The decline of the two-party system in Brisbane


Brisbane City’s single-member wards lend themselves to two-party competition, but in recent decades we’ve seen the rise of the Greens, first by just contesting wards that had previously been two-candidate contests, and eventually by winning their first ward and increasing their vote citywide.

This post will be looking at some metrics that show how that traditional two-party system in Brisbane City has declined in the last two decades. It also shows a precipitous decline in Labor’s position in a council they once dominated.

My dataset extends as far back as the year 2000, so that is where the story will start. Back in 2000, a majority of wards were only contested by two candidates: a Labor candidate and a Liberal candidate. When I talk about candidate numbers in this post, I’m simply counting candidates running for a ward, not the Lord Mayoral election.

The Greens ran just one candidate in 2000 (in Wynnum-Manly ward), but sixteen independents ran for council that year. Eight wards had three candidates, three wards had four candidates, and five candidates ran in Dutton Park ward.

We haven’t seen as many independent candidates at any election since 2000. Counting independents and minor parties apart from the Greens, there was a peak of nine such candidates in 2020 and just four have nominated in 2024.

The Greens first emerged as a serious force in 2004, running seventeen candidates. There were just seven two-candidate contests.

There were just three two-candidate contests in 2008, before rebounding to eight in 2012. Since 2016, there has been just one two-candidate contest (Doboy in 2020). Of course, that is also the only ward not contested by the Greens in the last three elections.

This year, every ballot paper has a Labor, Liberal National and Greens candidate. Just four wards have a fourth candidate, all independents.

So from the perspective of who contests elections, Brisbane City has evolved from a place mostly contested by Labor and Liberal with some independents, to a place where Labor, LNP and Greens contest everywhere, and few others run.

But how has the voting trend changed? Unsurprisingly, the Greens aren’t yet polling at parity with the major parties.

Labor polled a majority of the vote in 2000, and fell just short of the LNP in 2004, when Campbell Newman won the mayoralty, while Labor maintained a large majority on the council.

There was a large swing to the LNP in 2008, giving them a council majority and pushing their vote over 50% on both ballots.

Labor’s vote has been stuck around 30% ever since 2008, although there was a slight recovery on the council ballot in 2016. The LNP vote peaked in 2012, and has slowly declined into the mid-to-high 40s by 2020.

The Greens vote was around 10% for three straight elections but it started to climb again in 2016, reaching 17.8% on the council ballot in 2020.

Generally the LNP has polled better on the mayoral ballot than the council ballot consistently since Newman’s victory in 2004, while Labor and the Greens do better on the council ballot. Other candidates generally do better on the mayoral ballot, which makes sense considering how rarely other candidates contest council ballots.

While over 20% of the vote has been cast for non-major party candidates, it hasn’t really been reflected in the council results. This chart shows how the 26 wards have been split by party since 2000:

The LNP has continued to hold large council majorities since 2008, reaching nineteen out of 26 seats in 2016 and 2020. Nicole Johnston quit the LNP in 2010, and has been re-elected three times as an independent. She was joined on the crossbench by the Greens’ Jonathan Sriranganathan in 2016.

The LNP’s dominance has masked quite a lot of change below the surface amongst their opponents. You can see this shift if you look at the number of non-classic races. That is an electorate where the final distribution of preferences includes a candidate from outside of Labor or the LNP.

It’s worth noting that there hasn’t been a non-classic race involving the ALP since 2000. Every other non-classic contest since 2012 has been the LNP against an independent or Greens candidate.

Every contest in 2004 and 2008 was Labor vs Liberal. In 2012, Nicole Johnston obviously made the final count, as did Greens candidates in Pullenvale and Walter Taylor. The Greens have subsequently increased the number of non-classic races from two to four to six.

With the LNP making the final count in every seat, this thus creates a geographic division. There are some parts of Brisbane with the Greens as the main LNP opponent, and other areas with Labor as the main opponent, and with Johnston playing that role in Tennyson.

Of course that breakdown is not fixed – there are seats where Labor and Greens are close to each other, and seats could flip one way or the other. There’s also a few wards where the LNP could fall into third – The Gabba, Moorooka and Tennyson come to mind, but they are all solid seats for the leading candidate regardless.

So finally, I thought I would try to map out this divide by showing which non-LNP candidate made the 2CP in every ward, and how much they outpolled the third-placed candidate on the 3CP.

The cluster of Greens contests mostly cover the city centre, leaning a bit towards the western suburbs and extending out to Pullenvale, with Johnston’s seat adjacent to this area. Labor then is the main non-LNP party in a ring of the rest of Brisbane, with particularly strong 3CP results in a few patches.

This leads me into tomorrow’s post, which is about how optional preferential voting impacts on Brisbane City elections, and how different some of those margins could look with compulsory preferential voting.

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  1. Notably, every ward with a 3CP margin under 10% is in a Greens-held federal electorate. Will the experience of having a Greens MP cause another increase in non-classic 2CP contests? Perhaps. I can see the Greens making the 2CP in Hamilton, Holland Park and perhaps The Gap or Enoggera.

  2. Wilson, I can see Holland Park and Enoggera being LNP v Green 2CP contests this time, given the narrow gap between Labor and Greens vote in both wards.

    I don’t think Hamilton will become a LNP v Green contest, even though the gap is close because the Greens nominated their candidate last minute unlike the other wards where they were announced earlier.

  3. I think there’s a chance we’ll see Morningside as the first Labor vs. Greens 2CP this time. The Greens are campaigning much harder than the LNP this time around at least.

  4. I don’t know where you could find the data, but I think the Greens story in regards to BCC elections really starts back in 1991. That was the election where a group of people ran as candidates in about half the wards, with Drew Hutton as the Mayoral candidate, under the banner of the Green Alliance. (I doubt there were official labels on the ballot papers back then, so it could be hard to tell who was with them)

    There wasn’t any offical Green Party back then. Drew’s folks were in a group called the Rainbow Alliance, and there were also candidates from the Democrats, the Socialist Democratic Party and a few general community acitvist type people.

    The Greens then went and (re)formed themselves as a sepearate party, rather than an alliance, so it took thenm a while to build back up, but that was really the foundation of it all. That was the election where Labor’s Jim Soorley won the Mayoralty back from Sallyanne Atkinson’s Libs – which they kept all the way until Campell Newman won it back for the Libs the following decade. Soorley won on the back of Green Alliance preferences.

  5. I haven’t been able to find any results data from before the year 2000 – not even lists of winners or citywide vote totals. I only got the data for 2000 and 2004 by ordering the paper copies of the results from the BCC directly.

  6. I cycled past an early voting booth yesterday and spoke to the Green’s candidate who happened to be there about internal party polling for the LM position. Of course I wasn’t expecting a straight or direct answer, but she was certainty happy with the internal polling to date.

    I live in the Moorooka Ward and it might be interesting this time around. You really get very little local reporting of issues nowadays, so it is always hard to tell which way the wind is blowing and what is getting up people’s noses. But I get the feeling the longer term Labor Councillor may be getting a bit on the nose with a few missteps he has made lately about local zoning decisions and road intersection upgrades. He will most likely win, but it could be closer than he expects. The Greens Candidate (Melissa McArdle) struck me as very sensible and not your typical Greens candidate.

  7. Neil: I don’t think the Greens *have* internal scientific polling. They can’t afford it for this election. They have ‘positive reception’ from what doorknocking they’ve managed to do, which is far, far less than the past couple elections, but more than the 2020 council election.

    Everyone knows that the Greens are doing better in the inner city the past few cycles but frankly, I suspect the housing crisis is going to have a pretty big impact this year by shunting a lot of their voter base further out than they were before. I think Enoggera and the Gap will become GRN/LIB contests. Hamilton and Holland Park are maybes. I agree that the Greens probably will do better in some of the outer suburbs too, like Moorooka for one, and I’d add Northgate to that list, but not enough to flip it to a GRN/LIB. But I also think Labor will do better than a lot of people are expecting, me included. They’ve spent a lot on ad buys which could indicate that *their* internal polling, which they *can* afford, is relatively promising. The LNP’s campaign is histrionic if not completely unhinged, which you could interpret as general desperation.

    But like I’ve said before there really is no good objective information available publicly, which is kind of ridiculous this late into the election.

  8. To your point Furtive about little information available publicly, I’ve been wondering if there is any historic precedence for any polling to be published in the lead up to the Queensland council elections? We are less than two weeks out now.

  9. Honestly don’t know. Just seems absurd to me in comparison to, say, the available polling for Tasmania and Dunkley. We have 5 of the 10 largest LGAs in the country after all.

  10. I’ll be very interested to see if the Lord Mayor race turns into a non-classic contest this time.
    Jonathan Sriranganathan is a popular candidate with outstanding name and facial recognition, but he’s a polarising candidate.
    At the same time, Labour’s running an unknown candidate in an lacklustre campaign.
    The ingredients are all there for the Greens to come in second.

  11. very interested to see just how well the greens can do here. i think the consensus is they can definitely pick up a whole swath of seats (primarily paddington, walter taylor, central, and coorparoo, but with outside chances in holland park, pullenvale, the gap, and enoggera. also agree with Macca-BNE, in that the chances are there for jonathan sri to beat labor to second in the lord mayoral race. i also wonder if brisbane wasnt such a large LGA, and the brisbane LGA was more focused on the core central areas of brisbane, we might be talking about a potential greens overall victory.

  12. @ Furtive Lawngnome
    Like you said there is really no good objective information available publicly on which to make definitive calls so we are all really operating in the realm of opinions here. I don’t belong to any political party (apart from the Australian Democrats in the olden days – Hello Andrew), so I have no insider knowledge of what is happening on the ground or not.

    As an outsider looking in, I get the sense that the Greens are now trying to forge a new voter base and in housing they have, IMO, touched a nerve that is resonating with young and old alike. I noticed on the Dunkley TV election coverage one of the Liberal outliers mentioned that the Liberal Party really needed to come forward at the next Federal election with a good Housing Policy, which indicated to me that *their* internal polling is showing this to be a real live issue with voters to the point where it is bleeding votes from them and presumably Labor.

    Having said that, I think that Jonathan Sriranganathan is a polarising figure. Yes he is well known and he is out there arguing his case very well. But he also has that classic visual hippy image that many unthinking voters can’t get past to actually hear what he is saying and how it might be in their interest to vote for him and his party. I am not saying that they have the answers, but they provide an alternative choice that MAY just be resonating with a greater number of voters across a wider geography than their traditional voter base.

    Again, IMO, I am not expecting the Greens to win additional wards this election. But I am anticipating they will continue to gain greater voter share, especially in the mayoral race where their LGA wide votes can coalesce around a single candidate to the point where they could come in ahead of Labor. It would be interesting to see if the Greens evolve in future Brisbane LG elections to have a more “acceptable” candidate and centralist policies, so as to not to scare the sheep so much. Brisbane LGA has the potential to become their first real significant foothold in politics if the voting trends continue as they have and key socio-economic conditions worsen.

  13. @ Furtive Lawngnome
    I just spoke to the Greens candidate on my way home from the gym and she did confirm that the Party did not do internal polling. As you said it is all door to door, which they then map. They get some money from Federal and State members for a small amount of canvassing, but because they don’t expect to win this ward (Moorooka) not much resources are being applied here and all their effort goes towards existing State and Federal held seats areas.


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