In WA the 'mercy seat' is waiting

The course of the 44th parliament will fork one way, or the other, based on the votes of a relatively small number of WA citizens who will shape Australian history.

While going back to the polls is the last thing most Western Australians want to do this weekend, there’s nonetheless something epic about the decision they have to make.

The course of the 44th parliament will fork one way, or the other, based on the votes of a relatively small number of citizens.

It all hinges on whether three or two Liberal senators are elected. If it is three, Prime Minister Abbott will have enough control of the upper house to repeal the carbon tax -- his number one pledge -- and most likely the mining tax without too much drama.

If only two Liberals are elected, then the most likely scenario is that they will join two Labor senators, one Greens and one minor-party or independent senator in the Senate from July 1.

It has to be said that the former scenario is most likely. While the Abbott government’s popularity dropped a massive 10 percentage points in WA in the weeks following the September 2013 election, it has regained most of that loss since then.

It must also be noted, however, that the latter scenario is not at all unlikely. While the Liberals won 2.7 quotas on first preferences last time, that figure is likely to drop simply because voters are no longer voting against the ‘Rudd-Gillard-wars’. They must vote for the Abbott government, knights, dames and all.

If it is two-Liberals/two-Labor/one-Greens, then the candidate that takes the last spot will occupy a seat in the Senate that, in the words of an old Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds song, 'The Mercy Seat', will be “a throne from which, I'm told, all history does unfold”.

On previous voting patterns, that could end up being a Palmer United Party’s Dio Wang. The PUP candidate won 0.35 per cent of a quota last time.

If PUP wins a seat, Abbott’s repeal of the carbon tax is virtually assured -- Palmer would extract some favours from Abbott in return for his support, but as long as they weren’t too extreme, Abbott could still rely on the support of the other relevant cross-benchers -- the DLP’s John Madigan, Liberal Democrats’ David Leyonhjelm, Australian Motoring Party’s Ricky Muir and Family First’s Bob Day.

But if PUP does not win a seat, then based on previous primary votes the likely contenders for the last spot are the Australian Christian Party, The Sex Party or the Help End Marijuana Prohibition Party (HEMP).

As we saw last time, of course, the co-ordinated preference swapping of independents and minor parties in the 34-horse race could elect a candidate that surprises everyone -- though having been 'gamed' once before, many voters are likely to avoid the unknowns and their even more unknown preference flows.

So understanding this election is a two-step process. First, did the Liberals get three senators elected (or two plus a PUP senator). Second, if they did not, what will the final senator want in return for supporting Abbott’s carbon-tax repeal?

I should point out that in all the above scenarios, I have not counted South Australian Nick Xenophon as a ‘pro repeal’ senator when the WA senators join him in Canberra. This is despite the fact that Xenophon’s recent speeches suggest he has softened his line on blocking the repeal of the controversial legislation.

Last September, Xenophon told  this columnist: "I will not support the repeal (of Labor's carbon tax legislation) unless there is a Frontier-Economics-style scheme on the table."

On December 4, however, in the process of successfully opposing the abolition of the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, Xenophon said: “I did not support the former government’s legislation ... but not because I do not believe we need to take action on climate change. For me, the debate on these issues is about finding the most cost-effective way to abate greenhouse gases.

“As such, I will be supporting the government’s move to repeal the carbon tax. However, I believe it is vital that the government release draft legislation or detailed policy as soon as possible, both to demonstrate their commitment to this issue and to provide certainty for business and investors.”

Read those words carefully, and Xenophon’s political wile is all too apparent -- he is leaving open his options to support a hostile senate if Abbott does not put something much more cost-effective than Direct Action on the table.

If Abbott dug in and would not do so, a double dissolution trigger could be created that would be extremely risky for many players -- not least Abbott himself.

The 1974 double-dissolution is a case in point.

The Whitlam government, having being blocked twice on six pieces of legislation, sought the double dissolution, but saw its majority in the lower house significantly reduced. The same would likely happen to Abbott if a double-dissolution were forced late in 2014.

But other weird things happen when all senate seats are up for grabs.

In the 1974 election, five DLP senators sided with the Billy Sneddon-led opposition to block Whitlam’s six pieces of legislation. They hoped to do well out of the full-senate election that followed. Instead, they lost all five senate spots, and did not see another senator elected until John Madigan at the 2010 election.

A double dissolution could, therefore, be dangerous to the Palmer United Party, the DLP, and really all the other cross benchers. The only people who’d possibly welcome it would be the Greens and Labor, and even they could not know for sure whether they’d be punished by disgruntled voters.

... But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. The outcomes of the WA vote are impossible to predict, but will, on balance, send Australian history in one direction or the other.

Later in that old song, Cave sings that he longs “to be done with all this twisting of the truth”. 

I’m sure that whatever the final outcome this weekend, that’s a sentiment many WA voters will share.

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