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WA Senate re-vote: polls, issues and the troubled voting system

Western Australian voters will head back to the polls next month to re-elect six senators. AAP/Paul Miller

Voters in Western Australia will head back to the polls on April 5 to re-elect six federal senators following a Court of Disputed Returns decision in February.

Ahead of polling day, the University of Western Australia’s Natalie Mast sat down with election analyst and PhD candidate William Bowe (aka “The Poll Bludger”) to discuss how the Senate election process and how the campaign is shaping up.

Among the topics of conversation were the issues WA voters are likely to see arise in this out of the ordinary campaign, the chances of election for major, minor and micro parties, and the future of the Senate voting system.

Natalie Mast: What issues are likely to be a factor in the campaign?

William Bowe: The Liberal Party would like the campaign to be about the carbon tax because, basically, they have very little going for them at this point of the electoral cycle.

They’re at the point of the cycle where they’re in the business of breaking the promises that were inconvenient to them and hoping that people have forgotten about it in two years’ time. So, what they would like done is the reorienting of public attention back to the promises the last government broke.

The Labor Party would like it to be about the record of the Abbott government so far. We’ve seen in opinion polls that it is not highly rated by the public. I guess that the Labor Party would always like an election campaign to be about health and education, and the government’s done some contentious things in terms of the Gonski reforms, and a few political things have been said by various Liberal people about what might be done with means-testing of Medicare and such.

Tony Abbott and the Coalition would like the WA Senate re-run to be fought on Labor’s opposition to the carbon tax repeal. AAP/Tony McDonough

NM: Have you seen any polling data that’s of use yet? If so, what’s the polling indicating?

WB: There was a poll a couple of weeks ago, which sort of snuck past the newspapers, from Patterson Market Research. It showed a much, much higher vote for the major parties, and a much, much lower vote correspondingly for the microparties that everyone was talking about after the Senate election result.

However, Senate opinion polling is notoriously wonky. Generally speaking, when Senate polls were conducted, they were piggybacked on top of House of Representatives polls. I think you got an effect where respondents have just answered a question about the House of Representatives, and I think they worry that they’ll look unsophisticated if they provide the same answer to both questions.

NM: In terms of support for the Liberal Party, will the Troy Buswell scandal play a part or is that purely a state issue?

WB: I think it will play an indirect part. I don’t think you’re going to see people going to the polling booth and casting a protest vote against Troy Buswell personally but it does add to the impression that the state government is a bit of a shambles, that people regret the fact that it won the election as clearly as it did, that they don’t think they deserved as big a mandate as they got.

I think there’s going to be a sense at this by-election that we’ve got Liberal governments at federal and state government and that we’re not very happy with either of them. That is likely to exacerbate the classic by-election effect of people wanting to cast a protest vote. And here’s an easy opportunity for people to take a kick at the Liberals because they’re not throwing them out of government and putting Labor in by doing so.

NM: Do you think Scott Ludlam’s “viral” speech has done the Greens’ prospects in WA any good, after their vote has gone backwards with each recent federal and state election?

WB: Yes, I think that he played a very good game there and is doing so more generally at the moment. I suspect that the awareness of him possibly losing his seat has engendered a bit of sympathy for him on the left and that will stand him in good stead. He’ll get more people voting for him who are swinging Labor/Greens voters.

I don’t think it’s going to cause his vote to go through the roof singlehandedly, but I think that it was a very well-judged speech by Ludlam as proved by the fact that it did indeed go viral. I imagine that the Greens’ vote will increase, notwithstanding that we’ve seen it gone down elsewhere. Particularly we’ve just seen it go down in Tasmania, but I think that was due to very locally specific factors.

The Greens vote went down at the 2013 election too. But I don’t think that’s part of a long-term trend; I don’t think we’re going to see the vote continue coming down. I just think they did extremely well in 2010. The circumstances of the 2010 election were ideal for the Greens. They weren’t as good in 2013 and that was the reason their vote came down. I think it’s a mistake to view that as a part of a long-term barrelling down trend.

And I think the Tasmanian election was similar to last year’s federal election in that respect. It’s a different dynamic in Western Australia. I certainly don’t expect their vote to go down further and I think it will be up a little bit.

Will an impassioned speech that went viral online save Greens senator Scott Ludlam? AAP/Alan Porritt

NM: Taking into account their performance in the Tasmanian and South Australian elections, is the Palmer United Party looking like a one-election wonder?

WB: That remains to be seen. It was interesting that they didn’t do better in Tasmania. But they’ve been playing both sides of the street, particularly with regards to the GST issue.

We’ve had a couple of by-elections in which the PUP didn’t field candidates in Queensland; they made no effort at all in South Australia; but they went very hard in Tasmania for their state election and now the Western Australian Senate. Now, this is all down to the electoral systems. They could theoretically have won lower house seats in Tasmania which normally they wouldn’t be able to do and they could have been in the mix, perhaps, of negotiating a minority government arrangement.

In Western Australia, obviously we’re talking about the federal Senate: this is the big game. So those are the two big elections, which naturally enough they decided were in their interests. Unfortunately for them, it presented them with having to play games on the GST. They are trying to say to Western Australian voters “you’re getting ripped off here because all your GST revenue is going to Tasmania”, when obviously that was a lethal position for them to take in Tasmania, assuming voters were conscious that it was happening.

So it could be that by pursuing the issue – which is absolutely the exact opposite of what he wanted to do in Tasmania – that Clive Palmer recognises he faces a very different electoral environment in Western Australia: one that is very conducive to him. He is campaigning very hard indeed; he did in Tasmania and did disappointingly there.

But I think before you write Palmer off in this campaign, the issue set in Western Australia is a lot more favourable to the PUP than it was in Tasmania.

NM: ABC election analyst Antony Green has been quite vocal in his disdain regarding preference deals among the microparties. When the candidates for the WA half-Senate election were announced, he was quoted as saying: “This will have to be the last time this election system is used, because it has become an international joke.”

Do you think Australia’s use of the Single Transferable Vote (STV) has become an international joke? And if so, should we be reforming the current version of the STV or moving to a different type of proportional representation?

WB: Actually, my preferred system – and I think what we’re going to eventually see – would be what they have in New South Wales. It is a STV system, but it’s one in which voters consciously need to direct their preferences. The great scandal, I think, is not STV itself. I think that voters should have as much power to use or not use their vote as they want.

By not using it, I think they need to be given the option for their vote to exhaust. And that’s particularly pertinent in relation to this system we have, where essentially people’s votes get corralled by the group ticket voting system and sent off in directions they would never imagine. That’s where the disgrace lies and New South Wales has done the logical thing about it.

In New South Wales, you do not just number one vote above the line and have your entire vote from beginning to end follow the pattern laid out by the party itself. You have to vote your own way above the line, you can number as many or as few boxes above the line as you like.

In practice, people vote in the Senate by just numbering one box above the line. What that means overwhelmingly is that people’s preferences don’t get distributed outside of the party that they’ve voted for. If you want to do that you can, but you have to actually go to the effort to say, consciously, I want my second preference to go to this party or that party.

That, I think, is the obvious solution. It hasn’t caused any problems in New South Wales. What it means in practice, though, is that very few preferences do get distributed and the final seats go to the parties who come nearest to a quota. You don’t have the system whereby everyone has to get to a quota to get elected because every vote is being counted to its full value because every preference is being counted to the umpteenth degree.

Federal Labor leader Bill Shorten and his WA counterpart, Mark McGowan, on the hustings. AAP/Tim Clarke

NM: The Senate was designed as a state’s house, that is to ensure that the views of the people in each state of the federation were given equal weight. Should people living outside of Western Australia, such as the candidates in the Help End Marijuana Prohibition Party or Philip Nitschke from the Voluntary Euthanasia Party be able to run for seats in WA?

WB: I think it’s fairly obvious that if you want to run for the Senate in a particular state you should be enrolled to vote there and that, in turn, requires that you be a resident there.

So, yes, I think we’ve exposed a big loophole here and one which perhaps has not come up as an issue before because not since 1906 have we had an election – a Senate election – held in one state only on a single day. At every other Senate election, you’ve got the entire range of states and territories to choose to run in. But now we’ve discovered that this sort of thing can happen.

As you say, it’s the states’ house and it is indeed making a joke of that. People from all around Australia are flocking to run in this election just to take advantage of the demonstrated fact that Senate elections are a bit of a lottery. You can win without any popular mandate to speak of so, yes, that’s one of many areas that I think reform needs to be considered.

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