Andrew Murray is arguably the smartest of all the Democrat senators and in this exclusive piece for Crikey he reflects on the potential for the Coalition to hold power in both houses of Parliament for the next decade.

The New Senate Paradigm

I saw a clever line in the Adelaide Independent Weekly on the Senate election. It said ‘It’s true the people spoke on October 9th but perhaps it was a slip of the tongue rather than a carefully worded statement.’

In one respect that is true. I doubt there are any voters that place a 1 in the Senate box above the line that have any idea what really happens to their vote as it wanders through the labyrinth of lodged Party preference tickets. By any measure, the Senate lodged ticket preference system is hardly transparent or predictable.

But what voters were very clear about was to whom they gave their primary vote. 80% of voters gave their primary vote to the majors, in increasing numbers. That was no slip of the tongue. In 2004 there was a swing of nearly 4% to the majors, mostly to the Coalition, and away from minors/micros/independents.

The Senate result reflected a deliberate decision by the electorate to give greater support to the major parties. The (Democrats) centre was hollowed out. The Green Left failed to capitalise sufficiently on their strong media exposure. The Christian Right retained a seat (Harradine to Fielding), and One Nation passed on.

% 2004 2001
Labor 35.0 34.3
Coalition 45.0 41.8
Others 19.9 23.7
Seats 2004 2001
Labor 28 28
Coalition (total) 39 35
Liberal 34 32
Nationals 5 3
Others 9 13

The media have been concentrating (quite rightly) on what Coalition control of the Senate means in the short term. The long term permanence of the change is perhaps more interesting. The Senate vote represents a generational shift and change in Australian politics from the last three decades.

Look at Coalition Senate numbers over the next decade.

Coalition Senate seats won

Long term
(State senators)
Short term
(Territories senators)
1998 15 2
2001 18 2
2004 19 2
2007 (probably) 18 2
2010 (possibly) 18 2

Coalition Senate term numbers therefore in three-year periods over the next decade:

2002-2005: 35 (In need of 4 votes from cross-benches)

2005-2008: 39 (absolute control)

2008-2011: 39 (absolute control)

2011-2014: 38 (blocking power – need 1 vote from cross-benches)

Here are some consequences I can see:

  • Whether Labor win any of the next three elections or not, the Coalition will effectively control the policy outcomes they let through the Senate for the next decade (this is of particular importance to the unions and IR)
  • If Labor gain power they may be forced to an early double-dissolution to break the Coalition stranglehold on the Senate
  • The National Party now effectively hold the balance of power in the Senate – the Liberals will have to acknowledge their views more than ever
  • ‘Dissident’ members of the Coalition will have to be more assertive as they no longer have the Senate non Government parties as a safety net
  • Other minor parties may remain politically relevant, but will be mostly legislatively irrelevant except possibly/perhaps for one vote after 2011

The only restraint on the Coalition Government (and it is a big restraint) is the need to retain popular support for re-election.

The Senate’s constitutional status and power remains, but its political and legislative importance is massively diminished (with certainty for 6 years, possibly longer). Only time will tell whether the voters decide whether it is in their interests to again give the Senate majority back to non Government parties. Until then you can be sure the Coalition will make hay while the sun shines.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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