Federal politics in Australia, at present, is like watching a home-owner planting flowers in their front garden, knowing full well that their house is likely to be demolished for a new freeway. The flowers just aren’t that interesting until we know what’s happening with the freeway.
It is not being openly discussed, but blocking that freeway development and leaving Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s house standing will be front-of-mind for Liberal Party strategists.
What is not widely appreciated is just how likely it is that we’ll see a new half-Senate election in Western Australia.
Former federal police commissioner Mick Keelty has made his report into what went wrong in the Western Australian recount, and gave the Australian Electoral Commission a good kicking for its lax standards. It had, he said, "failed to meet its own high standards and damaged its reputation with the community and parliament".
The AEC itself has petitioned the High Court, sitting as the Court of Disputed Returns, to declare the election void and call another election – costing tax payers $13 million, and forcing disgruntled sandgropers to trudge, again, to polling booths.
While the Palmer United Party thinks we should just accept the first vote, in which it won a Western Australian Senate seat, Labor and the Greens have every reason to push for another election. Indeed, electoral law simply does not allow for the AEC to say “oh well, we stuffed the recount, so let’s go back to the first set of numbers”.
And a new election is the last thing Tony Abbott needs.
After the dodgy recount, in which 1370 ballot papers went missing, the first Senate result – which was three Libs, two ALP and one Palmer United Party senator – were replaced with a quite different list: three Libs, one ALP, one Green and one Sports Party senator.
After the recount was finished, and the new Western Australian Senate seats were declared, the full list of first-preference quotas was as shown in the table below.
I have highlighted two important voting blocks: the Liberal Democrats, which got 0.24 of a quota (equal to 44,902 votes) and the Sports Party which got 0.016 of a quota (or 2,997 votes).
These parties are of interest because, by and large, they are not parties that Western Australian voters thought they were voting for.
In the case of the Sports Party, first preference votes show that that really had next-to-no electoral support – candidate Wayne Dropulich won by harvesting preferences from just about every other minor party.
In the case of the Liberal Democrats, many of their votes were accidents. By appearing to the left of the Liberal Party on the Senate ballot paper, they picked up not only ‘donkey’ votes (in which a voter just numbers the square on the paper in the order they appear) but also many ‘Liberal’ votes – many voters confused the parties’ names.
In the Queensland result, where the Liberal Democrats appeared to the right of the Liberals on the ballot paper, they got only 0.16 per cent of a quota compared with 0.24 in Western Australia.
So why is this all a problem for Tony Abbott?
Today’s Newspoll, published in The Australian, shows a rapid cooling of the relationship between voters and the Coalition government. Newspoll shows that based on 2013 preference flows (in the House of Representatives), an election today would return a Bill Shorten Labor government, 52 per cent to 48 per cent in two-party-preferred terms.
Most commentators believe the Tony Abbott/Christopher Pyne mishandling of the Gonski reforms is to blame, but the flare-ups with Indonesia and China can’t have helped.
There is also a strong whiff of cooked-books coming from Treasurer Hockey’s office – the $8.8 billion he shovelled into the Reserve Bank of Australia’s capital reserves was widely criticised as a way to blow out the budget now, to look good later.
So if a Western Australian election is held before the new Senate sits on July 1, there could be some very large swings, and major re-routing of preferences.
For instance, Sex Party convener Fiona Patten tells me her party “has never been monogamous” in deciding where their preferences will flow. They helped the Libs in Queensland in 2010, and the Greens in Western Australia in 2013, with preferences that flowed from their 0.10 of a quota.
Patten thinks her party will have more preferences to allocate if Western Australia votes again as, with less federal noise, she thinks her party’s issues will get more exposure.
So, starting from the list of first-preference results below, Abbott’s most important task will be to retain three Liberal senators in a new Western Australian election, and be supported in the Senate by a Palmer United Party candidate.
If that happens, he still has the balance of power – particularly for his most important election promise, to repeal the carbon tax.
If the Libs keep three seats, and Labor or the Greens pick up one, they could not block the carbon tax after July – they would have 37 Senate votes, and that would be including Nick Xenophon’s vote. He has previously said he will not vote for repeal, unless another form of carbon trading is set up to replace Labor’s ETS (Xenophon won't back down on carbon trading, September 2).
But if a Western Australian Senate election re-run goes badly for the government, there is a chance of Labor and the Greens picking up four seats – that is, if Clive Palmer does not get a quota, the Liberal and Nationals lose primary vote, and if a third of the Liberal Democrat preferences are thrown back into the mix.
Normally, at this stage of the electoral cycle, a government gets away with all kinds of unpopular moves – simply because they know they have two and a half years to make things up with voters.
But unusually, because a Western Australian re-run is the most likely scenario, Abbott and his strategists suddenly have a major fight on their hands.
If they lost control of the Western Australian voting block, the carbon tax would not be repealed and Abbott would then have to make the call on going to a double-dissolution next year.
There is a huge amount at stake in Western Australia.