Inside Story

A long campaign, a long wait… and then what?

What do we know so far about the likely post-election scene? Tim Colebatch has been crunching the latest numbers

Tim Colebatch 3 July 2016 2745 words

Fifty-fifty: prime minister Malcolm Turnbull talks to journalists during a brief media conference in Sydney on Sunday. David Moir/AAP Image

Most of us now know who our new MPs will be. What we don’t know is who will be our prime minister. And we don’t know whether there will be a majority or minority government. Indeed, we don’t even know whether there will be a government at all.

The election has turned out much as I forecast on Friday, but even I didn’t expect it to be this close. Moreover, it took a sudden turn on Saturday night, after we went to bed, when counting into the small hours significantly changed the numbers in key Victorian seats.

My take on the figures released up until late Sunday afternoon is that the breakdown of MPs in the 150-seat House of Representatives will be:

Coalition: 68 at worst, 78 at best
: 67 to 75
: 5 to 7

In other words, the Coalition would need to win 8 of the 10 seats still undecided to form a majority government. That’s a big ask. Labor can’t win majority government even if everything breaks its way. Malcolm Turnbull has, at best, a fifty-fifty chance of obtaining the majority government he told us he had won.

The Senate, too, will be roughly as forecast. At best, the Coalition might keep its present Senate numbers (33 out of 76) if things fall its way, but it’s more likely to come back with between 30 and 32 seats. Labor will probably hold its existing 25 seats, but could drop one, with the crossbench set to expand even further, making the task of passing tough reforms very challenging.

Whoever forms government could negotiate with senator Derryn Hinch, or the three senators of the Nick Xenophon Team, but negotiating with senators Pauline Hanson and Jacqui Lambie will be hard work. Nine Senate seats are still undecided, and will remain so until the Australian Electoral Commission keys into its computer the preferences from our fifteen million votes. It will be some time in August before the commission sends the computer spinning to spit out the results.

This is not the result the Coalition or Labor wanted. But, as I warned last week, the big parties will just have to learn the art of getting on with smaller parties. In the campaign, both of them performed ultra-macho poses, insisting they would not do any deals with the crossbenchers to form government. The first promise they break may be that one.

That’s no catastrophe. Most democracies in the world are governed by coalitions of some sort, and they work quite well. Even our last one worked well as a coalition; most of the things that went wrong for it would have gone wrong whether or not Labor had been a majority government.

Tony Abbott was all at sea dealing with the crossbenchers in 2010. Malcolm Turnbull should find it a lot easier. If the numbers don’t fall right for him, his only alternatives are to go into opposition or risk public anger by calling a fresh election. The voters will expect him – or Bill Shorten, should he have the chance – to negotiate a solution, not just tell us they don’t like talking to independents and minor parties.

The time for political analysis will come when we know what the final outcome is. I will just pass on one gem that Paul Bongiorno (I think – it was deep into the night) uttered on ABC television: if Malcolm Turnbull survives, he will be wounded and even more wary of putting the Nationals and his own right-wingers offside. Yet his dilemma is that unless he takes risks to impose himself and change the party’s direction, his support in the electorate will keep eroding until his leadership is no longer viable.

So what really happened in the voting, as it stands at the end of Saturday night’s count?

In two-party terms, the overall swing to Labor was 3.4 per cent. With ten million votes counted, the Coalition had 50.1 per cent of the two-party-preferred vote, and Labor 49.9 per cent. Four to five million votes were still to come, mostly pre-poll and postal votes, and they will see the Coalition end up with somewhere between 50.5 and 51 per cent, and Labor between 49.5 and 49 per cent.

The nationwide polls got it right again, and the pollsters deserve congratulations. The seat-by-seat polls, by contrast, got many seats wrong, consistently erring in the Coalition’s favour. That was what misled the commentariat, the punters and the public into thinking that the Coalition had the election won. The pollsters kept telling us that the 3 per cent national swing to Labor was not reflected in the marginal seats.

Saturday night showed that was bunk. The biggest swings to Labor were in fact in the marginal seats, both Coalition (where the average swing was 4.4 per cent) and Labor (4.6 per cent). Seats such as Bass, Lindsay and Macarthur, which we had been told would stay with the Coalition, in fact fell to Labor.

Labor’s definite gains at this stage are:

New South Wales (7 seats): Barton, Dobell and Paterson (all notionally Labor anyway after the redistribution) and Eden-Monaro, Lindsay, Macarthur and Macquarie
Queensland (2)
: Flynn and Longman (Wyatt Roy’s seat)
Western Australia (1): Burt
Tasmania (3): Bass, Braddon and Lyons
Northern Territory (1): Solomon

And in South Australia, the Nick Xenophon Team won Mayo from former Abbott government minister Jamie Briggs.

The 10 seats still in doubt are:

New South Wales: Cowper (Nationals vs Rob Oakeshott) and Gilmore
Victoria: Chisholm and Dunkley
Queensland: Capricornia, Forde and Herbert
Western Australia: Cowan
South Australia: Grey (Liberal vs Xenophon) and Hindmarsh.

It is dangerous to tip the outcome when some factors are unpredictable, but I suspect the Coalition will win most of these seats.

Cowper and Grey are at issue because the Australian Electoral Commission didn’t read the opinion polls and assumed that the battles there would be between the Coalition and Labor. Oakeshott will probably end up falling just short. In Grey, if Labor and minor-party preferences flow as they did in Mayo, the Xenophon Team’s Andrea Broadfoot has a narrow lead now, but probably not enough to withstand the tide of postal and pre-poll votes to come.

Of the 8 Coalition/Labor battles, the Coalition leads narrowly in Chisholm, Gilmore and Dunkley, but postal votes should help it home. Labor has a narrow lead in Forde and Hindmarsh, but probably too narrow to hold on to when the postal votes are counted. In Capricornia, Herbert and Cowan, Labor has a bigger buffer, and these seats are where its chances are best.

Suppose the Coalition wins 7 of the 10 seats, and Labor 3. That would return a House divided 75–70–5 (compared to 90–55–5 in 2013). Whatever Malcolm Turnbull has said in the past about not making deals with the crossbenchers, it would be politically stupid if he did not explore ways of locking in enough support from them to give his government a stable base.  

The first-preference vote percentages (with the swings in brackets) were:

Coalition   41.8       (–3.4)
Labor         35.3       (+1.5)
Greens       10.0       (+1.5)
Others       12.9       (+0.4)

The two-party-preferred votes by state (with swings to Labor) were:

                  Coalition       Labor   swing
                   50.5         49.5        3.9
Victoria             48.3         51.7        1.5
Queensland      53.5         46.5        3.5
WA                      53.1         46.9         5.1
SA                        46.7         53.3         5.7
Tasmania           44.1         55.9        4.7

Victoria was the odd state out. The Coalition appears likely to retain all 4 of its marginal seats in the state, and Labor is likely to lose Anna Burke’s old seat of Chisholm. The Greens came very close to taking Batman, with a 9 per cent swing against Labor, and even Melbourne Ports was on a knife edge for much of the night.

Were these problems due to the mess Premier Daniel Andrews has made of the Country Fire Authority dispute? That dominated the media commentary, including my own, but the results suggest it was just one of a mix of factors.

Only 6 of Victoria’s 37 seats recorded a swing to the Coalition, and 5 of them were in Melbourne. The other was in true-blue Gippsland, off the electoral radar. Labor failed to win back the marginal seat of Corangamite, west of Geelong, but it did win a swing there of about 1 per cent, which suggests the CFA dispute had less impact than feared.    

Voter resentment over the Andrews government’s decision to abandon the economically unviable East–West tunnel might have played a part in the swings to the Coalition in Chisholm, Deakin and Aston. The Greens won swings of 9 per cent in both Batman and Wills, and hefty swings in Gellibrand, Melbourne Ports and Higgins, all primarily at Labor’s expense. The inner-Melbourne battleground at the next election will be a much wider one – but the reasons for that have little to do with the CFA dispute.

Most states reacted against their state governments. The biggest effect was a 6.5 per cent swing to Labor in the Northern Territory, an ominous sign for chief minister Adam Giles and his Country Liberal government, which faces the voters later this year. The smallest swing to Labor was in the Australian Capital Territory, an ominous sign for its Labor–Greens coalition, which faces the voters in October in an election overshadowed by its controversial plan to build an expensive tramway in a city designed for cars.

The big swings to Labor in Western Australia and Tasmania – and in areas of New South Wales such as Eden-Monaro, where the Baird government is forcing council amalgamations on communities who want things to stay as they are – suggest that Coalition state governments did not help the Turnbull government either. The one exception to the pattern was South Australia, where Labor won a big swing in two-party terms despite being in power on North Terrace.

But the real battle in South Australia was between three teams, not two. The Nick Xenophon Team polled 21 per cent of the state’s vote, breaking through to win the Adelaide Hills seat of Mayo, formerly held by Alexander Downer, and with a fifty-fifty chance of taking the outback seat of Grey, which includes the troubled steel city of Whyalla.

Its vote fell crucially short of the 27 per cent forecast in earlier polls, suggesting that Turnbull’s high-volume campaign against voting for minor parties had an impact. As a result, the Xenophones ended up in the top two in just 3 of the 11 South Australian seats, and one of them (Barker) was out of reach. Yet with a win in Mayo, three senators and a possible win in Grey, it was a stunningly successful campaign, which could give Xenophon a crucial role in the next parliament.

Victoria was not the only disappointment for Labor. It scored poorly in Brisbane, where Longman is probably its only gain. And in Western Australia, even that 5 per cent swing has given it only 4 or 5 of the state’s 16 seats.

The Coalition’s disappointments, apart from Tasmania, were again in western Sydney – where Labor reclaimed 4 seats and retained those it had unexpectedly saved last time. The Baird government’s arrogant handling of local council amalgamations didn’t help, but neither did the Daily Telegraph. The more slapstick anti-Labor propaganda it stuck on the front page, the more its readers turned to Labor. ALP headquarters should pay the Tele to keep doing it.

By contrast, some of the seats across town exploded another urban myth: that treasurer Scott Morrison’s move to rein in tax breaks for superannuation would see a severe backlash in Coalition strongholds.

Just 14 seats recorded a swing to Coalition on Saturday night, and they included Bradfield, Goldstein, Ryan and Curtin – all of them rolled-gold Coalition strongholds in our four biggest cities, where superannuation tax breaks matter. Turnbull and Morrison chose to ignore the political risk, and they were right.

The Senate outcome will not be clear for another month. My reading of the count so far is that the 12 seats in each state will go:

New South Wales: Coalition 5 (now 6), Labor 4 (4), Greens 1 (1), and a big scrum of small right-wing parties fighting for the remaining two seats. Liberal Democrats leader David Leyonhjelm could hold on to oneseat, but Brian Burston of Pauline’s Hanson One Nation party has the upper hand.

Victoria: Coalition 4 (4), Labor 4 (4), Greens 2 (2), with Derryn Hinch taking one seat from defeated senators John Madigan and Ricky Muir, and the other impossible to call.

Queensland: Coalition 5 (6), Labor 4 (4), Greens 1 (1), Pauline Hanson 1, and the seat now held by Glenn Lazarus lost from sight in another confusing scrum of claimants.

Western Australia: Liberal 5 (6), Labor 4 (3), Greens 1 (2), with the second Green senator Rachel Siewert possibly holding on, and the Nationals leading in the fight for the last seat.

South Australia: most likely Liberal 4 (4), Labor 3 (4), Xenophon 3 (1) and Greens 1 (2), with Family First senator Bob Day facing an uphill fight to hold his seat from Labor.

Tasmania: hard to call, in part because many Tasmanians vote unpredictably below the line. So far: Liberals 4 (4), Labor 4 (5), Greens 1 (2), Jacqui Lambie 1 (1), with one of the other two seats probably going to Labor or the Greens, and one to some microparty from the right.

Add in the four senators from the territories, and that suggests the Coalition can be sure of just 29 Senate positions (against 33 now), Labor 25 (25), the Greens 7 (10) and the crossbenches 6 (8) – three Xenophones, Hinch, Hanson and Lambie - with nine places still to be filled.

It is quite possible that Hanson will have a second One Nation senator in another state. Xenophon’s attempt to export his brand outside South Australia has failed, along with Lambie’s bid to conquer the mainland. On the Senate voting, Pauline Hanson’s One Nation is Australia’s fourth party, with 4.1 per cent of Senate votes, outscoring the Xenophon Team with 3.4 per cent.

The Senate results were badly affected by confusion over the new voting system, especially in western Sydney. So far, 6.1 per cent of Senate votes have been ruled informal, more than half a million of them already, up from 2.9 per cent last time. This included 16.2 per cent of Senate votes in Paul Keating’s old seat of Blaxland, 13.6 per cent in Chris Bowen’s seat of McMahon, and 12.9 per cent in Tony Burke’s seat of Watson.

The 210,569 informals in New South Wales were mostly in Labor strongholds, and they might well cost it a Senate seat. It might be in Labor’s own interests to invest some time and money in explaining to its supporters how to make their support count.

The Coalition is likely to be the next government, with or without a majority in the House. But the new parliament will call for finesse from whoever leads the government, not the bullying you-do-what-we-say mentality that the Coalition has so often employed, to its cost.

The crossbenchers will control at least one house, maybe both. They will need to be treated with respect. This is the way most of the democratic world works. We can make it work too. •