Questions are being asked about the transparency of the Australian Electoral Commission, with the AEC refusing to open its vote-counting software to public scrutiny. Does the AEC have a reason to be so secretive?
Not long after the missing ballots fiasco during last year’s Western Australian Senate election delivered a hammer blow to the Australian Electoral Commission’s public credibility, new questions are emerging as to whether further errors have been leading to botched results in other counts. The answer to such questions, it so happens, is very clearly no. But it’s more than a little curious in the current environment that the AEC should be behaving in such a way as to give reasonable people cause to ask them.
The issue arises from the software the AEC uses to conduct its monstrously intricate Senate counts, a process spanning hundreds of phases through which candidates are progressively elected and excluded and their preferences distributed at varying values.
Details that must be accounted for along the way include the exclusion of small numbers of votes where minor errors are made in numbering of below-the-line preferences, and a peculiarity in the handling of rounding, which can cause fractions of votes to disappear and then re-emerge later in the count.
Contentiously, this is conducted using what the AEC calls its “proprietary software”, EasyCount — which, unlike similar software used by electoral agencies in Victoria and the Australian Capital Territory, is hidden from public view.
Among those unhappy with this state of affairs are Hobart lawyer Michael Cordover, who sought access to the source code through a freedom of information application shortly after last year’s election. This was refused by the AEC with reference to exemptions that apply to material that would compromise trade secrets or diminish the commercial value of the disclosed information.
After a request for a review of the determination and some related email correspondence, the AEC has told Cordover it will seek to have him declared vexatious on the grounds that he plans to “harass” the commission with further applications. By way of contrast, Guardian Australia notes that it took 750 FoI requests before the Department of Climate Change took similar action in 2011 against Tim Wilson, then the Institute of Public Affairs’ director of climate change policy.
The reason this is a sensitive matter for the AEC is that it has a profitable sideline in providing “fee-for-service” elections to civic and corporate groups, in which it uses software adapted from EasyCount. In this it faces competition from commercial operators, as well as the state and territory electoral agencies.
However, the AEC’s remarkable heavy-handedness in dealing with Cordover has inevitably given rise to more fevered speculation as to what it might be trying to hide.
Putting some meat on these bones is the precedent established by the open-source software used for the Australian Capital Territory’s comparably more complex Hare-Clark elections. When the Australian National University’s Logic and Computation Group put this under the microscope, it was able to identify three bugs that had been in place during the counting of votes on five occasions going back to 2001, albeit that none were decisive with respect to the result.
According to two academic authorities on electronic vote counting, Rajeev Gore of the ANU and Vanessa Teague of the University of Melbourne, this demonstrates that quality assurance of the kind the AEC has relied on with respect to EasyCount is “meaningless”, and that it is “probable” that making it open source would lead to the detection of similar errors.
With all that said, the potential for democracy to be derailed by flaws in the AEC’s secret software needs to be kept in perspective.
The precise mechanism the AEC uses to count the Senate vote may be under wraps, but its publication of the data file containing the preference order of all below-the-line votes makes it possible to conduct a count independently and verify it against the official result.
Following the contested 2013 result in Western Australia, Perth-based coding enthusiast Grahame Bowland did just that, and was able to report that his result was precisely identical to the AEC’s.
Even so, what the AEC desperately needs right now is to restore the public’s confidence in the procedures through which it discharges the most vital of its functions.
Displaying acute sensitivity towards individuals showing a very healthy concern with the transparency of its processes seems a funny way of going about it.
May 28, 2014
The Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet has been pinged uploading partisan material in potential breach of the Electoral Act, Labor's John Faulkner has found.
A website run by the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet has been hosting Liberal advertising election material that appears to breach the Commonwealth Electoral Act, in an apparent violation of the government’s own rules for partisan material.
The possible breach of both internal government guidelines and electoral laws was uncovered by Labor Senator John Faulkner yesterday in estimates hearings of the Finance and Public Administration committee.
The government’s Guidelines for Ministerial and Agency Websites warns agencies that:
“Agency-funded websites should not contain material of a party political nature, although individual judgement will be required. For example, a minister’s explanation and defence of government policy might draw distinctions between Government and Opposition policies. Such material may be placed on a ministerial website funded by an agency. However, material that relates solely to party political issues or that could be categorised as ‘how to vote’ material may not be placed on an agency-funded site.”
As PM&C officials explained to Faulkner yesterday, the department pays for and administers the prime minister’s website, pm.gov.au. That site contains prime ministerial media releases, videos, transcripts and speeches — all, self-evidently, of a highly political nature, but all within the guideline given it is a ministerial website of the kind all public service departments run for ministers.
However, on April 30, a page “A Message from the Prime Minister — WA Senate Election” was added to the site, which was a simple exhortation to WA voters to vote Liberal.
“Only a vote for the Liberal Party will deliver a team that will stand-up and deliver a better deal for Western Australia,” the page concludes.
The page appears blatantly in breach of the Department Finance’s guidelines given the material is not a transcript or speech, but simple election material.
Worse, it appears to breach section 328A of the Commonwealth Electoral Act, which makes it an offence if an online electoral advertisement is published and “the name and address of the person who authorised the advertisement do not appear at the end of the advertisement”. There’s no authorisation material anywhere on the page.
PM&C were unable to explain how the material complied with either the government’s own guidelines or the Electoral Act, and said no checking had been done on the content — they simply uploaded whatever material was provided by the Prime Minister’s Office. They would, they assured Faulkner, take his questions on notice, meaning the issue would not be resolved for several months until answers from this session of estimates are provided — usually just ahead of the next estimates session.
There seems to be a potential disconnect between the political media and the punters brewing if the last couple of weeks are anything to go by. While Prime Minister Tony Abbott was being applauded widely as having had the best period of his prime ministership so far following the North Asia visit and trade deals, the punters were giving the government a big slap in the latest polling, despite a pretty awful couple of weeks for Labor.
Are we actually paying close attention and are not too thrilled about the very partisan nature of the trade wins in Japan? Or are people so disengaged from politics that there will be wild swings in polls for some time to come as they answer more based on how their day went than what they might actually think about federal politics? With swinging voters making up most of the electorate these days, it’s awfully hard to tell.
Is the government’s poor polling more to do with the continuing tough budget talk from Treasurer Joe Hockey, who spent most of this week talking about a potential retirement age of 70? Some of the press gallery again thought this may not be too politically crazy a move, with baby boomers safe from any such changes and speculation that those who actually will be affected aren’t paying much attention. Another tough week for Queensland Premier Campbell Newman, as he got caught up in the ICAC investigation into Australian Water Holdings, copped a bad opinion poll of his own and continued to fight the judiciary, but his jump in the list had as much to do with Cyclone Ita as his various legal spats. It was a bad week for NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell, also starring in ICAC coverage, specifically an argument about a bottle of Grange.
Crikey Political Index: April 10-16
It seems talkback callers were definitely paying attention to Joe Hockey’s retirement age speculation, even if it won’t affect most of them.
Talkback top five
And the generally younger folk on social media sprang into action as well, many not thrilled at all about not just the retirement age discussion, but also floated budget cuts to the ABC, while potential WA Senator Joe Bullock continued to cop more than a few brickbats.
Social media top five
Now that he’s no longer a politician, we can cheat a bit and put former foreign minister Bob Carr in the comparison. Some might say he was always more PT Barnum than Thomas Jefferson, the stentorian voice hiding the shallowness underneath.
Comparison of media mentions
Apr 14, 2014
There's been plenty of talk on the system of preferential voting in the wake of the Western Australian election rerun. But mathematics masters student Casey Briggs says we should focus on the method of counting itself.
There’s been an awful lot of attention on the Australian Electoral Commission lately. In the wake of entirely unknown candidates getting catapulted into the Senate, Parliament’s Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters is currently conducting an inquiry into the conduct of the 2013 election, and every man and his dog has an opinion on what needs to change.
So far most of the attention has been on the method of voting, with a shift to optional preferential voting and getting rid of group voting tickets amongst the popular ideas. But there’s one thing that’s not getting much attention: the method by which Senate votes are actually counted.
As William Bowe pointed out last week in his analysis of Western Australian Senate results, the transfer value of HEMP votes depends on how early in the count the Palmer United Party is declared elected. On current projections, it is HEMP preferences that push PUP over a quota and get the party elected. When this happens, all votes that sit with PUP are transferred to the next highest preferenced candidate, at a greatly reduced transfer value.
However, if PUP were to collect enough votes to fill a quota and get elected before HEMP is eliminated, then the HEMP votes transfer to Labor at full value. This entirely arbitrary line could mean a difference in the margin between the Liberals and Labor by as much as 3000 votes — possibly enough to change the result.
This weird abnormality comes about because of the way preferences are transferred. When a candidate reaches a quota and is elected, all of that candidate’s votes are transferred at a lower value to the candidate who has the next highest preference on each vote. The transfer value is calculated based on the number of votes by which the candidate exceeded the quota.
Once that transfer has been done, the rest of the count proceeds as though the elected candidate never existed. If a vote is transferred later that happens to preference the elected candidate, the vote simply jumps over that candidate and on to the candidate with the next highest preference, with no change in value.
The fact that votes can have different values based arbitrarily on whether or not they happen to be sitting with a candidate when they are elected runs counter to our idea that all votes should be treated equally and have the same weight.
There are a few methods that treat individual votes more equitably, and often these work by continually reiterating the count of the election. One such method is the Wright system, first proposed by programmer Anthony van der Craats in 2008.
Under the Wright system, when a candidate is elected their surplus is transferred in exactly the same way as is currently the case. However every time a candidate is excluded, the count is reset and restarted as though that candidate had never stood in the first place, with all votes for the excluded candidate transferred to the remaining candidates according to their preferences. The result of this is that every vote has proportionally equal weight.
In the context of the WA Senate count, it means that regardless of when HEMP is eliminated, all votes that preference PUP get transferred at the same value when PUP is elected.
Obviously this would be a laborious count to do by hand, but it can be automatically counted using software quickly. Given that the AEC already enters all Senate votes into a software system to perform the final count anyway, adopting this system would mean no extra work or change to AEC processes.
Additionally, if this system were adopted in isolation it would mean that voters do not need to change the way they fill out their ballots, and confusion around changes in the voting system can be avoided.
Alternate counting methods do not relate to the controversial success of micro-parties in the last federal election. Nonetheless, any review of the electoral system that seeks to tackle these issues ought to seriously consider alternate, fairer, counting systems as well.
Perhaps the right way for the Senate is the Wright way.
From the Crikey grapevine, the latest tips and rumours …
Questions about Sir Obeid. Our eye was caught by this snippet in the coverage of Eddie Obeid’s appearance before ICAC yesterday:
“Giving evidence today, Mr Obeid, who was wearing his Order Of Australia medal, said he did not know his youngest son, Eddie Junior, worked for …”
There are various references on the net to Obeid wearing his medal, all sheeted home to an ABC report (the report itself now contains no reference to said medal). Obeid, of course, has been found to have acted corruptly by ICAC in relation to the granting of coal exploration licences (ICAC referred the matter to the DPP, and the ALP cancelled Obeid’s membership). Now, given that “appointments to the Order of Australia confer the highest recognition for outstanding achievement and service”, should Obeid be stripped of his medal?
Here’s his citation:
To be fair, ICAC found Obeid certainly had contributed to ethnic welfare (namely, his own). Last July the SMH reported that Obeid could lose his Order of Australia; the Governor-General can cancel it if a tribunal “made a finding that is adverse to the holder of the appointment or award” or a person were convicted of a crime. We’ve asked Sir Peter, via Government House, if he’ll take Obeid’s award away. Stay tuned.
Lean times at AAP. We’re hearing grumbles from some of the hardest-working journalists in the country, those at Australian Associated Press (AAP). More than 200 journos work there, pumping out reams of copy for the web and the papers. AAP cut 23 staff last June and about 12 the year before, so like everywhere in the media, times are tough. Now we’ve seen what the company is offering staff — via head honcho Tony Gillies (hubby of television presenter Kylie Gillies) — under current EBA negotiations. Here are some key points from Gillies’ memo dated April 4:
- ” … we tabled base salary increases of CPI less 0.5%, which is inclusive of any increases to superannuation legislation for the term of the agreement”.
- create a new grading, 5B (i.e. you can promote a grade 5 journalist without having to pay a grade 6 wage)
- remove “banding quotas” (a requirement that a certain proportion of staff be at a certain level, to avoid bunching staff on lower gradings)
- cap automatic progression through the grades at grade 2; and
- halve notice periods.
Wow. So that would effectively be a pay cut. And watch for that final point. At AAP, when staff are made redundant, it’s effective immediately and the company pays out the notice period — so that change could mean significantly lower redundo payments.
“Several journos are in shock with what the company has offered … Just thought Crikey would be interested in what Gillies is offering at the salt mines of Oz journalism,” our mole told us. Mind you, this isn’t over yet, and the company may budge over time.
Labor Senator in trouble. As the count continues from Saturday’s WA Senate rerun, there’s bad news for Labor Senator Louise Pratt, who’s battling it out for the last seat with a Liberal candidate. Pratt is the articulate, hard-working sitting MP who was bumped from one to two on the ALP ticket to make way for right-leaning union heavyweight Joe Bullock (he’s comfortably won a seat). Here’s an update on the count from our own William Bowe from this morning:
“The addition of 11,138 out of what should be at least 90,000 postal votes has blown a hole in Labor’s hope that votes cast earlier in the piece will be relatively favourable for them, making a Louise Pratt victory look increasingly unlikely. With numbers reported from Brand, Curtin, Durack, Hasluck and Perth, the results respectively show the Liberal vote 11.1%, 11.1%, 10.3%, 13.4% and 9.6% higher than the ordinary vote, equalling or exceeding the similarly large differentials in September. Putting the raw votes into the ABC calculator previously showed Pratt in the lead, but now Linda Reynolds holds a lead of 3407 votes (0.26), or 188,421 (14.42%) to 185,014 (14.16%). On the model I’m using to fill the gaps in the count, Reynolds finishes 8499 (0.65%) clear with a lead of 190,963 (14.61%) to 182,474 (13.96%).”
Read the full post — and watch the results unfold — here.
PJs for Carr. Former foreign affairs minister Bob Carr has opened himself up to ridicule for his memoirs, out this week. We love this pearler about being forced to fly business class: “No edible food. No airline pyjamas. I lie in my tailored suit.” Well, Twitter came to the rescue within hours …
We just hope they’re the right size. Given Carr’s preferred breakfast of steel-cut oats and berries, he’d only need a small. In the meantime Ms Tips has heard from a gleeful spy who once shared a first-class cabin with Carr. Our spy was allotted the front row. Carr alighted, gazed at seat 1A, and said, “I usually have that seat”, with a light laugh (that wasn’t really a laugh). The spy reported that yes, he did don his Qantas pyjamas.
Guess who. A former premier is in this pic … who is it?
Here’s a clue. These are the finalists in the Lions Youth of the Year, gathered in Canberra in 1970. And our ex-premier had this comment about the pic: “If only I had that hair today.” Add your guess to our comments stream online. First correct answer wins a packet of Lions mints from the premier.
Apr 9, 2014
The ICAC hearing and WA Senate do-over kept party leaders at the forefront of political discussion across the country.
Senator Arthur Sinodinos jumped following his somewhat absent-minded appearance before ICAC, and Trade Minister Andrew Robb with the signing of the Japan FTA, but it was the WA Senate election do-over that dominated the last several days of political commentary, with quite a bit for the pundits to talk about. The Palmer United Party’s good performance after dominating electoral spending during the campaign pushed its leader Clive Palmer all the way up to second. Less expected was an equally strong performance by the Greens, with Senator Scott Ludlam winning a quota in his own right.
Meanwhile both major parties suffered big swings against them. It seemed a clear case of PUP stealing from the Liberal Party and the Greens stealing from Labor, and the PM was quick to claim the swing against the government was completely normal owing to the by-election style conditions. He also claimed it was another massive rejection of the carbon and mining taxes, despite the big increase in the Greens vote, and a slight increase in the Left vote overall — his line largely accepted without much questioning by the media.
For Opposition Leader Bill Shorten and the Labor Party however, there was nowhere to hide, with their worst Senate vote in any state for a generation — barely one in five Western Australians voted for the ALP. Most of the media focus was on the staunch social conservative who toppled left wing frontbencher Senator Louise Pratt to grab the top of the ticket, Shoppies big-wig Joe Bullock, who seems to admire Tony Abbott more than just a little bit. This has created the perfect storm for Labor, the usual calls for party reform seeming a feeble cry in the face of the reality that on a whole host of issues, the things half the party believes in are diametrically opposed to the things the other half believes in. Minor rules changes don’t quite seem the ticket when an existential conversation is required.
Crikey Political Index: April 3-9
Pretty quiet week on talkback, with Queensland Premier Campbell Newman still copping some heat from his recent pay rise.
Talkback top five
An almost identical top five across social and talkback this week, which is fairly unusual. Both sets of punters showed strong interest in Senator Arthur Sinodinos, the majority of tweeters and callers suggesting his political future is not bright.
Social media top five
It’s awfully hard not to be fascinated by the recounting of the bizarre circumstances of Reeva Steenkamp’s death. A trial about one tragic domestic incident or more fundamentally about South African society? Probably the former.
Comparison of media mentions
How to sell climate change
Rod Holesgrove writes: Re. “A tough sell: can these spinners change your mind on climate change?” (Friday). I’ve been involved in the climate change policy area for over 20 years in the federal government and in international organisations in particular. So I’m very familiar with the issues. Nevertheless I remain astonished at the public turn off on the matter in Australia. The facts are so well established and clear, evidence of change is everywhere and the consequences of not taking action so devastating for our children and grandchildren that the majority Australian indifference can only be characterised as gross stupidity.
There has been some devilish work at play in Australia from Murdoch and Abbott et al in undermining public trust in the science. However, the fact that these forces of evil have easily swayed Australians does not say much for the latter’s common sense. The real issue is that Australian indifference seems to be replicated globally and so that there is no doubt humanity is headed for a nasty and brutal future. Thankfully as a senior citizen I will not be around by then.
Glen Frost writes: The challenge with communicating climate change is reaching and converting the great mass of middle Australia. The average person is too busy to take the time to research the issue of climate change. The majority of people rely on commercial media for their news, information and insight, and they just want a summary — is it good or bad, and how will it impact my wallet. These narratives are very absolute.
The key to changing attitudes in middle Australia is entertainment. The problem (for Tim Flannery, etc) is commercial media editors and producers are interested in ratings, not editorial intelligence. Commercial editors want something “sensational” — “pictures of polar bears on icebergs” or “typhoons, death and destruction”, what one editor described to the audience at the Climate Change Summit 2008 as “climate porn”.
Ordinary folks are confused about the issue, so their default position is to doubt it is happening. Bizarrely, the most common challenge with the average punter is that they say climate change may or may not be real, and ask for the evidence. The evidence is in the UN IPCC report; 7 billion people are emitting 10 billion tonnes of carbon every year. The trees and oceans can’t absorb this level of carbon, and it’s heating up the planet. This is the base message that a campaign can be built on. The rest is understanding human nature.
So the first suggestion is to communicate this IPCC report thingy better — more infographics, videos and social media, fewer science nerds. Think “KONY 2012” — emotion, not logic.
A key priority would be to build a grassroots campaign in schools and colleges, churches and other faith-based communities, supported by prizes, competitions, awards, and grants to create an army of advocates who’ll spread the message (same strategy as Al Gore, Barack Obama and Jesus of Nazareth).
You’ll also need some good TV script writers who can integrate climate change issues into shows that the masses watch, such as Neighbours, etc.
Stop rewarding scoundrels
John Richarson writes: Re. “Keane: the good, the bad and the ugly of the WA Senate re-run” (yesterday). While there are doubtless many who share Bernard Keane’s views on the shortcomings of the Labor Party, including apparently its current leader, there are others who would argue that blaming its irresistible decline on its failure to democratise and shake off the crippling grip of trade union heavies and factional bosses is to overlook the fact that the other side of politics suffers from many of the same anti-democratic shortcomings, but still manages to garner support from a larger part of the electorate.
Without taking issue with the need for political parties of all persuasions to “democratise”, a truly “honest conversation” would reveal that the real but sad truth is that the primary drivers of Labor’s decline are its inability to produce genuine inspirational leaders with real integrity, its cynical abandonment of principle, including a genuine commitment to social justice and egalitarianism, its enthusiastic embrace of neo-liberalism and its persistent determination to put its own interests ahead of the interests of ordinary Australians.
As long as politicians and political parties of all persuasions continue to laud and reward scoundrels, act in ways that diminish the standing of our nation in the eyes of the world and place sectional interests ahead of the interests of the majority of the Australian people, we will never truly be a “lucky country”.
Apr 8, 2014
Julia Gillard has turned her hand to film reviewing... and other media tidbits of the day.
Ten milks Schapelle saga. Channel Ten aired an interesting item last night about Schapelle Corby. The crux of the story was cellphone footage of Corby’s former cellmate, fellow Australian convicted drug smuggler Renae Lawrence, saying that Corby had told Lawrence she was guilty of bringing drugs into Bali, and that Corby had admitted she had done the same three times before without getting caught. Lawrence also said Corby “played crazy” in order to be let off earlier.
The footage was sold to the network for a “small fee” by a third party, who represented the person who took the video. It’s not clear whether Lawrence gave permission for the footage to be used — Crikey didn’t hear back from Ten on that question this morning — but she did speak to Ten’s reporter off-camera to say she stood by what she had said in the video. It’s understood the story was shopped around to other networks, which rejected it. Corby’s family released a statement last night denying the allegations and saying their airing was “extremely hurtful”.
In terms of ratings, Ten’s Eyewitness News (where the allegations were aired) did lift its ratings to 768,000 viewers last night (last Monday Eyewitness News had 661,000 viewers). It was still half a million viewers behind both Seven and Nine news. — Myriam Robin
The Oz on form on WA. As soon as the Western Australian Senate results became clear, one thought ran through Australian progressives with equal parts trepidation and joy: my god, what will The Australian say? With Abbott down 7%, Labor down 6%, the Greens up 6% … wow. It’s like knowing that the ultimate Collingwood tragic owns a gun and a bottle of gin, and it’s 10 minutes before another losing grand final.
Cometh the hour, cometh the man. The Oz did not disappoint, with an “exclusive” from the polling company it owns (when will the Oz start claiming TV listings? “Exclusive: free-to-air channels to broadcast a variety of programs, The Australian can reveal …”) to claim — pre WA vote — that the Coalition was in its “best position since September 2013”. The figures? The Coalition/Labor two-party preferred had flipped within the margin of error to 51-49 Coalition. Better was to come with Nick Cater, the sage of Surry Hills. Cater’s book The Lucky Culture argued that “sophisticates” were stifling the voices of good god-fearing, plain-speaking Aussies, etc, etc. Cater’s thesis about a silent conservative majority never matched the stats — Australians are liberal-minded, irreligious, unconservative — and the WA result tended to prove that, with votes flowing away from Labor, when it was revealed the party’s No. 1 candidate was a cranky religious reactionary.
How to square that? It was Labor that had let down Joe Bullock — hence his magnificent 22% primary result! If the party couldn’t support a man who effectively told voters not to vote for the Labor Party, well, that was bad news for, um, Labor. You follow? Of course not. Because it’s asinine. The sole purpose is to avoid the obvious truth, as noted by your correspondent last week — that Labor now has within its higher reaches so many right-wingers who would prefer that the Liberals be in government than that the Greens have access to power that it cannot function effectively. Opposition Leader Bill Shorten says he’s going to sort it out. He sounds like a bloke with arthritis promising to clean out the garage — Guy Rundle
Julia Gillard on Game of Thrones. This was an inspired piece of commissioning. Over at The Guardian, someone suggested Julia Gillard use her occasional column to review the first episode of the new series of Game of Thrones. While this was as cringe-worthy as you’d expect, it certainly got everyone talking, which, we suppose, was the point. Gillard’s made the front page of UK’s print edition of The Guardian with her review, which makes us wonder, what political leaders could The Guardian commission to review television next? John Howard on the Gallipoli miniseries airing next year? Kevin Rudd on House of Cards? Or Paul Keating on The West Wing (just kidding — Keating would never do it …) — Myriam Robin
Pedant’s corner. We can almost excuse the typo in this morning’s Australian. Subeditors are busy, there are never enough of them, and things get overlooked …
We’re more concerned about using “less tha[n]” for something that can be counted, when it should be fewer. What’s more, the Oz subs know it should be fewer, as evidenced by the first paragraph of the story …
Getting a headline to fit is no excuse for poor grammar, guys.
Video of the day. Hollywood legend Mickey Rooney died at age 93 this week. Here he is singing a duet with Judy Garland in the 1948 film Words and Music …
Front page of the day. We’ll just leave this here …
The WA senate byelection on the weekend has produced three very different, and symbolic, examples of current trends in Australian politics. Some of it is good, but much of it is ugly politicking.
The Western Australian Senate re-run has produced a set of symbols of contemporary political directions so perfect it seems like some political deity designed it. Scott Ludlam, Clive Palmer and Joe Bullock together offer a road map of contemporary Australian politics.
The big swing to Ludlam not merely reverses a run of outs for the Greens since Bob Brown’s departure (my colleague William Bowe has a more pragmatic take on that) but keeps Ludlam in the Senate after he suffered not a political near-death experience but actual defeat, however brief, last September. True, the re-run favoured minor parties who were able to communicate their message in an atmosphere untainted by wider election dynamics. And the Greens spent up big on advertising, reversing their error of last September, when they directed a huge amount of funding, inexplicably, to hanging on to Adam Bandt’s House of Representatives seat rather than shoring up what was always going to be a difficult WA campaign.
But to get a nearly 6.5% swing is also partly down to Ludlam himself, who has steadily carved out a niche as one of the very few of the 220-odd federal parliamentarians who understands digital and communications issues and their intersection with national security. That has made him, over the last six years, a respected and authentic voice for an entire online community whose response to much of what passes for national debate on issues like surveillance and censorship in Australia is facepalming.
One political opponent pleased with Ludlam’s return, despite its impact on Labor’s vote, is Victorian Labor MP Anthony Byrne. “Ludlam’s result in the WA Senate election proves that idealism, hope and belief in change is still alive in politics, and that is unequivocally a good thing,” he told Crikey.
Byrne is in a better position than most to judge Ludlam’s contribution, given he previously headed, and is now deputy chair of, the Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, which carefully sifted an array of national security-related telecommunications reforms in 2012 and 2013, and which declined to back mandatory data retention.
Ludlam also demonstrated his political smarts when he used an adjournment debate one night to launch a savage attack on Tony Abbott — delivered in his trademark calm, acerbic style — that he then put online and which promptly went viral, garnering over 800,000 views on YouTube. The speech prompted predictable counterattacks from News Corporation’s stable of Coalition supporters and the unfortunate Paul Sheehan at Fairfax (author of an attack on a former Ludlam staffer for which Fairfax was forced to apologise) but that was exactly the intended effect, directing still more attention to Ludlam in the run-up to the election.
Having been invited to vote against the carbon price and the mining tax by the government, WA voters swung hard to both the party advocating a carbon price and even more mining taxes and to Clive Palmer’s party, which opposes both. If Ludlam’s the good, Clive Palmer is the bad. The very bad. Palmer, by dint of massive advertising spending and his own political smarts, acquired at the feet of Joh Bjelke-Petersen, has now secured himself the balance of power in the Senate less than a year since creating his party. It’s a remarkable, and frightening, achievement.
“With Bullock at the top of the ticket, Labor has gone from 29% in 2010 to less than 22%.”
The traditional model of Australian politics is that interest groups — business and unions, mainly — seek to influence policy indirectly through the major political parties, which at least ostensibly are committed to serving the national interest instead of sectional ones. But Palmer disrupts that model, because he has simply bought his way directly to power. No wonder News Corp now despises him: Palmer makes Rupert Murdoch look like a quaint also-ran when it comes to influencing public policy. Palmer lays bare a key fact about our political system, that it is about protecting the interests of the powerful as much as, if not more than, protecting the interests of all Australians.
Moreover, Palmer has done this partly by portraying himself as an outsider. This is the most absurd falsehood. Palmer is the ultimate insider — a mining magnate and former luminary of Queensland’s National Party who entered politics himself only because the party he bankrolled, the Liberal National Party, wouldn’t take instruction from him.
Palmer’s argument is that he is the antidote to the economic failures of the major parties. This, too, is nonsense. Specific policy issues aside, Australians have been well served by the economic management of both sides of politics for the last 30 years, albeit with the significant failure of the early 1990s recession. Australians are much more wealthy as a consequence and we have avoided recession for 22 years, despite external threats like the global financial crisis and the Asian financial crisis — all thanks to Bob Hawke, Paul Keating, John Howard, Peter Costello, Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard and Wayne Swan. The last two even avoided the traditional inflation explosion that used to end Aussie resources booms. There’s no reason why Abbott and Hockey shouldn’t continue that tradition, either.
The power of Palmer has taken Australia more clearly in the direction of a plutocracy, and it is unlikely other powerful figures will ignore his example.
As for the ugly, that refers not to the singleted, hint-of-nipple look on Saturday of Joe Bullock (the union leader with the fauxletarian credentials of Trinity Grammar, University of Sydney and Sydney University Liberal Club), nor even to his vile comments about his colleague Louise Pratt and her partner. Bullock’s social conservatism, while providing a rich vein of mockery for social media, isn’t that different to that of many people on both sides in the Senate that he will shortly grace with his presence, or much of the community he represents. Rather, the ugliness is the internal ALP process that delivered Bullock top spot on the ALP ticket in a deal between Bullock’s right-wing Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association and the Left’s United Voice, a deal that, impressively, not merely left Bullock’s fellow Shoppie Senator Mark Bishop as roadkill but looks likely to kill off Pratt’s prospects, so badly did Bullock undermine the party’s vote. With Bullock at the top of the ticket, Labor has gone from 29% in 2010 to less than 22%.
For those of us who used to argue that the ALP comes out, in net terms, ahead because of its links with unions — that for every Don Farrell or Craig Thomson there’s an Ed Husic, a Doug Cameron or even a Bill Shorten — Bullock is a killer example of what is wrong with Labor. And he’ll have six years on the red leather to keep demonstrating that.
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.