Hung parliament? There is a silver lining…

The latest election in the United Kingdom has resulted in a hung parliament – something we’re familiar with here in Australia. Our 2010 federal election ended in a hung parliament, with six crossbenchers holding the balance of power in an uneasy alliance with the Australian Labor Party. And our last election was so close that the result wasn’t known for over a week, with the Coalition only just managing to win the 76 seats necessary to control the House of Representatives in their own right without crossbencher support – which I’m sure the Coalition Government is thankful for since, if there’s one thing we learnt from the the former Labor Government’s experience, it’s that crossbencher-agreements attract their fair share of controversy. Just look at the current UK election coverage!

But despite the fuss and tensions caused by a close result, there is an unintended benefit: attendance! The closer the numbers are between parties, the more likely our Members of Parliament (MPs) will show up to make sure they keep ahead of their opposition.

This is certainly the case in Australia, where the Coalition leads by a majority of one MP in the House. So far in 2017, only two divisions (or formal votes) have involved less than 91% of MPs. This can be compared to 2014, the year after the Coalition won a firm majority in the House, when most divisions were voted on with less than that number of MPs.

So despite the media storm caused by a close result, at least we can count on higher attendance figures as a nice silver lining.

What’s so good about attendance?

In our democracy, we vote for politicians to represent us – both at an electorate level with our MPs in the House of Representatives and at a state level with our Senators in the Senate. Some MPs and Senators have other jobs – acting as ministers or leaders in some capacity – but ultimately we vote for them to represent us in whichever house of Parliament they belong to. And the main way they do this is by voting on our behalf – a power each one of them has, from the backbencher who never makes it onto the news to the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition. Each has one vote, though the vote is not actually theirs – it’s yours. Your electorate’s in the House. Your state or territory’s in the Senate.

But absent politicians don’t vote. So the less often your MP or Senator is in Parliament, the less often your electorate or state/territory is being represented in Parliament. There is an informal ‘pairing’ system that means, for example, if a member of the Government is absent then a member of the Opposition can be paired with them, which means they also don’t vote and so neither side benefits from the absence. However, since the system is informal, either side can refuse to participate in it.

Wait a minute… what about the Senate?

Although our friends in the UK don’t vote for their upper house – we certainly do! So what happens to attendance figures in the Senate when there’s a close result?

Unlike the House of Representatives, the Senate’s attendance figures have remained more or less steady over the years since the start of They Vote For You’s data in 2006, with figures consistently less than those of the House of Representatives. For example, so far in 2017 there have only been three votes with attendance levels above 90%.

We don’t know why your average Senator misses more votes than the average MP. If you ask your Senators, let us know what they say!

Maybe the lower attendance figures are because Government is formed in the House of Representatives and so the Senate can be seen as more of a ‘House of Review’ (putting it nicely) or a ‘rubber stamp’ (putting it less nicely).

Or maybe it’s because senators don’t independently represent their states and so they feel less significant. While only one MP is elected to represent a particular electorate, twelve senators are elected to represent each state and two to represent each territory. And these senators usually belong to parties, which means that they vote with their fellow party members regardless of state and territory lines. As Joff Lelliott wrote for The Drum, “It is laughable to imagine votes in the Senate breaking along state rather than party lines these days” (you could verify whether this is in fact true using the They Vote For You data).

Considering that the Senate was created as a way to represent our state or territory’s interests at a federal level, perhaps it’s time to look again at why we have a Senate and what purpose we want it to play. But that’s a question for another day, and another blog post.

For now, you can go to They Vote For You and type in your postcode to find out your MP’s attendance figures. Then look through our list of senators (sorted by state/territory) and compare their attendance figures. If you’re not satisfied with what you find, perhaps it’s time to contact your representatives and ask them why they aren’t using the vote you elected them to use on your behalf.


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