What happens when a minor party or independent has the balance of power?

Whether a bill becomes law can sometimes come down to the vote of a minor party or even a single independent.

When this happens, the party or independent has what’s called “the balance of power”, which can make things a bit more complicated for major parties.

What is ‘the balance of power’?

It’s the ability of one or more independents, or a parliamentary party, to decide an issue by the way they vote.

This happens when no single party — nor coalition of parties — have majority support.

Sometimes, minor parties and independents can hold the balance of power.

This means their vote may decide the outcome of an issue if the government and opposition disagree.

What are crossbenchers? Who are they?

The crossbench is occupied by minor parties and independents.

Politicians crammed into seats throughout the red Senate chamber
This is a joint sitting of the House of Representatives and Senate to open the 46th Federal Parliament.(ABC News: Matt Roberts)

An independent is a member of parliament who does not belong to a particular political party.

Minor parties are parties with only a small number of members that have been elected to Parliament.

Sometimes, they can form part of the government or the opposition through a coalition.

Otherwise, they sit with the independents on the seats that curve around at the end of the Senate and the House of Representatives — those seats called the crossbenches.

The current crossbenchers in the House of Representatives are:

  • Helen Haines, independent for Indi (Victoria)
  • Adam Bandt, Greens for Melbourne and party leader (Victoria)
  • Zali Stegall, independent for Warringah (New South Wales)
  • Andrew Wilkie, independent for Clark (Tasmania)
  • Craig Kelly, UAP for Hughes (New South Wales)
  • Bob Katter, Katter’s Australian Party for Kennedy (Queensland)
  • Rebekha Sharkie, Centre Alliance for Mayo (South Australia)

And in the Senate:

  • Stirling Griff, Centre Alliance (South Australia)
  • Sam McMahon, Liberal Democratic Party (Northern Territory)
  • Jordon Steele-John, Greens (Western Australia)
  • Lidia Thorpe, Greens (Victoria)
  • Larissa Waters, Greens (Queensland)
  • Peter Whish-Wilson, Greens (Tasmania)
  • Mehreen Faruqi, Greens (New South Wales)
  • Dorinda Cox, Greens (Western Australia)
  • Sarah Hanson-Young, Greens (South Australia)
  • Nick McKim, Greens (Tasmania)
  • Janet Rice, Greens (Victoria)
  • Rex Patrick, independent (South Australia)
  • Jacqui Lambie, Jacqui Lambie Network (Tasmania)
  • Pauline Hanson, One Nation (Queensland)
  • Malcolm Roberts, One Nation (Queensland) 

How does a party or person come to hold the balance of power? 

When a party or coalition have more than half of the seats in the House, it holds an absolute majority

If neither the Coalition nor Labor emerges with a majority of seats, we’re left with a hung parliament.

When either the Coalition or Labor gets the support of enough crossbench MPs to hold 76 votes in the House of Representatives, we get a minority government.

Where the balance of power generally comes into play is in the Senate, where legislation gets passed.

Here’s an example of how that balance of power plays out:

Right now the Coalition, notionally, has 36 members in the Senate, the ALP has 26 and the Greens have nine.

There are 76 seats that make up the Senate, which means you need a majority vote of 39 to get a bill over the line.

If the Coalition wants to pass a bill that the ALP won’t vote for, the Coalition would have to get the Greens to agree to vote for the bill.

If the Greens won’t vote for the bill, the government might need the votes of independents and minority parties to make up those 39 votes.

What happens when one person holds the balance of power? 

When a government is in the minority, it often spends time trying to persuade independents and minor parties to support its bills.

That can give independents and minor parties leverage against the government, getting it to come to the table on issues they care about, in exchange for their support on legislation the government cares about.

Medevac laws are a recent example of independents playing a pivotal role in shaping legislation.

Senator Jacqui Lambie sits in parliament
Jacqui Lambie proved to be a key player in the government’s efforts to repeal medevac laws.(AAP Image: Mick Tsikas)

In March, 2019, independent Kerryn Phelps introduced the Migration Amendment (Repairing Medical Transfers) Bill 2019 (aka Medevac), which gave doctors more of a say in transferring refugees and asylum seekers from offshore-processing centres to Australia for medical treatment. 

That bill was passed and it became law.

In December, 2019, independent senator Jacqui Lambie gave the Coalition the numbers it needed to repeal the laws under the terms of a secret deal.

Senator Lambie later revealed that she had agreed to support the repeal in exchange for the government allowing 150 refugees stuck in Australia’s offshore detention system to be resettled in New Zealand.

The resettlement deal was made in 2013, but the Coalition had never followed through on it until just before the election.

Before Senator Lambie, there was Brian Harradine.

Brian Harradine
Former Tasmanian independent senator Brian Harradine, who died in 2014, struck a deal with the Howard government in 1996.(AAP: Mick Tsikas)

In 1996, the independent struck a deal with the Howard government to improve youth allowance, in exchange for his support on GST.

In 1999, senator Harradine was able to secure $40 million for his home state of Tasmania in exchange for his support for the government to sell a slice of Telstra

Sharkie is standing in the House of Representatives, wearing a blue jacket.
Rebekha Sharkie is a Centre Alliance MP for the seat of Mayo.(ABC News: Matt Roberts)

In the 2022 election, South Australian independent Rebekha Sharkie said that, if the result was a hung parliament, then the major parties would need to deliver on water allocations for the River Murray, climate change action and a federal ICAC to have her support.

Australian Greens leader Adam Bandt said his party was central to the Gillard minority government securing a $13 billion investment into clean energy and dental into Medicare for kids.

Australian Greens Leader Adam Bandt holding promotional pamphlets in front of a tree.
Australian Greens Leader Adam Bandt says his party was instrumental in getting dental for kids into Medicare.  (AAP: Russell Freeman)

At the Greens’ 2022 election campaign launch, Mr Bandt announced a balance of power shortlist of issues it would negotiate in the event of a minority government.

That list included no new coal and gas, dental and mental health into Medicare, wiping student debt, free childcare and making progress on the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

“In [the] balance of power, the Greens will kick the Liberals out and push for urgent action on the climate crisis, the cost of living crisis and justice for First Nations people,” Mr Bandt said.