NSW privatisation could hinge on a single upper house vote

The Reverend Fred Nile is a veteran of the NSW Parliament – and many predict that if the Baird government is re-elected, his vote could decide whether power privatisation goes ahead or not. Dean Lewins/AAP

The Baird government looks likely to be re-elected at the New South Wales election – but, at this stage, it’s hard to see it winning as many seats as it needs in the upper house to push ahead with power privatisation.

That’s why, this Saturday night, we can only hope the TV coverage of the NSW election devotes plenty of time to the Legislative Council and its new members, rather than just focusing on the lower house results.

A record 394 candidates are vying for a Legislative Council seat in this election.

The 42-seat NSW upper house is elected by proportional representation, which produces different outcomes to the lower house. Members are elected for eight-year terms, with half elected every four years.

Combined with the 11 members they have who aren’t up for re-election, this time the Liberal Nationals need to win 10 upper house seats to hold a majority in their own right.

However, the more likely outcome is that minor parties such as the Christian Democrats, led by veteran member of the Legislative Council (MLC) Fred Nile, will have the final say on the government’s plans.

How is the upper house elected, and who’s there now?

As you can see from the NSW Parliament table below, the Liberal National coalition was just shy of a majority in this last term of office. So whenever Labor and the Greens opposed legislation, the government needed the support of other crossbenchers.

The NSW Legislative Council before the 2015 election. NSW Parliament

The 21 seats up for grabs in this election are those of the members elected in 2007, when the Coalition won eight seats, the ALP nine, the Greens two and the Christian Democrats and the Shooters and Fishers one each.

To be elected, members need to achieve a quota of 4.55%. But because voting is optional preferential both above and below the line, a high percentage of votes is exhausted and the final candidates can be elected with less than a full quota. (More information on how to vote correctly for the upper house can be found on the NSW Electoral Commission’s website.)

Upper house results from the past 37 years. NSW Parliament

Whoever forms the next NSW government would need 21 votes to pass legislation. As ABC election analyst Antony Green explains in this detailed look at the intricacies of the NSW upper house, the Legislative Council President rarely uses her or his casting vote.

But even if the Baird government wins the election, it faces an even bigger challenge to win a majority in the upper house because of the huge number of candidates in this election, including 24 party groupings with above-the-line positions.

The parties to watch in 2015

On March 28, NSW voters will be faced with another metre-long “tablecloth” ballot for the upper house. That makes it even more likely the vast majority will choose to vote above the line, rather than below.

The prized first position above the line has gone to the No Land Tax Party, which has likened its fight to abolish land tax to getting rid of death duties in the early 1980s.

As this Australian Cyclists Party campaign material shows, the ballot paper is huge. Australian Cyclists Party

The No Land Tax Party has been working with preferences expert Glenn Druery, who told The Daily Telegraph this week that “people will get lost on the ballot paper”, giving the minor party a good shot at attracting enough donkey votes to help win a seat.

The Coalition is listed fifth, while Labor is 11th.

All the way at the other end of the ballot is the Australian Cyclists Party, which has drawn the 24th and final position, group X. It is contesting a NSW election for the first time, and is pushing for more bike paths, safer roads and a review of speed limits.

Voting above the line is again likely to be the most popular way to vote in the upper house – but you can also choose to vote below the line. NSW Electoral Commission

The large number of candidates and minor parties will divert votes from the major parties, particularly if voters do not direct preferences to parties above the line or vote for more than 15 candidates below the line (if you choose to vote below the line, you must number at least 15 squares, from 1 to 15, for your vote to be counted; read more here).

The Daily Telegraph reported on March 25 that senior Labor and Coalition sources think the most likely upper house result is that the Coalition will have 20 seats, Labor 13, the Greens five, Shooters and Fishers Party two and Reverend Nile’s Christian Democratic Party two.

Where the parties stand on privatisation

Labor, the Greens and the Shooters and Fishers Party have all vowed to oppose power privatisation, which is the key to funding the government’s A$20 billion long-term infrastructure plans.

A Bloomberg Business story shared on Fred Nile’s Facebook page, March 24. Fred Nile - Official Christian Democratic Party

That could leave the casting votes with the Christian Democrats. And it’s not entirely clear yet which way they would go.

As well as insisting on a five-year job guarantee for electricity workers, Reverend Nile has reiterated that his party would “use our balance of power in the Upper House to oppose any government proposal to sell our poles and wires offshore”, amid speculation about Chinese interest in the 99-year leases.

He also plans to chair a parliamentary inquiry into the privatisation after the election.

Any restriction on foreign ownership combined with job protection could reduce the value of the 99-year leases of NSW power assets.

Early in this campaign, Premier Mike Baird said that “there is no Plan B” to fund many of his key policies without power privatisation. Unless he gains control of the Legislative Council, he may need to devise one.

Read more coverage of the 2015 NSW election.