The 2013 Senate contest: Australia lurches to the right

The new Senate will be dominated by an expanding crossbench of minor and microparty members. AAP/Alan Porritt

With the official count of the Senate now completed, the implications of the contest and what it says about the mindset of the Australian body politic may now proceed.

The key consequences of the half-Senate election are as follows. First, the collective left-of-centre majority (that is, Labor and the Greens) that had been in place since July 1, 2011, will not apply after the new Senate is sworn-in on July 1, 2014. While both Labor and the Greens suffered swings against them in this election, the Greens were able to offset the loss of sitting senator Scott Ludlam in Western Australia (pending a request for a recount at the time of writing) with a gain of a seat in Victoria.

The real loser in the 2013 Senate contest has been the Australian Labor Party. In three states Labor failed to win a sufficient vote to secure two quotas (that is, two seats), and in South Australia Labor managed to win only one seat. Compared with its 2007 result, Labor also lost seats in Victoria, Tasmania and New South Wales. Labor’s national vote in the Senate was 30.1% - a swing against its 2010 result of over 5%.

However, Labor has not been the only major party to lose ground in this election. The Coalition has also suffered a net loss of a Senate position as a consequence of the failure of Helen Kroger to defend her seat in Victoria. These losses of both Labor and Coalition seats reflects the fact that with a combined primary vote of 67.7%, this is the worst performance the three major parties – Labor, Liberal and National – have had in Senate contests since the introduction of proportional representation in 1949.

The big winners in the 2013 contest have been the so-called “microparties”. The roll call of party representation in the Senate after July 1, 2014, will include the Palmer United Party (PUP) with three senators, the Liberal Democratic Party (one senator), the Family First Party (one senator), the Democratic Labor Party (one senator elected in 2010), as well as a senator from the Australian Motoring Enthusiasts Party (AMEP) from Victoria. This is the outcome that has caused the most gnashing of teeth across the land.

Also in this crossbench formation will be South Australian independent Nick Xenophon, whose ticket polled so strongly (24.8%) that it nearly won a second position. As it turned out, Green preferences sent Sarah Hanson-Young’s surplus to Family First, thus enabling that party to beat the Xenophon ticket’s Stirling Griff to the last available seat.

Table 1: 2013 Senate result on primary vote % by state and party.

This table includes 5% of the vote going to the Nationals, running on a separate ticket in Western Australia.

At one level these results appear to be deviant outcomes and suggest a problem with the Senate voting system. This is especially so when the election of Ricky Muir from the AMEP could occur even though he polled a mere 0.5% of the primary vote.

An account of the election of this group of candidates is possible, however, and is founded on three important facts that can be gleaned from data contained in the table above. First, the primary vote for the main parties (Labor, Coalition and Greens) was so weak in this election that they could not share the available seats between themselves in each state. Second, the total vote for all parties and candidates other than Labor, Coalition, and the Greens in every state was strong enough to achieve a full quota (or near enough to a full quota) and thus be entitled to a seat.

Finally, the parties outside the of the Labor-Coalition-Greens group ensured that one of their number would win a seat by directing preferences to each other, as is allowed under the Group Ticket Vote (that is, the “above the line”) voting system.

Accordingly, certain microparties figured as important influences on the outcome over which of their number would secure a seat. The success of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in NSW and the PUP in Queensland was based on the respective parties securing a very strong primary vote (9.5% and 9.9% respectively), but the process was completed by the flow of preferences - especially from the Sex Party.

The Sex Party also played important roles in channelling preferences to the PUP (in Tasmania) and to Muir and the AMEP in Victoria. The Sex Party may not have won any seats with a national vote of 1.4%, but its preferences have been crucial in a host of outcomes.

Greens senator Scott Ludlam has lost his WA seat after an extremely tight count, but is seeking a recount. AAP/Alan Porritt

Those alarmed and appalled by this result are already lining up to target the voting system for blame, but the proportional system used for the Senate does give a good insight into the political inclinations of the community that usually get obscured in the single member, majority voting system used in the House of Representatives where the major parties still win seats despite falling primary support.

The 2013 Senate result indicates that nearly 10% of the Australian electorate was unhappy with Labor and the Greens, and re-aligned their support accordingly. By the same token, the negligible movement in the swing for the Coalition indicated the extent to which voters were also ambivalent about the major party alternative to Labor and the Greens. The biggest swings were to the so-called microparties, with the PUP (4.9% nationally) and the LDP (3.0% nationally) leading the way. What’s more, these parties sit to the right of the debate, either as a consequence of their social conservatism, their small government ethos and/or their populism.

All in all, it is the Liberal Party that probably has the strongest grounds for concern at the outcome. At issue here is the performance of the LDP. The LDP’s strongest state was NSW, where the party drew the first position on the massive Senate ballot paper and may have been advantaged by a “donkey” vote.

Of greater concern to the Liberal Party, however, was the classification of the LDP and anecdotal evidence that voters may have mistaken the LDP for the LNP. If this is the case, the LDP may have won a seat at the expense of the LNP.

It would seem that one consequence of the LDP result will be an attempt at strengthening the rules governing the formation and registration of political parties to discourage the proliferation of microparties. This is an outcome that would probably please the AEC as well, given the difficulty it had in fitting everyone on the Senate ballot paper.

To do this, the Abbott government will have to convince Labor and the Greens to vote with the Coalition to get the necessary bills through what looks like being a difficult Senate.

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