Inside Story

Voters are back in charge in the Senate

A smaller crossbench and a few surprise wins are the likely result of the new voting system’s first half-Senate outing

Tim Colebatch 30 April 2019 3313 words

Living dangerously: senator Sarah Hanson-Young faces an uphill battle holding onto a Senate seat in a state that’s always difficult for the Greens. Dean Lewins/AAP Image

If you’re a Queenslander who likes filling in the full Senate ballot paper, there’s a delight in store for you on 18 May: working out who you want to get the third Senate seat the right-wing parties are set to win.

The state’s voters will elect six senators. Almost certainly, three will come from the left and three from the right. Two of the first four seats will go to Labor, and two to the Liberal National Party, or LNP, and then Labor and the Greens will fight it out for the last seat for the left. But the main contest will be who wins the last seat on the right.

Three of the contenders are clustered together at the top end of the ballot paper, and the other a few columns away. They are:

Group B: Malcolm Roberts (One Nation), the former senator elected with Pauline Hanson in 2016 but then forced out in the section 44 purge. Still loyal to Hanson, still an outspoken climate change denier, he is now shorn of his British citizenship.

Group C: Clive Palmer (United Australia Party), the mining tycoon and one-time MP. He owes millions to his former workers and the Australian Taxation Office, but is spending an estimated $50 million to set up his own party and advertise his candidacy all over Australia.

Group D: Gerard Rennick (LNP), the least-known of the four at this point. The ABC reports that he has put forward conspiracy theories such as accusing the Bureau of Meteorology of “rewriting weather records to fit in with the global warming agenda” and disputing Russian involvement in the murder in Britain of its former spy Sergei Skripal.

Group I: Fraser Anning (Fraser Anning’s Conservative National Party). Say no more.

Only one of these four can win. But one of them almost certainly will. Whom will you vote for? In a Senate election whose outcome is clear in broad structure, but mostly unpredictable in detail, this will be one of the key contests.

And it will matter. If Labor wins a majority in the lower house, it will still have to get its legislation through the upper house — and it won’t have the numbers to do so in its own right, or even with the support of the Greens.

Phillip Coorey of the Australian Financial Review has pointed out repeatedly that the minor parties don’t support Labor’s tax reforms. This doesn’t take them off the table — governments have many ways to persuade senators, and many a minor party in the Senate has voted for reforms it had pledged to oppose — but it does raise uncertainty about how much Labor can achieve in office, and whether it will have to cut back its spending plans.

The Senate doesn’t matter so much to the Coalition, since it doesn’t seem to want to fix anything. But this will be an important election. It will be the first time that the voting reforms negotiated between senator Mathias Cormann and the Greens will be in place at a normal half-Senate election. And I suspect the result will be very different from what most are expecting.

The only polling for the Senate has been undertaken by the Australia Institute. Its latest report is still unpublished, but it points to what its researcher Bill Browne summarises as “a large and diverse crossbench” — with the Greens returning with eight or nine seats, the Centre Alliance two or three, and the minor parties on the right holding up to eight.

But polling for the Senate has not been a good indicator in the past, and it may not be this time. My own hunch is that the Coalition is likely to do much better than expected, at the minor parties’ expense — and that the Greens will do better than expected, at Labor’s expense.

Cormann’s reforms are the key. They gave voters control over their own preferences, which were once decided in backroom deals between party bosses and “preference whisperer” Glenn Druery and then locked into group-voting tickets.

In the new system, voters are back in charge. They must give preferences to at least six parties if they vote above the line, or twelve candidates if they vote below it. Subject to that, you can vote for as many parties and candidates as you like. Gone is the great distortion that frequently saw voters’ preferences ending up with parties they would never have voted for.

The reforms were attacked at the time by Labor and the fringe parties as a scam to help the Coalition. They are not a scam — the Greens took care of any attempts to make them that — and they will help the Coalition only because they remove a distortion that had diverted preferences from it to groups such as Family First, the Liberal Democrats, Palmer United Party, Australian Motoring Enthusiasts’ Party and so on.

We are all free to vote for them, or direct preferences to them, if we want to. But we will no longer be required to do so.

The 2016 election showed that when voters are free to choose their own preferences, they tend to give more of them to the bigger parties. The Greens and One Nation reaped the biggest haul last time, followed by the Coalition and Labor. The minor parties didn’t do so well, particularly those on the right.

So what will happen this time? This is what we know

• Neither side will emerge with a majority.

• The thirty-six senators who were elected to six-year terms in 2016, or who have inherited them from others, lean to the right. Eighteen of them are from the right (sixteen Coalition, plus Pauline Hanson and Cory Bernardi), sixteen from the left (thirteen Labor, three Greens), and two from the centre (the Centre Alliance).

• This election is essentially about who wins the last two seats in each state. The first four seats will go two-all between Labor and the Coalition, and the two seats in each territory will divide one-all. Only those final twelve seats are in any doubt.

• As the legendary psephologist Malcolm Mackerras first noted, when each state has to elect six senators, they will usually divide three-all between left and right. As a rule, it takes 14.3 per cent of the vote after preferences to win one senate seat, 28.6 per cent to win two and 42.9 per cent to win three. But to win four of the six seats requires at least 57.1 per cent of the vote. It is rare for one side or other to dominate so completely. The Cormann reforms will make it even more rare.

• In an extraordinary run of good fortune for the government, the Australian Electoral Commission’s ballot draws have put the Coalition at or near the top of the ballot in almost every state. With between sixteen and thirty-five parties on each ballot paper, this could make the difference in a close contest.

In an earlier piece, I described the baseline created by the 2016 election. Because it was a double dissolution, it almost halved the quota of votes needed for election to just 7.7 per cent; that was why we ended up with a record number of crossbenchers. This time the quota is back to 14.3 per cent — and this will be the first time for years that we will emerge with a smaller crossbench in the new Senate.

Let’s start with Queensland. Six seats: two LNP, two Labor, two up for grabs. Given that Queensland voters divide roughly equally between left and right, it’s pretty certain that one of the final two will go to the left, and one to the right.

The Greens usually win a seat in Queensland. Labor would have to poll unusually well to stop Larissa Waters, now back in the Senate as Greens’ co-deputy leader, winning a new term. At the state election eighteen months ago, the Greens won a solid 10 per cent of the vote; it’s plausible that the state’s divisions over the Adani coalmine could push them even higher this time.

Roberts was the favourite to win the seat on the right until recently. But One Nation’s vote in the polls was ebbing even before Al Jazeera’s “gotcha” video in which party leaders sought funding from the National Rifle Association. Palmer is spending very heavily to promote his candidacy. Anning is running to the right of One Nation and has outdone it in publicity. And in this voting system, as a rule, voters are more likely to preference the big parties they know than the small parties they don’t, helping the chances of the LNP’s Rennick.

Forecast: Labor 2, LNP 2, Greens 1, last seat hard to call, possibly Palmer.

In New South Wales the Coalition has only one seat to defend, so it will gain at least one. The Greens, the Liberal Democrats and Palmer’s UAP also have seats to defend — the latter because Brian Burston has joined the UAP since defecting from One Nation.

On state election voting, it’s hard to see the Greens losing their seat: putting the upper house votes into Senate quotas, Labor won just 2.08 quotas, the Greens .69 of a quota, and the rest were way behind. That would see Australia’s first female Muslim senator, former engineer Mehreen Faruqi, win over Labor’s third candidate, the prominent lawyer and commentator Jason Yat-sen Li.

There will be a four-way or five-way contest for the final seat on the right. At the state election, the Coalition won the equivalent of 2.44 Senate quotas, One Nation .48, the Shooters .39, and the UAP did not stand. This time the UAP has nominated Burston, One Nation has put up farmer Kate McCulloch (who narrowly missed out on a Senate seat from Tasmania in 2016), and the Shooters have electorate officer Brett Cooke.

Burston will take votes from One Nation. The Shooters are running only one candidate in the lower house. So the prospects look good for another woman with an unusual past: former journalist, safari cook, army reservist and water consultant Perin Davey, a Nat from the Riverina who is third on the Coalition ticket.

But a wild card is former army general Jim Molan, the right-wing hardliner who replaced Fiona Nash in the Senate after the section 44 purge. Molan was placed fourth on the Coalition ticket but is actively campaigning for Liberals to vote for him below the line in the hope that he will win a seat ahead of those placed above him. It’s a very, very long shot.

Forecast: Labor 2, Coalition 3, Greens 1.

Western Australia looks like delivering another three-all split between left and right. If you take the 2017 state election voting for the upper house, Labor would have won all three seats on the left (it won the equivalent of 2.83 Senate quotas, the Greens .60). But it is very unlikely to match that high-water mark on 18 May.

At every election since 1984, the Greens and their political forebears (the Nuclear Disarmament Party, the Jo Vallentine Peace Group and the Australian Democrats) have won a Senate seat in Western Australia: thirteen elections in a row. You would not want to bet against them doing it again.

The Liberals and Nationals run as separate parties in the west. At the state election, the Liberals did not even win enough votes for two Senate quotas, but they will poll much better on 18 May. One Nation had .57 of a quota, the Nationals just .31. The Palmer United Party of course won a seat in the rerun of the state’s 2013 Senate election, so the UAP can’t be ruled out.

Adding colour to the cast is Rod Culleton, elected as a One Nation senator in 2016 before being ejected by the High Court over looming criminal charges (which were later dismissed). Culleton has founded his own Great Australia Party, and this time, listing his occupation as “senator in exile,” he will take on his brother-in-law and Senate successor Peter Georgiou (One Nation), long-time Palmer employee James McDonald (UAP), youth employment worker Matt O’Sullivan (Liberal) and Kalgoorlie businessman Nick Fardell (Nationals).

Forecast: Labor 2, Greens 1, Liberals 2, last seat hard to call, possibly Liberal.

Tasmania voted in three Labor senators and one Green in 2007 and 2010, but that won’t happen this time. The Liberals under premier Will Hodgman won a smashing victory at last year’s state election: on that voting, the result would be a clear three–two–one for Liberals, Labor and Greens. Is there anything out there this time that could make that different?

Well, for a start, there’s another internecine war in Labor ranks over the decision to — once again — dump independent-minded senator Lisa Singh to an unwinnable position on the party ticket. Party members voted for Singh to be second on the ticket, but she ended up fourth after the union votes were counted.

When the same happened in 2016, Singh won more than 20,000 first preferences from sixth place on the ticket to retain her seat. This time she will need twice as many, but it’s not impossible that she could end up duelling with the Greens’ Nick McKim for the final seat.

Then there’s Jacqui Lambie: elected as a Palmer United Party senator in 2013, re-elected in her own right in 2016, and then ousted in the section 44 purge of dual nationals from parliament. Her party made no impact at the state election, but she sure is well known and could attract a lot of preferences.

Lambie will be competing against her former running mate Steve Martin, who inherited her seat when she was displaced and is now running for the Nationals; Tanya Denison, the third-placed Liberal, another engineer and also a Hobart councillor; long-time Palmer supporter Kevin Morgan (UAP); and One Nation’s Matthew Stephen, who was its candidate in the Brisbane seat of Sandgate at the Queensland election just eighteen months ago.

Forecast: Labor 2, Greens 1, Liberals 2, last seat hard to call.

South Australia is perhaps the most unreadable state. In 2016 the Nick Xenophon team came through the middle to claim three of the twelve Senate seats, two of them with six-year terms. But then came Xenophon’s surprise resignation, his quixotic bid to win the 2018 South Australian election, and his complete withdrawal from public life. The Poll Bludger estimates that the Centre Alliance is now back to being a minor party, even though its MP Rebekha Sharkie is favoured to hold Mayo.

Xenophon himself escaped unharmed in the section 44 massacre, but his colleague Skye Kakoschke-Moore was gunned down because her mother was born in Singapore. Tim Storer replaced her in the Senate, quit the party and became a conscientious independent, but is not standing again. And Kakoschke-Moore is back heading the Centre Alliance ticket.

Family First leader Bob Day, the last one elected in 2016, quit politics when his building business went bankrupt. His running mate Lucy Gichuhi replaced him in the Senate, but left the party when Liberal turncoat Cory Bernardi took over and rebranded it as the Australian Conservatives; she joined the Liberals, where she was then relegated to the unwinnable fourth place on their ticket.

Despite support from Malcolm Turnbull, who was then PM, Gichuhi was demoted in favour of Alex Antic, a young Adelaide lawyer and conservative. Bernardi’s party is running a long-time staffer, Rikki Lambert. Palmer’s party has again nominated former Adelaide United defender Kristian Rees, and One Nation’s ticket is led by Hanson adviser Jennifer Game.

On the left are Sarah Hanson-Young for the Greens, and Emily Gore, a young policy advisor, for Labor. Hanson-Young always lives dangerously at election time. She was first elected in 2007 when Democrat preferences squeezed her above Labor, made it again in 2013 when Clive Palmer’s preferences pushed her above Labor, and was one of the last two to be elected in 2016. This is definitely the Greens’ worst state.

The presence of the Centre Alliance makes South Australia hard to pick. When Xenophon was elected in 2007, he pinched a seat from the Liberals, but in 2013 he got back at the expense of Labor. The Mackerras rule does not operate here. The last two seats will be fought out between the Liberals, Centre Alliance, Labor and Greens.

On voting at last year’s state election, the Centre Alliance would regain Storer’s seat, Labor would take Gichuhi’s, and Hanson-Young would scrape home again. One Nation has never polled well in South Australia. Palmer made no impact there in 2013, and Bernardi’s party made no impact at the state election. The Liberals will probably be the last party standing on the right, and they and Hanson-Young will most likely fight out the final seats with the Centre Alliance.

Forecast: I don’t dare make one. Two Labor, two Liberals, two too hard to call.

Until recently, Victoria looked like the one state that might return a four–two result. At the state election, on my estimate, the two-party vote for Labor was 57.6 per cent in the Assembly. If the upper house vote were repeated in the Senate, the most likely outcome would be three Labor, one Green, and two Liberals — with Derryn Hinch’s party missing out.

But the gap in the polls has narrowed, so that outcome now looks less likely, though still possible. A three-all result is the most likely outcome.

On the right, Hinch is the defending titleholder. In 2016, having formed his own new party, he fluked pole position on the ballot paper, and made good use of it to win 6 per cent of the vote — and a seat. But he will need a much bigger vote to win this rematch, and this time his main rivals, the Liberals, are in pole position. Their third candidate, David Van, who owns his own PR firm, is well placed to seal the win.

As in South Australia, One Nation and the original Palmer party failed to make headway in Victoria. The Shooters, Fishers and Farmers have some following, and are putting up former Senate independent Ricky Muir as their candidate. But on the right, the real battle is Liberals v Hinch.

On the left, it’s between Greens senator Janet Rice and her Labor counterpart Gavin Marshall. A sparkie in his youth, Marshall has been in the Senate since 2002, but this time was relegated to third spot on the ticket behind United Voice state secretary Jess Walsh, in what was widely seen as an internal revolt by the left against its veteran faction boss, senator Kim Carr.

Victoria is Labor’s strongest state, but it’s also the Greens’ best state. They not only poll well on first preferences, but in Victoria in 2016 — the only election at which this system has been tried out — they also won more preferences from other parties’ voters than any other team. Labor would have to poll very well to hold them out.

Forecast: Two Labor, one Green, three Liberals.

I haven’t tried to put all these forecasts together. There are too many uncertainties. If you want to know more, I recommend the Senate preview by the Poll Bludger, William Bowe, in his comprehensive election guide — and the Australia Institute’s latest projections, which will eventually appear on its website.

But my bottom line is that the smaller parties of the right will find it hard to get the 14.3 per cent of votes they need after preferences — given that their voters tend not to preference each other. One Nation was an exception last time, but I doubt that it will do as well this time. And that means the Coalition has a good chance of winning three seats in every state except Queensland.

My hunch is that the Greens will also do better than many expect; they might lose Hanson-Young in South Australia, but they will probably hold their ground elsewhere. And in turn, that would limit Labor’s potential gains, and its bargaining power, in the new Senate. •