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With the Coalition’s victory long a foregone conclusion, election watchers were taking solace in the possibility of extraordinary results in the Senate.

As indicated by the projections reached by Antony Green’s Senate calculators, any such expectations were handsomely exceeded.

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With the vote tallies so far distributed according to the only slightly inaccurate assumption that all votes can be treated as above-the-line, the Palmer United Party has won seats in Queensland and Tasmania, and may yet score a third in Western Australia; the Liberal Democratic Party has had a clear win in New South Wales, having apparently been the beneficiary of mistaken identity and a fortuitous draw on the grotesquely large ballot paper; the Family First has bagged its second ever Senate seat in South Australia, which has also emphatically returned Nick Xenophon; and — most alarmingly of all for those who believe election results should have something to do with the wishes of voters — seats are likely to be won by the insignificant Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party and Australian Sports Party in Victoria and Western Australia.

In short, the result is the fruit of an electoral system crying out for reform, for which both major parties have bewilderingly lacked an appetite.

Going into the election, a conservative reading of the situation was that Labor and the Greens, having collectively won four seats in Tasmania and three in every other state in 2010, would retain full Senate control by winning three seats in every state this time, or a blocking majority by dropping to two seats in one state. A failure to win a third seat in two seats would provide an Abbott government with the opportunity to pass legislation by working with crossbenchers more sympathetic than the Greens.

As it turned out, a conservative reading of the situation was entirely off the map, with Labor and the Greens falling short of three seats in all states bar Victoria and Tasmania, and Labor likely to fall short of a second seat in Western Australia and South Australia — something without precedent since the introduction of proportional representation in 1949.

Behind this phenomenon was an explosion in the vote for parties other than Labor, the Coalition and the Greens to 23.7% off an already historically high base of 13.1% in 2010, leaving about 1.65 loose quotas in the count per state.

The biggest contributor was of course the Palmer United Party, which tellingly enjoyed its surge in the late-campaign period when the least engaged section of the electorate makes its vote choice, and which was cleverly targeted with a massive campaign of television advertising.

“Most of these parties are genuine concerns, but some are merely fronts devised to scoop up lazy votes with catchy names that appeal to at least a segment of the voting population.”

However, the national 5.1% vote for the PUP still left 18.6% of the national vote spare for the plethora of minor concerns that filled out the bloated ballot papers, none of which polled higher than 3.9% (that being the Liberal Democratic Party, which we’ll be hearing a lot more about for one reason or another).

Given the immense challenge involved in numbering every box below the line, most of these voters were signing on to the preference order allocated by their chosen party, oblivious though most of them may have been as to what this meant for the practical effect of their vote.

Since these “micro-parties” tend to define themselves in opposition to establishment politics, they have a philosophical as well as a tactical inclination to favour each other in their preference allocations.

Newcomer parties that are not alert to the opportunities the Senate electoral system provides are quickly educated by preference harvesters, enthusiastic practitioners of the game, including the principals behind the Liberal Democratic Party, who offer to enlist them in mutual arrangements involving large numbers of parties.

Most of these parties are genuine concerns, but some are merely fronts devised to scoop up lazy votes with catchy names that appeal to at least a segment of the voting population.

A further advantage given to micro-party candidates by full compulsory preferences is that major parties routinely put them ahead of their main enemies, with only the occasional exception for One Nation and, in the conservatives’ case, the Greens. The surpluses left to these parties after the election of their final candidates often ends up with the dominant micro-party.

The paths to victory for the various minor candidates are detailed in turn …New South Wales

David Leyonhjelm of the Liberal Democratic Party is currently on 8.9% of the statewide vote, which is almost certainly an accidental consequence of his party being the first listed on the huge ballot paper, and hence the first most voters encountered with the word “Liberal” in its name. The party also receives the preferences of the Democratic Labour Party, which is on a not insubstantial 1.5%. The DLP too did handily on the ballot paper draw, securing the third position out of 44 groups, and similarly owes some of its vote to those who thought they were voting for the other Labor party. A further 0.4% was funnelled to the party by the snappily named Stop the Greens, Smokers Rights and Australian Republicans, whose links to the LDP have been reviewed by Crikey’s Andrew Crook. Other micro-parties feeding Leyonhjelm preferences, either due to their general hostility to larger parties or because they hoped to be the ultimate beneficiary of the preference network, include Katter’s Australian Party, Shooters & Fishers, the Fishing & Lifestyle Party, the Christian Democatic Party, One Nation, the S-x Party, WikiLeaks, the Animal Justice Party, HEMP and the Drug Law Reform Party and the Stable Population Party. Not too many of these parties’ supporters would have cast their vote with the intention of electing a party that trades in Ron Paul-style low-tax libertarianism. When combined, Leyonhjelm emerges with a 14.3% quota with at least 4% to spare, and no need for any surplus from the major parties.

Victoria

Despite picking up a swing in Victoria, the Coalition has for the second election running failed to achieve a Senate vote sufficient to ensure a third seat. Last time the third “Right” seat went to the Democratic Labor Party. However, the DLP’s vote in Victoria was well down this time, mostly no doubt due to the proliferation of competition. Based on Antony Green’s calculator, Ricky Muir of the Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party stands to win the final spot, simply because the Coalition doesn’t have three quotas in its own right and very few parties are favouring it ahead of Muir, who fortuitously outperformed other micro-party candidates due to the way preferences were allocated. As far as I can see, the most likely scenario to thwart Muir involves him falling behind Australian Christians and the Australian Fishing and Lifestyle Party at a point where one of three must be excluded, though this would be easier to envision if Muir had to fall below two candidates rather than just one. If he does fall short, it appears that the last micro-party standing would be Family First, who would not match Muir’s preference firepower owing to the S-x Party (polling close to 2%), putting the Christian parties last. The upshot would be that Liberal incumbent Helen Kroger could get up after all, leaving the Abbott government with one fewer crossbencher to worry about.

Queensland

Here at least the result is both straightforward, with the Liberal National Party winning three seats, Labor two and the other going to Glenn Lazarus of the Palmer United Party, and inoffensive on a democratic level, since: a) Lazarus’s 10.3% of the vote is near enough to a full quota in his own right; and b) people were clearly voting for him on purpose.

Western Australia

Together with the Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party in Victoria, the other freak result being projected is that someone called Wayne Dropulich from something called the Australian Sports Party is projected to win off 0.22% of the primary vote. However, there are two points in the projected count where Dropulich narrowly escapes exclusion after finishing slightly ahead of the No Carbon Tax and Rise Up Australia parties. Those hurdles cleared, he harvests almost the entirety of the micro-party vote, along with the Liberal Party surplus. If he drops out, it looks like another seat would be in the bag for the Palmer United Party, whose candidate is the little-known Zhenya Wang. The other point at issue is whether the second “Left” seat goes to Labor’s number two candidate, incumbent Louise Pratt, or Greens Senator Scott Ludlam. If Wang drops out, Ludlam looks the certain winner as he stands to receive the Palmer party’s preferences. But if the Palmer candidate is elected and has no preferences to spare, the result between Ludlam and Pratt at the final count becomes very close, though with Ludlam still appearing better placed.

South Australia

Another of the many extraordinary results was that Nick Xenophon outpolled the Labor Party in South Australia, by 25.88% to 22.78%, and finished only slightly behind the Liberal Party on 26.69%. That looks certain to limit Labor to one seat, Don Farrell’s act of altruism in conceding the top position on the ticket to Penny Wong appearing more consequential than he probably realised at the time. That leaves a decisive Labor surplus to pass on to Sarah Hanson-Young, who had wrongly been written off by many who failed to consider the possibility of Xenophon sucking up enough votes to reduce Labor to one seat. Xenophon could probably have won a seat for his running mate if he had been more ready to engage in preference deals, but very few of the minor players have favoured his running mate over Liberal incumbent Simon Birmingham. The remaining seat looks set to go to Family First, whose candidate is housing tycoon and one-time Liberal candidate Bob Day. Day polled a strong 3.77%, and the only potential roadblock on his path to victory is that he finishes only slightly ahead of the Liberal Democrats at the point where they are excluded. South Australia’s six Senate seats thus look set to be divided between five different parties.

Tasmania

Labor and the Greens have won over three quotas between them, securing two seats for Labor plus the re-election of Greens Senator Peter Whish-Wilson, despite a headlong plunge in the Greens’ statewide vote from the historic high of 2010. On the right, the Liberals have won their obligatory two seats, but the last is a close-run thing between the third Liberal, Palmer United Party candidate Jacqui Lambie (who unsuccessfully contested Liberal preselection for Braddon) and Clinton Mead of the Liberal Democrats. All three are between 9% and 10% at the second last exclusion, Mead having preference-harvested off a base of 2.29%, Lambie having received the Labor and Greens surplus, and the Australian Christians and Rise Up Australia feeding preferences to third Liberal candidate Sally Chandler. The high rate of below-the-line voting makes this particularly hard to pick.

The territories

The territories have never failed to deliver one seat each to the major parties, but Greens candidate Simon Sheikh has at the very least come extremely close to knocking off Liberal candidate Zed Seselja, the former ACT opposition leader making a bid for federal parliament after knocking off incumbent Gary Humphries for preselection. In the Northern Territory, there was talk that Nova Peris’ path to the Senate might be blocked by the tightness of preference flows to the indigenous rights party First Nations, but their vote was too low to put them in contention.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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