Senate: Bragging Rights Aside, Fresh WA Election Will Change Little

1,375 “LOST” VOTES triggered their inevitable consequence today, with the Court of Disputed Returns declaring WA’s Senate election void and ordering a rerun of the poll; there will be a lot of posturing and grandstanding in the lead-up, but the likely national impact of a fresh election will be minimal. Despite appearances and suggestions to the contrary, the Liberal Party has the least to lose, but for the ALP, a poor result could be cataclysmic.

Ever since the case of the missing votes came to light — during a routine recount of Western Australia’s Senate votes, following an extremely tight vote, that nominally produced a different result — it has been inevitable, I think, that voters in the Sandgroper state would find them back at the polls to do it all again.

Today, the High Court made it formal, and my tip is a polling date in May to enable the requisite counts and legal processes to be completed in time for new Senators to take their seats on 1 July as constitutionally required.

I am just going to talk through some initial thoughts here; I think regular readers may have already guessed I’ve been a bit busy in other enterprises these past few days, and will continue to be so in the short term. Nonetheless, there will be plenty of time to discuss the fresh Senate election in WA, and I guarantee everyone will be sick of it by the time it has come to pass. I suspect I will be, too.

To condense this all into simple terms for those who find it confusing, the half-Senate election in WA held on 7 September easily elected one Labor and three Liberal Senators; after fourth place, the vote was exceedingly close, and on the initial count the final two spots were taken by an additional ALP candidate and one from Clive Palmer’s eponymous outfit.

Owing to the closeness of the vote, an automatic recount took place, which saw those final two places go to current Senator Scott Ludlam from the Communist Party Greens and the Australian Sports Party’s Scott Dropulich; where the problem arises is that the 1,375 votes which were apparently misplaced between the two counts (and not, obviously, included in the recount) were greater in number than the margin on preferences between the final four candidates at that stage of the preference distribution.

As a result, the missing votes may well have been responsible for the differential outcomes, and their absence means it is not possible to determine which six candidates were elected to the Senate — as Justice Hayne observed in handing down his decision yesterday — and consequently, the entire election for the Senate, in Western Australia, must be held anew.

The first observation I would make is that the botched Senate election in WA — which is what it is — is not, as the likes of Clive Palmer have been wont to proclaim in other jurisdictions, the result of any criminal conspiracy, fraud or corruption of process.

It is, however, representative of incompetence of the highest order, and in the washout from all of this it is to be hoped the federal government institutes a rigorous overhaul of the Australian Electoral Commission, dismissing Electoral Commissioner Ed Killesteyn — after all, the buck has to stop somewhere, and the fresh election will involve a cost to the taxpayer in the millions of bucks — and implementing procedural improvements to ensure such fundamental ineptitude can never again manifest itself in such a disruptive, intrusive and expensive fashion.

That said, there has already been a lot of analysis and comment in other media to suggest this poll could be a travesty for the Prime Minister and his government. Can I simply say that of all the stakeholders affected by the return to the ballot box in Western Australia, it is Tony Abbott who actually has the least to lose; for Bill Shorten, however, it could by then be the compounding of the disaster 2014 is becoming for the ALP, and a poor result will be the last thing he or his party need.

From a numerical perspective (and irrespective of which of the two counts that emerged last year are considered) WA’s six Senate spots split 4-2 in favour of the Right, with the national Right-Left split sitting at 41-35. Of those 41 Senate spots for the Right, however, only 33 are held by Liberals or Nationals; if either of the two counts to date in WA had been allowed to stand, the government would still have been dependent on carrying at least six of the eight non-Greens crossbench votes to get a majority in the Senate.

Given the present woes (as measured in reputable opinion polling) of the Liberal state government of Colin Barnett, it is inconceivable that any deterioration in the Right’s position at the coming rerun of WA’s Senate election could be worse than a 3-3 split; indeed, the Liberals may or may not lose a seat — but if they do, it could be to another minor party candidate on the Right (remembering that candidates from Palmer’s Palmer United Party and the Australian Sports Party were elected on the differing counts that have led to this result).

But even if we assume the Liberals lose a spot in a worst-possible case scenario, and that spot goes to Labor, in terms of control of the Senate the Liberals will simply move from needing 6 of 8 Right-inclined minor party votes to needing 7 of 8. Certainly, this would destroy some “wriggle room,” but as things stand there is no actual control to be lost because right now, the Coalition doesn’t have any to lose. Not directly. 33 of 76 Senators (or 32 if it drops a seat in WA) is a country mile from having any real control over the Senate.

Will WA voters swing against the federal Coalition to the point it drastically alters the Senate balance? I highly doubt it. Australian voters have shown themselves adept at distinguishing between state and federal issues, and this distinction has become more pronounced in recent years, not less. Barnett’s government may be in a world of poll pain because it’s getting some unpalatable decisions out of the way early in a term that still has three years to run, but the issues that have tended to resonate in WA where federal elections are concerned — the carbon tax, the mining tax, the GST and others — are still very much alive, with the added bonus for Abbott that Shorten has refused to respect the Coalition mandate on such matters. This will work for Abbott and against Shorten.

In some respects, the best thing that could happen for either side (but more so for the ALP) is for the fresh Senate election to become an absolutely farcical minor party circus in which hundreds of candidates nominate, shattering the vote, and seeing a couple of their number elected. It doesn’t help Tony Abbott and I certainly have no wish to see any candidates elected on, say, 1700 votes — as occurred in Victoria last year. But if Labor is to fail to make any inroads, this would be the least embarrassing way for such an eventuality to transpire.

And it must be remembered, above all things, that the “nuclear” option remains open to Abbott if his government loses too many votes in the Senate: a double dissolution, strategically timed and properly engineered, would almost certainly improve the Coalition’s position in the Senate irrespective of what happens in WA. Shorten, and his opposition to anything without a union ticket attached to it, would be well advised to at least give some semblance of contemplation to this point.

Tomorrow, voters in the Queensland state seat of Redcliffe vote in a by-election to replace disgraced LNP MP Scott Driscoll, who quit before he could be expelled from Parliament and who, to my mind, deserves to face criminal proceedings. Whilst held by a 10% margin, that buffer is inflated by the tidal wave of statewide support the LNP rode into government two years ago. Logic would suggest the ALP should win the by-election, although I have a sense the result will be far closer than some polling showing 20% swings have suggested, and a late push to insinuate ALP candidate (and former federal MP) Yvette D’Ath into the growing cesspool of union misconduct seems to be gaining traction. The outcome — prior to the ballots being tallied — is anyone’s guess (I think the LNP might hold on by its fingernails, but I have no real confidence in that view either).

The reason I bring this up is because 2014 — barring some miracle — is fast shaping as an annus horribilis for the ALP. Already it has retained, in the most unimaginatively unspectacular fashion possible, Kevin Rudd’s old seat of Griffith at a by-election despite a swing against it. In three weeks time, it is almost certain to be belted out of office in avalanches at state elections in South Australia and Tasmania, with suggestions across the board that Labor could be butchered in its worst result in 100 years in Tasmania, winning less than a quarter of the vote. If it fails to win the Redcliffe by-election, it will have skipped past fruit hanging low on the branch, making a half-hearted endeavour at best to pluck it from the tree.

Labor could arrive at the rerun of the WA Senate election in very, very poor shape. By its own propaganda and on its own expectations, nothing less than winning a second Senate spot in WA will be acceptable. The national outrage over the excesses of Labor’s union buddies is already rising in temperature and volume, and there is evidence Tony Abbott and his government are not wearing the blame for the Toyota and Holden debacles in the court of public opinion.

It is a chilling reality for Labor — which must be praying for the excessively unionised Qantas to experience a rapid surge of profitability — to confront in the context of this new election in WA.

Yet Shorten has already made a lot of noise to suggest Labor’s campaign will be about “jobs:” in other words, what he and his union mates say, decree and set in concrete goes, and bugger the consequences. There is plenty of evidence that the general public, far from being swayed by this position, is actively switching off from it.

On a totally different note, I would like to point out — for the benefit of those who feel so disgusted with, or disenfranchised by, the political process as to think their votes don’t matter — that despite the circumstances in which the rerun of the Senate election in WA has come to pass, it does prove in an extremely perverse way that every vote really does count at elections: less than 1,400 of a total well in excess of a million ballot papers were misplaced, probably by accident. Even that number was enough a) to radically alter the outcome of the election, and b) to mandate a fresh election when it became clear just how critical such a small parcel of votes was to the outcome. It’s food for thought for those who think politics is pointless.

But to return to the point: in terms of national outcomes, very little will change on the back of the new election in WA.

I tend to think at most a seat might change hands between the Left and the Right; and along the way, one of the posturing figures WA voters will soon see much more of will have something to crow about.

But in terms of the main game — Coalition vs Labor — this exercise involves very little risk to Abbott for the reasons I have outlined.

For the ALP, however, the stakes are infinitely higher, and a failure to deliver — something, anything — will simply underline what an idiot the party has saddled itself with as its “leader.”

It can’t get rid of him unless how many of his colleagues decide he’s brought the ALP into “serious dispute?”

Whichever way you cut it, there’s not much trouble in this for the government; just an awful lot of potential upside — if it can capitalise on it.


WA Senate Debacle: Fresh Election The Only Option

THE FIASCO over 1,370 “lost” votes that changed the outcome of Western Australia’s Senate election in September can only be resolved by a fresh election; there will be much posturing in campaigns seeking to capitalise on the debacle, but it is the only way to ensure WA’s Senate election is valid.

News today that the Australian Electoral Commissioner, Ed Killesteyn, has lodged a petition with the Court of Disputed Returns to have the election of six Senators in WA declared void — and a new election ordered — is welcome.

In an ideal world, forcing an entire state back to the polls because of 1,370 misplaced votes would be the last thing anyone would wish to see. But given the absence of those votes appears to have altered the outcome in two of the six spots, there is no other choice.

It’s the second instance of “missing” votes being an issue in the overall 2013 election; a similar number of votes were said to have been misplaced — albeit later found incorrectly stored — in the House of Representatives seat of Fairfax belatedly won by Clive Palmer.

Speaking of Palmer, I have no truck whatsoever with the wild accusations of corruption he saw fit to bandy about in the aftermath of the 7 September election; I don’t believe for a moment that the official conduct of elections in Australia is corrupt.

It is, however, susceptible to human error: a phenomenon that rarely affects election outcomes, although this — clearly — is as near the top of the list of exceptions as you will find.

The “missing” 1,370 votes — which, when initially counted, eliminated two candidates at a crucial stage, by 14 votes — have proven impossible to locate despite exhaustive attempts to find them, and in any case I would suggest it’s probably too late to add them into any recount now for the same reason their absence matters: the integrity of the result.

The first batch of results — including the absent votes — saw three Liberals, two Labor and one Palmer United Party candidate elected; without them, subsequent counting saw the PUP candidate and one Labor Senator displaced by the Greens’ Scott Ludlam and the Australian Sports Party’s Wayne Dropulich.

A fresh election is the only way forward.

It is unfortunate (and, in likelihood, irritating) that the inhabitants of Western Australia are to be forced back to the polls to vote on something that should have been settled by their votes in September.

The responsibility for the second election lies squarely at the feet of the Australian Electoral Commission, and whilst I cannot state clearly enough that there seems to be no hint of taint or corruption, human error and/or incompetence are another matter.

It is to be hoped the combatants in any rerun of the vote refrain from trying to blame each other. The debacle is not Labor’s fault because it was in office when the election was called, for example, nor the Liberals’ fault because they were elected to government in September and thus charged with sorting the mess out on their watch.

If anything, Palmer’s eventual win in Fairfax — despite the unacceptable nature of this result, and the drama I believe it will unnecessarily inflict on a weary public — should reassure many, including Palmer, of the fundamental integrity of the electoral system in this country.

That said, the coming contest in WA will be fascinating indeed.

I can see the Liberals entering the fold with nothing to lose and much to gain; Western Australian voters have shown a preparedness to split the six Senate spots 4-2 in favour of the Right; it’s simply a question of who gets the four spots.

Certainly, it is inconceivable Labor could win three, and it seems dubious as to whether the ALP could even win two given the initial result that was “overturned” when the votes went missing.

Bill Shorten will run hard, as he is bound to; yet I see very little prospect of WA proving a happy hunting ground for him.

In any case, there is no polarising issue to galvanise a surge of Labor support in the West since September — except, that is, in the fevered imaginations of ALP strategists, or perhaps of Shorten himself.

Since the election, Labor has shown it has learned nothing — Shorten’s petulant position on the first bills introduced to Parliament by the Abbott government prove that much — and his own election as leader will do nothing to assuage moderate mainstream electors of Shorten’s bona fides as anything other than a willing tool of the hard Left.

So as ye sow, so too shall ye reap.

It will be interesting to see how the Australian Sports Party fares, this time around; as the beneficiary of a so-called “mega-preference” arrangement, its task in a fresh election will be complicated by the fact anyone in Australia — eligible to vote — is able to nominate for the second Senate poll in WA.

It’s a variable that will theoretically impact all parties concerned, but is likely to have a disproportionate impact on independent candidates and the micro-parties.

And this is where Clive Palmer and his Palmer United Party, in particular, stand to take a hit — at the risk of providing unwarranted oxygen to his outlandish accusations of fraud.

It seems obvious that some of Palmer’s odd, eccentric pronouncements since the election provide little of substance with which to attract new supporters to the PUP banner.

Yet additional support is precisely the commodity Palmer will need to generate: nobody disputes the assertion that at least some of the support his party garnered in September represented a protest vote against the major parties, and in a charged by-election environment it is inevitable that some of this support will return to them.

To the Liberal Party especially, which seems to have disproportionately nourished the embryonic party’s entry into Parliament in the first place.

And the campaign script for the Liberals is a no-brainer: Labor, the Greens and even Palmer (to a qualified extent) have shown their hands in refusing to allow the new government to begin implementing the policies which form its mandate.

Tony Abbott’s message will be simple: the Liberals have already tried to deliver on what they promised; everyone else has shown they seek to bastardise or destroy it.

Four Liberal Senators (or in a less ideal but acceptable result, three Liberals and a National) should be the Abbott’s aim when WA is forced back to the polls.

As for the rest, knocking out the Greens, Palmer and the Australian Sports Party — in that order — would do no damage at all to the legislative ambitions of the Abbott government.

The need to vote again is the only democratically sound course of action.

But already, it’s clear that there is much to fight for — and that some of the combatants stand to lose far more from the exercise than others.

Watch out for the WA Senate supplementary election to take place the same day as the by-election in Kevin Rudd’s electorate of Griffith; and don’t be surprised if at least one, maybe two, additional by-elections occur the same day — depending on what looms on the horizon 🙂


Fairfax Farce: Clive Palmer Threatens To Kick Own Goal

CLIVE PALMER — seemingly about to enter Parliament via the blue-ribbon conservative electorate of Fairfax — looks set to kick a spectacular own goal, with his crusade against the Australian Electoral Commission likely to end in the Court of Disputed Returns in a stunning political miscalculation.

I’ve deliberately held off posting on closely contested electorates until the results begin to filter through (and yes, the Liberals appear to have been defeated in Indi, McEwen and Parramatta as well as Fairfax) but the case of Clive Palmer in Fairfax warrants comment.

Since polling day a little over a fortnight ago, the eccentric businessman has engaged in a highly visible public rant against the Australian Electoral Commission.

According to Palmer, the Commission has shown gross incompetence and a complete lack of transparency; he has accused it of “vote tampering” and alleged other irregularities in the vote counting process in Fairfax.

Last week, he called for a recount in the Sunshine Coast seat due to “suspected major voting discrepancies” and went as far as to (unsuccessfully) seek a Federal Court injunction to bring the count in Fairfax to a halt and have a fresh election in that seat ordered.

Some of his missives have been typically preposterous; a case in point was his assertion that retired military personnel are disproportionately represented in the ranks of AEC polling officials, and that the military “should not be allowed anywhere near democracy.”

If nothing else, that particular argument should neatly alienate the returned services community in Fairfax, which could be problematic in more ways than one — and sooner than Palmer might think.

Indeed, if good to his word, Clive Palmer may soon get more than he bargained for.

The prospect of a recount notwithstanding, one might have thought that being declared the victor in Fairfax on the weekend over his opponent, the LNP’s Ted O’Brien — albeit by the slender margin of 36 votes — may have mollified Palmer and soothed his grievances.

As recently as yesterday, however, Palmer was maintaining his rage; in a statement he said that on the basis of evidence, a fraud has been committed” and accused the AEC of “a cover up.”

“I will continue to fight to hold the AEC accountable as they’ve shown themselves to be greatly incompetent with no transparency,” the statement said.

Intriguingly, it continued: “we will be highlighting the many discrepancies we’ve uncovered in the Court of Disputed Returns. The ballots have no security and the AEC is a national disgrace that needs to be heavily scrutinised.”

Come again?

Is Palmer proposing to challenge his own victory in the Court of Disputed Returns?

It seems inconceivable — based on the sheer belligerence of Palmer’s attacks on the AEC — that if the recount overturns the provisional result, and O’Brien is declared the winner, that Palmer would do anything other than challenge the result in Court.

But if he wins, will he hold good to his threat?

If I were advising him (assuming the recount confirms him as the new member for Fairfax) my advice — to put it bluntly — would be to shut up and take his seat in Parliament.

But nothing is so cut and dry where Palmer is concerned.

If he decided to pursue his campaign against the Commission and indeed take it to the Court of Disputed Returns, one of two things happens.

The first, of course, is that the Court dismisses the complaint.

The second is that it upholds the complaint, sets aside the result in Fairfax, and orders a supplementary election; if that occurs, Palmer will have signed his political death warrant.

For starters, he will have handed O’Brien and the LNP a potent campaign theme: that just to prove he’s right, Palmer will have engineered the waste of hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars in the form of a by-election whose purpose is to confirm the very result his Court proceedings had overturned.

On a two-party preferred basis, the election day contest in Fairfax was close enough; even if the vast majority of electors voted the same way at a supplementary election, the net movement of just 19 votes into the LNP column (in an electorate with more than 95,000 enrolled voters) would be sufficient to elect Palmer’s LNP rival.

And perhaps the most poignant aspect of any “second round” at the ballot box between Palmer and O’Brien lies in the fact that on 7 September, Palmer barely managed a quarter of the valid first preference primary votes cast.

With 74% of electors in Fairfax casting their first preferences for someone other than Clive Palmer, it’s obvious that the mining boss does not enjoy unqualified, widespread support in his electorate.

Indeed, leading up to the election, there were plenty of Fairfax voters whose anti-Palmer sentiments found their way into ready newspaper stories, with his Palmer Coolum Resort at the epicentre of their hostility.

It’s also the case that whether he likes it or not, Palmer — should the recount find in his favour — will have been elected mainly on ALP and Communist Party Greens preferences; at any supplementary election, the LNP’s ability to split even a few additional percentage points off those preference flows by appealing to Green and Labor voters not to reward blatant political grandstanding at the expense of the taxpayer would be enhanced greatly.

And there’s another issue here; Palmer has picked a fight with the very people charged with running, administering, counting and declaring votes at Australian elections, even after their efforts found him to have been elected; it would seem an odd call to make, but to perpetuate it in the face of victory beggars belief.

Would Palmer really challenge his own electoral win in the Court of Disputed Returns?

Who knows, in the end.

But if he does, it will almost certainly cost him his seat, and probably signal the end of his Palmer United Party — just as the “party” was seemingly getting started.

Despite its apparent defeat — for now — in Fairfax, the LNP in Queensland must scarcely be able to believe its luck.