Palmer and the system rescue Greens from humiliation

Palmer and the system rescue Greens from humiliation

On February 28, West Australian Governor Malcolm McCusker issued a writ for the election of six senators for his state. In it he said polling day would be April 5. This "re-election" (to use the correct description) will be the first case of a separate half-Senate election, separate in two senses.

It will be separate both from a general election for the House of Representatives and separate from half-Senate elections in the other five states and the two territories.

Senators Sarah Hanson-Young, Sue Boyce and Louise Pratt.

Senators Sarah Hanson-Young, Sue Boyce and Louise Pratt.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

I give my take on it below. My most important point is to note how Clive Palmer has saved the Greens from humiliation.

Elections for half the Senate in each state begin with the issuing of a writ by the governor of the state and end with the return of that writ to the governor.


In the spring of 2013 the writ returns in two states were of especial interest.

In South Australia the writ listed these people as duly elected, in the order of their election: Cory Bernardi, Nick Xenophon, Penny Wong, Sarah Hanson-Young, Bob Day and Simon Birmingham.

In Western Australia the writ listed these people as duly elected, again in order of election: David Johnston, Joe Bullock, Michaela Cash, Linda Reynolds, Wayne Dropulich and Scott Ludlam.

What is truly extraordinary about the above lists is that only one name was Labor in each state, Wong in South Australia and Bullock in Western Australia.

Back when half-Senate elections were for five places (from 1953 to 1980, inclusive) it was always taken for granted that each major party was guaranteed two of the five places with the fifth going somewhere else or, alternatively, producing a three-two split between the big parties.

Given that it is easier for a big party to win two seats out of six than two out of five it is truly astonishing that Labor could win only one seat in each state.

Labor's second candidate in Western Australia was Senator Louise Pratt while their second candidate in South Australia was Senator Don Farrell. They mark the extremities on a lucky/unlucky scale.

The political atmosphere has changed so greatly since September I believe both Ludlam and Pratt will be re-elected.

So lucky Pratt. By contrast poor Farrell thought he could transition from the Senate to the South Australian House of Assembly, only to find himself blackballed by a premier who will surely go out of office on March 15.

More galling still for Farrell is the fact that the Labor rank and file voted for him to be the top candidate. Being the gentleman he is, however, he gave the top position to Wong on the ground that she is the Labor Senate leader.

Readers may be interested to know statistics for the parties of the left in the states where Greens were elected last September.

In South Australia, on first preferences, Labor had 1.5862 quotas and the Greens 0.4962, for a total of 2.0824.

In Western Australia, again on first preferences, Labor had 1.8613 quotas and the Greens 0.6643, a total of 2.5256.

In Victoria the quotas were 2.2714 and 0.7591 (total: 3.0305) and in Tasmania they were 2.2980 and 0.8161 (total 3.1141).

I predict the respective WA quotas on April 5 will be essentially the same as for Victoria on September 7 last year. In other words Ludlam will be elected by adding a Labor surplus to his own primary vote.

Looking at the above statistics for SA and WA why did not Labor win both seats for the left parties in both states, and see Hanson-Young and Ludlam defeated.

The answer is that, in both cases, the preferences of the Palmer United Party candidates (Zhenya Wang in WA and James McDonald in SA) favoured the Greens over Labor.

There are those observers who, in their dislike of group preference tickets for above-the-line votes, assert that the tickets are illogical and based on nasty deals behind closed doors. They assert that proof of this view was given by the fact that Palmer elected two Greens senators, Hanson-Young and Ludlam.

I defend the tickets and I dissent from that view. Clive Palmer's refugee policy is much closer to that of the Greens than Labor's.

Especially in the case of Hanson-Young I see it as entirely logical that Palmer's ticket preferences would favour her at the expense of the four other candidates who were serious contenders at the time McDonald's preferences were distributed.

In the case of Wang's preferences there were only two candidates left in the count, each seeking a quota of 187,183 votes. The final votes were 200,866 for Ludlam (including 69,844 preferences from Wang) and 166,551 for Pratt (including only 2,767 preferences from Wang).

The policy of the Greens is to get rid of the tickets so just imagine that the September 2013 election had been conducted under the system which is their policy. Both Hanson-Young and Ludlam would have been defeated.

Whereas in the actual election they did quite well (getting all incumbents re-elected and gaining a Senate seat in Victoria) under their favoured system they would have won Senate places only in Victoria and Tasmania.

In other words, the ticket preferences of the Palmer United Party saved the Greens from humiliation.

Finally, let me illustrate the extent to which the present system has been generous to the Greens.

In August 2010 the Greens polled 1,667,315 votes or 13.1 per cent of the formal Senate vote of 12,722,233. For that they won six of the 40 seats, or 15 per cent.

In September 2013 the Greens polled 1,159,588 votes or 8.6 per cent of the Senate formal vote of 13,413,019. For that they won four of the 40 seats, or 10 per cent.

Combining the two we have 2,826,903 votes for the Greens for a total formal vote of 26,135,252 which is 10.8 per cent. For that they will have 10 of the 76 senators, or 13.2 per cent.

Malcolm Mackerras is a visiting fellow at the Public Policy Institute in the Australian Catholic University's Canberra campus -

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