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The Senate: it’s anyone’s guess

1 July 2016

With the campaign almost over, Tim Colebatch surveys the latest polls and the likely distribution of Senate places

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Will a long campaign end with a long wait? Pre-poll voting in Sydney last month. Paul Miller/AAP Image

Will a long campaign end with a long wait? Pre-poll voting in Sydney last month. Paul Miller/AAP Image


The polls on our voting intentions tomorrow are in mild conflict. But the polls on what will happen in the marginal seats are not. Like the instincts or inside dope of the punters, and like the whisperings of party insiders to journalists, they confirm that Malcolm Turnbull will do what was expected of him, and lead the Coalition to victory.

But that’s assuming the marginal seat polls are right – and we’ve just seen in Britain yet another example of polls getting it wrong. It assumes the punters get it right – yet in 2013 they got twelve seats wrong, in nine of them wrongly tipping Coalition to win seats actually won by Labor or crossbenchers. It assumes that the party polling is always right – and it’s fallible too.

Clearly, the odds favour a Coalition win, but it’s no certainty. And what will happen in the Senate – remember, the government’s frustration with the Senate was the reason Turnbull called a double dissolution – is anyone’s guess. But it may not leave the government any better off.

In recent times, Australia’s pollsters have been pretty reliable in tipping the two-party-preferred vote. In 2013, when the Coalition won 53.5 per cent of the vote after preferences, most of the polls tipped 53 or 54 per cent. In Victoria in 2014, most were spot on in tipping the 52–48 split in favour of Labor, and in New South Wales in 2015 they were again within touching distance of the Coalition’s final vote of 54.3 per cent.

(The four pollsters that got the two-party vote right at the last federal, NSW and Victorian elections are Fairfax Ipsos, Galaxy, Newspoll and ReachTEL. Morgan overstated the Coalition vote and Essential overstated the Labor vote.)

Their one recent debacle was in tipping Campbell Newman to win in Queensland last year. Even then, they got the primary votes right, but just ignored what minor-party voters said they would do with their preferences. That won’t be an issue this time.

Galaxy’s final estimate for the Murdoch tabloids was 51–49 in favour of the Coalition, and presumably the final Newspoll in Saturday’s Australian will be similar. The Fairfax Ipsos poll shows them as 50–50, while the Essential poll published in Crikey has the Coalition ahead by 50.5 to 49.5 per cent. The polls imply a two-party split of between 50 and 51 per cent for the Coalition and between 49 and 50 per cent for Labor.

That’s about a 3 per cent swing to Labor in two-party terms: worthy, but hardly a landslide. Given the resources the government has put into sandbagging its marginal seats, Labor probably needs a 4 per cent swing even to get enough seats for a minority government, let alone to govern in its own right.

The state breakdown for polling by Fairfax Ipsos and Newspoll would provide comfort for Labor if the marginal seats reflected the same trends. Newspoll’s June polling shows an improbably high 6 per cent swing to Labor in Queensland, and Ipsos polling implies an improbably high 7 per cent swing in Western Australia. Both suggest swings of 3 to 4 per cent in New South Wales, where the Coalition has a swag of very marginal seats. But the polling from marginal seats in those three states suggests that swings of that size won’t be happening in the seats Labor needs to win.

The most interesting state on Saturday night could be South Australia. Newspoll reports that the average primary vote in the state in June was 32 per cent for the Liberals, 28 per cent for Labor and 27 per cent for the Nick Xenophon team. The Ipsos poll implies broadly similar results. Even these aggregate polls have only a relatively small base of voters – 531 for Newspoll, and about 300 for Ipsos – but that’s enough to show that the seats will be a three-horse race. And in any seat in which the Xenophons make the final two, preferences are likely to flow heavily their way.

That’s why it could be some time before we know the outcome on Saturday night. University of Tasmania electoral expert Kevin Bonham has some interesting posts on his blog showing how close it could become. Suppose Labor picks up two seats in Tasmania, as ReachTEL polling suggests, holds its ground against the Coalition in Victoria, and gains six seats in New South Wales, two in Queensland and one in the Northern Territory, as the punters are tipping. What happens in South Australia and Western Australia would then decide the outcome.

The four marginal seats in Western Australia are reported to be now looking good for the Coalition. But if the Xenophons take two or three Liberal seats in South Australia, as some polls suggest, it could be late in the night before our leaders front the cameras to claim victory and concede defeat. Remember, after the redistributions and Clive Palmer’s retirement, the Coalition is effectively starting with eighty-nine seats and needs to win seventy-six to keep its majority. It’s possible that we won’t know by the end of Saturday night whether it has done this or not.


One thing that is certain is that we won’t know the outcome in the Senate on Saturday night. In fact, we won’t know it for another month or more. The Australian Electoral Commission will count only first preferences on Saturday night. With the new system, the process will be far more labour-intensive than the old, when 96 per cent of votes could be counted by a computer – and the Coalition government had already shrunk the commission’s budget with annual funding cuts disguised as “efficiency dividends.”

So the work of counting the Senate preferences will be put off until the House results are decided. It will probably be some time in early August before we know for sure who will be in the new Senate. And because we’ve never had election rules like this before, we have no reliable way to predict the outcome.

We do know that neither side will have a majority, and that the Senate will remain a check on the government. That’s the reason we have a Senate. Commentators who prattle on about the Senate frustrating the government’s mandate seem to be unaware that that is the role the Constitution gave it.

The Coalition hoped to gain an advantage from the new streamlined Senate voting system, and in time, it will. But not this time, because at a double dissolution its changes are balanced out by the fact that the quota of votes needed to win election is barely half the normal quota. That puts the smaller parties back in the race.

At a normal half-Senate election, when each state elects six senators, the quota for election is 14.3 per cent. At a double dissolution, with each state electing twelve senators, the quota falls to 7.7 per cent. And under the new rules, many voters are likely to run out of preferences, so their votes will be technically deemed “exhausted,” and drop out.

How does that happen? Suppose you follow the Sex Party’s ticket in New South Wales. Like almost all of the tickets, it directs just six preferences – and preferences two to six go to micro-parties even smaller than itself. By the time it drops out of the count, all the parties you have given preferences to will probably have been knocked out already. Your vote will then “exhaust” without having helped elect anybody.

This means that in each state, the last candidates left standing will be elected, even if they have only 3 or 4 per cent of the vote. That gives hope to all aspiring crossbenchers that they, too, will win seats in the red chamber – and it’s likely that quite a few will.

At the other end of the spectrum, the big parties will need to win 38.5 per cent to win five of the twelve seats in any state, and 46.15 per cent to win six. If that sounds easy, remember that last time the Coalition won 37.7 per cent of the vote and Labor 30.1 per cent.

The Coalition will be doing well if it retains its thirty-three seats in the seventy-six-member chamber. The same could be said for Labor, defending twenty-five seats, and the Greens, should they retain their ten.

Let’s look at the possibilities.

New South Wales delivered a huge shock at the 2013 election when the Liberal Democrats won 9.5 per cent of the state’s Senate vote – fifty times the vote they won in 2007 as the Liberty and Democracy Party. They had won first place on the giant ballot paper, and more than 400,000 voters saw the name “Liberal” and put a “1” against it. The LDP’s David Leyonhjelm became a senator, while Arthur Sinodinos, whose votes he took, came within 0.05 per cent of losing his seat.

This time, Leyonhjelm is fourth on the Senate draw, and the Liberals sixth, so more voters will realise the difference between them. Despite that, the bookies still think he will get back. It might be safer to tip five Coalition senators (down from six), five Labor (up from four) and one Green, with the final seat to be fought out between the Liberals’ Hollie Hughes, Leyonhjelm, the Christian Democrats and others.

Victoria is Labor’s stronghold on the mainland, and the Greens’ as well. If the parties of the left are to win seven seats in any state, it should be here. But Labor’s grip has been shaken by premier Daniel Andrews’s naive mishandling of the firefighters dispute, and it may have to settle for the status quo: Labor four, Greens two.

The Liberals should regain one of the two seats they lost through the preference deals that elected John Madigan in 2010 and Ricky Muir in 2013. And media personality Derryn Hinch should leverage enough votes from his own following, his top spot on the ballot paper, and preferences from both major parties to emerge as Senator Hinch.

If the punters are right, Queensland will be a nightmare for the major parties. Sportsbet has Pauline Hanson as odds-on to win one Senate seat, and both Glenn Lazarus and the Katter’s Australian Party’s Rowell Walton as even chances to take another. And former Australian Democrats leader Andrew Bartlett can’t be ruled out as number two on the Greens ticket, behind the party’s deputy leader, Larissa Waters.

A Hanson victory would probably be at the expense of the Coalition, which looks unlikely to retain all of its six seats. It should win five, Labor four, the Greens one, and the last two seats up for grabs, with a big pack rising to claim them.

The contest in Western Australia, too, is unpredictable. In its 2014 Senate rerun, the Greens won 15.6 per cent of first preferences, and the Palmer United Party 12.3 per cent. That won’t happen again.

The Liberals have six WA Senate seats, Labor just three, the Greens two and PUP one. Three seats appear to be up for grabs: the sixth Liberal seat, the second Greens seat, and the seat won in 2014 by Palmer’s Dio Wang. Labor should pick up one of them, the Nationals – running their own ticket – could take another, and many hands will be reaching up for the last seat.

In South Australia, Nick Xenophon won almost 25 per cent of the vote last election, but only one seat, because no one gave him preferences. This time he won’t need them to win at least three seats. The Greens are certain to lose one of their two seats, so if Family First leader Bob Day can hang on to his seat, one of the two major parties is likely to return with just three seats, down from their current four each. My guess would be: Liberals four, Labor three, Xenophon three, with one each for the Greens and Family First.

Tasmania is Lambieland. One poll suggests that the feisty battler from the state’s northwest could win enough votes to elect a second senator. Labor will struggle to hold its five seats. The Greens will struggle to hold their two. And tourism minister Richard Colbeck, dumped to fifth place on the Liberal ticket by his factional enemy and right-wing warlord Eric Abetz, could also be a casualty if Lambie wins the support she claims to have.

Ten seats are fairly certain: four each for Labor and the Liberals, one Green, and Senator Lambie. What happens to the other two is anyone’s guess.

Only the two territory seats are predictable. They have just two each, and they always divide one-all between the major parties. In the past, the Greens have come close to taking the Liberals’ ACT seat, but the new voting system makes that very unlikely.

We don’t know how many voters will direct preferences at all, where will they go, and how many voters will follow their party’s ticket. We won’t know any of that on Saturday night. That part of the election will keep bubbling on for another month yet. •

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Detail from Tom Hughes QC, by Jiawei Shen (b. 1948, China, from 1989, Australia), Oil on canvas, 167 x 167 cm. Collection of New South Wales Bar Association/Purchased 2004 © Jiawei Shen

Detail from Tom Hughes QC, by Jiawei Shen (b. 1948, China, from 1989, Australia), Oil on canvas, 167 x 167 cm. Collection of New South Wales Bar Association/Purchased 2004 © Jiawei Shen