossbench, meaning that loss of majority does not automatically mean loss of office. On a two-candidate preferred basis, a uniform result that was 1.4% weaker for the Coalition would have left a 73-71-7 parliament in which who governed would have been anyone's guess.  The Coalition would have had to have done 2.7% worse on a uniform swing basis for Labor to have equalled its seat tally.  

At the moment, it looks challenging enough for Labor to achieve whatever swing ends up being required to win the next federal election.  Realism about the task at hand is always important in politics, alongside hope, and I don't think clueless social media types who make it sound as if swinging a handful of votes will put the Government out of office are doing their side any favours. 

Around the states and territories

These are the sizes of the current majorities in the state and territory parliaments:

The Berejiklian Liberal-National Coalition Government in New South Wales has a three-seat majority (48-45=3).

The Andrews Labor Government in Victoria has a 22-seat majority (55-33=22).

The Palaszczuk Labor Government in Queensland has an 11-seat majority (52-41=11).

The McGowan Labor Government in Western Australia has a 21-seat majority (40-19=21). It was elected with a 23-seat majority but lost the Darling Range by-election.

The Marshall Liberal Government in South Australia was elected with a 3-seat majority (25-22=3).  However, Sam Duluk was kicked out of the parliamentary Liberal Party, suspended from the broader party, and is currently on leave from Parliament.  While that remains the case the government has a 1-seat majority of the parliament (24-23) but an effective 2-seat majority among active members (24-22). It is notable that the Marshall Government cannot alone achieve an absolute majority (24 seats) on the floor after providing the Speaker and losing Duluk, as this affects its ability to suspend Standing Orders without notice.  

The Gutwein Liberal Government in Tasmania has a one-seat majority (13-12=1).  The 13 includes an independently-minded Speaker who has voted against her own Government fairly often (causing it to lose a number of votes early in its term), and the 12 includes an ex-Labor independent who generally now votes with the Government, but it is only the formal status of MPs as members of particular parties or governing coalitions that counts towards majority or minority.  

The Barr Labor-Greens coalition Government in the Australian Capital Territory has a 7-seat majority (16-9=7).  

The Gunner Labor Government in the Northern Territory has a three-seat majority (14-11=3).

Update (Jan 30) 

At the time I wrote this article. the "one-seat majority" false claims had been seen recently only in left-wing social media.  However there have since been sightings of this error by usual suspects in the abysmally unfactual mainstream media op ed sector.  First was Simon Benson (The Australian, Jan 27):

"Albanese’s backers argue that the polls have Labor within striking distance, Albanese’s own approval ratings in positive territory and the government with a one-seat majority."

Then came Peter Hartcher (SMH/Age/Brisbane Times etc, Jan 29):

"Morrison has a one-seat majority and the polls are tight. “All Australian elections are close and the government doesn’t have much of a buffer,” says the Liberal strategist. “It’d be a mistake to underestimate Albanese or Labor.”  

(Incidentally the claim that all Australian elections are close is, of course, false - most recently 2013 was not close.)

And then Simon Benson and Geoff Chambers, though I suspect Benson is again the culprit (The Australian, Jan 30):

"And what risks does a change of opposition leader, a potential threat such as Tanya Plibersek, pose to a seemingly unassailable Scott Morrison who, while popular, faces the reality he governs with a one-seat majority?"

Still  More (Feb 3)

The spurious claim of a one-seat majority continues to spread through the Australian press gallery like death tax memes at a One Nation Faceboomer LAN party.  Overnight we had Joe Aston (AFR);

" To a plum foreign mission, presumably (for what other “orderly transition” could the PM organise?), or else Andrews mightn’t be such a loyal Liberal on the backbench for another 12 to 18 months of Morrison’s one-seat majority?"

(NB it's extremely unlikely Morrison will go beyond 15.5 months this term as that would result in a standalone half-Senate election.)

Then today we had Jacqueline Maley (SMH):

"Besides, the harsh arithmetic of politics means that the Prime Minister, who sits on a one-seat margin, cannot cancel Kelly."

He can if he wants to - the previous government survived several months at 74/150; this government could easily survive at 76/151.  But he's bound to be keen to avoid it unless the cost of keeping Kelly is too high.  

The incorrect claim was also rampant on Twitter yesterday, and comparisons with the same time last year suggests the ramp-up wasn't specifically because Parliament went back:


(The graph includes only tweets visible to me - some Twitter accounts have blocked mine.)

While compiling stats for the graph I noticed another false claim arising from the "one-seat" myth - that if Labor removed the pair for David Coleman it would lose its majority.  In fact even if Labor refused to pair Coleman and all Labor MPs turned up, Coleman's absence would reduce the Coalition's floor majority from 76-74 to 75-74 and they would still have a floor majority (but could no longer afford an abstention).  Not that Labor would do that because the Coalition would stop pairing Labor MPs in return.  In any case, Coleman returned to Parliament today.  

Craig Kelly update (23 Feb)

Craig Kelly has announced he has quit the Coalition and is joining the crossbench, though the crossbench might not be too impressed about this.  This will mean the government now actually will have a one-seat majority (76-75) but provided it continues providing the Speaker, which I think it will, it will have no floor majority (75-75).  

9 comments:

  1. The combination of Australia`s compulsory voting, compulsory preferential electoral systems, non-inclusion of informal votes in the percentage divisions between candidates in elections and comparatively strict party discipline drive the use of the more than half is required for a majority definition used in the votes-to-swing method, instead of the British plurality=majority method. Our use of referenda may also contribute to this.

    With the current odd-numbered size of the House or Reps, technically the government has (including the Speaker) a 1.5 seat majority and a plurality of between 3 and 9 (depending on how much of the crossbench is counted). Excluding the Speaker leaves an even number to calculate a floor majority of 1 and a floor plurality of between 2 and 8.

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    1. The UK uses plurality for margins for a seat, but not for calculating the majority in parliament - for that purpose, majority means majority. The Conservatives are said to have an 80-seat majority because they have 365 and all other parties combined have 285. They have a 163-seat plurality over Labor but that figure is not cited. No-one says they have a 40-seat majority.

      When someone wins a seat in Australia by three votes, we say they won by three votes. We don't say their margin was 1.5 votes. It's when it is turned into a 2PP percentage that the margin gets halved, but there is no equivalent of that for a parliament that gets any regular use.

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    2. The calculating halfway point in the UK Parliament is usually (including currently) complicated by Sinn Fein`s abstentionism, however ignoring that the Conservatives loosing 40 seats in by-elections would cost them their majority.

      I, an Australian, would calculate the member/vote number margin from the half way point (usually rounded in the case of an off number of votes).

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    3. I was a bit surprised to be told by the Tas Electoral Commission that not only is voting compulsory BUT refusal to vote on conscientious grounds would lead to a penalty of Driver's Licence suspension.
      Is our democracy that fragile ?
      I am so disillusioned by failure of Fed. Govt to actively distance itself from the Trump trainwreck that I would consider such a protest, but would hope the penalty would be more reasonable.

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    4. That's not quite correct. Refusal to vote leads in the first instance to a please-explain letter. Conscientious objection (as opposed to religious objection) is not generally accepted as a reason for not voting, so a person refusing to vote on such grounds would be fined. If they then persistently refused to pay the fine their licence could be suspended. Note that there is no penalty for just voting informally.

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  2. There seems to be an assumption that Craig Kelly is a liability that hasn't been tested. He got a swing towards him in 2019, and people like him would help with the relatively high level of right wing micro -> LNP preferences the LNP enjoyed at the last election. Do you have any view on Craig Kelly's effect from a pseph perspective?

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    1. William Bowe's model: https://www.pollbludger.net/2019/07/17/call-board-sydney/ suggests that Kelly did not have much of a personal vote in 2019 as the Coalition 2PP was closer to a demographic model than other seats with Coalition incumbents except for Warringah (Abbott) and Robertson. He did get small swings to him on the primary vote and 2PP but the former was probably assisted by being top of the ballot and the latter was smaller than both the national and state swing. The evidence doesn't say he was a liability within his own seat in 2019, but nor does it say he was a star. If he was re-endorsed, I am not as convinced as some that he would lose even to a high-profile opponent, as Hughes has low levels of natural minor party support, meaning that any independent winner will have to draw a lot of their vote from habitual major party voters on both sides. I think the concern is more about (i) his lack of visible contribution to the seat and party (ii) his embarrassment value to the party in other seats, which is not easily measured.

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  3. Does the fact that Christian Porter is now on leave mean that effectively the govt is reduced to a minority for the duration of leave?

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    1. Normally a Government or Opposition MHR being on leave has no effect on majority status as the other side will provide a pair for that MP on contested votes. A few other MHRs have been on leave recently and covered by this convention.

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