Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Labor could hand the Coalition the Senate

THE threat by ALP leaders to direct Labor preferences to the Liberals ahead of the Greens would have no impact in the House of Representatives. But it might cost the Greens a Senate seat or two and give the Coalition control of the Senate.

If they mean it, it's a high-risk threat. Like them or loathe them, the Greens are Labor's ally. In 2010, 45 of Labor's 72 MPs won their seats on Green preferences. In the whole of Queensland, Western Australia, Tasmania and both territories, every Labor MP got there on Greens preferences.

Labor's tough guys brush aside the threat: except in five seats at most, Greens voters will ultimately have to choose between Labor and Tony Abbott. Election after election has shown that Greens how-to-vote cards make almost no difference: most Greens voters give their preferences to Labor whether told to or not.

But in the House, Labor's threat is hollow. In the handful of seats the Greens have a chance of winning, Labor preferences will not be distributed. In seats such as Melbourne, and at a stretch, Batman and Wills, the fight would be between the Greens and Labor. Liberal preferences would decide it.

The Senate is different. Given the size of the ballot paper, most of us tick the box for our party and its preferences, rather than fill out our own. In 2004, Labor preferences put Family First's Steve Fielding into the Senate instead of the Greens. They could do it again.

In 2010 it wouldn't have mattered. The Greens' vote hit record levels, and except in New South Wales, they won either a full quota or close to it. Where they got Labor preferences, they didn't need them. But if their vote falls a bit in 2013, Labor preferences could be crucial. If Labor and the Coalition swap preferences, they could limit the Greens to Tasmania and Victoria.

For Labor, the risk is that it could give the Coalition control of the Senate. Ultimately it has to decide which party is its real enemy and which its ally.