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Explainer: why don’t we know who won the election and what happens now?

Labor’s better-than-expected performance has left a lot of seats still too close to call. AAP/Mick Tsikas

Explainer: why don’t we know who won the election and what happens now?

Labor’s better-than-expected performance has left a lot of seats still too close to call. AAP/Mick Tsikas

After one of the longest election campaigns in Australian history, a winner is yet to be decided.

As Australia is based on the Westminster system, government is formed by the party (or coalition of parties) that wins a majority of seats in the House of Representatives, also known as the lower house. The leader of this majority becomes prime minister.

There are 150 seats in this chamber, so a majority needed to form government is 76 seats. This is the magic number that the Labor Party and Liberal/National Coalition will be striving for over the coming days.

The house of government

As it currently stands, neither major party can yet claim 76 seats. With many seats too close to call, pre-poll and postal votes (which will be counted over the coming days) will decide who is in the best position to form government.

If an effective campaign was run by incumbent MPs, the postal votes should favour them. Pre-polls, on the other hand, would reflect the broader trends of the electorate – so, in this case, that means the votes would be very tight on a two-party preferred basis. In such a close race, the favourite would be the candidate who was in the lead before counting postal and pre-poll votes.

As of today, the prospect of Australia having a hung parliament is quite real. It means that neither major party can form a government in their own right and will depend on minor parties and independents to cobble together a majority in the lower house. If this was to occur, Australia will have its second minority government since 2010.

Like a grand final ending in a draw, minority governments in Australia are unlikely but may occur. The Australian electoral system amplifies majorities, so governments may win with a small percentage of the vote but will usually have a comfortable working majority. For example, in 2013, the Coalition won 53.5% of the two-party-preferred vote, but won 60% of the seats in the lower house.

It’s a system that is ultimately geared towards manufacturing governments with clear majorities. But when the two-party-preferred vote is so close, as it is at the moment with the Coalition on 50.1% and Labor on 49.9%, a situation where neither party can win majority is a real possibility.

The 2016 result is very similar to that of the 2010 election. Back then, however, it was Labor with the slightly higher two-party-preferred vote.

What do we know about the new Senate?

The Senate has almost the same powers as the House of Representatives, so its composition also has implications for policy outcomes.

As this was a double-dissolution election, all Senate seats were up for election. This means that, unlike in a general election where six of the 12 seats from each state are up for grabs, all 12 were contested.

This in turn means the quota – which is the percentage of the vote needed to win a seat – was halved, making it easier for independents and minor parties to win representation. Pauline Hanson and Derryn Hinch appear set to win seats. Prominent South Australian senator Nick Xenophon, and others from his Nick Xenophon Team, and the Christian Democratic Party are also looking like certainties in the new Senate.

In this election, a new system of voting was used to elect senators. Unlike previous elections, preference wheeling-and-dealing between parties would not have the same impact. Candidates would have to win a large primary vote to stand any chance of victory. This appears to have occurred.

What happens next?

Following an episode in 2013 in which where some ballot papers were misplaced in Western Australia, ballot security has been bolstered.

As a result, counting of the votes will be undertaken in more secure settings, which will mean further delays in deciding close contests. Indeed, counting will recommence on Tuesday and it is expected that results won’t be any clearer until later this week. Counting for the Senate will continue over the coming weeks.

In terms of governance, the public service will continue to administer the policies that were in place prior to the election. New policies cannot be implemented and will have to wait until a new government is sworn in. The provision of government services will not be affected by the delay in the formation of a new government and will continue as usual.

Australian voters have once again decided that neither major party can form government on election night. Results in seats that are too close to call at present may decide who governs.

If neither party can get to 76 seats on their own, they will have to negotiate with the crossbenchers to manufacture a majority. The Australian system can accommodate this, as seen during the Gillard government years. Getting to that point, however, will take many more days and a lot more counting.