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2013 Senate race

August 17, 2013

Most interest in the federal election has been on whether the Liberal-National Parties (LNP) or Labor will win control of the lower house and form government. That makes sense. But the race for the Senate is in many ways more interesting, unpredictable and has very important consequences.

On current polling, Tony Abbott and the LNP will win government, but without the Senate they will not be able to pursue their agenda. At the moment, the Greens have balance of power in the Senate and they are openly hostile to the LNP. However, that could be about to change.

The current Senate is:

LNP = 35
Labor = 31
Green = 9
DLP = 1
Xeno = 1

From this group, 36 Senators are not up for re-election and are safe. The remainder of the Senate will be made up by six Senators from each state and two Senators from each territory. While theoretically, anybody could win the remaining 40 spots, the political reality is that the major parties are almost guaranteed to get (at least) two people elected from each state and one from each territory. That leaves 12 spots up for grabs to determine the final balance. Before we think about those all important 12, this is how the Senate looks:

LNP = 30
Labor = 27
Greens = 6
DLP = 1

Remembering that the magical number is “39” that means that the LNP would need to win 9/12 of the remaining spots to get a majority in their own right. That simply isn’t possible. However, what is possible is that the LNP could pick up 6/12 (meaning three Senators from each state) and then hope that LNP-friendly parties or independents manage to pick up another three. If that happens, the balance of power would shift from the Greens to those other minor parties and independents. How likely is this?

I don’t know.

The first thing to note is that Nick Xenophon is almost certain to retain his Senate spot in South Australia. Beyond that, all bets are off. The reason that the final spot in the Senate is so hard to predict is that it is determined by the complex flow of party preferences. In 2004 Family First managed to get a Senator elected with around 2% of the primary vote, because they got lots of preferences. In 2010 the DLP got elected with just over 2% of the vote.

Basically, the last spot in the Senate could be won by almost any party that can poll near 2% of the vote. That means that small parties such as the Sex Party, the Liberal Democrats, the Christian Democrats, the DLP, and the Shooters & Fishers party all have a chance, as long as they get a good flow of preferences. However, the 2013 election is made even more unpredictable by the introduction of dozens of new parties, some of which have the potential to get well above 2% and so are in with a real chance.

Katter’s Australia Party (KAP) received 11.5% of the vote in the Queensland state election, and so they are a very real threat to pick up a Queensland Senator. However, they will have to contend with a Palmer United Party (PUP) candidate who might steal some of that vote in this election. At this point, the best guess is that one of those candidates (a country singer or ex-rugby player) will get into the Senate at the expense of the Greens, which is good news for the LNP.

The wildcard in Victoria is the campaign of Julian Assange and the Wikileaks Party. If they are able to get enough of a primary vote and good flow of preferences to get ahead of the Greens, then they should pick up Greens preferences and have a good chance of getting elected. The Sex Party might also consider themselves in the running in Victoria. None of this would be of much help to the LNP. While the DLP managed to get elected in 2010, that was at the expense of a Liberal Senator (not a Green Senator) and so doesn’t help the LNP with the Senate maths.

The big question mark for NSW is the performance of Pauline Hanson and One Nation — back together again. This is also the state where the Christian Democrats, the Shooters & Fishers, and the Liberal Democrats have previously received around 2% of the vote each. Depending how preferences fall, any one of those parties might make it into the Senate and potentially share in the balance of power.

Tasmania remains the strongest state for the Greens and they would be hopeful of retaining their Senator there. However, the dramatic increase in the number of “micro-right” parties contesting Tasmania (Palmer, Katter, Christians, Family First, Smokers, Liberal Democrats, Fishing, Shooters, DLP, Skeptics, ORP, Country) introduces a new element to the equation that is nearly impossible to predict.

In Western Australia the Greens Senator is in a much more precarious position, and is likely to lose their spot, though it would take a brave person to guess at the beneficiary. Based on the last election, the Nationals, Christians, DLP, Liberal Democrats and Sex Party all got over 1% and might all be dreaming of an upset, while Palmer and Katter would also be hopeful. The LNP would be hoping that WA might deliver them three Liberals and one National, as happened in Queensland in 2007.

At the end of all this wild guessing, the only strong conclusion is that the Senate race is wide open. The LNP will not have control of the Senate in their own right, but it is very possible that some mixed bag of minor parties and independents might wrestle balance of power away from the Greens and become the centre of political attention for the next three years. We can only hope that if that happens, the new king-makers are up to the task.

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