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‘Palmer power’ will test Abbott, but it could give Clive some headaches too

Clive Palmer will now lead a party in a very powerful position. AAP/Daniel Munoz

Regardless of whether the Liberals’ Linda Reynolds or Labor’s Senator Louise Pratt wins the last West Australian Senate seat, the Abbott government will need the support of Clive Palmer’s PUP to pass any legislation opposed by the ALP and Greens.

The Greens, it was often said, held the Labor government hostage. Now Palmer can do the same to the Coalition.

With the WA win Palmer – whose party increased its WA vote from 5% in September to 12.5% - will have three PUP senators post July 1. He already had an alliance with the Motoring Enthusiast’s Ricky Muir, which made his Senate numbers three, but getting an extra seat has removed his dependence on that link, which could always become problematic.

If the Liberals win the final WA seat the government will need six of the eight crossbenchers to pass legislation which Labor and the Greens are against; if Labor wins the seat, the Coalition will require seven of the eight.

The political rise of the Queensland mining magnate has been one of the extraordinary stories of recent federal politics – a tale of money, chutzpah and farce.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said at the weekend she knew Palmer well. He was very entertaining, she declared, adding that “he can sing and he can dance” (presumably a reference to much-aired clips of Palmer in high spirits).

A merry dance he is likely to lead the government on some of its bills in coming months and years.

Tony Abbott has said the government will be keeping the crossbenchers in the post July 1 Senate “very much in the loop”. Beyond that, its precise management plan is unclear, or unformulated. It is certainly going to need one.

If he knew then what he knows now, would Abbott have rebuffed Palmer’s overtures before the 2013 election for Liberal National Party preselection? If, for instance, Palmer had been the LNP member of Fairfax, instead of the PUP member in command of a substantial Senate team, he would be a noisy internal irritant but not a wider force, and the Coalition’s own numbers in the new Senate would likely be stronger.

Very small players have held the crucial sway in the Senate before. But PUP’s ascension has been a one-off in terms of its creation - by a business/political celebrity with mega wealth who was willing to throw a big bankroll at acquiring parliamentary power.

Looked at another way, its rise also shows, as one Labor strategist remarked, how power can be bought relatively cheaply. Palmer spent several million dollars in pursuit of the WA Senate seat, outspending the majors. That’s what a (gold plated) national advertising campaign for dog food might cost.

But power won’t be all smooth sailing for Palmer. Given the diverse characters and political inexperience of his Senate team, holding them together could be a major feat, made more difficult by the fact he is not in the Senate himself and would prefer not to be tied all the time to the parliament.

One big message out of WA is that the major parties alienated people. Voters took out some of their frustrations about the re-run election on them.

With a 5.5% swing since the September election, the Liberals were down to 33.7%; Labor lost nearly 5%, falling to under 22%.

A decline in the majors’ support and a rise in the PUP and Greens vote was showing up in private party polling late last week. The two parties that seemed to be on the slide as a result of the Tasmanian election stormed home in WA.

Tim Colebatch, former Age columnist and an expert on election numbers, puts the parlous nature of the main parties’ vote into historical context.

On present numbers, this was the third worst result for the Liberals in any post war Senate election in WA, Colebatch says. In 1967 they polled 33.6%; in 1970 25.7%. In the 15 Senate elections from 1974 to 2010 the Liberal Senate vote in WA averaged 44%.

The trend in Labor voting must be alarming for the party, even though there were special factors such as the controversy surrounding the lead Labor candidate Joe Bullock, whose conservative social views and sledging of Pratt put off many people.

On Colebatch’s calculation, the average Labor vote in WA Senate elections was 45.2% in 1983-87 (the Bob Hawke/Brian Burke heyday); 35.1% in 1990-98 (post WA Inc); 34.2% in 2001-07 and 26% in 2010-14.

“There is a long-term trend against federal Labor in WA, and to a lesser extent, Queensland,” he says. “This is not something that began with the carbon tax.”

Colebatch also points out that the Greens vote of 15.9% (up 6.4% from September) is “easily the highest minor party vote in the west since World War 11 – the previous record was 12.5% for the Democrats in 1977. It’s also the highest Greens vote in a Senate election outside Tasmania”.

Whether it is a one-off revival remains to be seen. The Victorian election will be the next test, It was not just Palmer for whom money counted – the Greens threw a lot of dollars into the campaign. They were also helped by the Labor candidates’ shambles, and Greens Senator Scott Ludlam’s attack on Tony Abbott going viral on the internet.

The micro party votes were mostly little changed; unlike September, when preference whispering delivered one of them a seat (on one count) the magic didn’t work this time.

With Liberal and Labor both in the hunt for the last seat, Tony Abbott and Bill Shorten interpreted the result according their own campaigns.

Abbott, speaking in Japan, said: “The essential point is that for the third time running we’ve got a very strong vote against the carbon tax and against the mining tax.” Shorten said: “This is certainly no endorsement of the Liberals’ cuts to jobs, health and education.” With roughly equal swings against them, both had to find excuses in the nature of this unpopular poll for their vote falls.

What has been a tiresome election will keep each of them on tenterhooks for some time yet while the postal and prepoll votes are counted for the final result.

Listen to the latest Politics with Michelle Grattan podcast, with guest Francis Sullivan, here.

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