View from The Hill

Everyone gears up for the April 5 election no one wanted

Clive Palmer’s party is focussing on picking up another senator in the Western Australian byelection. AAP/Tim Clark

As federal Labor backbencher and former state minister Alannah MacTiernan tweeted after Friday’s announcement that Western Australians will go to the polls on April 5 for the re-run Senate election, “Game on! For the next five weeks WA will be the centre of the national stage.”

The last thing the Abbott government needs, as it tries to frame a difficult budget amid scary speculation, is a giant byelection, which is what this poll will be.

On the other hand, if it has to face such a test, there could be worse places than WA.

On the day the date was announced, the Liberals received a windfall, with former Labor minister Martin Ferguson, speaking in Perth, declaring: “we must reduce red and green tape; commit to market-based policy, and re-evaluate how our workplace relations framework influences access to labour and how it affects the economic viability of new projects.”

The sentiments of Ferguson, who is chairman of the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association Advisory Board, reinforce those coming from the Coalition in Canberra.

The government’s rhetoric about Labor holding up the repeal of the carbon and mining taxes is tailor-made for electioneering in the west.

But Labor will have plenty of ammunition for a fear campaign about all the nasty things that might be in the still-secret Commission of Audit report now on Treasurer Joe Hockey’s desk.

The federal Liberals also have to hope that not too many voters use the occasion to send a message about their gripes against the Barnett government.

Opposition leader Bill Shorten immediately linked the two governments.

“Already too many Western Australians are feeling the pressure of the cost of living without paying more to visit the GP. Western Australians are already suffering from Colin Barnett’s cruel cuts to education,” he said. “Western Australians cannot afford a Barnett-style government in Canberra without a strong Senate.”

The poll is risky for the Abbott government because, if things go badly, it could find its position in the post July 1 Senate somewhat worse than it had expected. This would make harder what was already set to be a challenging process of negotiating legislation through the upper house.

At the September election the Liberals won three Senate places. They can do no better – it’s a question of whether they can hold on to the third.

Labor won two seats on one count and one on the recount. On its recent polling it believes it can secure two in the new election.

ABC electoral analyst Antony Green summed up the broad picture in a recent blog. “If the left, [as] in Labor plus the Greens, won back their traditional third seat, and a minor party won the third Coalition seat, the Senate balance of power would be changed.

"A Labor or Green gain would give 36 seats to the left in the Senate [compared with 35 on the September result], meaning only two votes from the cross bench would be needed to block government legislation. This is only a minor change from the three … required in the Senate that had been due to take its place on 1 July, but could be an important influence on certain types of legislation.”

The election is a significant moment for Clive Palmer’s PUP, which won a seat on the first count but not on the recount.

Palmer, cashed up with public funding from the last election, will throw big dollars into trying to improve his parliamentary numbers.

He already has two senators and an alliance with a third in the post July 1 Senate. To have a bloc of four among the key crossbench players would give Palmer even greater power.

He announced his ticket on Friday with Dio Wang, who won on the first count, as lead candidate.

Palmer’s mantra is that a vote for one of the major parties is a “wasted vote”, while electing PUP will give WA a key voice in the balance of power.

Palmer’s PUP has become a minor rather than a micro party. One would guess that voters are likely to be wary of the micro odds and sods after their successes in various states in September. But whether they can be kept in the game in this election by some preference whispering remains to be seen.

Ahead of the unprecedented Senate poll we’ve seen the resignations of Australian Electoral Commissioner Ed Killesteyn and WA officer Peter Kramer. It is extraordinary that 1370 lost votes could force about 1.5 million people back to the ballot boxes and cost the taxpayers up to $20 million. One can only guess at the paranoia that will be around the AEC count in April.

Listen to the new Politics with Michelle Grattan podcast with Palmer United Party leader Clive Palmer here.

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