Federal election 2013

Brenton Holmes, Politics and Public Administration

Key issue
The federal election, held on 7 September 2013, brought to a conclusion what had been a tumultuous three years—largely animated by the tensions of a hung parliament, highly partisan parliamentary politics, leadership struggles within the Labor Party, and controversies associated with Speaker Peter Slipper. The demise of Australia’s first female Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, and the return of Kevin Rudd to the Labor leadership intensified the electoral contest between the major parties. A record number of parties and candidates contested the election, which delivered a Coalition Government and a Senate comprising members of the two major parties a mix of other parties and an independent.


Both Victoria and South Australia had redistributions prior to the election. In Victoria, the revised boundaries resulted in 374,807 electors, or 10.77 % of electors, changing division. In South Australia 44,402 electors, or 4.01 % of electors, changed division.

Voters, candidates and parties

A total of 14,712,799 people enrolled to vote in the 2013 federal election, an increase of over 624,000 since the last election. Despite a growth in youth enrolment of 25,000 since the 2010 election, an estimated 400,000 young voters failed to enrol.  An estimated 1.22 million—the equivalent of 12 electorates—remained unenrolled across all age groups.

A record 1,717 candidates contested the election, compared to 1,198 in 2010—an increase of 43 %. This national figure was comprised of 529 Senate candidates for the 40 Senate vacancies and 1,188 candidates for the 150 Representatives seats. There were 470 female candidates and 1,247 male candidates. Altogether, 265 group voting tickets were accepted. The Australian Electoral Commission registered 54 unrelated parties plus 23 branches of the major parties.

The build-up to the election campaign

In January 2013, Julia Gillard had taken the unusual step of announcing a proposed election date of 14 September 2013. When Kevin Rudd replaced her as Prime Minister on 26 June, election date certainty evaporated. Opinion polls had consistently pointed to a substantial Coalition victory, but Rudd’s return produced a resurgence of Labor’s electoral prospects. Rudd began to move on several fronts: Labor Party reform, a faster transition to an emissions trading scheme, a major toughening up of asylum seeker policy, and an Economic Statement that revealed ongoing deficits with a return to surplus in 2016–17. He then announced an election date of 7 September.

The campaign

The opening day of the campaign was notable for the strident headlines from some News Corporation mastheads calling for the defeat of Labor. Economic concerns quickly became the dominant campaign theme, and the major parties continued to trade blows over policy costings, alleged changes to the GST, and support for the motor vehicle and other industries. The Coalition had elected to use the Parliamentary Budget Office to verify its costings and to have these audited by an independent panel.

The numerous small parties on offer received little mainstream media attention—although occasional headlines highlighted the presence of parties led by Bob Katter, Clive Palmer and Wikileaks’ Julian Assange.

The Prime Minister and Opposition Leader held their first debate at the National Press Club on 11 August. The economy dominated the exchange—although the issues of climate change, asylum seeker policy, Sydney's second airport, aged care, and same-sex marriage were also addressed. Several debates were later held between key portfolio ministers and shadow ministers.

The publication of Treasury’s Pre-election Economic and Fiscal Outlook prompted exchanges over the major parties’ economic credentials, and the nature and timing of any return to a Budget surplus. Sexism also surfaced as an issue on the campaign trail and the Coalition’s paid parental leave scheme became one of its most controversial policies. Asylum seeker policy continued to animate public discussion.

The Greens electoral prospects were somewhat undermined by the Coalition’s decision to preference Labor, and Independent Senator Nick Xenophon’s decision to run a split preference ticket.  

A fortnight before polling day, a Fairfax-Neilsen poll showed Labor lagging behind the Coalition 47–53 and indicated that 70% of voters were expecting a Coalition win. 

A second leaders’ debate in the style of a community forum was held in Brisbane on 21 August, and a third on 28 August at Rooty Hill in Sydney’s western suburbs. The Opposition had by then released details of $31 billion in savings, but had to weather constant criticism for not declaring its ‘budget bottom line’.

The Coalition officially launched its campaign on 25 August, and Labor a week later. The final week of the campaign failed to improve Labor’s position in the main opinion polls. The Coalition released more policy costings on Thursday 5 September, claiming it would improve the budget bottom line by over $6 billion.  The Coalition had indicated the possibility of a double dissolution if a victorious Coalition’s key policies were to be frustrated in the Senate.

The outcome

The Coalition had a decisive win in the House of Representatives, with a two-party preferred vote of 53.45% to Labor’s 46.55%—a two-party swing of 3.65%. Labor’s primary vote fell to 33.38%, its lowest in over 100 years.

Despite a national swing of 3.11% against the Australian Greens, deputy leader Adam Bandt retained his seat of Melbourne. Tasmanian independent Andrew Wilkie was re-elected with an increased majority. 

The Coalition won 90 seats, Labor 55 seats, with the remainder going to small parties (3)* and independents (2).

The Senate proved to be an interesting contest, with small parties winning six of the seats. The Coalition won 17 seats, Labor won 13 seats and the Greens three seats, with one independent returned.*

The Senate outcome prompted debate about the fairness of the Senate voting system, given that the distribution of preferences delivered Senate seats to parties with a very low primary vote. The Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters will examine the matter as part of its inquiry into the 2013 federal election. Senator Nick Xenophon (IND, SA) has announced his intention to introduce legislation to change the Senate voting system to optional preferential below the line.

Voter turnout in the House of Representatives was 93.34% (93.22% in 2010) and 94.00% in the Senate (93.83% in 2010).

It is perhaps surprising, given the size of many Senate ballot papers, that the rate of informal voting in the Senate was lower than at the previous election, and was also lower than the informal vote in the House of Representatives. The informal vote in the House of Representatives was 5.91% and 2.96% in the Senate, compared to the 2010 informal vote of 5.55% and 3.75% respectively.

Over 3.2 million Australians voted early (pre-poll or postal) for the 2013 federal election. This compares to around 2.5 million in 2010.

Over 1.3 million postal vote applications were received for the 2013 federal election. This compares to just over 950,000 in 2010.

* pending recounts in Fairfax and the WA Senate.

Further reading

B Holmes and S Fernandes, 2010 federal election: a brief history, Research paper, 8, 2011–12, Parliamentary Library, Canberra, 2011.

Figures used in this brief were drawn from the Australian Electoral Commission’s Virtual Tally Room as at 4 October 2013. 

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