View from The Hill

View from The Hill

WA Senate poll: money and madness in the wild west

Clive Palmer has spent a lot of money to be a factor in the West Australian senate byelection. AAP/Tim Clarke

It’s a bit rich for Labor to be urging frustrated and disillusioned West Australians to get out and vote in this Senate re-run election.

Its number 1 candidate Joe Bullock has surely given them plenty of reasons not to rouse themselves to mark their ballot papers for the ALP. In his comments last November, which have just surfaced, Bullock has painted his party as full of mad people, dissed his fellow candidate Louise Pratt, and declared that Tony Abbott (who he’d been with at university) “potentially could be a very good prime minister”.

Bullock, who’d won a Senate place at the election, was speaking to a Christian group, the Dawson Society, and his provocative remarks came as he loosened up in answering questions.

He spent Friday, election eve, saying sorry to all and sundry – notably state Labor MPs and Pratt.

If the ALP loses votes due to Bullock, it only has itself to blame. The installation of the long time “shoppies” official showed the worst of union and factional power.

Labor has been hoping for two seats. If it fails to get two, the result will be interpreted in the national sphere as a rebuff for Bill Shorten, whatever the precise reasons.

It’s not just Labor that has fallen victim to itself. One would have thought things could not get worse for the Australian Electoral Commission. Its incompetence in losing Senate ballot papers from the September poll is the reason people are voting again. Now it has had residents in a nursing home (of all places) recast votes, because it used a faulty ballot box initially. Heads have already rolled after the earlier blunder; those wanting a root and branch inquiry into the AEC have a case.

For the Liberals this campaign has been running at a most difficult time. With tough budget cuts coming up, speculation has been rife about what will be hit.

In the final week the GST entered the stage, when Treasury secretary Martin Parkinson urged a rebalancing of the tax system to put more weight onto indirect taxes (the tax white paper is still only on the distant horizon).

The expected low turnout - together with Labor’s problems, the Palmer factor, a plethora of micro parties and preference dealing - has made the players and others reluctant to chance their arms with any confidence about how the six seats will fall out. There’s a large element of guesswork.

The general expectation has been that the Liberals would retain the three they won in September, Labor would get two and the last seat would be a tussle between Clive Palmer’s PUP and the Greens.

Late party polling has found the Liberals and ALP both under what they received in September, and PUP and the Greens doing well. If that were replicated, it could produce two Liberals, one Labor, one PUP, one Green and the last seat fought out between Liberal and Labor.

This research found people were turning away from the majors to the minor parties (Palmer and Greens), while anecdotally the “micro” parties seem to have a bad name after much negative publicity post the September election. They are certainly likely to be dealt a blow by the time of the next election with widespread support for reform of the Senate voting system to prevent parties with a tiny vote winning seats.

The Liberals in particular have been focused on whether Clive Palmer’s huge spend will be enough to secure him a place, boosting his representation in the post July 1 Senate to three (with another senator aligned). Abbott complained this week that Palmer was “out there trying to buy seats in the Parliament” (Palmer’s reply was that Abbott was happy enough when his money was going to the conservatives),

Ebiquity, which monitors advertising, says that of 1700 TV spots in the last month, PUP had 804, the Greens 259, the ALP 125, and the Liberals 60. This represents a spend by Palmer of $477,000, compared with the ALP’s $68,000, Greens’ $116,000 and Liberals’ $53,000.

With control of three Senate votes, Palmer already is set to have a pivotal role in the Senate. His power would be boosted considerably with a bloc of four. Sitting in the lower house, Palmer has enjoyed the luxury so far of having only himself to manage. Whether he turns up for votes doesn’t matter - and he misses most. Riding shotgun on his senators, when the numbers mean votes are vital, is likely to be a severe test for him.

In the Senate produced by the September election, the government would have needed the support of six of the eight crossbenchers to pass legislation opposed by Labor and the Greens. ABC election analyst Antony Green says the WA vote could produce this result again, or see it needing six of seven, or seven of eight or nine.

Compared with their September choice, WA voters have the capacity to make it marginally harder for the Coalition to pass its legislation after July 1. Rarely do voters get a second bite at the cherry so soon after an election and never before on this scale. A pity so many of them feel they are being asked to bite into a lemon.