Hard Senate contest for minor players

17 June 2017


Frustration with one thing or another led to Federal Parliament becoming what it looks like today.  Although a Federal election was always expected last year, a few different things would’ve made Parliament a little different.  Mind you, the frustration could’ve also produced a different result.

Last year’s election was a rare double-dissolution, meaning a complete dissolution of both the House of Representatives and the Senate.  There haven’t been that many double-dissolution elections since Federal Parliament was established in 1901.  Normally, Federal elections would involve a complete dissolution of the House of Reps, but not of the Senate.  However, because the Liberal-National Coalition became increasingly frustrated with being unable to get legislation through the Senate over time, as well as other reasons, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull saw fit to call a double-dissolution.

Had the election last year been like most other elections before it, there’d have been six out of twelve Senators from each state facing the voters – hence the term “half-Senate election”.  But the Senators up for election wouldn’t have been those who won seats at the previous election, in 2013.  Instead, the Senators winning seats at the election before it, in 2010, would’ve been up for election last year, while the Senators winning seats in 2013 would’ve been due to face the voters at the next election, due in 2019.

When the Coalition won office in 2013, it ended up having to deal with a large number of crossbenchers who held the balance of power in the Senate.  There were eighteen Senate crossbenchers, and the Greens made up the bulk of this bunch – ten in all.  The other eight included of three people from a political party set up by billionaire Clive Palmer, as well as individuals from other parties.  Most of these people were elected in 2013, so they wouldn’t have been facing the voters again until 2019.  Had there been only a half-Senate election instead of a double-dissolution last year, the Coalition would’ve found itself still having to deal with many of those crossbenchers after the election.

This would’ve frustrated the Coalition, and was probably one of the reasons why a double-dissolution was called.  Because many of those Senate crossbenchers won their seats on other people’s preferences instead of their own popular votes, it was thought that some of them could lose their seats, especially as the Coalition was able to get enough support in the Senate to reform Senate voting.  But instead, the double-dissolution produced a larger crossbench in the Senate, with controversial figures Pauline Hanson and Derryn Hinch among those elected, although some of those Senators elected in 2013 ended up losing their seats.  In that sense, the double-dissolution arguably backfired for the Coalition.

The reform to Senate voting meant that voters could direct preferences to their choice of parties, rather than just candidates.  It used to be that, as a voter, you’d have two choices with the Senate – you could choose one party and vote for only it in a box above a thick black line on a ballot paper, or you could vote for every candidate from every party and group below that thick black line.  When people voted above the line, parties decided where votes went after candidates were elected or eliminated.  This meant that parties could direct votes to their choice of other parties, or away from those that they disliked, regardless of whether voters liked those choices or not.  In 2013, many minor parties decided to direct preferences amongst each other, so that votes wouldn’t reach the major parties – this led to minor players, such as Ricky Muir, winning seats with minuscule shares of the popular vote.  By reforming Senate voting, it was thought that this kind of event couldn’t happen again, unless voters themselves indicated that they wanted it.

Whatever the merits of reforming Senate voting, I suspect that the major parties wouldn’t have been too thrilled to see a larger Senate crossbench, especially with the likes of Hanson and Hinch there.

The next election, regardless of frustrations in dealing with Senate crossbenchers, will likely involve a half-Senate election.  With more votes therefore needed to win Senate seats, it’ll mean a harder Senate contest for minor players, unless their vote in any state is really strong.

To win a seat in a half-Senate election, you need about 14.3 per cent of the vote in one of the states.  Looking at the last election results, only the party of popular Senator Nick Xenophon would’ve won a seat on popular votes alone, with about 21.7 per cent of the vote in South Australia.

The Greens probably would’ve won enough votes in some states to have Senators elected on preferences.  They won about 11.2 per cent of the vote in Tasmania, 10.9 per cent in Victoria, and 10.5 per cent in Western Australia.

Similarly, Hanson probably would’ve won enough votes to get elected on preferences, with about 9.2 per cent of the vote in Queensland.

To win Senate seats at the next election, you’d be needing huge votes.  For example, in New South Wales you’re looking at well over 600,000 votes.  Getting that many votes won’t come easy for minor players in particular.

The hard challenge thus looms for minor players at the next election.  How or whether they obtain a bigger vote remains something to watch.



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