Major party vote at all time low


Prior to the election I wrote about the long-term downward trend in support for the major parties, and how polling suggested that this trend would continue in 2022. Not only has it continued, but it has accelerated.

So I thought I’d show how that vote has declined in 2022, and then look at how that changes the outcomes of House of Representatives races in various ways.

Firstly, this chart shows the total vote for Labor and the Coalition since 1949.

The combined vote has dropped from 74.8% in 2019 to 68.5% at the time of writing. This is one of the larger drops, but it is less than the drop we saw in 1977, 1990 and 1998, all elections which were breakthrough moments for minor parties. The 1977 election was the first election for the Australian Democrats, the 1990 election was a peak moment for the Democrats and saw some of the first Greens campaigns, and 1998 was the introduction of One Nation.

About a third of that lost vote has gone to independents. The vote for independents has increased from 3.37% to 5.50% (+2.13%). There was also a 1.8% swing to One Nation (largely explained by them running in another ~90 seats compared to 2019), a 1.5% swing to the Greens and a 1.45% swing to the Liberal Democrats (also explained by running a lot more candidates. The increase in support for those groups makes up almost 7% of the electorate, compared to a 6.3% decline in major party support.

I'll just briefly mention the Senate major party vote, although this post is mostly about the House, and the number of votes included in the Senate count is much smaller than in the House.

The major party vote in the Senate bounced back slightly in 2019 after hitting a low of 65% in 2016, but it has now reached a new low of just 62.1%, which means the combined vote for all minor parties and independents now exceeds either of the major parties in the Senate.

The Labor vote has been largely stable, since 2013, dropping slightly in the House and bouncing back slightly in the Senate. This is remarkable in a context where the party has possibly won majority government and gained a 3.5% two-party-preferred swing.

There's been a lot of discussion about what has happened with Labor's vote on Twitter. I've seen estimates that "strategic" voting for independents explains between 0.6% and 1% of the total vote leaving Labor. This may explain a small share but it still remains the case that this government has won power with the smallest share of support for a government ever seen, and that raises hard questions about our electoral system.

When the major party vote is very high, the impact of minor parties and independents is mostly through the flow of preferences in close seats. Now that experience is almost universal.

Just 61 out of 150 electorates at the 2004 election were decided on preferences, with the leading candidate polling over 50% of the primary vote in the other 89. This number increased to a record high of 105 electorates in 2019. On the current numbers, there are 133 seats where no candidate won a majority of the primary vote.

We can also take a narrower definition of "decided on preferences" and look at seats where the candidate coming first on primary votes was overtaken and another candidate won. In other words, the seats where first past the post would have elected a different candidate.

To be honest I expected this number to be more dramatic. I'm not really sure why, but the number of Labor come-from-behind peaked in 2016, but it still makes up a decent share of Labor's wins. The big change in 2022 is the increase in independent and Greens seats in this chart, with nine come-from-behind wins for crossbenchers.

The increase in non-major party support has seen a big change in how election results analysis works, due to the increasing number of seats where the final count is not between Labor and the Coalition (what the AEC calls a "nonclassic" seat).

The previous record was 17 non-classic seats in 2016, but at the moment it appears there are 24 in 2022 (the exact number depends on whether Labor or Greens make the top two in Brisbane).

Which brings me to my final chart, which I have previously shared on Twitter and the Guardian's liveblog, showing the size of the crossbench, and this one is totally out of proportion from the past. The six crossbenchers elected in 2010 and 2019 were the previous record, but now it seems likely we'll end up with about 16 crossbenchers.

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  1. I don’t think the two-party system would break down since the IRV system in the House of Reps inherently supports a two-party system. What I think is most likely the party system morphs into something like in NZ with major parties consistently relying on the support of minor parties. Basically halfway between the usual 2 party system in Australia and the multiparty parliaments in Europe.

  2. Hi Ben,

    Long time reader, yet very rarely post.

    A personal pet peeve is the “Major” party terminology given to The Nats, Libs & Labor.

    Could we please just call them the “OLD” parties. Their current decreasing vote deserves that epithet no longer.

    It’s almost as stupid as the AEC’s insistence on antiquated 2-party preferred pairings, while ignoring obvious incumbent independents, different previous by-election results, other 3-way contests with new independents or the Greens, etc.

    Soon enough, these outdated methods of vote counting on election days (as well as other old customs like such language) are certain to become obsolete.

    We have had this discussion a few times in different forums & I remember a few notable elder greens (Bob Brown, Lee Rhiannon, John Kaye, etc.) actually correcting people during speeches or discussions.

    That’s all, thanks for all the analysis & the valuable commentary in this forum.

  3. “I’m not really sure why, but the number of Labor come-from-behind peaked in 2016”

    Could it be that 2016 was in a sweet spot where Labor’s primary was up enough to win a number of seats from the Coalition, but not up far enough (nor the Coalition candidates’ down far enough) to overtake on first preferences? Compare to 2022 where (at time of writing) the Coalition are looking at a -5.6% swing against their primary vote compared to a negligible -0.5% against Labor’s; the nationwide primaries for the major parties are much closer to one another so regional variation is more likely to deliver a primary vote lead to the eventual winner.

  4. 80,000 submissions to the metadata inquiry for a start, then there’s the gutting of the Privacy Act and the sham Consumer Data Right, because sharing our data with even more people was totally what we were asking for. They see us as data points, nothing more.

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