Monday, July 19, 2010

In search of a friendly Senate

JULIA Gillard's main goal at this election is to win a second term. But she also has a second aim: to return with a less obstructive Senate.

If the polls are right, she will get it. Labor and the Greens between them are likely to win at least three seats in every state. And if that happens, the Greens alone will have the balance of power from next July.

That matters. Kevin Rudd lost office, in part, because he could not get the Senate to pass his emissions trading scheme. And that, in turn, was because Labor suffered an electoral disaster when we elected half of this Senate in 2004.

As a rule, the six Senate seats contested in each state divide 3-3 between the parties of the left and those of the right. The parties won't admit this but, usually, Labor and the Greens compete against each other, and the Liberals compete against independents and smaller parties of the right.

But sometimes Senate elections produce odd results and in 2004 Labor's weak vote created two of them. The senators elected then are the ones now facing re-election.

In Queensland, Labor won just 31.6 per cent of Senate votes, and saw Fishing Party preferences help Barnaby Joyce squeeze through to take the left's third seat, giving the Coalition four of the six seats in the state.

In Victoria, Family First's Steve Fielding polled just 1.85 per cent of the vote, yet then climbed step by step on everyone's else's preferences to take the left's third seat. Labor too directed its votes to him ahead of the Greens, only to find he was not really its type of guy.

Senators serve six-year terms, so those senators are up for re-election this time. And the odds are that the Coalition will lose that fourth seat in Queensland, and barring bizarre preference deals Senator Fielding will go down in Victoria.

In 2004, the Coalition won 19 of the 36 Senate seats from the states, Labor 14, the Greens 2 and Family First 1. But in 2007, the odd results were on the other side: in Tasmania, Labor took the last seat from the Coalition, and in South Australia, Nick Xenophon took another seat off them.

The half of the Senate not up for re-election this time has just 16 Coalition senators, 16 Labor, three Greens and Xenophon. But that won't be repeated this time. Xenophon is not standing, the Liberals have rebounded in Tasmania, and the polls suggest the Greens will erode Labor's vote.Let's look at each state.

VICTORIA split its seats 3-all last time between Labor and the Coalition, but only just. The closest Senate race in the country saw the Greens' Richard di Natale ousted in a three-way contest for the last two seats, losing to Labor by 0.4 per cent, and to the Coalition by 0.8 per cent. This could be his revenge.

Victoria has always split its seats 3-3 between left and right. Labor is sure to win two seats, which will go to Industry Minister Kim Carr and Communications Minister Stephen Conroy. The Coalition is sure of two, which will go to the Liberals' Michael Ronaldson, its shadow minister for integrity in government, and to the Nationals' newcomer Bridget McKenzie, a 39-year-old university lecturer.

Barring an electoral landslide or bizarre preference deals, the real contests will be between Labor and the Greens, and between the Coalition and Senator Fielding.

Dr di Natale will be up against Labor's third candidate, National Union of Workers state secretary Anthony Thow. Senator Fielding will be up against Julian McGauran, who defected from the Nationals to the Liberals after the 2004 poll, and has spent 20 years in the Senate.

NSW also split its seats 3-3 last time between Labor and the Coalition. But the Greens need a swing of just 1.6 per cent from Labor to take the last seat, and if the polls are right, they should get it.

That would give us Bob Brown's least favourite colleague: NSW Greens leader Lee Rhiannon, an ex-communist and the best known face of the Green's left wing.

The Coalition's main threat appears to be the Reverend Fred Nile's Christian Democrats. Last time they were just 2.6 per cent short of the final seat.

QUEENSLAND also split its seats 3-3 in 2007 between the Coalition and Labor. But the Greens needed to win just another 0.7 per cent from Labor to take the final seat.

This time the Liberals and Nationals are running a joint ticket, and should hold three of their four seats.

WA has been predictable for years. The Liberals always win three seats, Labor two, with the sixth seat going to a party to the left: first the Nuclear Disarmament Party, then the Democrats, and, since 2004, the Greens.

Probably the same this time.

SA, by contrast, surprised us all in 2007. The Liberals and Labor each won just two seats, independent Nick Xenophon took the third Liberal seat, and the Greens inherited the seat formerly won by the Democrats.

With no Xenophon in the race this time, the contests are likely to be the same as in Victoria: Labor v Greens for one seat, and Liberals v Family First for the other. SA is Family First's strongest state and, if preference deals go their way, their best chance this time.

Tasmania was the Liberals' weakest state in 2007, and the Greens' strongest. The seats then split Labor 3, Liberals 2, Greens 1, with the Greens just 3.7 per cent short of making it 2 seats all.

The polls and the recent state election suggest a big rebound in the Liberal vote. The odds this time are strongly on the normal outcome: Liberals 3, Labor 2 and Greens 1.

The territories have two seats each, which have always split 1-1 between the major parties. But Liberal support in the national capital is low, and the

ACT always has a chance of an upset, in which the Greens ride on Labor's surplus to top the Liberals.

Last time, former ACT Greens leader Kerrie Tucker ended up just 1.7 per cent short. But that was a high-water mark they might struggle to repeat.

At this stage, no upset looks likely. My tip is that the Coalition will win 20 of the 40 seats, Labor 14 and the Greens 6.

This would give us a new Senate from mid-2011 with 36 Coalition senators, 30 Labor, nine Greens and Xenophon. Labor and the Greens would have 39 of the 76 seats between them, with the Greens holding the balance of power.



Facing Elected Total

election in 2007

(40) (36) (76)

Labor 16 16 32

Coalition 21 16 37

Greens 2 3 5

Family First 1 1

Xenophon 1 1