How much do I need to win by to have a “mandate”?

Following the Australian election earlier this month, there have been plenty of claims and counterclaims about whether or not the Coalition has the mandate to do, well, anything. Similarly, Nigel Farage is claiming that the Brexit Party has a mandate for a seat at the table following their success in the recent European elections.

Yes, they won a bunch of seats from the ALP, and have won a majority in the House of Representatives. It appears, at the time of writing, that they will still have to deal with cross-benchers to pass legislation in the Senate. Equally, the Brexit Party won the most seats of any one party in the United Kingdom, but they are not represented in the Houses of Parliament.

So – who says whether or not one particular group has a mandate or not?

The first question is… what is a mandate?

It is usually used in its noun form, although its verb form is used in a very different way. I’m going to concentrate on the noun form.

The Cambridge English Dictionary defines it as:

the authority given to an elected group of people, such as a government, to perform an action or govern a country.

The Oxford English Dictionary has two definitions:

  1. an official order or commission to do something; and

  2. the authority to carry out a policy, regarded as given by the electorate to a party or candidate that wins an election.

Merriam-Webster opts for:

  1. an authoritative command, especially a formal order from a superior court or official to an inferior one

  2. an authorization to act given to a representative “accepted the mandate of the people”

It’s Merriam-Webster that provide a specific interpretation that’s particularly interesting.

Merriam-Webster Screenshot

Note that last part. This is where mandates for action can get tricky.

So, how much successful do you need to have a mandate?

Energy Minister Angus Taylor has argued that the Coalition has a mandate to introduce its energy policy following the outcome of the federal election a week and a half ago. Naturally, other groups are questioning that statement, including the Opposition and green groups.

Often, claims for a mandate come for a call for “bipartisan support” for a particular policy, but in my experience, “bipartisan support” means “support for my party’s policy,” rather than “let’s negotiate something both parties can live with.”

This is often where things get a little tricky, particularly in Australian politics.

Unlike the requirement in the United Kingdom, where a party manifesto has some form of legal standing, that is not the case in Australia. Essentially, political parties can promise whatever they want, and if elected, try and pass it as best they can. They can posture as much as they want in the press, but if they didn’t win enough seats in the House of Representatives and the Senate to get their legislation passed, then one could argue that they don’t have a mandate to pass legislation.

But what about the verb, mandate?

Ahh yes – to mandate something essentially means to require something. It’s not unreasonable to suggest the following sentence:

The result of the Australian election mandated the Parliament to stay the course on climate change. (Please note I did not like writing that sentence at all, but it seems to be the direction some have been arguing).

So, could the Coalition argue that the Australian people have required the Parliament to pass its legislation? Ehh, not really? We go back to the number of seats issue. Similarly, Nigel Farage and the Brexit Party can argue that the British people have mandated the House of Commons to leave the EU based on the results of the European elections, but without representation in the House of Commons, or indeed the House of Lords, he’s not likely to get anywhere with that.

In conclusion

I am not at all convinced that any political party can claim a mandate unless they have a majority in both Houses (or one House in a unicameral Parliament). Even then, I would want them to have a significant number of seats/districts in their favour.

What are your thoughts? Leave your thoughts in the comments, ask some questions – I’ll do my best to answer them later.


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