Inside Story

Current affairs & culture from Australia and beyond

489 words

Niche politics

3 July 2018

It’s a battle to get noticed by Australia’s small group of Trumpian voters, but David Leyonhjelm might have worked out how

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The accidental senator: the Liberal Democratic Party’s David Leyonhjelm. Mick Tsikas/AAP Image

The accidental senator: the Liberal Democratic Party’s David Leyonhjelm. Mick Tsikas/AAP Image


If David Leyonhjelm was a major-party politician, his career would be finished after the events of the last week. But instead, his prospects of re-election might have been given a new lease of life.

The Liberal Democrats senator for New South Wales, who dumped his opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage before jumping ship from the Shooters’ Party in 2005, first arrived in the Senate in 2014 as a result of name confusion with the Liberal Party and a lucky placement at the top left of the NSW Senate ballot paper. Chance had reaped him 9.5 per cent of the primary vote.

In early 2016 the Turnbull government changed the Senate voting rules to eradicate inter-party preference tickets. Having received bad advice — his chances of re-election, having built some sort of profile, were actually better under the new rules than the lucky dip of joining a preference-swapping group — he and his party gave financial support to Family First senator Bob Day’s High Court challenge to the changed voting system.

Luckily for him (and Day, for a while), the challenge failed, and Leyonhjelm squeaked back with a total party vote of 3.1 per cent. But that was a double dissolution, with the quota roughly half the size needed at a half-Senate election. And a half-Senate election is what he’ll face at the next general election.

It’s easy for political obsessives to forget that some of the characters we write and talk about are little known outside the political bubble. Leyonhjelm fits that category. But with Monday night’s appearances on Network Ten’s The Project and ABC TV’s 7.30, his profile around the country has been boosted — at least for a while.

His justifications for his behaviour were eye-rollingly risible, but there’s a market for his product. Some people will have liked what they heard, regardless of whether it made sense. The fact that his target was one of the higher-profile Greens senators is not irrelevant.

There aren’t nearly enough self-described libertarians to re-elect their parliamentary flag-bearer but there is a larger group that might be called Trumpian, perhaps 10 per cent of the voting population. It’s a tiny patch, squabbled over by Cory Bernardi, Pauline Hanson, Tony Abbott and Leyonhjelm.

None of those other MPs would go as far as the LDP senator has in the last week. You could, in fact, call his behaviour Trump-like: vile, misogynist, unencumbered by reason, and viscerally appealing to a small minority, not all of them men.

Of course, Donald Trump hijacked a major party to take him to America’s highest office. Leyonhjelm’s order of business, retaining his Senate spot, is a little more modest.

In 2016, that 3.1 per cent, plus preferences, got him to the magic 7.7 per cent quota (of unexhausted votes). Next time the quota will be 14.3 per cent and he’ll need to roughly double his primary vote.

This week could turn out to have been a flying start. •

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