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Exaggerated Majority

An exaggerated majority is a common feature of the Australian electoral system.

Definition: An exaggerated majority is the difference between the percentage of the votes won by a party or parties and the percentage of seats won by that party or parties.

For example, in the 1998 Federal election, the Liberal and National Parties gained 49.02% of the two-party-preferred vote. They won 80 of the 148 electorates in the House of Representatives, or 54.05%. Hence, the exaggerated majority is 5.03%.

Exaggerated majorities are the result of a combination of two features of the Australian electoral system:

  • Single-member electorates
  • Compulsory Preferential Voting

Voters are required to express preferences for all candidates on the ballot paper. If no candidate secures 50% + 1 of the primary vote, then the candidates with the least number of votes are progressively eliminated and their second and subsequent preferences allocated to the major candidates (usually ALP or Coalition).

Hence, all votes are ultimately votes for either the ALP or the Coalition. In most elections, the winning party or parties will secure their majority by winning a greater number of seats by small margins.

This happened in 1998. Of the 80 seats won by the Liberal and National Parties, it holds around 20 by margins of less than than 2%, whereas the ALP has fewer than 10 seats in this range.

Effects of Exaggerated Majorities

  • The support for the governing party is exaggerated in the House of Representatives. This is seen by some people as unrepresentative.
  • The governing party usually secures a comfortable majority in the House of Representatives. Since 1910, there have been only two occasions, 1940 and 2013, when neither side commanded a majority on the floor of the House. The Menzies Government had a one-seat majority in 1961. It is often argued that this has contributed to stability in our political system.

Note: The upsurge in support for minor parties and independents in recent elections has meant that exaggerated majorities have become less common. The States, in particular, have produced hung parliaments quite often in the past 10 years. For example, Victoria in 1999, Queensland in 1998, South Australia in 1997, New South Wales in 1992 and Tasmania in 1996, all produced minority governments that depended on the support of minor parties or independents to survive.

The most dramatic illustration of an exaggerated majority in recent times was the result of the 2001 Queensland election. The ALP won 48.93% of the primary vote, and approximately 59% of the two-party vote and secured 74.15% of the seats (66 out of 89).
Malcolm Farnsworth
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