The make-up of the ACT Legislative Assembly is hanging in the balance following Saturday’s poll — but bad blood between the territory’s Liberals and Greens has insiders strongly tipping Labor will retain government, however the final count falls.

Nervous staffers in the Assembly are refreshing their “Elections ACT” websites hourly to see what the notoriously unpredictable Hare-Clark multi-member voting system throws up. Results should be clear on Saturday.

The ACT Liberals are basking in an unexpectedly high vote (a 7.1 percentage point swing). After initial counting, they were tipped to win eight seats in the 17-member Assembly, making them the largest party. But the early prediction of eight Liberal MLAs, seven Labor and two Greens is in doubt as counting proceeds.

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The Greens, who held a record four seats, are the big losers, with a swing of 4.9% against them. They could end up with one, two or three seats. Greens leader Meredith Hunter’s seat is in some doubt. Labor and the Liberals could end up tied on eight seats apiece. Politicians and staffers are in limbo; one described it to Crikey as a “horrible time”.

Number-crunching aside, the Greens will hold the balance of power in the modernistic, hushed and uncrowded Assembly, where MLAs hold forth on local political issues to a largely uninterested public, some of whom rue the day the territory won self-government.

The leaders are saying little publicly, but insiders from all parties speculate privately that it would be very tough for the Liberals to woo the king-making Greens into backing what would be the first ACT Liberal government in 11 years. The ACT Liberals are not relative moderates in the mould of Ted Baillieu, or popular ex-Liberal chief minister Kate Carnell. On matters of politics and policy, they are more akin to Tony Abbott, which makes it harder to appeal to the Greens. Their religious faith is important to key Liberal MLAs.

Labor and the Greens held minority government relatively smoothly last term, and have a functional relationship. This compares with the fractious relationship between the Liberals and the Greens. One Greens insider described ACT Liberal leader Zed Seselja’s election campaign as anti-Greens, “nasty … it’s going to be hard to put that behind them”. The insider said policy differences were stark: “I’d be surprised if in the end the Liberals can come far enough.” Another party insider described Seselja’s campaign as openly hostile to the Greens, saying the Liberals had made it clear publicly they did not want to work with them.

Seselja’s best hope of forming government — an unusual event in the Labor-leaning public servant town — rests in him winning the most seats. Some Hare-Clarke aficionados hold that the system obliges minor parties and independents to seriously try to form government with the party with the most seats, an approach embraced by Seselja and Abbott.

But the Greens (and Labor) members strongly reject Seselja’s claim he has a mandate. The Greens argue Labor won more votes than the Liberals (39.0% of the primary vote to 38.7%), and that the key issue is which  parties can form a majority in the Assembly. Federal Greens leader Christine Milne — who has experience governing in minority with Labor and with the Liberals — was in the Assembly yesterday, offering advice.

Camp Zed is buoyant, and members think the youthful and ambitious Seselja has done well in uniting the party (which was a mess previously) and warding off the persistent threat of right-leaning independent candidates. But a Liberal insider privately conceded it would be “very tough” to form government with the Greens. “You never know,” they told Crikey. “It’s a shot, but not that big.”

The Liberals privately concede the relationship between the parties has been frayed, and believe the Greens acted preciously in the way they responded to Seselja clarifying his stance on governing in minority. Key Liberals believe they should stay true to their principles and policy approach, and not concede too much to form government. Seselja told Crikey he was “very proud of the best results for the Liberals in ACT history”, and warned “it would be unprecedented for a party with eight seats to be in opposition.” The Liberal leader said the result was “a clear rebuke of the Labor-Greens alliance,” and said negotiations over government would start once the vote count was finalised.

The Labor camp (spearheaded by popular leader Katy Gallagher) is not assuming they’ll win — they had not expected the Greens to do this poorly, and think the Liberals are making a serious effort to form government. But Labor insiders think the fairly positive experiences of the last term have them well-placed with the Greens. “Who knows?” one Labor figure said to Crikey. 

In a statement to Crikey, Gallagher said “at this stage we’re taking nothing for granted”. She was confident Labor would win seven or eight seats, but said “Hare-Clark can do some funny things before the final result is known”. Gallagher said it was too soon for negotiations over government to begin in earnest. But she had a positive wrap for Labor:

“We’ve held our seats, we’ve increased our vote and we’ve won more votes than any other party. Furthermore it’s clear that the majority of people in the ACT have voted for progressive government,” Gallagher said.

Questions are being asked about the media’s campaign coverage. The Canberra Times commissioned one opinion poll (of 1200 voters, conducted by Patterson Research Group), which appears to have been inaccurate. The Crimes’ Assembly reporter Noel Towell wrote this, two days before election day:

“Today’s exclusive Canberra Times poll puts Ms Gallagher in a winning position with Labor retaining its seven seats in an unchanged Assembly, with six seats for the Canberra Liberals and the ACT Greens retaining balance-of-power status with four seats.”

On election eve, The Crimes reported Sportsbet was taking the bold move of paying out on a Labor victory before voting started.

A spokesman for Hunter told Crikey she would not comment until the results were clearer.

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