Western Australia Senate Election

Three options are open to the Court of Disputed Returns in regard to the Western Australian Senate election. They could confirm the original result giving the last two positions to Palmer and Labor, the final count could be allowed to stand – with the positions going to the Sports Party and the Greens, or they could call a new election.

If this was a lower house seat with such a close margin and so many votes under question and missing there is little doubt a new election would be called. The problem from the court’s point of view is that a new election would create the possibility that the third Liberal, who was unambiguously elected on September 7 could lose, most likely with both Labor and the Greens taking a seat.

I gather that Labor has pushed for the first outcome, preferring the certainty it would offer to having to face another election. However, I wonder if they are starting to doubt this choice. A new election in WA must now be looming as Abbott’s worst nightmare and a great chance for the ALP to cement itself as favourites for the next election.

From the start it was obvious that a new election, with the focus entirely on the Senate and Australia’s traditional backlash against incumbent governments had a good chance of producing a result of two Liberals, two Labor, one Green and one other – most likely Palmer. That would make it harder for the government to pass it’s legislation after July 1. When Labor and the Greens vote together they would need just two others to vote with them to block legislation, rather than three.

While this in itself would be a blow to the government, the risk of what a really big swing would do to their image may actually be larger.

In order for both Labor and a Green to get up the two parties would need to swap preferences and get a combined swing of a little under 7% if the got no preferences from small parties at all. However, with more than 4% of the vote last time going to parties that put the Greens or Labor relatively high (even if not as high as many would have hoped) the required swing may be quite a bit smaller.

The focus on the Senate is likely to benefit the Greens. I suspect even many people quite hostile to the Greens would acknowledge that a public debate that puts Scott Ludlum front and centre against Michaela Cash and Linda Reynolds would work strongly in his favour. The situation for Labor is less clear. Lousie Pratt will also easily outshine the Liberal candidates, but a senate focus may lead to bleeding away from both major parties.

However, all that is likely to be overshadowed by the collapse in coalition support. William Bowe’s BludgerTrack is showing a 4.7% swing away from the government on two party preferred since the election. However, in WA that swing is 8.5%. This shouldn’t be too surprising. The coalition vote was so stratosphericly high at the last election it has further to fall. The announcement of Holden’s closure may see other states catch up with the WA swing, but it is unlikely to improve the government’s polling across the Nullarbor either.

For Abbott, suffering a substantial swing in the Griffith by-election will be embarrassing, but something of a one week wonder. Getting hammered in WA, with a result that will be eagerly mapped onto House of Representatives seats to show how many the Liberals would have lost with the same vote, would be a different matter entirely. Polls come and go, and are ignored by most of the population. A crushing defeat in the largest by-election in history would be a different matter.

I’ve been fairly sceptical of the idea that the Liberal Party would roll Abbott if his polling gets bad enough (although not as sceptical as I am of the idea that they would turn to Turnbull over Hockey). However, a double figure primary vote swing, which is certainly a possibility, across an entire state would have to change that equation.

About Stephen Luntz

I am a science journalist, specialising in Australian and New Zealand research across all fields of science. My book, Forensics, Fossils and Fruitbats: A Field Guide to Australian Scientists is out now through CSIRO Publishing. I am also a professional returning officer for non-government organisations. I'm very politically active, but generally try to restrict this blog to scientific matters.
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