The Coalition's chance of improving its position is slim, but the possibility of its position becoming worse, and of practical government becoming more difficult, is significant.) Photo: David Rowe
Tony Abbott ought to be cursing the virtual inevitability of a fresh West Australian Senate election about two months from now. The Coalition's chance of improving its position is slim, but the possibility of its position becoming worse, and of practical government becoming more difficult, is significant.
Even worse is the difficulty of having an important by-election early in the government's term, when it would normally have some latitude to be making initially unpopular decisions.
Abbott is already juggling the consequences of unequivocal promises, made during the election campaign six months ago, that there would be no cuts to education, health and welfare, as well as to institutions such as the ABC.
As he remarked early this week, one of the lessons of Julia Gillard's last term is that a government that repudiates its promises faces a big backlash from voters.
His political opponents - probably including the Coalition premier of Western Australia, Colin Barnett - will be seeking to lure him into reiterating 2013 promises, and making new ones adapted for the economic situation of 2014, including a downturn in economic activity in Western Australia as the mining boom plateaus.
At the same time, Treasurer Joe Hockey will be trying to bed down a budget that involves a considerable contraction of expenditure, as well as a withdrawal of the Commonwealth from some fields in which it has previously played a major role. The Commission of Audit was supposed to lay the ground, even as there is some evidence of both increasing business and popular nervousness about the state of the economy.
It is not, in short, an ideal time to be having a by-election, let alone one resolving six places in a Senate in which the government lacks numbers and which, regardless, will be controlled by independents such as Clive Palmer supporters.
Strictly speaking, it was only the last two Senate places of the six that were controversial. No one was disputing that it was a Liberal (David Johnston) who topped the poll, followed by Joe Bullock, Labor, Michaelia Cash (Liberal) and Linda Reynolds (Liberal). The question before the Court of Disputed Returns was whether the fifth elected was Wayne Dropulich (Australian Sports Party) and the sixth Scott Ludlam (Greens.)
There were 62 candidates in 27 different groupings or parties for the six state Senate positions. A good number were from so-called ''micro parties'' that had organised tight preference swaps.
The court was primarily wrestling with the consequences of 1370 votes that were initially counted but disappeared at a recount. There is also argument about whether another few hundred disputed votes should have been admitted or rejected.
The differences became critical at the 50th stage in the distribution of preferences. First time around, the Shooters and Fishers Party candidate was 14 votes ahead of the Australian Christians, so the preferences that had flowed to the Christians were distributed. After further exclusions based on this, Palmer United Party candidate Zhenya ''Dio'' Wang won the fifth seat, with the sixth going to Labor's Louise Pratt.
On the recount ordered because of the closeness of the ballot, the position was different, aggravated by the missing votes. This time, the Christians were ahead of the Shooters and Fishers by one vote. Thus the Shooters and Fishers Party's preferences, rather than those of the Christians, were distributed. This gave the fifth position to Dropulich and the last to the Greens.
At a fresh election, new candidates could announce. It is doubtful that micro parties could organise as successfully as they did before, but there is no reason why an effective issues candidate could not emerge as a winner by playing preference games.
What is not clear is what the Liberals have to gain. They did well in September to win three seats, and they can probably expect to retain them. Their real success was to reduce Labor to only one of the six seats, a feat of incompetence (duplicated in South
Australia) that Labor may not be able to match this time around.
To win only one seat requires fewer than 28 per cent of the votes (14 per cent is enough) after preferences. In a normal six-seat contest, Labor would expect to win at least two seats, with the third going to a minor party, these days the Greens.
If that happens, the Coalition will continue to have problems in getting its legislation through the Senate even after July 1 - not insuperable problems, but ones involving constant negotiations with the minor parties, including the Clive Palmer rump that will be anxious to be seen to extract just the sort of concessions and ''cheerio calls'' that Abbott denounced so strongly last time, when Labor had a working relationship with the Greens and independents.
The problem is not that Abbott lacks the pragmatism or flexibility to deal with small groups, it's that he made such a pretence of virtue about promising he would make no such deals.
An election, if called tomorrow, would probably occur in April. Meanwhile, the government had been hoping to lay the ground for big cuts through the Commission for Audit's report. The budget is due in mid-May. Hockey, and even Abbott, have done reasonably well in creating a climate of being hostile to personal or corporate entitlement, but they are wrestling with unease about major manufacturing closures, with drought relief, and retrenchments in the mining industry, particularly in WA.
There are some signs that the popularity of the Barnett government is in decline, that its revenue position has deteriorated, and that government may well, for local purposes, work hard to commit Abbott to spending commitments, whether in health and education or on more amorphous infrastructure projects.
A strategic, as well as tactical, Labor will no doubt be seeking not only to freshen Abbott's commitments and embarrassments, but to suggest that he can hardly wait to repudiate them. In all of this, it is by no means clear that ''blame game'' politics - whether played by Abbott (''when we got in we discovered the cupboard was bare and the tenants had trashed the place'') or Shorten (''this government has already repudiated significant promises and is gearing up to do more'' - will be the focus of voter concerns.
They will be rather more likely to focus on the future than the past, and on questions of security rather than symbols. But traditionally in by-elections - and this, on a large (and, in Australia's history so far, unique) scale is what it is - governments often get a kicking from voters who are conscious that the outcome will not lead to a change of government. If the recent Griffith by-election - which saw a very unusual slight (but unavailing) swing towards the Coalition - is any guide, voters may not be in a mood to inflict great punishment. But it's hard to see them acquiring much enthusiasm either.
Jack Waterford is editor-at-large.