21 December 2015
The change in leadership in September might’ve been, at least at this stage, the best thing to have happened to the Federal Coalition of late. With the unpopular Tony Abbott as Prime Minister, polls consistently showed the Coalition heading for a major election defeat after a single term in office. But after Malcolm Turnbull challenged Abbott for the leadership and beat him, the Coalition’s fortunes have turned around. Now another Coalition election win looks beyond question.
But one thing won’t change after the next election – the need for the Prime Minister, whoever it is, to negotiate with the Senate, where minor parties and Independents hold the balance of power. Currently, the Coalition needs support from six out of eighteen Senate crossbenchers to pass legislation. After the next election, these numbers might change, but the need for crossbench negotiations in the Senate won’t end soon.
To understand the Senate situation, it’s worth noting when the last few Federal elections have happened, in reverse order. They’ve been held in 2013, 2010, 2007, and 2004. The reason for noting these election years will be explained shortly.
Elections generally are for all seats in the House of Representatives and a majority of seats in the Senate. I say “a majority” advisedly, because in theory election include half-Senate elections, meaning half of all Senate seats going up for grabs, but this isn’t totally accurate. This is because Parliament was set up before the territories, namely the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory, even existed, let alone had representation.
Both the Northern Territory and the ACT have two Senators each, and the Coalition and the Labor Party always win those four seats. Mind you, had Abbott still been leading, I’d have rated the Coalition’s ACT Senate seat as vulnerable, with the ACT considered less conservative than other parts of Australia, as well as less tolerant of Abbott. But under Turnbull, the Coalition’s ACT seat looks safe.
The terms of state-based Senators end at every second election, with half of them facing voters on a rotating basis, hence the description of half-Senate elections. Therefore the Senators who won seats at the last election, in 2013, won’t face the voters at the next election, due next year, but at the one after that, probably coming in 2019. These Senators include the popular South Australian Independent Nick Xenophon, originally elected in 2007 before being elected again in 2013, so he’s not facing the voters next year.
The Senators who won seats at the 2010 election, the one prior to the last, will face the voters next year. So we should note what happened with the Senate in 2010, specifically in the states. The results back then show the Coalition now having little ground available to make up in the Senate.
The 2010 election saw mixed Senate results in the states, which have six seats each up for grabs at election time. In Tasmania, Labor won three seats to the Coalition’s two, with the Greens winning one seat. In Victoria, the Coalition and Labor won two seats apiece, with the Greens winning one seat, while another minor player, John Madigan, also won a seat. In every other state, the Coalition won three seats to Labor’s two, with the Greens winning one seat.
Usually the Coalition and Labor together win five out of six available Senate seats in each state, with minor players often winning the sixth seat. The stronger of the major parties will likely win three seats in those circumstances, though this varies from election to election and from state to state.
As such, the Coalition can’t increase its Senate numbers by much at the next election. It’s defending three Senate seats apiece in four states, and it can only improve its numbers by one in both Victoria and Tasmania, where it won only two seats apiece. I tip the Coalition to pick up those extra seats in those two states, but it won’t get a vote strong enough in any state to win a fourth seat, notwithstanding Turnbull’s popularity.
The Coalition will probably gain its third Victorian seat at the expense of Madigan, who snuck into the Senate on preferences in 2010. Its third Tasmanian seat will probably come at the expense of Labor, which won three Tasmanian seats in 2010 but is now on the nose with voters. But this would still leave the Coalition, assuming that it wins the election overall and three Senate seats in every state, needing maybe four crossbench Senate votes to pass legislation.
Turnbull’s rise has left Labor in such bad shape that it’ll probably lose ground in the Senate. But Labor might only lose one seat in Tasmania, as it won two seats in every other state and isn’t likely to improve or worsen.
The Greens will hold most of their seats, as their vote remains quite strong across the country. I rate them vulnerable in Queensland, where their vote seem less as in other states, but they may hold, as the major parties together hold five seats there already and no other minor players look that appealing.
Delicate Senate negotiations, with the kind of people once described by one of Turnbull’s predecessors as “unrepresentative swill”, look like continuing beyond the next election. The rise of Turnbull as Prime Minister hasn’t made this possibility less likely as such.