by Malcolm Mackerras

My pre-poll article on the Western Australian Senate re-election was published on this website on Monday 17 March. It was titled “Unusual writ returns” and my reference was to the Senate elections in South Australia and Western Australia last year. The feature of the two states was that only one Labor senator in each state was elected in September 2013 – Penny Wong in SA and Joe Bullock in WA.
 
In my fourth paragraph I wrote: “In Western Australia the writ listed these people as duly elected, again in order of election: David Johnston, Joe Bullock, Michaelia Cash, Linda Reynolds, Wayne Dropulich and Scott Ludlam.”
 
Towards the end of the article I predicted that the re-election on April 5 would see the election of Zhenya Wang of the Palmer United Party and then I wrote: “If so, when the writ is returned to the governor the successful candidates, in order of election, are likely to be Johnston, Bullock, Cash, Pratt, Reynolds and Wang. In party numbers that would be three Liberals, two Labor and one for PUP. In overall terms that would be good for parties of the right”.
 
It now seems very likely that my overall right-left prediction was correct, four to two. Almost certainly this election will be seen by historians as good for parties of the right, not only in Western Australia but in the country as a whole.
 
I based my prediction on the assessment that the combined first preference votes for parties of the left (Labor and Greens) would rise only slightly. The combined vote would not be enough (even with the aid of preferences) to give those parties three senators.
 
That turned out to be correct. Where I was wrong was in my failure to realise that there would be a substantial shift of left votes from Labor to the Greens. So, why did it happen?
 
First, there was the absolutely brilliant speech by Ludlam to the near-empty Senate chamber. Predictably it was condemned by commentators on the right who failed to understand its brilliance.
 
In effect, what Ludlam said was: “Just in case you had not noticed, I am opposed to the Abbott Government”.
 
Ludlam would have known all about the Labor ticket. He would have known that Bullock was not really opposed to the Abbott Government. Bullock was very critical of Labor and of his running mate, Louise Pratt, but never a word of criticism did he speak of Abbott!
 
By polling day I had woken up to what was happening. On morning radio on polling day I predicted the election of Johnston, Bullock, Cash, Ludlam, Wang and Reynolds. That is what I think the final result will be.
 
All of this shows what a wonderful election this has been. The conventional media can call it a “farce” if they like. I call it the best exercise in democracy in any Senate election I have ever seen – and I have followed Australian Senate elections closely since 1951.
 
The point is this. The unusual nature of this election forced voters to understand that we elect candidates, not parties. The trouble is that voting below the line is so difficult. If you wanted to vote Labor but cast a personal vote for Pratt, you had to number from 1 to 77 below the line.
 
In that circumstance, the simple thing to do is to vote against Abbott was to switch your vote from the Labor ticket in September 2013 to Ludlam in April 2014. All that was required was that you place the number one above the line for the Greens.
 
Clearly this result has been a fillip for the Greens – but they should not get too carried away.
 
However, now that we know Ludlam will be a senator until June 2020, it is well to record that the September 2013 election was a much better result for the Greens than was understood at the time. It was their second best result ever and in July they will have a record number of senators. The Greens last year saw all their incumbents re-elected and they gained a Senate seat in Victoria from Labor.
 
What was very peculiar about last year’s election was the re-election of Sarah Hanson-Young in South Australia and Scott Ludlam in Western Australia. I explained the details of that in my last article. Each re-election was due to preferences from PUP in an electoral system very generous to the Greens.
 
There are four big parties in the Senate being, from right to left, the Liberals, the Nationals, Labor and the Greens. All are over-represented in terms of translating votes into seats.
 
Take the Greens. In August 2010 they polled 1,667,315 votes or 13.1 per cent of the formal Senate vote of 12,722,233. For that they won six of the 40 seats, or 15 per cent.
 
In September 2013 they polled 1,159,588 votes or 8.6 per cent of the Senate formal vote of 13,413,019. For that they won four of the 40 seats, or 10 per cent.
 
Combining the two we have 2,826,903 votes for the Greens for a total formal vote of 26,135,252 which is 10.8 per cent. For that they will have 10 of the 76 senators, or 13.2 per cent.
 
For years I have been telling the Greens that they have been just plain wrong about this electoral system. The trouble is they are so bone-headed they do not listen to me.
 
Consequently it is possible that the four big parties may try to gang up on the so-called “micro parties” by changing the system. If so, they will have an opponent in me.
 
There is one reform I do favour and I shall explain it in my next article.
 
I shall submit that article to this website when this WA election is finalised. As I have written before, I prefer to comment on results when they are actually known.
 
The sixth WA vacancy will probably be filled by Reynolds – but you never know. There remains a rough outside chance that the seat will go to Pratt.
 
(Malcolm Mackerras is a visiting fellow at the Public Policy Institute in the Australian Catholic University’s Canberra campus. malcolm.mackerras@acu.edu.au)