Liberals senate preference
(Image: AAP/Mick Tsikas)

A month on from the election, the second phase of Scott Morrison’s triumph is unfolding with the Australian Electoral Commission’s finalisation of the immensely complex Senate preference distributions.

The Coalition went into the election with 31 senators out of 76 and comes out with 35 — and may be about to go one better if there is anything behind suggestions that Cory Bernardi is set to rejoin the Liberal Party.

That would leave the government needing the support of only three crossbenchers to win contested votes. That could be achieved with the two votes of the Centre Alliance plus that of Jacqui Lambie, who is newly restored to the Senate after falling victim to the Section 44 imbroglio in late 2017. Lambie appears to be co-operating closely with the Centre Alliance, having long enjoyed a warm relationship with the party’s founder Nick Xenophon.

Such a voting bloc would relieve the Morrison government of the need to dirty its hands in dealing with One Nation — though it could certainly do that any time the Centre Alliance members felt inspired to take liberal positions on such issues as asylum seekers and expansion of the national security state.

The Coalition owes its strengthened position in large part to one legacy of the Turnbull era that even the most paleo of Liberal Party conservatives have no cause to bemoan: Senate electoral reform.

Under the old regime of group voting tickets, the rise of the micro-party vote was making it increasingly difficult for the Coalition to score three Senate seats out of six in any given state. This was because micro-party preference harvesting worked on the principle that one of them was likely to get lucky if they all favoured each other ahead of the established parties, without regard to their ideological outlook.

As a result, the Coalition needed to get close to three quotas (just shy of 43%) off their own bat to win three seats.

With preferences now scattering all around and large shares accruing to the major parties on name recognition alone, near enough is effectively good enough. This is a fact reflected in the Coalition’s success in winning three seats in every state except Tasmania, where they were elbowed aside by Lambie.

Under the old system, the Coalition would certainly have fallen short of a third seat in Victoria and likely also in South Australia, and it would have been touch and go for them in New South Wales. That would have meant a bigger crossbench, and probably an expanded presence for One Nation.

In theory Labor should also have an easier time winning three seats under the new system, but such was their miserable share of the vote — 33.4% nationally in the House, and just 28.8% in the Senate — that they didn’t come within a lion’s roar of doing so.

It was a particularly demoralising result for Labor in Queensland, where the injury of their election-losing performance in the lower house has been compounded by the insult of their unprecedented failure to win a second seat in the Senate.

However, it hasn’t been one-way traffic for the Coalition — so far as the Senate is concerned, Labor’s loss has partly been the Greens’ gain, reflecting a much better election for the party than has generally been recognised. Most of the commentary on the Greens’ performance has focused on their static share of the lower house vote and failure to fulfil exaggerated expectations for the long-shot seats of Kooyong, Higgins and Macnamara.

It has been scarcely acknowledged that their share of the national Senate vote rose from 8.65% to 10.19%, which had as much bearing as the electoral reforms on their success in winning a seat in each state — something they had only managed previously in the blowout that followed Labor’s blood-letting in 2010, and in the special circumstance of the 2016 double dissolution.

Rewarding as this may be though in terms of personnel, resources and morale, it doesn’t do much for their clout in a chamber where the left is more marginalised than it’s been since the Howard government secured a majority there in 2004.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
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