Daniel Elkington

Thursday, 20 February 2014

Another election in Western Australia

As widely expected, following a whole bunch of missing votes and an incredibly close result, there's going to be another Senate election in Western Australia. Once again, voters will get to choose six people to represent them in the Federal Parliament for another six years from July.

Unlike the recent by-election in Griffith, this election will actually matter an enormous amount. Because of how close the numbers are going to be in the Senate from July, this election will effect exactly what Tony Abbott and his Coalition government will be able to do. It will even determine whether or not the government is going to be successful in repealing the carbon price (the carbon price being my favourite issue).

This election won't simply be photocopying some more ballot papers and getting voters to vote again for the same candidates as before, it'll be a complete new election, with a 33 day campaign period and will allow anyone with the money to nominate themselves to be a candidate.

Current Numbers

Excluding the six seats up for grabs in Western Australia, this is what the Senate numbers will be from July:
Liberal/National: 30
Labor: 24
Greens: 9
Palmer United: 2
Democratic Labour: 1
Nick Xenophon (Independent): 1
Liberal Democrats: 1
Family First: 1
Motoring Enthusiasts: 1

For the Government to pass anything through the Senate, they need 39 votes. If the numbers in the Senate are equal (38 votes each) it is not passed and is instead blocked.

Immediately you should be able to see that the Coalition cannot have an absolute majority in the Senate. In order to get the 39 votes they need to pass something, they will need to win the support of other Senators.

Let's take a look at the issue of the carbon price repeal. Obviously the Liberals and Nationals support the repeal, and Labor and the Greens do not. The Coalition needs another 9 votes from somewhere to pass the repeal, and Labor and the Greens need another 5 votes to block it.

Clive Palmer opposes the carbon price, but has said previously that he'll only support Coalition legislation if he is given the same amount of funding as the Greens, and he'll only support the carbon price repeal if all businesses that have ever paid it are refunded (a condition I cannot see the Coalition ever supporting given the enormous hole it would put into the budget). However, I cannot see him holding out against voting for the repeal for too long. The Coalition will no doubt do some deal with him and get his support, along with the support of Ricky Muir from the Motoring Enthusiasts party, who has agreed to vote with the Palmer United Party. That's 33 votes.

The Democratic Labour Party Senator, John Madigan, has always been opposed to the carbon price and remains opposed to it. I cannot see him shifting on this issue, and he would definitely be voting for the repeal of it. The Liberal Democrats are opposed to the carbon price and their Senator-elect will vote to scrap it. The Family First Senator-elect has also confirmed that he will support the repeal of the carbon price. That's 36 votes.

Nick Xenophon is an interesting case. He voted against the carbon price when it was first introduced, and has continued to oppose it. However, shortly after the election there were a couple of interviews where he seemed to suggest that he might not support the repeal. His issue is what the carbon price is replaced with. He wants to take action against Climate Change, but doesn't seem to like the carbon price in its current form, and doesn't seem to like Direct Action either. At the moment I'm thinking that he might end up supporting the repeal, but out of all the cross-benchers, I have the most doubt about him.

This leaves the Coalition with 36-37 votes in favour of repealing the carbon price. Remembering that the Western Australian Senate Election will have 6 more seats up for grabs, the Coalition will therefore need at least 2-3 carbon price repeal-friendly Senators elected. If the carbon price repeal is to be blocked, then 4-5 anti-carbon price repeal Senators will need to be elected.

Coalition winning just 1 seat?

I'll immediately say that it is virtually impossible for the Coalition to get anything less than 2 Senators elected in Western Australia (unless if they muck up the electoral commission paperwork like some small parties did in the recent election, but I can't see that happening for a major party). If you look at every election since World War II, the two major parties have always won at least 2 seats in every State in a half-Senate election. Well, that was until 2013, when Labor only won 1 seat in South Australia (but South Australia has the Nick Xenaphon factor) and in the second count in Western Australia. In South Australia, Labor only managed to get 22.7% of first votes, and in Western Australia Labor managed to get 26.6%. There is no way that the Coalition's vote will sink to those levels in Western Australia, the mining state.

Therefore, it appears that the only way to prevent the carbon price from being repealed will be if the Coalition wins 2 Senate seats in this election, and the other 4 all go to pro-carbon price candidates.

The first WA Senate Election

Let's take a quick look at how things panned out in the original election last year.

In Western Australia the Liberals and the Nationals run separately to each other, but you would expect that National preferences eventually flow to the Liberals. Back in September, the Liberals won 39.3% of first votes, and the Nationals won 5.1%, for a total of 44.4% if we add these figures together. Labor got 26.6%, the Greens got 9.5%, and the Palmer United Party got 5.00%. The next highest was the Liberal Democrats who gained a surprisingly high 3.43% of first votes, although I'm guessing that this may have had something to do with the fact that they were the second column on the ballot paper, whilst the real Liberals were in the 27th out of 28 columns, and some voters mistook the Liberal Democrats for the Liberals. (The Liberal Democrats did even better in New South Wales when they snagged the first column on the ballot paper, and ended up winning a Senator.)

In order to win a Senate Seat in a normal State half-Senate election, you need 1/7 of formal votes plus 1. That's about 14.29%. So from first votes you need
-14.29% to win 1 seat
-28.57% to win 2 seats
-42.86% to win 3 seats
-57.14% to win 4 seats

So the Liberals were able to win 2 seats on first preferences alone, and with the help of just Nationals preferences they were able to get a third seat in both of the WA Senate counts. However they're nowhere near getting a fourth seat, and I cannot feasibly see why how they could get a high enough vote or enough preferences to achieve this. That's why they're so against having another election; they can only go backwards.

The six Senators elected in the original WA Senate count were:
-3 Liberals
-2 Labor
-1 Palmer
and the six elected in the recount were:
-3 Liberals
-1 Labor
-1 Green
-1 Sports party

The first count elected 4 Senators who would vote to scrap the carbon price, and 2 who would vote to keep it. The second elected 3 who would vote to scrap it, 2 who would vote to keep it, and 1, the Sports party, who never stated its position on the carbon price. In either scenario though, we would have been saying goodbye to the carbon price come July.

In either of the scenarios, the Coalition would have had a tricky task to get any other legislation through the Senate. Taking the second result for example, to get their 39 votes the Coalition would have needed
-The support of Labor OR
-The support of the Greens OR
-The support of Palmer plus 3/5 of Family First, Democratic Labour, Liberal Democrats, Sports and Xenophon

Micro Parties

The Sports party were able to get in the same way that Ricky Muir was able to down in Victoria; by a whole heap of micro parties preferencing each other before any of the major parties, in the hope that they could scramble enough preferences together to reach the 14% needed to get one of them elected. Out of all 28 columns on the ballot paper, the Sports party won the 8th least amount of first preferences, a mere 0.22%, but were able to get enough preferences from other parties to win.

Now that the micro parties have seen that it's possible to win a Senate seat if you're an incredibly small group that nobody has heard of before, and by the next full election the major parties may have conspired together to change the rules so this doesn't happen again, no doubt every micro party in Australia will try their luck at this election. I'm thinking that we'll end up with a New South Wales style ballot paper crammed full of candidates hoping to do a Sports party. Disengaged voters may indeed spot an interesting party name on the day and vote for it. There's a reasonable chance that someone may get elected who we have never heard of before.

Working against the micro parties however is the fact that some disengaged voters simply will not turn up to the election. Turnouts at by-elections is typically very low, and turnouts at elections where voters don't understand what they're doing is also typically low. Given that a lot of voters don't understand what the Senate is, combined with the fact that this is like a by-election in that it's held outside of the regular election cycle, I have a feeling that the turnout will be very low, and many of those disengaged people who would usually vote for a minor party simply won't turn up to vote. Therefore, I would only put it at a small chance that a party we've never heard of before ends up winning a Senate seat. Given that the majority of micro parties seem to be far-right parties, even if some unknown party does win a Senate seat, it would probably end up being someone who would vote to scrap the carbon price anyway.

What will the Liberal/National vote be?

Once again, at the original election the Liberals/Nationals won 44.4% of first votes. Since then polling suggests that the Coalition has lost support. (Note that I'm going to for the moment ignore the Nielson poll on Monday which suggested that the Coalition has regained support and is, in Western Australia, more or less where it was at the time of the election. The reason is that it is the only poll showing support at these levels, and none of the other polls are showing this. The Essential Research poll on Tuesday for example actually showed a swing to Labor.)

The latest Newspoll (Feb 7-9) says there's been a 5% swing against the Coalition on House of Representatives first votes since the election, and the latest Morgan poll confirms this. Given that we have no specific results for Western Australia and no results for the Senate, if we use this figure as a rough approximation of the Coalition's loss of support, the Liberals/Nationals are looking at around 39-40% of first votes in the WA Senate re-election (although after a campaign this could change and go either way). This is short of the 42.86% required to win 3 seats, meaning the Coalition may have to pick up a few more points on preferences if they are to win 3 seats.

Given that people seem to love to vote against the Government of the day in elections outside the normal election cycle (the recent by-election in Griffith was perhaps an exception due to a very strong Liberal candidate and the loss of the popular Labor candidate Kevin Rudd) I wouldn't be surprised if the Coalition's vote ends up being less than this, and therefore I expect that they will win just 2 Senate seats, not 3.

How about Labor and the Greens?

I'm expecting Labor and the Greens to perform much more strongly in this election then they did last year. Given Labor's first vote has jumped up nation-wide since the election, I don't think they'll be facing the embarrassing scenario of only winning 1 Senate seat. Given that Labor only fell 2% short of winning 2 seats on first preferences, their vote will definitely have recovered so that they will easily win 2 seats.

There's a reasonable chance that the Greens may be able to win a Senate seat as well. Their 9.5% at the last election was well short of the 14.2% needed, but the Greens were able to win the seat back in 2007 with just 9.3% of the primary vote, winning the rest of the required amount from preferences.

One may well ask about the possibility of the final outcome being Labor 3, Liberal 2 and Greens 1. We did see this result down in Tasmania in the 2010 election, where the primary votes were 41.4%, 33.0% and 20.3% respectively, but there's no way there'll be results like that in the mining state that is Western Australia. Labor won't be getting their primary vote near the 40s, which is required for them to pick up 3 seats.

The Palmer factor

Clive Palmer surprised many commentators at the federal election when he did much better than expected (although I was actually expecting him to do even better than he did). He managed to get 5.0% of the first vote in the Western Australia Senate, and with the help of preferences from a large assortment of other parties including the Liberal Democrats and the Shooters and Fishers parties, he was able to get a Senator in the original count.

The Palmer United Party's Senate vote in Western Australia was lower than it was in Queensland or Tasmania where the party also won Senate seats, forcing the party to rely on a lot of preferences in the original election. Given that in the original election a lot of the micro parties almost seemed to view the Palmer United Party as a micro party like them, they may have been inclined to treat him as such when determining their preferences. Now however, I think they may be more likely to see him as a threat to them being elected, and he may therefore struggle to get the preferences he did last time.

Also, part of the success of Palmer United was how he really stepped up all his campaigning in the final week before the election, taking the major parties by surprise when his vote in the polls jumped up like it did. As far as I am aware, the major parties didn't campaign against Palmer at all, as they did not view him as a threat. Now, however, I suspect the Liberals may indeed spend a bit of money campaigning against the Palmer United Party.

At the same time, I would expect the Palmer United Party to put a lot of money into this election. Whilst a lot of their funding was directed at Queensland during the federal election, Clive Palmer really wants to win his seat in Western Australia, so I'm sure he'll be opening his cheque-book to pay for lots of ads.

With the Liberals advertising against him but with Palmer advertising more than before, it's difficult to know whether his vote will go up or down.


Of course the Wikileaks party ran candidates in some of the States back in September. In Western Australia they managed just 0.75% of the Primary Vote, but in Victoria where Julian Assange was their lead Senate candidate they managed 1.24%. Julian Assange will be running in Western Australia in this election, and the party are very confident that he will win. I'm not so confident however. They'll need an awful lot of preferences to win, and I cannot see them getting them.

Column draw and Ticket votes

The order in which columns are ordered may play a role in who gets elected. The column order is random but is the same across all ballot papers. Naturally, parties that are on the left side of the ballot paper tend to do much better than parties on the right side, especially when there are a lot of columns. It makes sense. For someone who doesn't have that much interest in politics, if they have an enormous meter-long ballot paper with over 50 columns, they're going to begin reading the column-names from left to right, will grow tired of this rather quickly, find the first name they either recognise or that sounds interesting and vote for them. In New South Wales we had the interesting scenario where the Liberal Democrats were the first party on the ballot paper, and the Liberals were a long way to the right, and many people mistakenly voted for the Liberal Democrats. In Victoria the Rise Up Australia party were the first on the ballot paper and gained the 8th highest amount of first votes.

The other important factor will be the ticket votes of the various parties, that is, what happens to your preferences if you vote above the line, as most people do. The decisions of party representatives submitting the ticket votes may be the most critical factor in determining the result of the election, and whether we'll see someone from a tiny party like the Motoring Enthusiasts or the Sports Party getting in.

Once the ticket votes have been submitted, take a look at the Truth Seeker website which runs thousands of simulations of Senate votes with varying levels of support for all the different parties to try to determine who will be elected.

Most likely winners

Labor and Liberal will each win 2 seats, putting the last 2 up for grabs with Labor, Liberal, Greens, Palmer and other minor parties vying for them. I'm thinking that the most likely scenario is
-Liberal 2
-Labor 2
-Greens 1
-Palmer 1

followed by
-Liberal 2
-Labor 2
-Greens 1
-Micro party 1

So in all likelihood the Coalition will get the numbers to repeal the carbon price. The only chance I can see of the carbon price not being repealed is if the second scenario occurs, and the micro party elected is one of the few lefty parties who will oppose the repeal and Nick Xenophon decides to oppose the repeal.

If we take the result I believe to be most likely, the final Senate numbers will be
Liberal/National: 32
Labor: 26
Greens: 10
Palmer: 3
Democratic Labour: 1
Nick Xenophon (Independent): 1
Liberal Democrats: 1
Family First: 1
Motoring Enthusiasts: 1

Assuming that the Ricky Muir from the Motoring Enthusiasts keeps his end of the deal with the Palmer United party, this means that if the Coalition wants to pass something they will need either
-The support of Labor OR
-The support of the Greens OR
-The support of Palmer plus 3/4 of Democratic Labour, Liberal Democrats, Family First and Nick Xenophon.

If Labor wanted to block something, they would need the support of the Greens plus either
-The support of Palmer OR
-The support of 2/4 of Democratic Labour, Liberal Democrats, Family First and Nick Xenophon.

No matter what the outcome in Western Australia, we'll have a very very interesting Senate from July, and just a few unexpected people will have a great deal of power.

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