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Western Australia

Apr 7, 2014

Palmer, Greens win the West -- now Abbott must play ball

The major parties had an unprecedented 58% of the vote in a clear sign voters are looking for alternatives. The Greens, who outspent Labor and the Coalition, were big winners, as was Palmer United.

Saturday’s unprecedented Western Australian Senate election has finally settled the make-up of the chamber’s crossbench after July 1. But Prime Minister Tony Abbott might have a few more weeks to wait until he can be sure of the strength of his government’s hand.

Despite a collective slump in the major party vote, there is a strong possibility that the general thrust of the September election result will be confirmed, with three Liberals likely to be returned along with an uncertain assortment of Labor and minor party members.

However, it is still far from clear that the third Liberal candidate, Linda Reynolds, will indeed emerge victorious when the final votes are tallied; the alternative possibility being that Labor Senator Louise Pratt will scrape home on the back of an improved trend in postal, pre-poll and absent votes.

On the former scenario, the government would require six out of eight crossbench votes to pass legislation when Labor and the Greens lined up against it, and would be well on its way if it could win over a four-person Palmer United bloc that will include the newly elected Zhenya (or Dio) Wang and Victorian Senator Ricky Muir of the Motoring Enthusiasts Party.

Otherwise, the government will only be able to wear one dissenter out of Nick Xenophon, John Madigan of the DLP, Bob Day of Family First, David Leyonhjelm of the Liberal Democrats, and the PUP bloc (assuming the latter holds together).

A strong hand for the crossbench would seem a fitting outcome for an election that gave neither major party anything to crow about, with the Liberals down 5.5% on the September election to 33.7%, and Labor down 4.8% to a dismal 21.8%.

Worse still for the Liberals was that 2% had been freed up by a drop in support for the Nationals, who were down from a high of 5.1% in September when their candidate was former West Coast Eagles star David Wirrpanda.

Nonetheless, it’s Labor that has suffered the bigger embarrassment, as the swing comes off what was already the party’s worst WA Senate result since federation, and the Liberals at least have the excuse that governments usually do badly at byelections. By any standard, a combined major party vote of 58.1% is a remarkable result, given that the equivalent figure of 70.9% from September was without any precedent since the two-party system first coalesced in 1910.

The beneficiaries this time around were not the micro-parties, although their collective total of 13.3% was only slightly down on the September result of 14.5%, and their failure to yield a contender for a seat was mostly down to looser preference arrangements. Instead, the story of the night was the triumph of the Greens and Palmer United, whose candidates easily won election off respective gains of 6.7% and 7.4%.

Scott Ludlam sealed his reputation as one of the Greens’ star performers with a 16.2% share of the vote, marking the fourth occasion the party has secured a 14.3% quota off its own bat, after Bob Brown’s and Christine Milne’s wins in Tasmania in 2007 and 2010, and Richard di Natale’s in Victoria in 2010.

Ludlam’s clear win was a heartening reversal for the Greens after their recent form, although the real lesson to be drawn is that the ebbs and flows in their support are not to be over-analysed either by their champions or their detractors. The inflation of the Greens vote in 2010 mostly represented a negative response to Labor’s leadership disarray and abandonment of carbon pricing, while its weaker showing last year — interpreted by wishful thinkers on the Right as the first stage of a downward plunge to irrelevance — was merely a reversion to type, with perhaps some assistance from the loss of Brown’s personal vote.

The circumstance of a Senate-only election could hardly have been more favourable for the Greens, who had everything to fight for and were unusually well-placed to influence the agenda of a campaign that lacked the presidential aspect of a conventional federal election. As reported in The Sydney Morning Herald last week, advertising monitoring agency Ebuiqity estimated the party’s advertising spend at roughly equal to the combined total for Liberal and Labor, for whom the precise calibration of Senate numbers is a secondary concern.

No less important to the Greens was an energised base of largely tertiary-educated supporters with a high awareness of the election and its importance to the party. By contrast, Labor’s large constituencies of low-income and non-English speaking voters were presumably over-represented among the voters who failed to show up.

A mirror image of the Greens’ success was provided by Palmer United, who are assured of reaching a quota from their base vote of 12.5% (up from 5% in September) thanks to a 4.5% reserve in preferences from sources including HEMP, Shooters & Fishers and Family First. Even more so than the Greens, Clive Palmer was able to put his own stamp on the campaign agenda in lieu of a high profile by the major parties, in his case by promoting Palmer United as a vehicle for a vote against Canberra.

This is always a popular message in WA, and Palmer found an ideal catalyst for it in the state’s ever-dwindling share of GST revenue — together, of course, with the means to propagate it through a reported $477,000 ad spend that dwarfed that of all other parties combined.

A superficial reading of the result might be that Palmer United drew votes from the Coalition parties while the Greens did so from Labor. However, Labor’s research suggests the picture was more complicated, with Palmer United poaching votes in almost equal measure from each side of the major party fence.

In spite of the parlous Labor vote, it follows that some of the 7.5% lost to the Coalition parties resulted from a modest shift of votes from government to opposition, such as byelections typically produce.

Had WA been witness on Saturday to a mere House of Representatives byelection, in which minor parties would have had very little to play for, chances are the result wouldn’t have given electoral prognosticators much to discuss.

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19 comments

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19 thoughts on “Palmer, Greens win the West — now Abbott must play ball

  1. Raaraa

    The focus too often has been Lib vs Lab or Lab + Greens vs Coalition or even Lab + Greens vs Coalition + PUP.

    Realistically, it looks more like it’s Lib + Lab vs the others and there has been a significant downward trend for totals votes going for the Big 2 parties.

    To those who say that minor parties are irrelevant were dismissing the fact that most governments in the past have had to negotiate with crossbenches to get bills through.

  2. peterh_oz

    Multiple and strong second-tier parties is good for our democracy, although the vested interest and bankrolling of PUP worries me. But any reduction in the dupoply is a bonus. If only the House of Reps had the same/similar system as in the Senate (ie proportional representation, such as in NZ), we might see some actual democracy and real debate there too.

  3. John Anderson

    The Senate preference voting ticket for HEMP shows Labor being preferenced before PUP. Then the Greens. HEMP’s 1% will therefore flow to Labor’s Pratt, not PUP. One small hope for Labor is that if PUP’s primary vote falls from 12.49% to say under 12% once pre-polls et al are counted, then the PUP will have to swallow up even more micro party preferences to get a quota. It means fewer right-of-centre micro party preferences would flow to the LIBs who will need every preference it can get to gain three quotas.

  4. William Bowe

    You are quite correct, John. Apologies – scratch HEMP from my list of PUP preference feeders.

  5. zut alors

    ‘…the PUP bloc (assuming the latter holds together).’

    That’s a big assumption.

    I imagine Palmer’s finger puppets will behave themselves initially but, once they breathe the air in Canberra, we should not be surprised by any fallouts. Can’t wait to see Clive’s face when he eventually realises he can’t simply sack anyone who refuses to toe the line.

  6. John Ryan

    West Australians are going to find out what voting for a Carpetbagger really means,Palmer is the ultimate Carpetbagger
    and the mugs fell for it hook line and sinker.
    WA voters will live to regret this

  7. The Pav

    It will be interesting to see how honest the PUP is using the defintion that an honest politician is one who when bought stays bought because Abbott will be totally reckless in the political bribes that he offers to obtain PUP votes.

    His problem is that Palmer will out negotiate Abbott by the length of the straight and the cost will be horrendous

  8. Elvis

    An extraordinary result for PUP senator-elect Wang. An engineer born and educated in China, he arrived in Australia in 2003 and became an Australian citizen in 2009. I wish him all the very best, and hope Clive treats him decently.
    Wang has some sensible views on the environment (e.g. renewable energy) but how can Wang possibly express an equal opinion in the party room when Clive had him elected off his own money and personality?

  9. Tyger Tyger

    It’s been entertaining reading LNP and ALP supporters go after each other on various blogs following this result:
    “You’re the loser!”
    “No, you’re the loser!”
    I agree!
    And the report in The Age today of union and faction heavyweight Bill Shorten saying Labor had to reform to be relevant. Reform what exactly, Bill? The disproportionate influence of union and faction heavyweights?

  10. CML

    Who cares about the morons in WA? This was a Senate byelection ONLY, and even if the low Labor vote is repeated at the next federal election, it will make virtually no difference to the final outcome. Federal elections are won and lost largely in NSW and Vic.
    The voters in WA were li+d to by Palmer, about the GST, and they lapped it up like the fools they are. Palmer cannot and never will influence the GST state split, and WA has to learn to live with the fact that they have more than their fair share of mining riches. What they conveniently forget over there, is that the other states topped up their finances in WA for over 100 years, until the mineral deposits were discovered. And today, they want more, more, more – just like the selfish bast+rds they are.
    So – when you have dug up all the riches over there, and squandered the profits, you will be back for more of other states money. Change your ways, or it may not happen!