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WA Senate byelection puts parties in unfamiliar territory

ALP leader Bill Shorten says a Senate byelection campaign is so unusual that all parties are ‘making it up as you go along’. AAP/Tim Clarke

Federal ALP leader Bill Shorten recently likened the sensation of campaigning at the Western Australian Senate byelection to riding downhill on a tricycle with legs and feet akimbo. This assessment is as ebullient as it is apt.

Byelections are atypical electoral contests, which usually lack the momentum and urgency of full elections. They are almost always plagued by low turnout and general voter apathy.

This byelection is particularly novel because of the size of the electorate that will take part and the chamber that is the subject of the contest. This byelection affects 1.48 million electors who will vote as a single statewide constituency to elect six senators. This compares to the more familiar cases of electorates that involve 90,000 or so voters who are asked to elect a single candidate to represent a more tightly contained constituency.

Similarly, the circumstances that occasioned this byelection are different to most. Byelections are commonly triggered by the retirement of a local member. The result is that voters almost always punish the incumbent party.

This time it will be much more difficult for voters to reprove any one particular party because the agent responsible for recalling them to the ballot box is the Australian Electoral Commission.

Balance of power unlikely to change

As a number of commentators have observed, the outcome of the WA Senate byelection is unlikely to materially affect the balance of the new Senate from July 2014.

The Abbott Coalition government will not emerge with a majority of senators even if, as looks likely, it does secure three of the six vacancies. The government will still have to negotiate to get its bills though the chamber.

What is ultimately at stake is not control of the Senate but the political credibility of the competing parties.

If big-spending Clive Palmer’s Palmer United Party fails to get a seat, its bubble will have burst. AAP/Dave Hunt

For the Palmer United Party (PUP), this byelection is a test of electoral viability that it can ill afford to fail. If the outcome was measured only in terms of the size of a party’s campaign spend, then PUP would be assured of victory. But the party’s lacklustre performance at the Tasmanian and South Australian state elections last month has cast doubt over its prospects of securing a Senate vacancy.

A flash mob in the Perth CBD might be an innovative way for the Greens to launch their campaign but it might not be enough to save Scott Ludlam. The Greens need this win after a run of electoral disappointments. On a more practical front, the loss of Ludlam may add considerably to the workload of the Greens’ already stretched parliamentary group.

Major parties play it as a referendum

This byelection also carries risks for the major parties. While it would be a mistake to draw hasty conclusions about the broader political landscape based on the results of this byelection, both sides have invited such speculation by claiming the contest is a mini-referendum on their opponents.

For its part, the Abbott government has campaigned on the repeal of the carbon and mining taxes, two issues that have traction in Western Australia. The success of Operation Sovereign Borders has also buoyed the government’s electoral outlook.

But as one of the Liberals’ staunchest states, even the smallest dint in support for the party in Western Australia has the potential to harm the government in the short and long-term. Labor would use such a result to make the case that whatever “mandate” the government may have had from the general election last September has evaporated.

Labor’s campaign has centred on the party’s core policy areas of health, education and job security. Shorten has used the impending May federal budget to talk up the prospects of cuts to public services. A teachers’ strike on Wednesday provided the opposition leader with access to a sympathetic audience of 20,000 potential voters.

But while federal ALP has a new leader, the old politics of the party remain bare for all to see. Labor’s number one Senate candidate, Joe Bullock, is a controversial former shop union state secretary.

In regular elections, parties are generally able to manage the visibility of their more problematic Senate candidates. This byelection has made it impossible for senate candidates to avoid the scrutiny that is typically reserved for lower house candidates and party leaders. With Newspoll showing that Western Australian voters continue to remain unconvinced by federal Labor, its lead senate candidate is unlikely to enhance the party’s electoral prospects.

Given the size of the field it may take some weeks before the full results are confirmed. In the meantime, buckle up and enjoy what is likely to be an intriguing show.

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