The West Australian senate election will be staged again on April 5. There has never been anything like it in Australian political history and it is like having a senate byelection.
The result will be important for several reasons. Yet the emphasis on the recount, followed by several inquiries into the 1370 lost votes and then the Court of Disputed Returns, has distracted attention from what actually happened in this part of the federal election last September.
In short, the conservative side of politics, though fractured, did very well as it did just about everywhere else. Labor and the Greens did badly. The Coalition had three candidates elected but, decisively, a fourth centre-right seat went either to the Palmer United Party (first count) or the Sports Party (second count). Labor won two seats first time around but only one in the second count when the sitting Greens senator, Scott Ludlam, was re-elected.
The consequence of the conservative side of politics doing well was that Labor and the Greens lost control of the senate from this July.
The Coalition won some control, but only with the support of a wide range of independents and minor parties, including not just PUP but also some micro-parties.
The rise of PUP and the micro-parties was the biggest story (apart from the lost votes) alongside the change in the major party balance of power.
As a consequence, there has been considerable discussion of reforming aspects of the senate electoral system, including above-the-line voting, to prevent the election of micro-parties through extended preference deals.
Each of the contenders has something different at stake. The Coalition wants to maintain its strong position. Labor has a chance at redemption, and the Greens will want to retain their sitting senator. PUP and the Sports Party each want to hold on to a fourth ''conservative'' seat as it could be a most exciting time holding the Abbott government to ransom.
Unlike the House of Representatives byelection in Griffith, there are multiple themes at work in Western Australia. One of them is essentially the same: an electoral test for the Abbott government and the Shorten Opposition to see how they are travelling; especially important for Bill Shorten, who is under early pressure.
The second theme is that this time it really means something in terms of future public policy and control of one chamber of parliament. As Labor national secretary George Wright has written: it is the last opportunity to shape our Parliament for the next 2½ years.
The third theme is a re-examination of whether 2013 was a fluke in terms of the performance of PUP and the micro-parties and whether the micro-parties are here to stay as long as the electoral system is unchanged. Finally, the Greens, after some lean years, need a good performance, too.
The government should pass the first test. Western Australia is one of their strongest states and WA-type issues, such as the mining tax, play into the campaign story that the government will be trying to sell. Furthermore, the government is fortunate that this election will be held before the May budget. The budget, expected to be extremely tough, may mark a line in the sand and be the end of any honeymoon for this government.
Labor, for its part, is unlucky that it has to fight on particularly difficult terrain.
It has been weak in Western Australia for some time now. Still, Shorten has to perform in a byelection atmosphere in which a swing against the Abbott government should be expected.
History demands it.
What Labor has got going for it is that this time the result really means something. Labor and the Greens can hang their hats on the slogan: ''Keep the senate in Labor-Green hands and'' (in words that Labor is already using) ''hold Abbott accountable''.
It is not really true because the senate numbers don't stack up, but it is sort of true. A better result from Labor and the Greens will lessen government control of the senate. The government will have to bargain with even more minor-party senators than it is expecting. Labor and the Greens should be aiming for three senators between them (Labor two and Greens one). At what is effectively a senate byelection, it should be achievable.
Are the PUP and/or the micro-parties, such as the Sports Party, a flash in the pan? The latter, in particular, have had bad press since last September from election experts and the general media. But the system that they manipulated so successfully last September remains in place and there is no systemic reason the micro-parties shouldn't do just as well. There may be other reasons, of course. The electorate may have turned away from them. WA Premier Colin Barnett predicts a swing to the bigger parties, but that remains to be seen.
This election will be fiercely fought, but to the discomfort of eastern states-based parliamentary party leaders (Abbott, Shorten and Christine Milne), who will dread the amount of concentrated cross-Nullabor flying that will be necessary.
It will also be to the discomfort of party organisation treasurers because money is tight all round. Money is already another special theme of this campaign. The smaller parties will be hard hit. The Greens claim that they are trying to raise $400,000 for key television advertising spots. Labor and the Greens allege that they are up against corporate big bucks from the mining sector, which will be channelled to the Coalition and PUP. Certainly a lot is at stake for all concerned.
John Warhurst is an emeritus professor of political science at the Australian National University.