7 The Australian party system

Zareh Ghazarian

Key terms/names

Australian Greens, Australian Labor Party, democratic socialism, electoral system, House of Representatives, labourism, Liberal Party, minor parties, National Party, nationalisation, One Nation, political parties, Senate, social democracy


Political parties are integral to modern political systems.[1] Parties are organised bodies of individuals that nominate candidates at elections, advancing specific policy goals.[2] They play crucial roles in liberal democratic systems. Parties help to decentralise power as they compete for electoral support. They provide a link between government and society and, because they are comprised of ordinary citizens, advance the notion of government ‘for the people, by the people’.[3] Parties also contribute to the stability of political systems as they aggregate policy demands and provide alternative policy choices for voters.[4] Furthermore, parties are responsible for selecting candidates for election, forming government and opposition and ‘promoting and participating in public debates on major issues’.[5] Parties are seen as so important to modern liberal democracies that some have argued that political systems could not exist without them.[6]

Party systems vary across liberal democracies. Party systems are characterised by the number of parties elected to parliament and forming government.[7] England, for example, can be seen to have a two-party system as the competition for executive control is between the Labour Party and the Conservative Party. The USA is also an example of a two-party system because of the domination of the Democratic and Republican parties.[8] European polities such as Germany and Italy have multiparty systems – a range of parties win representation to parliament and government is the product of parties forming coalitions.[9]

The electoral system (i.e. the method by which candidates are elected to parliament) influences the party system.[10] In the 1950s, political scientist Maurice Duverger hypothesised that in a system that elects a single member to represent each geographic area through a majoritarian electoral method, two parties will dominate.[11] In contrast, Duverger argued that proportional representation would foster a multiparty system.[12]

This chapter begins by examining the party system in the Australian House of Representatives. It explores the major parties that have consistently won representation in the chamber, highlighting how their origins, policy traditions and organisation continue to be important in contemporary politics. The chapter then considers the party system that exists in the Australian Senate. In doing so, it examines the evolution of the types of parties elected to the upper house.

Party system in the House of Representatives

The Australian Labor Party (ALP) and a series of non-Labor parties have dominated the House of Representatives since Federation.[13] In fact, it was not until 2010 that the first minor party won a seat in the chamber at a general election in the postwar period.[14]

The party system in the House of Representatives can be seen as an example of ‘tripartism’ if the Labor, Liberal and National parties are considered as separate entities.[15] While the National Party is numerically smaller than the other major parties, it has held government positions thanks to its coalition deal with the Liberals.[16] It is therefore considered to be part of the anti-Labor grouping in the House of Representatives, which means the party system in this chamber is an example of a two-party system.[17] The origins, organisation and policy traditions of the Labor, Liberal and National parties differ and must be examined in order to understand the Australian party system.

The Australian Labor Party

The ALP is the oldest political party in Australia and one of the oldest trade union-based parties in the world. Its origins date back to the early 1870s. Labor is a mass party, which means that it allows ordinary citizens to join as members and, in theory, influence the party’s decisions. The party’s emergence was underpinned by unions responding to disputes regarding pay and conditions in the early 1890s. Concerned by the impact the economic recession of the time was having on their members, the unions held an Australia-wide strike. This strike, however, was defeated in every colony.[18]

Frustrated by these losses, the unions mobilised to create a new political party, the Labor Party, to stand candidates at elections and win government.[19] In doing so, the unions would gain direct representation in parliament and would be able to advance the interests of their movement. Labor consolidated its position across the colonies and succeeded in winning parliamentary representation at the first federal election in 1901. In 1904, it made history by becoming the first union-based political party in government as Labor leader John Christian Watson formed a minority government.

Policy traditions

Three broad policy traditions characterise the Labor Party today. The first is labourism, which became a prominent feature of the Hawke government during the 1980s.[20] A core characteristic of labourism is managing the economy in order to benefit salary earners.[21] The ALP’s adoption of labourism led to arguments that it had abandoned its traditional role of advancing the interests of unions in Australian politics.[22] Labourism, however, was a response to changes in society and the economy that were also apparent in the union movement, which transitioned from being dominated by blue-collar to white-collar unions.[23] Labourism is still a significant feature of the Labor Party today. It can be seen in the party’s acceptance that the private sector is critical to creating wealth.[24]

The second policy tradition is democratic socialism, which regards capitalism as inherently exploitative. Democratic socialists believe that the primary means of addressing this exploitation is to allow the government to control economic resources. In particular, government ownership of private sector companies and industries (which is often referred to as nationalisation) is sometimes advanced as a policy goal by democratic socialists.[25]

The third policy tradition is social democracy, which is also based on the idea that capitalism can lead to exploitation. Unlike democratic socialists, however, social democrats are more accommodating of the private sector. They seek to address the potential exploitation caused by capitalism through policy measures, such as advancing welfare policies or regulation, rather than through nationalisation.[26]

These three traditions also underpin the factions in the Labor Party. Factions are like small parties operating within a larger party. There are two broad factional groupings in the Labor Party. The right-wing factions tend to adhere to labourism and social-democratic traditions, while the left-wing factions are more supportive of democratic-socialist objectives. Just like political parties, factions in the Labor Party have their own members, organisational structures, leaders and policy agendas.[27] The roles factions play are also similar to those of political parties. While factions can play a positive role in a party, sometimes the contest between factions for influence within the party can lead to destabilising power struggles.[28]

Party organisation

The national conference is the peak decision-making body of the ALP; each state also has a state conference. The purpose of the state and national conferences is to direct party policies and platforms. Decisions made at the national conference have a significant impact on the operation of the party. For example, in 2015 the national conference decided to aim to increase the number of female parliamentarians in the party to at least 50 per cent by 2025.[29] The Labor Party is hierarchical, however, in that the national organisation can intervene in and discipline state and territory branches.

All members of the Labor Party are expected to sign ‘The Pledge’, which is an oath of loyalty requiring members to work to advance the interests of the party and never stand against endorsed Labor candidates in an election. Furthermore, when elected to government, the caucus (the term that refers to the party’s parliamentary wing) is expected to implement the policies decided by the party’s membership. It is expected that Labor parliamentarians will never vote against caucus. If they do, they can be expelled from the party.[30]

Labor Party splits and their impact on the party system

While discipline and unity have been the goals of the Labor Party organisation, the party has undergone three significant splits. These splits affected the Australian party system, benefiting the non-Labor parties (as will be discussed below).

The first split was in 1916, in the midst of the First World War. Labor Prime Minister William Morris Hughes planned to introduce conscription through a referendum. His plans encountered resistance from many within the party, and the referendum was rejected by Australians. In response, Hughes and 23 of his caucus colleagues resigned from the Labor Party and joined members from the Fusion Liberal Party to create a new political force that was called the Australian National Federation, often referred to as the Nationalists. In doing so, Hughes created the main anti-Labor Party that would remain in government until 1923.

The Labor Party also split in 1931 over the issue of managing the failing economy during the Great Depression. The party split between those who supported Prime Minister James Scullin’s plan to reduce government spending and those who argued that the government needed to spend on public projects, such as infrastructure, to stimulate economic activity.

The third split in the Labor Party is often known as the ‘great split’. This came to a head in the mid-1950s, following several years of instability in the Labor Party in the aftermath of the Second World War over the issue of the perceived influence of communist forces in the union movement.[31] This deeply divided the party and contributed to its inability to win government for over two decades.

Labor in government

The first Labor government elected after the ‘great split’ in 1953 was led by Gough Whitlam. In 1972, Whitlam ended Labor’s 23 years in opposition. The Whitlam government was characterised by major reforms, including the introduction of Medicare, free tuition for university students and greater emphasis on Indigenous land rights, as well as by decisions that offended the union movement, such as the reduction of tariffs by 25 per cent. The Whitlam government was dismissed by the governor-general in 1975, following a dispute between the House of Representatives and the Senate that resulted in the upper house refusing to pass the government’s budget. The Whitlam government left an important policy legacy on the ALP as it demonstrated how the party sought to recast itself as one that was responsive to the needs of the broader electorate and not just those affiliated with the trade unions.

This approach was adopted by the next Labor prime minister, Bob Hawke, who led the party to government in 1983. Among the Hawke government’s policy achievements was the Prices and Incomes Accord, which sought to constrain wage growth in return for government spending on the ‘social wage’ – which included education and health programs – and promised price restraint. Significant reforms included floating the Australian dollar, a shift towards privatising previously state-owned entities, such as Qantas and the Commonwealth Bank, and ensuring that the level of government spending would not exceed the national economy’s growth rate. Hawke was replaced as prime minister by his treasurer, Paul Keating, in 1991.

The Keating government emphasised a number of issues that were prioritised by Prime Minister Paul Keating. In particular, Indigenous affairs, Australia’s relationship with Asia and moves towards a republic were prominent during this government’s time in office. The Keating government lost the 1996 election, marking the end of Labor’s longest period in government. Labor would not return to government until 2007.

Between 2007 and 2013, the Rudd and Gillard governments were marred by internal instability. Kevin Rudd became prime minister in 2007 but was replaced by Julia Gillard – who became Australia’s first female prime minister – in 2010. Gillard was replaced by Rudd once again in the lead-up to the 2013 election. This period of government implemented significant reforms, such as the introduction of the National Disability Insurance Scheme and a short-lived mechanism for carbon pricing.

The Liberal Party

The Liberal Party is the latest in the line of non-Labor parties that have existed in Australia since 1901. In the years following Federation, non-Labor parties were either Free Traders, many of whom were from New South Wales (NSW), or Protectionists who hailed from Victoria. These groups were brittle and loosely organised coalitions of individual parliamentarians who, unlike Labor, did not have an extra-parliamentary wing from which to draw support. This instability motivated non-Labor politicians to find ways of creating a stronger organisational framework to support their parliamentary campaigns.[32]

Their efforts were strengthened in the aftermath of the first split in the Labor Party. William Morris Hughes and his colleagues from Labor joined the opposition to create the Nationalist Party. The party won the 1917 federal election and remained in government until 1929. During that time, the Nationalists entered into a coalition agreement with the Country Party for support in parliament.

The Labor split of 1931 again resulted in ex-Labor parliamentarians joining the non-Labor force to create a new political party – the United Australia Party (UAP). The UAP, led by former Labor minister Joseph Lyons, won the 1931 federal election and started developing extra-parliamentary structures in order to recruit members and raise money for campaigns. By 1939, however, the brittleness of non-Labor parties became apparent again. Lyons passed away and was replaced by Robert Menzies who, at the time, was a polarising figure. The UAP began to collapse when Menzies became part of Winston Churchill’s British war cabinet in the midst of the Second World War. Menzies resigned as prime minister in 1941, and the party, led by William Morris Hughes, suffered a heavy defeat at the 1943 election.

Following yet another failed experiment by the non-Labor side of Australian politics, Menzies began plans for creating a new party. In weekly radio addresses throughout 1942, Menzies discussed a range of policy issues.[33] In one famous speech, he highlighted the need for a new political party that was not based around the union movement or the wealthy. In the ‘forgotten people’ speech, Menzies argued that the middle class, who he identified as including ‘salary earners’, professionals and farmers, were not being represented by the existing parties.[34] Menzies quickly galvanised elements of the UAP and other non-Labor forces and held two conferences, one in Canberra and the other in Albury, in order to construct a new cohesive political force. The modern Liberal Party was launched in 1944 as the result of these efforts. It would seek to win executive government by joining forces with the Country Party in a formal coalition.

Party organisation

Unlike the ALP, which has a centralised organisation, the Liberal Party is made up of autonomous state and territory divisions that are responsible for running the campaigns and day-to-day affairs of the party.[35] The federal division does not have the power to intervene in the affairs of state divisions. As a result, the Liberal Party, unlike Labor, cannot have centralised decisions made on matters such as the number of females in parliament. Another point that differentiates the organisation of the Liberal Party from that of Labor is that the Liberal Party does not allow any external entity, such as a union or business group, to join the party. Liberal parliamentarians also have greater autonomy from the party’s organisation. They are not required to sign a pledge of loyalty and, in theory, are allowed to vote according to their conscience without being reprimanded by a central authority. In practice, however, voting against the party is rare. When it does occur, it is usually over issues on which the party allows parliamentarians to freely decide how to vote, such as same-sex marriage and euthanasia. These are often referred to as conscience, or free, votes in parliament.

The Liberal Party does not have formal factions, though groupings of like-minded individuals tend to form. In more recent years, groupings with competing views on social issues have become prominent. The party has a significant cohort of members who advance socially conservative positions, such as opposing same-sex marriage and Australia becoming a republic. They also tend to be sceptical of unilateral methods for addressing climate change. The party also has members who tend to favour more socially progressive ideas. This cleft, in addition to concerns about the popularity of the leader, has been at the core of instability in the Liberal Party following the defeat of the Howard government in 2007.

Policy making is also different in the Liberal Party in that the decisions made by the extra-parliamentary wing are not binding on the parliamentary wing. In effect, the Liberal parliamentary leader has the power to decide the party’s policies. The power of the party leader, however, is tempered by the fact that they must maintain the support of their parliamentary colleagues to remain leader. As former Prime Minister John Howard noted, leadership is a ‘gift of the party room’.[36] As a result, effective Liberal Party leaders must take the policy wishes of their colleagues and the extra-parliamentary wing into account to maintain support.

The Liberal Party in government

After winning the 1949 election, Robert Menzies led the Liberal Party to consecutive election victories until his retirement in 1966. Melding conservative and pragmatic elements was part of Menzies’ repertoire. He committed Australia to supporting the USA in the Vietnam War and sought to ban the Communist Party of Australia. Pragmatism was evident in the Menzies government’s approach to issues concerning economic policy, especially as it implemented protectionist policies to assist manufacturing and agriculture.[37] Menzies was replaced by Harold Holt, who went missing in 1967 after going for a swim in Portsea, Victoria. The Liberal Party selected John Gorton to replace Holt. Gorton, in turn, was replaced by William McMahon, who led the party to defeat in 1972, some 23 years after Menzies’ initial success.

The Liberal Party, along with its coalition partner, returned to government in 1975, following the dismissal of the Whitlam government by the governor-general. Led by Malcolm Fraser, the party continued the tradition set by Menzies. The government was also progressive in other policies, such as supporting multiculturalism and welcoming Cambodian and Vietnamese ‘boat people’ who were fleeing the communist regimes in their home countries.[38]

The Fraser government was defeated in 1983 and the Liberal Party spent 13 years in opposition, returning to power under the leadership of John Howard. Howard’s government was similar to that of Menzies in that it pursued economic reform while advancing socially conservative policies.[39] Much to the chagrin of many rural and regional voters, the government succeeded in bringing about a national firearms agreement following the Port Arthur shootings in 1996. In 2000, it implemented the Goods and Services Tax. The government also introduced welfare measures, including a first homeowner’s grant and a lump-sum payment to new parents, known as the ‘baby bonus’. Border and national security became defining issues for the Howard government, especially in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in the USA in September 2001.[40]

The Liberal Party was defeated in 2007 but was returned to power in 2013, with Tony Abbott as leader. Abbott’s prime ministership combined elements of social conservatism and economic liberalisation. Abbott sought to reinforce Australia’s links to Britain, supporting the monarchy by reintroducing knight and dame honours for Australians. The government also advanced economic liberalisation measures such as ending subsidies to vehicle manufacturers, which led to the eventual closure of car-making plants in Australia. The Abbott government disestablished policies of the previous Labor government, especially those concerning climate change.[41]

The Liberal Party demonstrated how the gift of leadership could be taken away by the parliamentary wing when, in 2015, it replaced Abbott with Malcolm Turnbull. As prime minister, Turnbull advanced a more socially progressive agenda. One of the most significant policy changes overseen by the Turnbull government was in 2017, when, after a national public vote, legislation was changed to allow same-sex marriage in Australia. The parliamentary wing again showed its capacity to choose leaders at will, replacing Turnbull with Scott Morrison in 2018, following a series of poor opinion poll results.

The National Party

The National Party (also known as the Nationals), which was originally known as the Country Party, is Australia’s second oldest political party. It was created with the aim of representing the interests of rural and regional areas and contested its first federal election in 1919. The party was originally underpinned by the primary producers in the agriculture sector, which was responsible for providing a significant source of export income.

Like the other major parties, the National Party is a mass party and is open for individuals to join. Similar to the Liberal Party, the National Party comprises autonomous state divisions, while the role of the extra-parliamentary wing is to provide financial and campaign support for the parliamentary wing. The extra-parliamentary wing is also responsible for pre-selecting candidates.[42]

The party changed its name from the Country Party to the National Party of Australia in 1982 as it sought to appeal to Australians living in cities. The party has consistently tried to broaden its constituency as populations in cities have risen. Since the 1980s, however, the party has focused on contesting provincial and rural electorates as it has identified these as being its core constituency.

The National Party tends to avoid the divisions over policy goals apparent in the Labor and Liberal parties. While there is some tension between those primary producers focused on domestic consumption and those focused on exports, the party remains united on broad philosophical questions. It does, on the whole, advance a socially conservative agenda.[43] The National Party, like the Liberal Party, is also highly critical of the role of unions and their impact on economic activity.

The National Party (then known as the Country Party) first agreed to form a coalition with the Nationalists in 1923 in order to defeat Labor and wield executive power. Today, the National Party has a formal coalition agreement with the Liberal Party. As part of the agreement, the Liberal Party leader will be the prime minister, while the National Party leader will be the deputy prime minister. Another condition of the agreement is that the Liberal and National parties will not stand candidates against each other unless the seat in question is vacant or held by another party.

For all its history, the National Party has essentially been a minor party. It attracts a relatively small proportion of the primary vote and its appeal is limited to Queensland, NSW and Victoria. Unlike other minor parties, however, it has been able to consistently win seats in the lower house due to its ability to garner support in rural and regional areas. In doing so, the National Party has been integral to keeping its coalition partner in government and has, in turn, been given opportunities to directly influence national policy.

The Senate party system

While the major parties also win the bulk of the seats in the Senate, the party system in the upper house, unlike that in the House of Representatives, has undergone a significant transformation. Changes to the party system coincided with changes to the Senate voting system. The Chifley Labor government implemented a proportional voting system in 1948, in time for the 1949 election. The party system underwent further changes following additional reforms to the voting system implemented in 1983.

The early minor parties: products of a major party split

Following the introduction of proportional representation, the Democratic Labor Party (DLP) became the first minor party to win Senate representation in 1955. It was created as a result of the ‘great split’ within the Labor Party in the early 1950s. The party was so focused on stopping the ALP from regaining government that, once Whitlam won the 1972 election, its reason for existing ceased and the party collapsed.[44]

The next minor party elected to the Senate was the Australian Democrats in 1977. Following the 1975 constitutional crisis, there was a growing appetite within the electorate for alternatives to the major parties. The Democrats emerged in this climate. The party was led by Don Chipp, a former Liberal minister. Unlike the DLP, the Democrats sought to reinvigorate the role of the Senate as a house of review by using their position in the chamber to keep both Labor and the Liberal–National Coalition (the Coalition) accountable for their performance in parliament.[45]

This approach resonated with Australian voters, and the party maintained Senate representation from 1977 and 2007. During this time, it made a significant contribution to the Australian party system. It was the first parliamentary party to have a female leader, and it had innovative organisational arrangements, allowing all members to participate in deciding policy.[46] The party, however, appeared unable to adapt to the competition it was facing from newer minor parties that would have a significant impact on the Australian party system.

Changes in the Senate party system: electoral reforms and contemporary minor parties

The Senate voting system underwent major changes following the implementation of the Hawke government’s reforms, which were introduced in 1983 but used for the first time at the 1984 election. The number of Senators per state rose from 10 to 12 due to the Hawke government increasing the number of House of Representatives seats to 148. This triggered the ‘nexus’ provision of the Constitution (section 24), which states that the number of representatives in the lower house must be approximately double that in the upper house. This also reduced the electoral challenges confronting minor parties as the proportion of the vote (or the quota) they needed to win a seat in an ordinary half-Senate election fell from 16.6 per cent to about 14.4 per cent. A similar fall in the percentage of the statewide vote needed at full-Senate elections meant that it was now easier for minor parties to reach the threshold required to win seats in the chamber.

The Hawke government also introduced the group ticket vote (GTV), which simplified the method of voting for the Senate. Instead of having to number every box on the Senate ballot paper, citizens could now indicate their first preference by voting ‘above the black line’. Their preferences would be distributed by the Australian Electoral Commission as per the instructions lodged by their preferred party.[47] These changes to the Senate voting system coincided with a significant change to the Senate party system, as shown in Table 1.

Table 1 Minor parties elected to the Senate since 1949

Minor party

Year first Senate seat won

Democratic Labor Party (DLP)


Liberal Movement


Australian Democrats


Nuclear Disarmament Party (NDP)


Vallentine Peace Group


WA Greens


Australian Greens


Pauline Hanson’s One Nation


Family First


‘New’ DLP


Liberal Democrats Party (LDP)


Palmer United Party (PUP)


Australian Motoring Enthusiasts Party (AMEP)


Hinch Justice Party


Nick Xenophon Team


Jacqui Lambie Network


As Table 1 shows, there were just three minor parties elected in the 34-year period between the adoption of proportional representation in 1949 and the last election before the introduction of the Hawke government reforms in 1983. Following the implementation of these reforms in 1984, however, 13 minor parties won Senate representation in 32 years. The parties winning Senate representation post-1984 have also been qualitatively different to those elected in the period between 1955 and 1983, as will be discussed below.

‘Green’ parties in the Senate

The first minor party to win Senate representation following the Hawke government reforms was the Nuclear Disarmament Party (NDP) in 1984. The party opposed the Hawke government’s pro-uranium mining policies and support for the broad foreign policies of the USA.[48] This was significant as it was the first time that a party advancing a specific policy agenda concerning environmental, conservation and humanitarian matters won Senate representation.

The party’s candidate in Western Australia (WA), Jo Vallentine, won a Senate seat, but the party soon collapsed. Vallentine, however, advanced her party’s agenda in parliament and was instrumental in creating the Vallentine Peace Group, which then morphed into the WA Greens. The WA Greens, which pursued similar goals to the NDP, continued to win Senate seats from 1990 onwards but was displaced as the pre-eminent ‘green’ party by the Australian Greens in the mid-1990s.

The Australian Greens combined a range of conservation movements, especially from the eastern states, to create a new party. Led by Dr Bob Brown from Tasmania, the new party was able to win its first Senate seat in 1996. It advanced a socially progressive agenda and emphasised cosmopolitanism, conservation, social justice and humanitarian issues.[49] By the time of the 2004 election, the WA Greens (which had been a separate political entity) had joined the Australian Greens confederation, and the party displaced the Australian Democrats as the third force in the Senate.[50] The party has been able to win and maintain representation in the House of Representatives at general elections since 2010 – something that has eluded many other minor parties in Australia – especially as it has been able to attract disenchanted Labor voters.[51] The party’s strongest influence has been in the Senate, where it has often held the balance of power with other non-major party senators. In this role, the party has sought to influence government policy, especially on issues concerning asylum seekers, environmental conservation and the provision of state services such as health care and education.

Non-‘green’ parties in the Senate

Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party first won Senate representation in 1998. From the outset, One Nation focused on race and immigration issues.[52] One Nation can be regarded as a populist-right type party – it is led by a charismatic leader and proposes to solve complex social and economic problems through simple policy changes.[53] At the national level, the party won one Senate seat in Queensland in 1998, attracting the support of disaffected Coalition voters in rural and regional electorates. But it soon unravelled. One Nation’s organisational structures were specifically designed so that its leader, Pauline Hanson, and not ordinary members, had the power to decide the party’s policies. This led to much frustration and caused many members to leave the party. Pauline Hanson was also sentenced to jail for fraudulently registering One Nation.[54] Hanson soon left the party and contested subsequent state and federal elections as an independent.

By the time of the 2016 federal election, however, Hanson had rejoined One Nation. Campaigning on race and immigration matters once more, the party was able to win a total of four Senate seats (two in Queensland and one each in NSW and WA) thanks to the lower quota required to win seats in the double dissolution election (the quota needed to win a seat was half that required at a general half-Senate election). As in the past, however, One Nation experienced structural volatility, with some Senators resigning from the party. While Hanson continued to keep a high public profile in Australian politics, her party’s impact on the national parliament has been hindered by organisational instability.

Other minor parties from the political right followed One Nation. Family First was elected to the Senate in 2004 but was only able to win a Victorian Senate seat because of a series of beneficial preference deals it had organised with other parties, rather than broad support. Family First positioned itself as an anti-Greens party. It focused on advancing socially conservative ideals, especially by opposing same-sex marriage and drug liberalisation. The party originated in South Australia (SA) and many members had links to Evangelical churches. While Family First could not win parliamentary representation in 2007 or 2010, the party did return to the Senate in 2013. The party merged with the Australian Conservatives, created by former Liberal Senator Cory Bernardi, in 2017.

In 2010, the ‘new’ DLP won Senate representation. The party, however, was qualitatively different to the version that was in the Senate throughout the 1950s and 1970s. Like the Family First Party, the ‘new’ DLP was mobilised in order to advance a socially conservative agenda, especially opposing abortion and same-sex marriage. And like Family First, the party’s ability to win a Senate seat in Victoria was due to a series of preference deals that allowed it to reach the quota. The party was unable to consolidate its Senate representation in subsequent elections.

The Senate party system started to change even more rapidly when, in 2013, three minor parties won seats in the chamber for the first time. These included the Palmer United Party, led by businessman Clive Palmer, and the Liberal Democrats. The Australian Motoring Enthusiasts Party (AMEP) also won Senate representation in 2013, even though its primary vote in Victoria as just 0.5 per cent. It was able to win a Senate seat thanks to preference deals it had made with other parties.

The Senate party system continued to diversify in 2016, even though the Turnbull government made changes to the voting system in response to the 2013 results. The GTV was removed, and voters had to preference at least six parties above the line or at least 12 candidates below the line. This reform was designed to stop minor parties that won a very small primary vote from gaining Senate representation through preference deals.

Despite these changes, three new parties won seats in the Senate, though it should be remembered that this was a double dissolution election. The Hinch Justice Party and the Jacqui Lambie Network were joined by the Nick Xenophon Team, which won three seats in the Senate in addition to the lower house seat of Mayo in SA.

Accounting for minor parties’ rising support and success

The level of support for minor parties in both houses of parliament has experienced peaks and troughs, but has been on the rise since 2007. In Senate contests, for example, the primary vote for minor parties rose from less than 10 per cent in 1949 to the highest rate yet of just under 35 per cent in 2016.[55] A key reason for the rise in support for minor parties is that many new parties have advanced policies that have responded to changes in society and to the broad policy debate. For example, the NDP and the Greens attracted the support of voters who felt strongly about nuclear disarmament, environmental conservation and social justice, while One Nation attracted the support of those concerned about race and immigration.[56]

Furthermore, there has been a change in the goals of minor parties contesting elections. In particular, minor parties that have been able to win seats since the 1980s have promised to use their parliamentary representation to bring about legislative change to areas they consider as important. They contrast with minor parties elected to the chamber throughout the 1950s and 1970s, which were created as a result of splits in a major party and sought to either stop the Labor Party from regaining government (in the case of the DLP) or use their position in the Senate to act as a watchdog on the major parties (in the case of the Democrats). The approach of contemporary minor parties has resonated with voters, who are willing to support them and allow them to wield significant power in the legislature.

There has also been a rise in the number of minor parties contesting elections. In 1984, for example, there were just 18 parties contesting the election, but in 2016 there were 56, most of which were standing for the Senate.[57] The proliferation of new parties also means that voters have even greater choice, which contributes to the apparent fall in support for the major parties.


There are two distinct party systems in Australia. The first is in the House of Representatives, which is still dominated by the major parties. The origins of the major parties show how they were able to attract electoral support (labour organisation in the case of the ALP, primary producers in the case of the National Party and conservative-oriented non-labour voters in the case of the Liberal Party). Their longevity has been underpinned by the voting system used to elect candidates to the lower house and reflects Duverger’s hypothesis that single-member electorates that use a majoritarian method of electing candidates will produce a two-party system.

In contrast, the party system in the Senate has undergone significant changes since the adoption of proportional representation in 1949. Moreover, the type of minor party elected to the chamber has transitioned – contemporary minor parties winning seats are advancing specific policy agendas. While the major parties continue to win a large portion of seats in the Senate, in recent years the use of proportional representation has contributed to the creation of a multiparty system that had been hypothesised by Duverger. The rising vote for minor parties shows that voters are also supporting greater diversity, especially in the upper house. This changing party system has implications for national policy, especially when governments must rely on support from these parties to pass legislation.


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About the author

Dr Zareh Ghazarian is a senior lecturer in politics and international relations at Monash University, where he teaches national politics, government and public policy. He is the author of The making of a party system (2015) and Australian politics for dummies (2010, with Nick Economou).

  1. Ghazarian, Zareh (2024). The Australian party system. In Nicholas Barry, Alan Fenna, Zareh Ghazarian, Yvonne Haigh and Diana Perche, eds. Australian politics and policy: 2024. Sydney: Sydney University Press. DOI: 10.30722/sup.9781743329542.
  2. See Ghazarian 2015, 1. See also White 2006, 6.
  3. See Parkin 2006, 3–24, and Katz and Mair 1995.
  4. Ball and Peters 2000, 97.
  5. Mayer 1991, 49.
  6. Macridis 1967, 9; Schattshneider 1942, 1.
  7. See Duverger 1967.
  8. See Sundquist 1983.
  9. Kreppel 2002.
  10. See also Riker 1982.
  11. Duverger 1954, 217.
  12. Duverger 1954, 239.
  13. Aitkin 1977; Jaensch 1989a.
  14. The Australian Greens won the seat of Melbourne.
  15. Duverger 1967, 235.
  16. Woodward 2006.
  17. McAllister 1982, 68.
  18. Economou 2006.
  19. Economou and Ghazarian 2010.
  20. See Singleton 1990.
  21. Manning 1992, 14.
  22. See, for example, Jaensch 1989b.
  23. Manning 1992, 27.
  24. Manning 1992, 14.
  25. Economou 2006.
  26. Economou 2006.
  27. See Economou 2006.
  28. In 2010, for example, the factions withdrew support from Kevin Rudd and supported Julia Gillard to become prime minister. In 2013, the factions once again shifted their support and reinstalled Kevin Rudd to the prime ministership.
  29. Peatling 2015.
  30. See Economou and Ghazarian 2010.
  31. See Love 2005.
  32. See Errington 2015.
  33. See Brett 2007.
  34. For the full speech, see Brett 2007, 21–27.
  35. The Liberal and National parties merged in Queensland in 2008.
  36. Howard 2006.
  37. See Brett 2007.
  38. Economou and Ghazarian 2010.
  39. See Hollander 2008.
  40. See McKay, Hall and Lippi 2017.
  41. See Talberg, Hui and Loynes 2016.
  42. See Costar 2015.
  43. See Costar 2015.
  44. The DLP was re-formed and succeeded in winning parliamentary representation in Victoria in 2006 and in 2010 the party won Senate representation. However, the ‘new’ DLP was qualitatively different to the party that existed throughout the 1950s and 1970s. For further discussion, see Ghazarian 2013.
  45. Ghazarian 2015, 32–5.
  46. Ghazarian 2015, 32–5.
  47. See Green 2015a.
  48. Quigley 1986, 14.
  49. See Miragliotta 2006.
  50. Charnock 2009.
  51. The Greens won the district of Melbourne from Labor in 2010 and were able to defend the seat in subsequent elections. See also Bennett 2008.
  52. See Ghazarian 2015, 117–8.
  53. Economou and Ghazarian 2018.
  54. Hanson was released less than three months later. For further discussion, see CMC 2004.
  55. See Green 2018, 199.
  56. See Economou and Ghazarian 2018; Ghazarian 2015.
  57. See Green 2015b.


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