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.