20 March 2016
This past week marked an anniversary of sorts. Around this time ten years ago, in March 2006, something incredible happened in politics. And I watched it happen, during the first visit that I ever made to an election tally room.
I’d gone to Adelaide to follow a state election in South Australia, the result of which was a comfortable win for the Labor Party over the Liberal Party. But the election is memorable for another reason, which I’ll explain shortly.
The tally room in Adelaide wasn’t like tally rooms that I’d seen glimpses of on television before. Tally rooms themselves are now almost extinct – they used to be in exhibition houses or similarly large buildings, which you could sometimes visit to watch election results coming in, but technology has pretty much made them obsolete.
This Adelaide tally room in 2006 was inside a television studio, and there were temporary stages set up for television networks to cover the election, while near them were rows of tables where people from radio stations sat as they covered the results. On a back wall was a large screen, showing election results in every parliamentary seats, and they’d be updated electronically. This kind of screen has replaced old-fashioned election result boards, on which election officials would constantly put up numbers as they received the latest results in each seat. I saw with a few other election followers on a mezzanine level overlooking the tally room, and we watched the results coming in on that big screen.
By and large, the election results didn’t surprise. Labor had come to power in 2002 with Mike Rann as leader, and he’d been popular as Premier, so he was widely tipped to win this election in 2006. Sure enough, he won. But something else of note happened here – it certainly amazed me, as a visitor to this place at the time.
Elections in South Australia are similar to Federal elections. The State Parliament of SA has two chambers, namely the House of Assembly and the Legislative Council. Elections for the Lower House, which is the Assembly, are for forty-seven single-member seats, and governments are formed here. In the Upper House, which is the Council, there are twenty-two seats, with half of them, eleven in all, going up for grabs at election time, and the whole state is treated here as one single electorate. To win a Lower House seat, you need a majority of the vote in that seat, but just over a twelfth of the statewide vote will win you an Upper House seat. It’s worth noting that, to work out how many votes are needed to win a seat within a single electorate, especially with two or more seats in it, you have to divide the total vote in the electorate by a number which is one more than the number of seats up for grabs, and then add one vote to the divided total – hence the need for just over a twelfth of the statewide vote to win one of eleven Upper House seats.
Going into the 2006 election, among those politicians facing the voters was one particular bloke who’d won an Upper House with other people’s preferences two elections earlier, in 1997. When I went to the election tally room in 2006, I only knew that he’d been a critic of poker machines, and that the major parties and some minor players were directing preferences away from him. So I didn’t expect him to hold his seat, although I didn’t know how other people had tipped him to do.
How wrong I was. Needing just over a twelfth of the statewide vote to be elected, this man and his team of candidates won roughly a fifth of the vote – enough to win two seats. Not only did this man hold his seat, but he got a teammate elected on his coattails! In fact, his team finished only a few percentage points behind the Liberal Opposition.
And so began, arguably at this moment, the phenomena that was this man, named Nick Xenophon. Although already in Parliament, he mightn’t have been expected to hold his seat when he next faced the voters, having originally been elected on preferences. But in 2006, he won in his own right, and actually did more than that.
This was therefore a great night for those with cynicism regarding politicians, as here was a moment when an Independent stunned all with an amazing win.
And Xenophon hasn’t looked back since. Over a year after his 2006 win, he chose to run for Federal Parliament, and won a Senate seat in SA with ease. His vote wasn’t as high as in the state election, but it was enough for him to win in his own right – he didn’t need preferences to win, which would’ve been rare for an Independent. And when he next faced the voters in 2013, voters were so unhappy with the major parties that Xenophon increased his vote, and almost got a teammate elected. He and his mate actually won more votes than Labor.
Now Xenophon looks safe in the Senate. He’ll last as long as he wants to. Rarely would you find an Independent so widely trusted when voters can’t abide the major parties.