The Decline of Three-Cornered Contests at Federal Elections

This is the first post in a topic I’m calling “Graph of the Day”. It will mainly be shorter posts where I’ll graph something I’ve been researching or otherwise think is worth documenting.

This post and its graphs are about the decline of three-cornered or triangular contests, that is districts where both Coalition parties nominate candidates against the Labor Party.

The decline has been steep, from more than 40% of districts in the mid-1980s to fewer than 8% at the last six Federal elections.

The number of three-cornered contests is likely to fall further if a proposal from within the Federal Coalition to introduce optional preferential voting comes to fruition.

My prediction of a further decline under optional preferential voting is based on the record of state elections in NSW and Queensland. NSW has used optional preferential voting for state elections since 1980, and it was also used for Queensland state elections from 1992 to 2015.

That the Coalition parties actively avoid three-cornered contests under OPV is clear. There has not been a three-cornered contest at a NSW election since 1999. In Queensland, after 61 three-cornered contests at the first OPV election in 1992, the numbers declined to one in 1995, two in 1998, and six at the 2001 election. There were no three-cornered contests in 2004 or 2006, and the Liberal and National Parties merged ahead of the 2009 Queensland election.

Compulsory preferential voting was adopted a century ago to allow the newly formed Country Party (under various names) to contest seats against the governing Nationalist Party without splitting the conservative vote and delivering seats to Labor.

That’s what happened at the 1918 Swan by-election when Labor polled 34.4%, the Country Party 31.4% and Nationalists 29.6%. Labor won under first past the post, and the result was the catalyst for the adoption of preferential voting.

Preferential voting had already been implemented in Victoria and Western Australia to deal with competing conservative parties, while NSW had opted for run-off elections and Queensland used contingent voting.

Contingent voting has been re-discovered in recent years, and is now used to elect Mayors in London and other English cities, and it has been implemented in the USA as instant run-off voting.

Now a century later the Coalition is advocating a move to optional preferential voting, undoing the 1919 pact that was the first step to the later formation of a Federal Coalition in 1923.

The graph below shows the number of Coalition contests by type at Federal elections since the expansion of the House of Representatives in 1984. The number of three-cornered contests declined from 72 at the ‘Joh for Canberra’ election in 1987, to just seven at the 2010 election.

Much of the decline is down to the resolution of state-based intra-Coalition disputes. The graph below breaks down three-cornered contests by state.

While the Country Party re-named itself National Party three decades ago, it is a less ‘national’ party than the Labor and Liberal Parties. The Country/National Party has a history moulded by its experience in state politics, and from time to time state-based disputes have exploded on to the Federal stage.

The state breakdown of three-cornered contests and their decline in number is explained by Coalition relations in each state.

  • New South Wales – The Liberal and National Parties, and their predecessors, have been in Coalition at state level since the early 1920s, including all periods of non-Labor government in the state. Coalition relations are generally good and the two parties co-operate on avoiding three-cornered contests. especially at the state level under OPV. The two Federal elections with significant three cornered contests, in 1984 and 1993, followed major redistributions where both parties insisted on their right to contested redistributed seats. The NSW National Party led the opposition to the ‘Joh for Canberra’ push in 1987 and did not see a surge of three-cornered contests.
  • Victoria – A heavily malapportioned electoral system in the first half of the 20th century delivered the Country Party a greater slice of state power than its voter support warranted. One leader, Albert Arthur Dunstan, spent a decade as Premier from 1935 to 1945 despite leading the smallest party in Parliament. Dunstan skillfully played the Labor and United Australia Parties off against each other, generally spending more time holding on to office than actually doing anything with his office. The Country Party spent more time governing on its own prior to 1952 than it did serving as part of a Coalition. The introduction of fairer electoral boundaries in 1955 largely ended the Country Party’s power and it was not until the election of the Kennett government in 1992 that the Country/National Party again served in government.
    The cause of the surge in Federal three-cornered contests in 1984 followed a pre-selection dispute with the Liberal Party in 1983. When senior National Party Minister Peter Nixon retired, the Liberal Party insisted on contesting his seat of Gippsland, leading the Nationals to retaliate in Liberal seats, and the abandonment of a joint Senate ticket. This was repeated with even more three-cornered contests in 1984, the Nationals even contesting Melbourne seats with minimal success. The dispute flowed through to some Victorian support for ‘Joh for Canberra’ in 1987, and the election of a Nationals Senator through the double dissolution. The narrow re-election of the Cain Victorian Labor government in 1988, in part because of the lack of a state Coalition agreement, led to improved relations between the two parties. A joint Senate ticket was re-established in 1990 and three-cornered contests in Victoria have since been rare, the most significant following the retirement of sitting members in Mallee in 1993, 2013 and 2019, and Murray/Nicholls in 1996 and 2016.
  • Queensland – Coalition arrangements were always fraught in Queensland, the Country Party traditionally being the larger party at state elections, but the Liberals having greater success at Federal elections where there was less rural bias in the electoral boundaries. The re-named National Party began to contest urban south-east seats at both state and federal level in the late 1970s, and a breakdown in relations over a joint Senate ticket in 1980 saw three-cornered contests surge. The state Coalition collapsed in 1983, producing the first National Party government. Its re-election in 1986 led to the hubris of the ‘Joh for Canberra’ campaign. Federal Labor won several seats in Queensland at the 1987 and 1990 Federal elections on leaked preferences, and Coalition relations in the state slowly improved after the defeat of the state National Party government in 1989. The number of three-cornered contests declined, a joint Senate ticket was re-instituted for the 2007 election, followed by the merger of the two parties to form a single Liberal National Party (LNP). While the LNP has ended three-cornered electoral contests, the LNP’s two constituent parties continue to haggle over contesting seats as elected members join one of the Liberal or National party rooms in Canberra. The allocation of seats between the two remains important for the balance of power in the Federal Coalition.
  • Western Australia – A split in the WA National Party in the late 1970s endangered the party’s existence, but a merger and improved state performances under Hendy Cowan in 1986 and 1989 revived the party. That was reflected in the surge of National candidates in 1987 produced by the ‘Joh for Canberra’ campaign. While the National Party continued to contest Federal seats, its vote remained low until the victory of Tony Crook over the long-serving Wilson Tuckey in O’Connor at the 2010 election. Crook retired in 2013 after a single term and National Party influence at Federal elections declined.
  • Other States – The National Party barely exists in other states, though the ‘Joh for Canberra’ campaign in 1987 saw the National Party contest all seats in SA and NT. The Tasmanian three-cornered contests in 2019 stem from an attempt to re-elect Steve Martin to the Senate. He had been elected in a Section 44 re-count to replace Jacqui Lambie and accepted an offer to join the National Party.

Addendum – While preferential voting was originally introduced to deal with Coalition arrangements, how preferences work has change dramatically in the last three decades. Prior to 1970, the average number of candidates per seat had hovered around three. In the 1970s and 1980s it average about four candidates per seat, but since 1990 has rarely been below six candidates per seat.

This coincided with Labor beginning to win seats from behind on preferences. In 1991 Labor abandoned its former support for optional preferential voting. Now Labor supports compulsory preferential voting, as shown by Labor’s re-introduction of full preferential voting ahead of the 2017 Queensland election. And now parts of the Coalition have switched position to back optional preferential voting.