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.
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 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. In this example, yellow holds the balance of power – any bill or motion can’t pass without yellow’s approval.
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). This is also true of the State parliaments. 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) 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.