Mar 11, 2016

Predictions for the post-election Senate: more Team Xenophon, more Sex Party

Ultimately, the result of a double dissolution seems likely to deliver the electorate what it ordered ...

William Bowe — Editor of The Poll Bludger

William Bowe

Editor of The Poll Bludger

As talk of a July double dissolution grows louder with every passing week, the government has reached the stage where reverting to a later option will look dangerously like a loss of nerve. Appalled though some Liberals may be at the prospect of a campaign dragging through most of May and all of June, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull would do well to be mindful of what happened in Britain in 2007. After taking the reins from Tony Blair, Gordon Brown encouraged speculation that he would seek his own mandate through a snap election, only to baulk in the face of a slight dip in the polls -- which was followed by a collapse in public support from which Brown and his government never recovered. Certainly Turnbull would have a very hard time explaining why he might come to favour a later election that would leave in place the micro-party senators elected in 2013, given his recent rhetoric about the failures of the soon-to-be-reformed Senate electoral system. This raises the question of what the Senate might look like after a double dissolution, and how voters will behave under the unfamiliar new system. The uncomfortable fact of the matter is that no one knows for sure, and that many of the assumptions that are informing self-interested calculations on Senate reform could well prove to be misconceived. Nonetheless, past experience at federal, state and territory level does offer some very strong clues. There seems little doubt that the overwhelming majority of voters will number six boxes above the line, and no more; that few will deliberately avail themselves of a savings provision that allows for votes to remain in the count where fewer than six boxes are numbered, in defiance of the ballot paper instructions; and that below-the-line voting will remain an indulgence of political junkies, whose exercise of it will have little chance of changing results. Parties' efforts to corral preferences through how-to-vote cards will have a 40%-50% success rate in the case of the major parties and the Greens, who have the required base of volunteers to distribute the material at polling booths. However, the preference flows of micro-parties, which have been momentous in their rigidity under the group voting ticket system, are about to become a great deal more scattered. That being so, what chance is there that lucky micro-party candidates can harness enough preferences to get elected under the new system, as they were increasingly doing under the old? At a normal half-Senate election, the answer is probably "not all that much". But with 12 seats up for grabs in each state at a double dissolution, and the quota for election down from the usual 14.3% to 7.7%, it's far from clear that the new Senate configuration will be any less complex than the old. Despite wildly exaggerated talk of a potential Senate majority, the government's realistic hope will be for a manageable crossbench in which regional populists and religious conservatives can be played off against the hostile Labor-Greens bloc. They will be a long way towards achieving that end if Nick Xenophon's ticket wins three seats, as it will do if it repeats its feat from 2013 of scoring a quarter of the vote in South Australia. Beyond that, the government can hope for right-wing representation on the crossbench courtesy of the religious parties, of which the Australian Christians are strongest in New South Wales and Western Australia, while Family First prevails elsewhere. If the past behaviour of below-the-line preferences is anything to go by, these parties' votes will lock in solidly behind each other, and they will get a further fillip when Democratic Labour Party preferences are distributed. That leaves scope for a Coalition surplus to push one of them to victory, provided all the stars align. Generally speaking, micro-party politics skews to the right, since left-of-centre voters who oppose the two-party system are typically happy to opt for the Greens. However, life for the government could yet be made more complicated by a growing market for parties distinguished by their hostility to social conservatism, who are nonetheless uncomfortable with the Greens' big-government instincts. Perhaps the most underrated prospect is the Australian Sex Party, whose failure to win Senate seats under the old system seems to have encouraged a presumption that it won't do so under the new one either. However, the party did manage to win one seat, and very nearly two, under the unreformed system for Victoria's state upper house in 2014, and there is reason to expect that consciously directed preferences will play in its favour in the context of a double dissolution. At the 2013 federal election, the Sex Party was the strongest performer out of what might be identified as a "left-libertarian" bloc encompassing the Pirate Party, which represents an internet-age brand of social liberalism that has yielded electoral successes for sibling parties in Germany and Sweden; the long-established and self-explanatory Help End Marijuana Prohibition; and the now defunct WikiLeaks Party (it should be noted that these voters did not favour the Liberal Democratic Party, which seems to be struggling to convey the message that it is libertarian rather than conservative). Below-the-line preference trends suggest a good two-thirds of these votes should find their way to the Sex Party, given a half-way manageable ballot paper. Furthermore, the party's name appears to catch the eye of many supporters of weakly ideological parties from the Palmer United Party to the various shooting, fishing and outdoor recreation concerns, with only religious conservatives conspicuously shying away. In the particularly promising case of Victoria, the 2013 election result suggests this could all add up to nearly 5% of the vote -- well on the way to a quota, particularly if there is a substantial surplus after the last Labor and Greens Senators are elected. Ultimately, the result of a double dissolution seems likely to deliver the electorate what it ordered -- an eclectic mix between the Coalition and Labor-Greens blocs that recognises real tendencies within the electorate, in contrast to the perverse and arbitrary combinations thrown up by the old system. The real test of the system's capacity to represent anti-establishment sentiment will come later, when consecutive normal elections produce a chamber elected entirely under the formidable quota that applies at half-Senate elections.

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13 thoughts on “Predictions for the post-election Senate: more Team Xenophon, more Sex Party

  1. Norman Hanscombe

    Even among the tiny minority who understand proportional systems, until an election arises the extent to which predicting outcomes generally remains very much a guessing game; but it does help fill empty column spaces, doesn’t it.

  2. MJM

    We need to have an article on Xenophon’s voting record. I think he is a sheep in wolf’s clothing.

  3. Maureen Daly

    I intend to vote 1. Ricky Muir in the Senate vote. Prior to 2013, I could never have imagined myself doing such a thing. However, his conduct over the past two and a half years has impressed me, and I consider him a good representative of the people of Victoria. I would not like to have him disappear from the Senate.

  4. Liam Whelan

    As much as a I dislike Jacqui Lambie, the chances of her winning a seat in a DD election is better than 50%. Considering a 7.7% quota and the small amount of votes needed to fulfil that quota makes it relatively likely.

  5. Prefix

    Does anyone know what happens under OPV if more than more than 7.7% votes in a state exhaust before 12 candidates are elected?

  6. Norman Hanscombe

    Liam Whelan, in a Double Dissolution the quota is less than 7.7% which means the final seat can be won by someone with 3.85% of the votes cast. An important factor in determining which candidates are successful however is how the preferences run including the arrangements made re the various Tickets.
    It’s not improbable that there would be numerous candidates sitting there without quotas at a point where there are several seats yet to be filled. When that happens candidates are eliminated starting with whoever has the lowest vote, so it’s not possible at this early stage to be confident about what that might mean.
    Obviously it’s too early for us to say whether Lambie will be able to convince enough voters that she can do a good job for them. You and I may share some opinions about her suitability, but we probably won’t be eligible to cast votes.

  7. AR

    Poor Bill, he just can’t get his head around the 21stC and those damned Gen Wotevers, can he?
    If enough of the electorate understand the wonderful vorpal sword they’ve been given by Optional Preferential voting Below the Line then anybody who declaims doesn’t know.
    Of course, it may take another election or three but this change is the best thing since STV in the reps.
    MaureenD shows exactly this proclivity.

  8. CML

    @AR…great stuff, with which I thoroughly agree…now there’s a surprise!
    I’m just telling everyone I know…in the Senate, vote BTL and exclude all the dirty dealers…LNP/Greens/Xenophon. Simple!!

    @MJM…I live in SA, and your comment is spot on!
    Mr X has achieved bugg+r all since he has been in politics. That includes his time in the SA upper house and the Senate. He is supposed to be a ‘No Pokies’ advocate…at last count those pesky machines have INCREASED in SA over the past 10+years (and probably everywhere else).
    Xenophon is just an opportunist!!

  9. StefanL

    A related question is whether the quota will be recalculated as batches of votes exhaust ?

  10. Norman Hanscombe

    StefanL, when the half-baked 1971 Federal A.L.P. intervention into the NSW Branch occurred it included the introduction of proportional voting. At that time I tried repeatedly to warn them their system didn’t work and provided examples of how reducing quota amendments should be used. The ALP ‘experts’ ignored my warnings about their system not working but when they ended up with a shambles during the count for National Executive Delegates they called in the Proportional Society representatives to make unofficial arbitrary amendments to the count and a fair result ensued, although the losers for the final spot never accepted it and claimed there’d been a conspiracy.
    I talked to the Proportional Society representatives at the time, and they told me the suggestions I sent to the ALP Federal Executive re reducing quotas all worked well but unfortunately the problem was that very few people could understand what was involved.
    Little has changed since then, so no matter how good new systems may be, it’s difficult to succeed against the scare campaigns new proposals will face.

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