The amount of power that will be conferred upon, or taken away from the Abbott government at the re-run of the WA senate election is turning friend against friend, and creating preference marriages-of-convenience that cut right across ideological boundaries.
With three weeks to go, preference negotiations are becoming increasingly frantic, with the Greens in particular fearful that the loss of Labor preferences will see Scott Ludlum lose his seat in the upper house. Labor has reportedly decided to preference other minor parties ahead of Ludlam to further distance itself from the Greens, who have cannibalised some of Labor’s left-leaning supporters at the past two federal elections.
ALP strategists are still furious that the Greens preferenced the Palmer United Party ahead of Labor in lower house seats in South Australian and Tasmania during the general election last September. Greens leader Christine Milne, who wishes to preserve the carbon tax legislation at all costs, was pleading with Labor this week to help Ludlam to tip the balance against Abbott.
She said: "It is critical that the Labor Party recognise that the community really wants the Parliament to stand up to Tony Abbott and I think there would be people who would be incredibly disappointed if Labor actually facilitated an outcome that gave Tony Abbott absolute control of the Senate.''
‘Facilitated’ is the key word there. The question must be raised as to how much the Bill Shorten-led opposition actually wants the balance of power, which it could only excercise by working closely with the Greens, Victorian DLP senator John Madigan, and South Australian independent Nick Xenophon.
It has a million reasons to want to see Ludlam’s demise, but ALP strategists will know that Ludlam-in and Ludlam-out mean very different things in the two-and-a-half years to the next election.
Ludlam-in means Bill Shorten leads a period of trench warfare in the senate, blocking numerous pieces of legislation and, quite probably, triggering a double-dissolution – most likely on the carbon tax repeal. Ludlam-out means Shortens team can vote against anything, with little risk of blocking it. That would allow Labor, at the 2016 election, to wash its hands of anything Abbott got through parliament and say “we tried to stop that, but what could we do?”
So is Labor trying to lose control of the senate in WA to avoid such embarrassing stand-offs? An experienced Labor operative told me today that such strategic thinking was just not the way preference negotiations worked. He said gaining the maximum number of votes in the WA senate race was all that mattered – that is, though the Greens are desperate to maintain a carbon-tax-retaining senate, Labor is happy to lose that if it means bumping off another Green senator.
A former operative on the Liberal side told me that Shorten will actively want to lose the balance of power on the carbon tax issue, to remove it as a distraction. In other words, lose in WA, to win in Canberra?
Meanwhile, if the unconfirmed story is true - that is, that Labor really won’t preference Ludlam – then the Greens will look to other minor parties to get up to a full quota of votes. On primary votes at the 2013 election, the Greens got 0.66 of a quota, and Labor got 1.86 quotas. Both need preferences to get one, or two quotas respectively.
As noted previously (Abbott’s nightmare is unfolding in WA, December 10 2013 ), the biggest chunks of quota available to help them make up the numbers were the Liberal Democrats (0.24 of a quota), the Australian Christians (0.11) and the Sex Party (0.10) and the Help End Marijuana Prohibition (HEMP) party (0.7).
The HEMP party has reportedly agreed to preference Labor due to a dispute with the Greens over a drugs forum that was supposed to be held in Canberra after the 2013 election, but wasn’t. The Liberal Democrats won’t preference either Labor or the Greens. The Australian Christians say they are still in negotiations with all parties, and that a proliferation of minor parties at the re-run election makes that process even more complex. And the Sex Party, while agreeing that both the Greens and themselves are “socially progressive” had some serious clashes on both policy and preferencing at the 2013 election.
That said, the Sex Party will run potentially popular campaign issues, including promoting the legalising of cannabis, as has just occurred in Colorado in the US. It says "one in three Australians have tried cannabis at some point in their lives and one in ten regularly enjoy cannabis safely as a recreational product".
Sex Party leader Fiona Patten also says she’s concerned about the dramatic spike in unemployment in the 18-to-24 year old age group. She told me on Friday that while she would hate to see any of those youngsters “forced” into the “adult industries,” those that seek work in that sector must be supported to do so safely, in licenced businesses with good OH&S provisions that pay taxes like anyone else.
Patten's arguments on drugs and sex workers, if they cut through in WA, could hand an extra quota to Labor or the Greens depending on which her party preferences.
The WA outcome, indeed Australia's political future, could just hinge on issues of sex and drugs.