Is the Coalition one party, two parties or four parties?

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There’s been a lot of chatter online in the last few days challenging calculations about the low primary vote for the newly-elected Labor government, not by disputing that figure, but by arguing that it is higher than the vote for the Liberal Party. It’s been all over Twitter from some of the more ferocious ALP supporters. This has been a faulty logic, because it doesn’t include the vote for the other Coalition parties.

After trying to explain why this is the correct way to calculate these totals, I thought I would put my thoughts down here. When does it make sense to think of the Coalition as a single major party, as two parties, or even as four parties?

The Coalition was formed by the Nationalist and Country parties in the 1920s, so it’s been around for about a century, but it’s changed over time – in the early days, it was common that the two parties would run candidates for the same seat, but it’s now very rare.

The relationship between the parties varies from state to state. There is a sizeable Nationals party in both New South Wales and Victoria. In Queensland and the Northern Territory the parties have actually merged (as the Liberal National Party and the Country Liberal Party respectively). The is no Nationals party in Tasmania or the ACT, and they are very small in South Australia and have no MPs. The WA Nationals are actually the larger party in the state parliament but are a minor factor in federal politics, only running in one seat in 2022.

So there are actually four federally registered parties who are part of the Coalition: Liberal, Nationals, Liberal National Party and Country Liberal Party. LNP and CLP members elected to the federal parliament are designated to sit with one of the two coalition partners, which is how it’s possible that the leaders of both federal parties are members of the Queensland LNP.

There are a few different ways you can analyse the Coalition partners.

If you are comparing results to Labor, you need to look at the whole package. The first reason for this is that no single Coalition party runs in every seat, whereas Labor runs everywhere. If you just look at each individual party’s share of the national vote, you are looking at a vote diluted by many seats where that party received zero votes.

The second factor is that the Coalition parties don’t really run against each other these days. Out of 151 electorates, there was only contests in four seats. In two of these (Barker in SA and Durack in WA) they were contested by local Nationals who aren’t really proper parts of the Coalition, but there was also contests in the Victorian seats of Indi and Nicholls where there was no incumbent Coalition MP. In the other 147 seats, a Coalition voter only gets one option. They might prefer Liberal, but if the Nationals are running in that seat, that’s all the choice they get.

So when it comes to analysing vote patterns, it’s silly to try and separate out the Liberals and Nationals. Most of the time, there’s just one option.

This table gives a sense of how much of the country each party contests, but also how the Labor vs Coalition primary vote varies between the different zones. While the Liberal Party contests about two thirds of all seats, that includes a lot of Labor seats. The LNP is stronger in Queensland, and the Nationals significantly outpoll Labor in their seats. Indeed the Nationals (excluding the LNP) hold most of the seats they contest. They just aren’t a presence in too many marginal seats, which means they become a more significant part of the Coalition in opposition but don’t have much prospect to win back seats.

Coalition partyALP prim %L/N prim %% of votes# of seats
Liberal35.9%33.5%68.5%104
QLD LNP27.4%39.7%20.4%30
Nationals21.1%43.5%7.7%11
Lib vs Nat17.3%44.9%2.7%4
NT CLP38.2%29.4%0.7%2

Of course, that’s not to say the differences within the Coalition don’t matter. They clearly operate in different ways within federal parliament, and use different branding that could make a difference to voters. But when you are aggregating votes to the national level and analysing broader trends, separating out the parties is a distraction.

So there are two purposes I can see for analysing the Coalition’s national primary vote which require it to be treated as a single unit.

Firstly, looking at the national level of support. One Nation, Labor, United Australia and the Greens all ran in most if not all electorates. Comparing them to separate parts of the Coalition is misleading since those Coalition parties are not national in the same way.

Secondly, when analysing the level of support for a government. When I analysed how the declining major party vote meant that the primary vote for each majority government has been shrinking, I needed to look at the whole Coalition. The Liberal Party doesn’t win government on its own, so you need to include all of the votes for all of those parties.

I have been critical of how our electoral system has translated a 33% primary vote into a majority of seats and thus a single party majority government. I had the same criticism for recent Coalition governments too, and I think the solution is proportional representation. But there has been some more opportunistic and hypocritical chatter from the right trying to argue that it’s somehow unfair for Labor to win an election while the Coalition has polled about 3% more on the primary vote, and this has sometimes tied into an argument that First Past the Post would be a fairer system. This argument is nonsense: neither party should be winning sole power on the votes they’re getting now, it’s not just a criticism of Labor.

Some have tried to suggest that the Coalition should fairly be compared to Labor and the Greens, but I don’t think that makes sense. Labor and the Greens run against each other across the country, and have completely separate identities. They also don’t have any kind of coalition partnership, let alone the kind of permanent alliance that exists on the right wing.

And Labor is winning government in its own right, without Greens seats, which is not how things work for the Liberal Party, whether you mean just the party that exists distinct from the Nationals in five states and a territory, or if you also include the Liberals in Queensland. It’s not Labor and the Greens forming government, it’s just Labor on their own.

If people want to propose a different method of analysis, they need to justify why it makes sense. Wanting to make Labor’s electoral statistics look better is not a good reason.

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11 COMMENTS

  1. Liberal, Nationals, Liberal National Party and Country Liberal Party should be examined as separate parties because they are separate parties. They are not the same party.

    They have run candidates against each other in the past, and could so again. They would do so again if they thought it would be in their interest, whether that’s to support a case for more members of cabinet in a future coalition, or to win public funding (based on 1st preference votes), or in an attempt to differentiate on policy yet harvest preference flows.

    The four parties are not compelled to form a formal coalition after each election.

    If their members choose to formally merge, then they can be treated as one party.

  2. The case for proportional representation would also be supported by treating separate parties as separate parties, showing that governing coalitions can be formed from smaller parties, even if none of the coalition members received the ‘largest single party vote’.

  3. Jeremy, when did the LNP or the CLP last contest a seat against one of the other two parties.

    Obviously there are certain contexts in which it makes sense to analyse them as individual units but as long as it is rare they run against each other it gives a misleading picture.

  4. We could say the CLP is a sister party of both the Nationals and the Libs. It reminds of Germany where the CSU exists in Bavaria while the CDU exists in all other states.

  5. Federally The Liberals and Nationals form a coalition even when Liberals get a majority, they are a coalition in opposition, and they are indistinguishable in parliament and government save for the occasional media cycle (which often seems choreographed anyway).

    Right now both the Liberal and National leaders are conservatives from the QLD LNP.

    I think they should be discussed as one party for all intents and purposes until they prove otherwise (e.g. Nats vote against Libs on a motion).

  6. The National Party is a political party only in name. It is a wing of the Liberal Party to appeal to rural Australians. It is no more aptly demonstrated in how the Liberals and Nationals talk about “instability and chaos” when prospects of a Labor-Green coalition arise, when they are the one who are always in a coalition. Either it’s a double standard, or it’s because they are the same party all but in name.

  7. The coalition electorally almost always acts as one party but theoretically they are four parties.

    This power sharing agreement between the Libs and Nats made sense during the Menzies era when the rural population and vote for the old Country Party was much larger, relative to the overall population.

    Australia is much more urbanised now and the Liberals hold seats or field candidates in rural parts of TAS, VIC, NSW (mainly the South Coast) and all over SA and WA. This power sharing agreement means that rather than opening all positions up to all LNP, the Nationals can choose the Deputy PM (when in government) from a much smaller pool of MPs.

    This agreement is more plausible in NSW and VIC state parliaments because of the lower LIB to NAT ratio.

  8. William the PollBludger seems to have coined a new acronym: “LNC” … Liberal National Coalition.

    But what happens when it flies apart … “LND” … Liberal National Disintegration?

  9. I am of the view that the merging of the Liberal and National Parties is one of the reasons for the current coalition mess. It was expedient at the time and served to have Campbell Newman elected in 2012 but the Nationals have become a millstone around the Liberals neck in Brisbane and beyond. With a single LNP there was no way a Brisbane MP could separate themselves from Matt Canavan as they are one and the same party – and a senator such as Gerard Rennick would have been unlikely to get the gig from either a separate Liberal or National Party. Moderate Liberals become very small fish in a big LNP pond. Unlikely to happen under Peter Dutton but some brave Liberals should look at an LNP divorce.

  10. @Ben Raue
    “ Of course, that’s not to say the differences within the Coalition don’t matter. They clearly operate in different ways within federal parliament, and use different branding that could make a difference to voters. But when you are aggregating votes to the national level and analysing broader trends, separating out the parties is a distraction.”

    For me, the core issue here is: a distraction from what?

    Presumably psephologists., by the nature of their field, have a strong analytical expertise and commitment to interpreting electoral change within an evolving/adapting paradigm. So treating the Coalition (with a capital C) as if it was one party is methodologically sound.

    But from my perspective, the Coalition is more like a cartel of brands both ultimately owned by the same private equity business who gathers in votes from divergent groups who in a more open marketplace would not necessarily support the same underlying interests. This goes back a long way – at least to the Menzies government where the Country Party’s leader John McEwen was Minister fro Trade and Industry ( basically an urban portfolio) for some 15 years. It worked politically because notions of class identity anchored most voters in an ALP vs Coalition framework – although it was arguably not socially or economically beneficial for Australia as a whole.

    I reckon that we’re now well past that time, and those old left/right identities, interests and policies have increasingly become much less relevant and much more counterproductive. It’s worth looking back to commentary in this blog and elsewhere to remind ourselves just how surprising the election result is – not just the Green and Teal wins, but also how much of the old Coalition’s vote decline was at the expense of the Libs, rather than the Nats.

    Basically, I look forward to the day when a Lib/Nat coalition (lower case ‘c’) might be just one option among several when governments are formed after each election. And where viable working coalitions can be based on not just value issues such as climate, equity, social justice and integrity, but also on building a new economy that draws on and supports those values. That’s our only path to prosperity in 21st century.

    I don’t disagree with @Ben’s methodological reasons for treating ‘the Coalition’ as if it were a party. But IMHO that does have the unfortunate consequence of helping to preserve the old dysfunctional politics. This election opens up the possibility of new conversations about what our future politics could look like. Changing our language to stop privileging the Lib/Nat alliance as the only legitimate coalition could help us have those new conversations.

  11. redistributed – the fact that Brisbane LNP members, who sit with federal Liberals in the party room, were tarnished with the Matt Canavan brush isn’t an accident or an unfortunate set of circumstances. They are very right wing, they agree with him on pretty much everything, they vote for all the same legislation. From an organizational standpoint, the rank and file are just as conservative in Brisbane as they are in Goondiwindi. You might as well say it’s a mistake for the Liberals to allow themselves to be associated with Peter Dutton.

    And I don’t see any reason to believe that Gerard Rennick wouldn’t get preselected without the merger. It arguably made it harder- Nationals are guaranteed the second spot on the Senate ticket, while they make up less than a third of the Coalition’s Queensland delegation in the House.

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