The deals have been done and the group voting tickets for the Senate — determining preferences for the overwhelming majority of voters who take the easy option of numbering a single box above the line — have been published.
One thing is clear: the above-the-line option will be more popular than ever this year, with an explosion in the number of Senate candidates — 529 nationally compared with a previous record of 367. Those conscientious souls who insist on determining their own preference order will be required to number 110 boxes in New South Wales, 97 in Victoria and 82 in Queensland.
Even in Tasmania, where below-the-line voting has traditionally been much more popular owing to smaller fields of candidates and familiarity with the Hare Clark system at state level, voters will have to contend with 54 candidates, smashing the previous record of 32.
Given the nomination deposit for Senate candidates has doubled since the last election to $2000, to be forfeited if the party fails to clear the imposing hurdle of 4% of the vote, this upsurge in participation is very curious indeed. So it’s particularly interesting to note where micro-parties are taking the field with counter-intuitive preference choices.
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Something called the “No Carbon Tax Climate Sceptics” party might be presumed to have had an axe to grind with the current government, but it has in fact placed Labor ahead of the Coalition in three states.
Nor is it immediately obvious why something called the “Animal Justice Party” would put the Greens in last place, as it has done in the Australian Capital Territory to the detriment of high-profile Greens candidate Simon Sheikh.
However, most of buzz on social media yesterday related to the WikiLeaks Party, which has made a number of decisions that have not gone down well with its natural constituency. Most striking was the placement of the quasi-fascist Australia First ahead of the Greens in NSW, unlikely though that may be to have any practical effect. Of more consequence is the Greens being placed behind the Shooters & Fishers, which as of the March election in Western Australia can boast members in two state parliaments.
The Greens have also been snubbed by the WikiLeaks Party’s WA branch, which has placed them behind an increasingly competitive National Party.
[pullquote position=”right”]It should perhaps not come as such a surprise to see WikiLeaks betraying a blase attitude to the electoral process[/pullquote], which its world-famous principal tends to view as a facade behind which real power is wielded by trans-national forces. Given the party’s potential to scoop up a segment of the Left vote and send it in unexpected directions, its emergence as an electoral player always seemed a dangerous development for those on the Left who are of a mind to take parliamentary politics more seriously.
What’s more of a surprise is that a party whose machine has been cranking up for the better part of a year should put its more contentious choices down to “administrative errors”, which it is now too late to reverse. It is certainly not impossible to devise scenarios in which these “administrative errors” have immense consequences.
The big picture of the Senate race is that “the Left” goes into the election with a 19-17 lead over “the Right”, the 2010 election having returned 13 Labor senators, six Greens, 13 Liberals, three Nationals, and one from the Democratic Labour Party. The Left’s headstart is down to the Tasmanian result in 2010, in which three Labor and one Greens Senator were elected in addition to two Liberals.
These senators’ terms will continue in the next parliament, with the election determining the replacements for the state senators elected in 2007 (together with the four territory Senators, whose terms are tied to the House of Representatives).
The crucial factor for the coming election is whether the Right can succeed in scoring fourth seats in its stronger states. One such result will at least even up the Left/Right ledger, with the complication that the hard-to-classify Nick Xenophon appears set to join three Liberal and two Labor senators elected in South Australia (at least on my present reading of the situation). With more than one such result, the balance tips decisively in the Right’s favour.
The state most likely to deliver four seats to the Right has always seemed to be Queensland, which in doing so at the 2004 election delivered the Howard government a Senate majority. However, the next two states along in order of likelihood are none other than NSW and WA.
A crude measure of the likelihood of a four-Right, two-Left outcome is provided by the two-party preferred vote. Once the Coalition holds a lead in excess of 57-43, the balance tilts far enough in the Right’s favour that a fourth quota becomes achievable.
Present polling places the Coalition about 3% short of this level in both NSW and WA. However, the success of Family First in winning a seat in Victoria with Labor preferences at the 2004 election shows how such calculations can be upset when preferences are directed across the presumed ideological divide.
With polling continuing to trend the Coalition’s way, a WikiLeaks-led leakage of even a small share of the vote from Left to Right in the two states in question could potentially make all the difference.