In his assessment of the ACT’s Senate race, Antony Green notes that history has not been kind to those attempting to unclench the major parties’ grip on the territory’s two seats. Since 1975, Labor and the Liberals have each claimed one seat each. However, even Green admits this year the pattern is under threat: former GetUp! National Director turned Greens candidate Simon Sheikh has a chance to outpoll the Liberal Party. The outcome the race may do more than break up the major parties’ control of the ACT senate order – it could also be the only thing between Tony Abbott and control of the Australian Senate.
Green cautiously argues that the strength of Sheikh’s campaign and recent instability in the ACT Liberals may have put him within striking distance. Earlier this year a preselection challenge resulted in the popular, decade-long incumbent Liberal Senator Gary Humphries being ousted in favour of the more conservative Zed Seselja. Though Seselja is a high-profile territory politician, his maiden Senate bid has been set back by Abbott’s commitment to reducing the public service by 12,000, a jobs vanishing act he boasted his party would achieve “much more effectively” than Labor.
Knock out the well-liked incumbent and tell the electorate you will put their jobs in danger – what more could Sheikh have asked the Liberals to do?
With losses likely for the Greens and Labor in Western Australia, Tasmania, South Australia, and, if things were really to disintegrate, even NSW, the Greens and the ALP must look to take seats from the Liberals elsewhere in order to prevent an Abbott-forged Senate coalition having legislative carte blanche. Players at the table could include fringe NSW parties, a choice of untested ex-footballers (of the Nationals and Palmer’s United Party variety), a Katter-backed country singer, and even Pauline Hanson. The Greens may also make a gain in the Victorian and NSW senate races, but if so, those victories will come at the cost of a Labor candidate. This means that the Labor-Greens senate block, which in the previous parliament held the majority vote with a combined 40 seats, can not be sustained without wins elsewhere.
This is why the ACT is an important contest, and why the pressure is on for Sheikh’s youthful staff. They are charged with coordinating the 350 active volunteers the campaign claims to have, as well as the 1000 it predicts will come out on election day. These numbers seem credible given the omnipresence of Sheikh’s placards around Canberra. In an office barely outside the grounds of the Australian National University, Sheikh’s team have maps of suburban Canberra blue-tacked to the wall alongside popular memes, gently tweaked to remind passersby of the importance of doorknocking. Boxes of mi goreng sit in anticipation of long office nights.
At just 22-years old, Sophie Trevitt is one of the campaign’s highest ranked members. Trevitt confirmed that Sheikh’s core team are of a similar age, drawn to the campaign by the Greens’ progressive politics and the national significance of Sheikh’s bid. “The Australian Institute released a report recently that indicated the top issues for young people were marriage equality, education – so university cuts, both major parties play a role in that – cost of living and housing prices, and jobs. And all those things are under threat by a conservative held senate,” she said.
Trevitt and the remainder of Sheikh’s core campaign team have been labouring to win votes. One of their key battlegrounds is the fight to convince a voters who chose the Liberals in 2010 to preference the Greens above Seselja. Betting on Abbott’s unpopularity in the ACT, they are using the campaign’s national significance to try to flip moderate Liberals who are weary of the ultra-conservative past of the party’s leader – “Abbott proof the Senate” has become a popular refrain for the party in the ACT and around the country. They have even produced a video comparing waking up to an Abbott controlled senate to the morning after a regrettable sexual escapade. Undecided or otherwise apathetic voters are being targeted with messages about public service and university sector job cuts.
In the meantime, preference deals fell mostly in Sheikh’s favour, with one notable exception. Nine tickets on the ballot will preference the Greens above the Liberals while only three will do the opposite. Surprisingly, the Animal Justice Party, (who won the plum spot at the top of the ballot), have decided to preference Seselja over Sheikh as a way of punishing the ACT Greens for allowing local kangaroo culls. The ACT’s politics is usually insulated from Canberra’s mania, but isn't immune to its farce.
The Greens may also gain a slight advantage after having been drawn above both Labor and the Liberals on the ballot, meaning donkey votes will favour them should preferences enter the equation.
These developments have justified the Greens’ optimism. However, as has been pointed out by Green and Ben Raue, this election will be defined by a national swing towards the Coalition, a swing that appears to have picked up momentum as the Rudd honeymoon redux fades. Green also notes it is particularly difficult for small parties to win in a territory senate race as the quota needed to gain a spot in either the ACT or Northern Territory is 33.3 per cent, much higher than the approximately 14 per cent needed in a state race.
Given the dominance of the Liberal and Labor parties nationally, it makes the task a tough one for third party contenders. If Sheikh and the minor parties can not drag Seselja’s primary below 33.3 per cent, the rest will be academic. Add to this that the 2012 Territory election saw a 4.85 per cent swing away from the Greens and it becomes clear that Sheikh and his team are going to have to do plenty of doorknocking before Saturday.
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