The people rule @

Topic 1: Federal representation

Student handout 4: Political parties and representation in the House of Representatives

Focus questions

Who does the House of Representatives represent?
How do we vote for the House of Representatives?
What are political parties and what is their current composition in the House of Representatives?
From where and from whom do the major political parties gain their support?


The House of Representatives is called the people's house as it represents the people directly. Australia is divided into electorates each with approximately the same number of electors (voters) to ensure equality of representation. There are currently 150 seats in the House of Representatives. There were 75 in the first Australian Parliament in 1901.

Click upper image.

Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) 2003, Electoral Education Resource for Primary and Secondary Schools in Australia, Canberra, p 41.

Voting for the House of Representatives

The House of Representatives uses a preferential voting system in each of the 150 electorates or seats. This means that in order to win a seat, a candidate must receive more than 50% of the total vote. If no candidate receives more than 50% of the vote on the first vote count, then the second preferences of the candidate who received the least votes are counted. This process continues until one candidate has more than 50% of the vote. This candidate is the most preferred. This helps to ensure majority rule but makes it difficult for small parties to gain seats since it is hard for them to get a majority of the vote in any one seat.

To vote for Members of the House of Representatives voters write the number 1 in the box next to the candidate of their first choice, number 2 next to their second choice, and so on until all the boxes are numbered in the order of choice.

Click lower image.

Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) 2003, Electoral Education Resource for Primary and Secondary Schools in Australia, Canberra, p 54.

The preferential voting replaced the 'first-past-the-post' voting system in 1918. In the first-past-the-post system, voters place a cross in the square box on the ballot paper of the candidate they are supporting. The candidate with the most votes wins.

The difference between first-past-the-post and preferential voting

In an imaginary electorate the following results were obtained:

Candidate A 35,000 votes
Candidate B 18,750 votes
Candidate C 31,250 votes
Total votes 85,000

Under a first-past-the-post voting system, Candidate A is the winner because he or she has the most votes.

Under a preferential voting system, no candidate has a majority – more than 50% of the total votes. So the second preferences of Candidate B, who has the lowest number of votes, are counted and then added to the totals of Candidates A and C.

Under a preferential system, the 18,750 second preference votes of those who voted for Candidate B might be as follows:

Candidate A 6,750
Candidate C 12,000

These second preference votes are added to the first preference votes as follows:

Candidate A 35,000 + 6,750 = 41,750
Candidate B eliminated
Candidate C 31,250 + 12,000 = 43,250
Total votes 85,000

Under preferential voting, Candidate C has more than 50% of the total vote and is the winner.

Group and class discussion

  • What voting systems are used in student representation in schools?
  • Is a preferential voting system fairer than a first-past-the-post system?

Political parties

Most candidates in elections are members of political parties. Political parties are organised groups of like-minded people with broadly similar views who aim to influence or control government by having members elected to parliament. Parties are a key feature of Australia's representative democracy. Without political parties it would be very difficult to establish stable government since government relies on a majority in parliament.

In Australia there are three major parties: the Liberal Party, the National Party and the Australian Labor Party. The Liberal and National Parties combine their seats and work together (called a coalition) when they are in government. There are also several minor parties, such as the Australian Greens and the Australian Democrats. Sometimes people who are not in political parties stand for election. They are called Independents. They vote in parliament according to their own point of view.

The following table shows the state of the parties in the House of Representatives in December 2003.

House of Representatives 2001 results

Key to parties:

LP Liberal Party
NP National Party
ALP Australian Labor Party
CLP Country Liberal Party (Northern Territory)
GRN Australian Greens
IND Independent

Source: AEC:

Group and class discussion

  • How many seats does the Coalition have in the current parliament? (Note that the CLP is also part of the Coalition.)
  • What do you notice about the levels of support for each political party in the Australian States and Territories? Where is support for each party strongest? Weakest?
  • Use the figures to work out the percentage of representatives for each party in each State and Territory and across the nation as a whole.

Student activities

1. Results in your electorate

Using the 'wwwlinks' of Parliament @ Work go to the AEC website. In the 'Who' menu, choose 'Divisional Profiles and Election 2001 Results Map'.

Look at the information provided on your local electorate.

  • What percentage of voters turned out to vote at the last Federal election?
  • What were the results in your electorate?

2. Party support in Australia

In this activity you will use the Parliament @ Work database to look in more detail at where each of the main political parties (LP, NP and ALP) has its House of Representatives support and suggest reasons why this might be so.

Under the 'Search' menu of Parliament @ Work choose the 'Browse' feature and then select 'Parliamentarians', 'Commonwealth' and press 'GO'. This will give you a list of parliamentarians, their parties, electorates, States and Territories.

Sort the table by party to make this task easier.

a) Look at each Federal electorate and complete the following table. Have each member of your group use a copy of the following table, look at 25–30 seats and pool your results.

Name of electorate
PartyState or Territory
Description: Inner Metropolitan/Urban/Rural/Provincial
Products and industries

b) Use the data you have collected in your spreadsheets to fill in the table below and answer the following questions.

  • Do the major parties have equal levels of support across States?
  • Use your Description column. Where are most National Party, Liberal Party and ALP seats to be found? Is there a difference between metropolitan and rural electorates? What other differences do you see?
  • Are there any links between products and industries and political party support? What are these links? How might the political interests of people vary according to the products and industries in their electorates?

c) Record the results of your group discussion in the following table.



Liberal Party


National Party


Main States and Territories of support   
States and Territories where there is no support   
Areas of support according to Description column   
Main products and industries   

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Overview | Notes for teachers | Introductory activities 1 | Introductory activities 2 | Topic 1.1 | Topic 1.2 | Topic 1.3 | Topic 1.4 | Topic 1.5 | Topic 2 | Topic 3 | Topic 4 | Extension activities