When Nick Xenophon departed the Senate to try to force his way back into South Australian politics, some predicted he would upend that State’s entrenched two-party system and maybe even become Premier.
In the end, his party did not even win a Lower House seat.
It was a similar story in Queensland a few months earlier, when some thought One Nation would perform so strongly that Pauline Hanson’s party could end up with cabinet positions for the first time.
But they, too, fell well short of expectations — winning just one seat.
It’s a familiar story across most states in Australia, where countless parties have tried to break up the political status quo and few have even come close — at least in terms of winning seats in the lower house of Parliament.
The situation is especially stark in WA, where the Liberals, Nationals and Labor have had an extreme stranglehold on the house of government.
A daunting task?
Since World War II there have been 22 general elections in WA and the Liberals, Nationals and Labor have combined to win 98 per cent of the Legislative Assembly seats up for grabs in those contests.
For parties like the Greens or One Nation as well as other new entrants trying to establish themselves in the WA political sphere, breaking up the dominance of that triumvirate looms as a daunting task — one that many would consider impossible.
“People have to be realistic about how difficult it is to shift a mindset around whether to vote for the older parties or a newer voice,” Greens MP Alison Xamon said.
One Nation’s Colin Tincknell believes his party has a good chance of boosting its vote at the next election. (ABC News: Andrew O’Connor)
The preferential voting system used in WA’s lower house — as well as the federal House of Representatives and nearly every state Parliament — means it is almost impossible to win a seat without getting at least 30 per cent of the vote in any one election.
That works fine for a party like the WA Nationals, who get a relatively low share of the statewide vote but have it concentrated in a small number of electorates and therefore win several seats.
But that system also means groups like SA Best, or One Nation in Queensland, and even the Greens across multiple states, can win a substantial share of the vote but have it spread around a bunch of seats they do not end up winning.
“Realistically, unless we had proportional representation in the lower house, it is always going to be a challenge for us to pick up those seats in the assembly,” Ms Xamon said.
‘Appetite for a third option’
While the dominance of the “Big Three” in terms of seats won in WA has not really changed in decades, their stranglehold on the vote has.
In 1986 the Liberals, Labor and Nationals combined to win 98 per cent of the lower house vote in WA.
By 2017 that had fallen to 79 per cent.
“There is an appetite out there for a third option of some kind … people aren’t rusted on to the major parties like they were for most of the 20th century,” political analyst William Bowe, publisher of the Poll Bludger blog, said.
“I think the dominance of the major parties in the long run is here to stay, but it is going to be more volatile in the future.”
That dominance has been somewhat upended in upper houses — including the federal Senate and WA’s Legislative Council — where the proportional voting system has allowed the likes of the Greens, One Nation and other smaller entities to end up with substantial power.
But at least some currently minor parties believe they can force themselves into the domain of the big boys in WA politics sooner rather than later.
“People feel the three party system in WA is letting them down and that is why our popularity is growing,” One Nation WA leader Colin Tincknell said.
That optimism is enough to have Mr Tincknell dreaming big, believing One Nation can win enough seats to demand ministerial posts in the near future.
“Being a part of government in my time? That could happen even at the next election,” Mr Tincknell said.
In one sense, minor parties dreaming big is nothing new.
Before the last WA election Mr Tincknell predicted One Nation could win three to five lower house seats, but it did not end up going close in any.
Wanted: party with broad appeal
The Greens have long aspired to be a party of government, but have only won a Legislative Assembly seat in WA once — through a by-election in Fremantle in 2009.
That ended disastrously, with Adele Carles quitting the party within a year following her affair with Liberal Treasurer Troy Buswell, and the party has been a long way off winning another seat since.
According to Mr Bowe, it will take a party with broad appeal — rather than one firmly left or right wing — to truly break up the status quo.
“If someone is going to take advantage of this situation, they will have to cut across the whole notion of left-versus-right politics,” Mr Bowe said.
“It is cutting through that directly to people who don’t frame themselves in ideological terms.”
Ms Xamon is confident the state will not alternate between Labor and Liberal governments forever, as has been the case since 1933, but concedes those hoping to break that up will have to be patient.
“Politics is a long game,” she said.
“You have just got to keep plugging away at it.”