Oz Blog News Commentary

How might a hung parliament play out?

March 18, 2023 - 11:00 -- Admin

There’s a lot of talk about hung parliaments, but they’re not all the same. A potential hung parliament in New South Wales will play out quite differently depending on the relative balance of the major parties and who sits on that crossbench.

In this post I’m going to consider a number of different scenarios based on particular outcomes in clusters of seats, and how that might affect who is in a position to have power.

I am working on a few assumptions here. Firstly, there will be some sort of arrangement where there is a majority supporting a government in some way. Even if we were to have no agreement and a government simply was to continue thanks to the toleration of crossbenchers, those still count as a majority not supporting the removal of a government.

Secondly, I think it’s worth thinking about which crossbenchers might be necessary, and which crossbenchers might be sufficient in the balance of power. If there is no way to construct a majority without yourself and others who you work closely with, that gives you power. On the other hand, you may have the numbers to bring a major party up to a majority, but not have that much power if they have alternative ways to reach that number.

I previously outlining the ‘starting point’ for the election. For the purposes of this article I’m treating Kiama as a Liberal seat. So that’s 46 Coalition, 38 Labor, 3 Greens and six independents.

By my reckoning there are a number of axes on which seats could change hands, and the different scenarios outlined in this post involve different movement on these axes:

  • Labor vs Coalition – the classic race. It seems unlikely the Coalition will pick up seats. The number of seats Labor picks up will be a major element in determining the shape of a hung parliament.
  • Liberal vs independent in the cities – there are numerous seats in Sydney, mostly in the northern suburbs along with Wollondilly and Vaucluse, where there are credible challenges to the Liberal Party. None of these independents are incumbents. I am sceptical about most of them but I could see some sneaking through.
  • Coalition vs independent in western NSW – I’m primarily thinking of the three ex-Shooters seats, but also Joe McGirr in Wagga Wagga. All seats held by the Coalition as recently as 2015 and now held by independents. If some of these members lost their seats it could significantly boost the Coalition but also limit options for Labor in a hung parliament.
  • Greens vs major parties – A lot of the focus is on the Greens-held seat of Balmain, but Ballina is also relatively marginal, and the Greens have also had some focus on Lismore and South Coast.

Here are the seven scenarios I’ve chosen:

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To be clear: these are not predictions about what might happen, and this is not an exhaustive list of possibilities. It's simply a thought experiment about how different outcomes might affect the power balance during negotiations.

Let's run through them one by one.

1. Labor gains four seats, no change to the crossbench

The major parties are tied at 42 seats apiece, with five out of nine crossbenchers needed for a majority. Whoever governs will need a diverse range of supporters. Labor could theoretically work without the Greens but it would be very tough.

More likely Labor would rely on the Greens and then seek out two more votes for an agreement to support a government, but would remain open to working with the more conservative crossbenchers when they disagree with the Greens.

Alex Greenwich and Greg Piper would be the key swing votes in this scenario. While they are quite progressive, they have also developed a good relationship with the Coalition. They have also indicated that in addition to policy concerns, they would consider the relative strength of the major parties in terms of seats or "the popular vote". Labor has used this to argue that their position would be strengthened in such a scenario by winning Balmain, but I'm not sure this situation would change much if it was 43 Labor and 2 Greens.

2. Labor gains seven seats, no change to the crossbench

Labor is now within striking distance of a majority. Perhaps the majority remains an option on election night and the hung parliament only becomes clear with late counting.

No single group on the crossbench is now necessary for Labor, and there is no feasible path to government for the Coalition.

The Greens won't have much of a leg to stand on in terms of negotiating with the government. For other crossbenchers they will have the option to just sit in opposition but more likely some of them would do minimal deals with the government. But Labor will have the upper hand in these situations - I can't see Labor moving on issues like cashless gaming in such a situation.

Having said that, this is still a hung parliament. When the crossbench works with the Coalition they will be able to defeat legislation and embarrass the government. Labor will want to maintain good relationships with a range of crossbenchers so they have options from day to day. Sometimes they'll seek the Greens support, other times the more conservative rural independents, with the urban independents sitting in between.

3. Labor gains seven, independents lose three seats to the Coalition

In this scenario I'm assuming the three ex-Shooters all lose their seats to the Nationals.

While Labor still has a strong hand, the Coalition is now closer to a majority and Labor has fewer choices about who it works with.

No single crossbench bloc has the sole balance of power, but if the Greens and the urban independents work together they can provide a majority to either major party - something that wasn't true in scenario 2.

4. Labor gains four seats, independents lose three seats to the Coalition

This is a much better situation for the Coalition. While they have lost seats to Labor, they have offset most of their losses.

Labor would now need five out of six crossbenchers to side with them to form government. This is theoretically possible, as I'm sure they could work with Greenwich and Piper, but it would be difficult. If Labor did form government they would be in a much weaker position, with either the Greens or the urban independents capable of depriving Labor of a majority.

This is the kind of scenario where it seems more likely the urban independents would side with the Coalition to continue in government.

If Labor was to form government they would probably need to move on some key issues like cashless gaming where they don't see eye to eye with the crossbench.

5. Labor gains five seats, Greens gain one seat, independents lose three seats to the Coalition

This is the best scenario for the Greens. Perhaps they've gained South Coast, or they've gained Lismore and Labor has offset that with a sixth gain somewhere else.

The major parties are tied at 43 seats apiece. While there are seven crossbenchers, we don't have any of the flexibility in the previous scenarios. Only the Greens hold the balance of power.

The Greens would be able to drive a hard bargain here. The strongest counterpoint Labor would hold would be to walk away from negotiations and allow the Coalition to continue in office, as they did in 1996 in Tasmania. This would likely damage the Greens but there would be a counterargument against Labor - there was a clear progressive majority and they allowed a Coalition government to continue in office.

6. Labor gains four seats, Liberals lose three seats to independents

In this scenario I'm assuming those Liberal losses are to urban independents like Michael Regan or some of the teals.

While Labor requires five votes to reach a majority, that comes from a much larger crossbench of twelve.

In this situation I think the Greens position actually helps Labor. They can lock in 45 votes with the Greens and then go seeking out just two more from the remaining nine crossbenchers. I can't see Greenwich and Piper going with the Coalition in this scenario.

While Labor may want to move some way in this scenario, they have quite a lot of flexibility.

7. Labor gains seven seats, Liberals lose three seats to independents

This is the weakest scenario for the Coalition, who would now be eleven seats away from a majority. Labor and Greens between them have a majority. This doesn't mean Labor would necessarily deal with the Greens, but it takes the Coalition option off the table, and gives Labor lots of different options to deal with. They could find the two votes they need from the Greens, the ex-Shooters, the sitting urban independents or new teal independents.

Broad trends across the scenarios

There are some broad trends you can see between these seven scenarios.

The outcome of the hung parliament depends on the relative strength of the two major parties. If there is no feasible alternative government, that gives a lot more power to the major party in a position to form government.

There has been some scaremongering from Labor that they may miss out on government if they need to rely on Greens members and it scares off some of the independents, but that only applies in scenarios where they only gain a handful of seats while the Coalition does better. It's a bit hard to see that happening, but it is possible to imagine such a situation in scenario 1.

It could theoretically be possible in scenario 6 but probably the smaller Coalition presence will mean independents would choose Labor in that scenario. The Coalition would likely form government in scenario 4, but that wouldn't change if Labor instead won Balmain.

For the Greens, the amount of power they get in a hung parliament varies a great deal depending on the circumstances. While they have said their support of Labor is conditional on certain policy agreements, it's not really viable for them to support the Coalition, which gives them less room to move than most of the other crossbenchers. For them to exercise influence they ideally want to be both necessary and sufficient for a Labor-led majority. Labor would ideally like them to be sufficient but not necessary, or ideally neither. The danger zone (where Labor might have trouble winning over both Greens and other crossbenchers) is if the Greens are necessary, but not sufficient.

The scenarios break down into these categories as follows:

  • Greens necessary and sufficient for Labor to govern - scenario 5. Maximum influence for the Greens.
  • Greens sufficient but not necessary for Labor to govern - scenarios 2, 3 and 7. Best position for Labor. Greens block Coalition path to power but maintain flexibility for a Labor government.
  • Greens necessary but not sufficient for Labor to govern - arguably scenarios 1, 4 and to a lesser extent 6. In all three scenarios there is a theoretical possibility that Labor could stitch together a majority without the Greens but it would be quite hard. In these scenarios Labor needs both the Greens and some other independents.

It's in the interests of Labor's campaign in Balmain to play up the possibility that Labor being reliant on Greens might scare away other independents in a scenario where Labor requires both. But there are also plenty of scenarios where this could happen and Labor would still govern (Piper and Greenwich seem to get along well with the Greens) or where they wouldn't have pulled together the numbers to form government even if Balmain were to go to Labor.

And of course it's entirely possible that a potential deal between Labor and independents would come unstuck not because of the independents and Greens not getting along but because Labor is unwilling to move on a key issue like cashless gaming, where Labor stands out in opposition while the Greens are mostly in agreement with the likely key swing votes on the crossbench like Greenwich, Piper, Dalton, McGirr and the teal independents.

I also wanted to touch on something else that has come up in the context of how crossbenchers could make their decision. A recent piece in the Herald suggested that, in deicding who to support in a hung parliament, Piper and Greenwich would consider "which party has won more seats, which has won the popular vote" and other things.

It is fair enough to consider who has more seats in the context of determining which government would be more stable and capable of governing, although I don't think you can use that as a measure of how popular that party is. We know that the single-member electorate system does a poor job of measuring support.

I also think they should be careful when it comes to measuring the "popular vote". Primary vote figures will also be misleading. It may make sense to use the two-party-preferred vote, but it's worth bearing in mind that neither side will likely win a majority after exhausted votes are factored in. I have also pointed out a number of measurements specific to their electorates that could be useful in understanding which way their voters may wish them to jump.

If there is no majority for Labor or the Coalition, things should be interesting, but they are unlikely to be chaotic. The exact shape of that hung parliament will dictate the options on the table and it is entirely possible we will know who is in a position to govern, even before they work out how exactly they will do that.