Who's Afraid Of A Senate Shake Up?


This year’s federal election could well see the balance of power in the Senate fall into the hands of right-wing minor parties and independents, as political power shifts back to the right.

The Abbott-led Coalition looks set to win a comfortable majority in the House of Representatives, and form government. Whether the centre-left maintains a majority in the Senate will determine how fast and how far a new centre-right government can go in implementing its agenda.

The Australian Senate’s electoral system makes it difficult for a single party or coalition to win a majority, forcing governments to work with other parties to pass legislation, and to provide room for the Opposition and small parties to work together to hold a government to account.

When the Howard government won a majority in the Senate in 2004 (which took effect in 2005), it had been a quarter-century since any government had held a Senate majority. The government’s style of governing changed dramatically: WorkChoices laws passed, along with other legislation which had never managed to get past the Senate crossbenches.

The backlash against WorkChoices partly led to the defeat of the Howard government in 2007. At the 2007 election, the Coalition lost the balance of power, and for the first term of the Rudd government the balance of power was shared by the Greens, Nick Xenophon and Steve Fielding. In 2010, the Greens won seats in all six states, and the sole balance of power.

At a regular half-Senate election, each state elects six Senators for a six-year term. To win a seat, you need to win a quota, which is one seventh of the vote, or 14.3 per cent. In nearly all circumstances, each state’s Senators are split equally, with three going to the political “left” (Labor, Greens) and three going to the political “right” (Liberal, National).

The ALP and the Greens currently hold 40 out of 76 Senate seats between them. If these two parties lose one seat, they will maintain a majority in the Senate, and an Abbott government would need support of either Labor or the Greens to pass legislation. If the “left” parties lose two seats, they will hold half the seats. They will be able to block legislation and motions, but not pass anything of their own.

If they lose three seats, they will no longer hold a majority, and the balance of power will be held by Xenophon, Madigan and any other cross-benchers who are elected (such as a WA National or a Katter ally). It is unlikely that the Coalition will be able to win the additional five seats it will need to hold a majority in its own right.

Current trends suggest that gains by the Liberals, Nationals and other small parties are likely to produce a result where the Greens lose the balance of power in the Senate.

If the Greens lose seats in South Australia and Western Australia, and Labor loses seats in Tasmania and Queensland, it will produce a Senate with centre-right crossbenchers able to pass legislation without the Greens or Labor. This will have significant impact on how much of the Abbott Coalition’s agenda can be implemented.

My analysis assumes that there is no leakage between the left and the right: that is that centre-left parties such as the Greens, Labor, the Sex Party, the Democrats and the Wikileaks Party all preference each other before they preference other parties, and vice versa. Small parties will often do deals with each other to swap preferences before they preference the big parties, in the hope that one of them can get enough votes to compete for a seat. There is no guarantee that Labor will preference the Greens first in all states, as they did in 2007 and 2010.

In New South Wales, Labor and the Coalition each won three seats at the 2007 election. Labor will find it very difficult to hold its third seat. That seat is likely to be a contest between the Greens’ Cate Faehrmann, the fourth candidate on the Liberal/National ticket, and possibly a right-wing minor party candidate from a party like the Christian Democratic Party, the Liberal Democratic Party or Bob Katter’s party.

A swing of about 6.2 per cent from the combined “left” to the combined “right” will be enough to elect a fourth right-winger instead of the Greens.

In Victoria, Labor and the Coalition each won three seats at the 2007 election. The most likely outcome will see Labor lose its third seat to the Greens’ Janet Rice, but she could be threatened by the Sex Party’s Fiona Patten or by Julian Assange. The centre-left vote should be high enough to ensure the left continues to hold three seats.

In Queensland, Labor and the Coalition each won three seats in 2007. Labor is performing very poorly in Queensland, and is set to lose one of their seats. The Liberal National Party should maintain its three seats.

Based on results from the 2012 state election, the most likely outcome will see Katter’s Australian Party win a seat from Labor.

In Western Australia, Labor won two seats, the Liberal Party three and the Greens one in 2007, and again in 2010. The recent Western Australian state election saw the Labor and Greens vote drop, and a rise in the Nationals vote.

A swing of 4 per cent would see the Nationals win a seat from the centre-left. The Nationals could win a seat off either Labor or the Greens, depending on which party loses a greater proportion of their vote.

In South Australia, Labor and the Liberal Party both won two seats in 2007, along with one Green and independent Nick Xenophon. Xenophon easily won a seat in 2007, and should have no trouble retaining his seat in 2013. An increasing vote for the Liberal Party could see the party win a third seat, and would likely result in defeat for Sarah Hanson-Young.

It is hard to predict what seat will be vulnerable in South Australia due to the presence of Nick Xenophon: it’s also possible that Xenophon’s vote will mostly come from the major parties and Labor could lose a seat, or the Liberals could be stuck on two seats.

In Tasmania, the Greens should easily maintain their seat. It’s possible that Labor could still win three seats, but a large swing would see Labor lose a seat.

The two seats in the Australian Capital Territory have been split between Labor and Liberal at every election since 1975. This race, however, is the only place where there is a chance that the left will gain a seat from the right. Canberra has a tradition of bucking national trends.

The Greens came close to defeating Liberal Senator Gary Humphries in 2010, and this time are running ex-GetUp director Simon Sheikh. Humphries was replaced as Liberal candidate by former ACT Liberal Leader Zed Seselja in a messy preselection, and it’s not inconceivable that this messy preselection and threatened job cuts could see the Liberal vote drop by at least 1.3 per cent, which would elect Sheikh. This result could cancel out the loss of a Labor or Greens seat elsewhere.

Read more about each Senate race at the Tally Room.

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