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Count could spring surprises

Date

John Warhurst

Even assuming a Labor 7, Liberals 8, Greens 2 result, there is still the question of which MPs will represent us.

Elections ACT Staff members continue counting ballots at the ACT Electoral Office in Belconnen.

Elections ACT Staff members continue counting ballots at the ACT Electoral Office in Belconnen. Photo: Jeffrey Chan

The verdict of The Canberra Times poll last Thursday that the ACT Legislative Assembly status quo would prevail proved incorrect and the conclusion that ''Labor will hold power'' was correct but premature. Whether it had an impact on the final result no one will ever know. The impact could have gone either way.

Yet the likely bare one-seat margin to Labor and the Greens is misleading in that, despite an impressive swing, the Liberals are still quite a long way from that extra seat in their own right in either Ginninderra or Molonglo.

Ultimately the ACT election result can be boiled down to Labor and the Greens winning two of the three electorates in terms of both votes and seats. Ginninderra was always going to be the swing seat and it seems neither the Liberals nor Chic Henry for the Motorist Party could snatch it away from Labor and the Greens.

A one-seat margin is more comfortable in a Hare Clark system such as the ACT than in a single-member electorate system such as the House of Representatives. The one-vote margin of the governing party can still be overturned by an MP crossing the floor but it cannot be undermined at a by-election, because instead of by-elections on the death or retirement of an MP there are recounts that invariably elect a member of the same party. So there will be no damaging speculation about an MP falling under a bus of the type that has haunted the Gillard government.

The presumption of a Labor 7, Liberal 8, Greens 2 result does not mean there is no interest in the remaining count. Things could change. Even if that overall result stands it is not clear which individual MPs will be elected for their party. Preference distribution often provides surprises in the ACT system. It is not certain for instance that Simon Corbell has been replaced by Meegan Fitzharris for Labor in Molonglo or that Chris Bourke has fought off Yvette Berry for Labor in Ginninderra or that Val Jeffrey won't challenge Andrew Wall for the Liberals in Brindabella. Shane Rattenbury and Caroline Le Couteur are also close for the Greens in Molonglo.

What of the unsuccessful major party candidates? Persistence paid off this time for Giulia Jones and for former MLA, Mick Gentleman, who had stood before. They are the models for losing colleagues, whose turn may come, either through recounts in this new term or next time. There is no alternative but to persevere, even though saddling up again is difficult to consider in the immediate aftermath.

On Saturday night it was unusual that two parties, Labor and the Liberals, were celebrating. And all three of the main parties have serious thinking to do on the assumption of Labor-Green 9 and Liberals 8.

Labor should first reflect on the rates as part of its bigger tax reforms. Labor rejects the Liberal claim that it is tripling ACT rates but must admit to a communication and marketing problem. The Liberal campaign cut through. Time will tell about rates but Labor should not rely on time alone to heal the wounds. One of the tasks of the new government is to better explain the costs and benefits of the new system to ratepayers. It may even want to rejig aspects of the reforms, given that, unlike the federal carbon and mining taxes, they are not essentially ideological.

Katy Gallaghershould lighten her load and drop the health portfolio. She must consider, too, whether she needs a sixth minister and whether she should offer a ministry to the Greens in the negotiations which will follow.

The Liberals are on cloud nine now. But, unless they somehow snatch an unlikely win as counting continues, they will come down to earth. An inch is as good as a mile and another four years is a long time. Opposition is a hard place to be.

They will be revitalised by some new blood , but may need to adjust their leadership positions, as both leaders are based in Tuggeranong, in the Brindabella electorate. Zed Seselja will have to steel himself for the hard grind of another four years. Many Opposition leaders call it quits after two losses, no matter how meritorious. Brendan Smyth may have to consider whether he should step down as deputy for Jeremy Hanson.

The Greens have two tasks. They must examine what caused their diminished vote; in particular whether the form of their alliance with Labor was part of the problem. As they are doing that they have immediate negotiations to enter. Realistically they can only be with Labor. They have at least three options. One would be to seek a ministry. A second would be to seek to retain the speakership. A third would be to play a more traditional cross-bench role.

The longer term, beginning with the ACT centenary next year, looks fascinating. On the party political front the 2013 federal election will undoubtedly change the dynamics of ACT politics if Tony Abbott's Coalition wins as predicted. That outcome would make the job of the ACT Liberals harder.

On the structural front the ACT still needs a larger Assembly and more government ministers. If that goes ahead the form in which it happens will impact on the political contest. Three seven member electorates with lower quotas would suit the Greens and smaller parties, while five member electorates (four or five) would play into the hands of Labor and Liberal.

John Warhurst is an emeritus professor of political science at the Australian National University.

John.Warhurst@anu.edu.au

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