‘Balance of Power’ … what is that again?

The ‘balance of power’ is a term we often hear in politics. But while many of us may be familiar with the term, we may not be as familiar with its definition or implications.

In this post I will discuss three things. First, I will provide a simple explanation of what the ‘balance of power’ is. Second, I will provide examples of the balance of power occurring in Australian politics. And third, I will discuss the likelihood of who will be holding the balance of power following this year’s federal election and what implications that will have for Australian politics until at least the next election.

 

Definition
The ‘balance of power’ is the position held by a minor party, group or individual when their vote is necessary for bills or motions to be passed.

Consider this basic scenario. There are 76 seats in the Australian Senate. Let’s say there are 36 reds (the government), 30 blues (the opposition) and 10 yellows (minor party).

Now, anything that is voted on in parliament requires a majority in of total votes in order to pass. In this case, that would be 39 votes (76/2+1).

Therefore, if a bill is introduced by red, and not supported by blue, it will require the votes from yellow in order to pass with a majority of total votes. Yellow holds the balance of power – any bill or motion can’t pass without yellow’s approval.

 

History
The scenario of balance or power occurs often in the Australian Senate (upper house), but is very unlikely in the House of Representatives (lower house). That is because government is formed in the lower house, and in order to attain government, a party must secure a majority of seats in that house.

We experienced the rare case of a hung parliament following the 2010 federal election, when neither the ALP nor the Liberal/National Coalition won more than half the seats in the lower house.

There were 5 independents and 1 Greens, and the ALP managed to gain the support of 4 of them, giving the ALP the numbers to form a minority government. In this case, the 5 independents and the Greens MP held the balance of power.

A minor party holding the balance of power in the Senate has occurred several times over the years in Australian politics.

Between 1955 and 1974, the Democratic Labor Party (DLP), a minor party formed by a number of anti-communists who split from the Australian Labor Party, held the balance of power in the Senate, having between one and five seats in the Senate during that period.

In 1981, the balance of power in the Senate was secured by the Australian Democrats, which they managed to hold until 2008 when their 4 Senators failed to be re-elected at the 2007 election.

In 2010, the Greens won a Senate seat in each of the six states at the election, bringing them a total of 9 senators and giving them an outright balance of power in the Senate, similar to the red-blue-yellow scenario painted above.

 

2013 Federal Election
It is very likely that a minor party or group of individuals will be holding the balance of power in the Senate following this year’s federal election.

The political pundits are tipping DLP Senator John Madigan to be holding the balance of power in the Senate, either in his own right or together with another Senator like Independent Nick Xenophon, depending on how things go on polling day.

However, it is worth noting that if the DLP gain another senator at this year’s election, then it would be the DLP holding the balance of power in the Senate, without a doubt.

Senator Madigan has already gone on record saying, “what we will be doing if we find ourselves in this position is encouraging transparent discussion on issues and the Senate operating as a true house of review and scrutiny.”

You will often hear Senator Madigan say, “play the issue, not the person.”

 

 

By Vince Stefano