Left-of-centre politics dodged a bullet yesterday when Tasmania became the first state to have its Senate election result finalised.
With the fate of the last seat down to unknowable preference flows and the order of exclusion of the candidates near the end of the count, it was not until the button was pressed at the Australian Electoral Commission’s Hobart office that the final result could be any more than guessed at.
What transpired was the election of Greens incumbent Nick McKim, who joins party colleague Peter Whish-Wilson in a Tasmanian Senate contingent rounded out by five from Labor, four Liberals and Jacqui Lambie.
McKim’s survival came down to a margin of just 141 votes separating him from the alternative possibility — a fourth seat for Pauline Hanson’s One Nation.
The result is an enormous relief to a party that went into the election with 10 senators and high hopes for building on its single seat in the House of Representatives.
Instead, even the most promising of its lower house challenges fell short, and it emerged from election night certain only of one candidate being elected in each state, with varying probabilities of second seats in Victoria, Western Australia and Tasmania.
The result in Tasmania was also notable for the achievement of Labor incumbent Lisa Singh in winning the 10th seat despite being relegated to sixth place on Labor’s ticket, surpassing her fourth-placed colleague Catryna Bilyk, who won the 11th seat, and fifth-placed John Short, who was excluded altogether.
This marked the first time a Senate candidate had won election outside the order of their party ticket since shortly after proportional representation was introduced to the Senate in 1949.
As much as the ongoing expansion of the non-major party vote, Singh’s victory represents an unprecedented rebuff to the major party machines, which was echoed on the other side of the political fence by the strong below-the-line vote for the fifth-placed Liberal, Senator Richard Colbeck.
Despite being the only Tasmanian Liberal of ministerial rank, Colbeck was reduced to a lowly position by an Eric Abetz-dominated state branch unwilling to countenance the sole Malcolm Turnbull supporter among their seven-man federal parliamentary team (gender identification used advisedly) — now down to a four-man parliamentary team, following an election result that has singularly failed to evince any introspection on Abetz’s part.
To a large extent, Singh’s victory and Colbeck’s near miss reflect the fact that Tasmania plays to its own rhythms so far as Senate elections are concerned.
The Hare-Clark system at state level, encompassing rotating orders of candidates on ballot papers and excluding an above-the-line option, means voters are uniquely familiar with choosing from multiple nominees of the same party.
Nonetheless, the AEC’s publication of the full preference orders for all 339,159 votes cast offers the best insight yet available into how voters responded when instructed, for the first time, to choose at least six parties.
Particularly striking is the failure of voters to have followed how-to-vote cards, even in the case of the major parties who had the base of volunteers needed to disseminate them.
Again, this partially reflects Tasmania’s unusual experience at state level, where how-to-vote cards are banned at polling places on election day.
Even so, it’s surprising to observe that fewer than one-in-10 Liberal voters chose to be guided by the party’s card — which, remarkably, recommended a sixth preference for Labor — while the share of Labor voters that did so barely even registered.
It should not be presumed, however, that voters reluctant to toe the party line instead gave expression to finely calibrated rational choices.
Ballot paper ordering had a substantial influence on preferences, leading to a kind of “soft” donkey voting, in which those who find their favoured party near the front end of the ballot paper tended to remain there when allocating subsequent preferences.
Nowhere was this more evident than with the first two parties listed, Family First and Labor.
Despite their lack of ideological affinity, Labor received more preferences from Family First than any other party, while Family First was the fifth most favoured preference destination for Labor out of 20, and received three times more Labor preferences than the Christian Democratic Party.
With this peculiarity aside, preference flows were generally fairly chaotic — particularly from the disparate mass of micro-parties, whose preferences stand to be passed on at full value when they are excluded from the count.
This is particularly good news for the Liberal Democratic Party, whose candidates in New South Wales and Queensland — incumbent David Leyonhjelm and prospective newcomer Gabe Buckley — have more primary votes and better positions on the ballot paper than any who might conceivably win the 12th seats at their expense.
Conversely, Family First’s Senator from South Australia, Bob Day, will need the state’s Liberal voters to be a lot more faithful to the how-to-vote card than those in Tasmania if he is to pull off a potential victory at the expense of Labor’s fourth candidate, Anne McEwen.
In Victoria, the only threat to a second seat for the Greens, or a fifth for the Coalition, is an extraordinarily strong flow of preferences to One Nation. While One Nation did well on preferences from rival populist parties in Tasmania, that market in Victoria was largely cornered by Derryn Hinch, who will use up all his votes getting himself elected and have no preferences to spare.
There is little in the Tasmanian result to offer guidance on the other big nail-biter for the Greens — Western Australia, where Rachel Siewert will need to fend off the Nationals if she is to join her colleague Scott Ludlam in returning to the Senate.
There as in Tasmania, everything looks set to boil down to a single moment of high drama in the unassuming surroundings of a state office of the AEC.
*To read more from Crikey‘s William Bowe, visit The Poll Bludger