Shock NSW upper house result doesn’t alter balance of power

The greyhound industry’s live-baiting scandal may have helped the Animal Justice Party secure the final seat in the NSW upper house. AAP/Tom Compagnoni

At midday today, the final election results for the NSW Legislative Council were released. Considerable speculation has raged – in circles where that type of speculation “rages” – about the outcome of the final quota spot for the 21 seats up for election in 2015.

This speculation shifted from the Greens winning the seat – thereby replicating their strong results in the 2014 Victorian election – to the Coalition picking up an extra quota. That would have given the Baird government exactly half of all of the available seats.

Also tipped as a chance was No Land Tax. Revelations about the single-issue party’s electoral practices and key personalities attracted considerable attention over the past week. In the final count, the Animal Justice Party edged out its micro-party rival to claim the final seat.

… and then it got interesting

If you’ve ever been to an awkward dinner party where your ageing Christian aunt ends up wedged next to the swinging proponent of polyamory who you know from university, then you’ve got a sense of what the NSW Legislative Council is going to feel like for the next eight years.

Today’s results leave Mark Pearson, the newly elected representative of the Animal Justice Party (AJP), sitting on the cross-benches next to the two Shooters and Fishers Party members. It’s a match-up that should make Nationals member Duncan Gay’s asides to Greens MLC John Kaye look like Shakespearean sonnets.

For those who don’t know Pearson or the AJP, the party is the electoral offshoot of Animal Liberation, the movement that took its name and ideas from Peter Singer’s 1975 book on the exploitation of animals by humans. Animal Liberation, through its membership in national groups like Animals Australia (recently involved closely in uncovering illegal greyhound training using live animal bait), may represent a comparatively small social movement, but has been making waves for years with campaigns against caged egg production, pig production systems, live exports and sheep mulesing.

The Shooters and Fishers are probably best known for their support for the NSW Game Council, which the O’Farrell government dissolved amid claims that its management engaged in illegal hunting, and advocacy of legalising hunting in state forests. Needless to say, the AJP does not approve of hunting.

Fireworks aside, the AJP has some serious issues it want to pursue. State politics is the right level for these concerns: by and large, animal welfare (private ownership, entertainment and commercial production) is regulated by state and territory legislation. The animal rights movement has been frustrated for years at its lack of legislative progress on such issues.

AJP faces four years of frustration

While the final quota result is somewhat surprising, even wrong-footing veteran election watcher Antony Green, the overall outcome of the election was not in doubt.

The strong showing by the Coalition parties, with 20 of the 42 seats in the upper house, means they need only negotiate with one minor party to get their legislation adopted. While much speculation about this has focused on the Reverend Fred Nile’s Christian Democrats, who have two seats, the Shooters and Fishers’ animosity to the previous government may have been expunged by the exit of the premier, Barry O’Farrell, from state politics.

It’s clear that Premier Mike Baird and his government would be wise to maintain good relations with both minor parties. This would ensure the Coalition has options in negotiating policies through the legislature. In particular, the government’s fiscal and political legitimacy rests upon the issue of electricity asset privatisation.

Given the tendency of Animal Justice supporters to lean left, Pearson is not going to have much scope to broker the type of policy outcomes he wants from the Coalition. The Nationals in particular see Animal Liberationists as an existential threat to their livelihoods and way of life.

Pearson clearly has some allies in the Greens MLCs; that party was instrumental in initiating an inquiry into greyhound racing before the ABC’s Four Corners and the animal rights movement lifted the lid on misconduct in the industry. This may be significant after the 2019 state election if that gives the Greens and AJP the kingmaker role. But it’s going to be a long four years for the new party.

No Land Tax Party may feel relief

The big “losers” from the announcement are No Land Tax, which seemed on track to pick up the last seat. However, given that the pressure of prospective success appeared to begin tearing the party apart, this may be a relief to some of its key figures.

Questions remain about the party’s use of the NSW official crest on one of its websites, its failure to pay campaign staff and the source of its funds. However, as No Land Tax slides back into obscurity, the media and major parties are less likely to pursue these questions.

The victory of the AJP is also likely to be a relief to the NSW Electoral Commission and the state’s taxpayers. It was one of two parties not listed on the iVote system’s electronic ballot paper as 19,000 votes were cast online before the error was corrected. The result means there is considerably less chance of a challenge to the vote or of a new election.

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