Jacqui Lambie and Nick Xenophon

The final confirmation of Senate election results extended Malcolm Turnbull’s run of bad luck in late counting, with lineball outcomes failing to land the way he would have wanted in Western Australia and Queensland.

In Western Australia, the 12th seat came down to a tussle between the Nationals, who could potentially have given the Coalition a sixth member to supplement the state’s five elected Liberals, and the Greens, who had been sweating on the fate of one of their two incumbents, Rachel Siewert.

In the event, Siewert pulled away on the primary vote in late counting, and the flow of preferences to the Nationals was well short of what was needed to turn things around.

The result in Queensland, which, together with the more predictable result in New South Wales, was finalised yesterday morning, was always going to deliver a third seat to a minor party, to go with those won by Pauline Hanson and Larissa Waters of the Greens.

However, it was almost impossible to discern which minor party that would be, and how pleasing the outcome might look from the government’s perspective.

The Liberal Democratic Party had the front running on the primary vote, and seemed a good chance of gaining a second Senator to join David Leyonhjelm in New South Wales — something the government could have learned to live with, despite Leyonhjelm’s ongoing displeasure over the Senate electoral reforms.

[Poll Bludger: how did the pollsters do?]

There also seemed some order of possibility that the seat might go to Family First, the Nick Xenophon Team or Katter’s Australian Party, any of which would have been deemed far preferable to the only remaining alternative.

However, the alternative is what they have got: Malcolm Roberts, elected on Pauline Hanson’s coat-tails from the second position on the One Nation ticket.

For as long as One Nation remains a cohesive unit — a period that could be over in a matter of months, if history is any guide — Malcolm Turnbull will have to deal with an irascible four-vote bloc representing a brand of economic populism starkly at odds with the philosophy of himself and his government.

Should the party disintegrate, having to deal with the wildly eccentric Roberts on his own terms would hardly constitute an improvement.

For better or worse, the government at least knows where it stands now, with a Senate consisting of 30 members from the Coalition, 26 from Labor, and no fewer than 20 on what would once have been called the crossbench — a designation that is increasingly taken to exclude the Greens, such are the changing parameters of what constitutes the political establishment.

The Greens are down from 10 seats to nine — the best result they could have hoped for going into the election, achieved by the grace of close calls in Western Australia and Tasmania — with the remainder consisting of four seats for One Nation, three for the Nick Xenophon Team, and one each from the Liberal Democrats and Family First, plus Jacqui Lambie and Derryn Hinch.

However, the story of the composition of the Senate doesn’t end with the election.

Since this was a double dissolution, it is now necessary to get the wheels turning again on the Senate’s system of staggered terms, by deciding which Senators get full six-year terms and which have to face the people again when the next half-Senate election falls due no later than mid-2019.

The constitution says this is a matter for the Senate itself, which has always dealt with it by reference to the order of election in the Senate count.

This sounds reasonable in theory, and indeed worked perfectly well under the crude electoral system that prevailed before 1949.

But thanks to the intricacies of proportional representation, it can lead to serious distortions — as illustrated in a scenario devised by ABC election analyst Antony Green, in which the Greens and the Coalition score two long-term senators each despite the former receiving barely more than a third of the vote of the latter.

For this reason, the Hawke government brought in section 282 of the Electoral Act, which directs the AEC to conduct a second Senate count involving only the 12 candidates who were elected.

This is held according to the same formulas used at a regular half-Senate election for six seats, and provides a rational basis for allocating long-term and short-term seats by producing six winners and six losers.

However, the Electoral Act merely says that the count is to be conducted, and in no way commits the Senate to honouring the result.

And sure enough, following the election in 1987 — the only previous occasion when a double dissolution has been held since section 282 was brought in in 1983 — Labor together with the Australian Democrats, which then held the balance of power, made an entirely self-interested decision to stick with the order-of-election method.

[Poll Bludger: Turnbull won seats that Abbott never would]

The numbers for a section 282 count at this election have been crunched by Perth-based data wonk Grahame Bowland, who has also done us the service of double-checking the main Senate counts to ensure the AEC’s top-secret software spat out the right winners.

In the cases of the four smaller states, the results are identical regardless of whether the order-of-election or section 282 method is used.

Pauline Hanson, Jacqui Lambie and two of the three Nick Xenophon Team senators polled well enough to earn six-year terms either way, whereas the luckier small-party winners, including Bob Day of Family First, the third Nick Xenophon Team senator and the three One Nation winners other than Pauline Hanson, will have to make do with three years.

But in Victoria, the two methods mean the difference between a three-year term and a six-year term for Derryn Hinch, who will lose out to Liberal Senator Scott Ryan if the Senate acts as it did in 1987.

And in New South Wales, a section 282 count would give Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon a long-term seat at the expense of Labor’s Deborah O’Neill, whereas the order-of-election method would divide the six long-term seats evenly between the major parties.

It’s all too easy to imagine that Labor and the Coalition, who are united in their alarm at the new reality of a permanently sprawling Senate crossbench, might look past their differences to ensure that O’Neill and Ryan do the honours ahead of Rhiannon and Hinch.

This would have the very substantial effect of leaving two fewer senators on the crossbench after the next election (since we can take it for granted that the government is not about to repeat its double dissolution error in a hurry).

If that is indeed how things pan out, it will be interesting to see what rationalisation the major parties offer to account for the move.

What’s not in doubt is that a rationalisation is all it will be.

*To read more from Crikey‘s William Bowe, visit The Poll Bludger

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey