By Malcolm Mackerras

Winston Churchill once famously said that “the Americans can always be relied upon to do the right thing - but only after they have exhausted every alternative.” If you read on you will see the relevance of that remark to Australian politics. This article itself is about the three state elections, which were held in our most populous states, neatly spaced two months apart, Victoria on 29 November 2014, Queensland on 31 January 2015 and New South Wales on 28 March.

As readers would know I make predictions about these things. Not being a resident of any state, my wish has been purely that my predictions be proved correct. My prediction of the two-party preferred vote distribution was spot on for the Victorian Legislative Assembly election and very close for NSW. In terms of individual seats I made only four errors in Victoria (out of 88 seats) and six in New South Wales (out of 93 seats). In NSW the two-party preferred distribution was 54.3 % Liberal-National and 45.7 % Labor. In Victoria it was 52-48 in Labor’s favour.

For Queensland I made three predictions. First, Campbell Newman would be defeated in Ashgrove. Second, he would be succeeded by Lawrence Springborg as leader of the Liberal National Party. Third, he would be succeeded by Springborg as premier. I was wrong about the third prediction – by one seat. The excuse for my error is simply that no independent pundit predicted in print that Annastacia Palaszczuk would be the new premier.

Legislative Council

I come now to the Legislative Council elections. For NSW I did not predict the election of Mark Pearson of the Animal Justice Party. Instead I over-estimated the Greens by one seat and that over-estimation causes me to remark that the Greens did not perform as well at this election as many imagine.

In the Legislative Assembly election their share of the vote remained unchanged at 10.3 %. In the Legislative Council election their share actually fell from 11.1 % in 2011 to 9.9 % in 2015. Consequently, whereas the Greens won three Legislative Council seats in 2011 they won only two in 2015. The explanation for the widespread view of their success is that they targeted lower house seats so well, putting virtually all their resources into the three seats they could actually win. Thus they retained Balmain, won the new seat of Newtown and took Ballina from the Nationals. In the upper house election observers have noticed that their numbers are unchanged which is another way of saying that they won two seats in 2007, three in 2011 and two again in 2015.

Of course it could be argued that the Animal Justice Party is merely the Greens by another name. On that way of looking at it I correctly predicted the distribution of Council seats on the basis of right versus left which is 11 to 10 in 2015 compared with 13 to 8 in 2011, making a Council now divided as 24 to 18 in favour of the right.

Since the Shooters and Fishers party is opposed to the privatisation of the poles and wires perhaps they could be counted as being on the left. On that count Mike Baird actually LOST the 2015 election in the Legislative Council, which returned a left number of 11 (seven Labor, two Greens and one each for Shooters/Fishers and the Animal Justice Party). Consequently his ability to get legislation through the Parliament is owed to Barry O’Farrell’s landslide victory of March 2011 and not to Baird’s own win four years later. I stress the point: in 2015 a majority of Legislative Council votes were cast AGAINST privatisation, meaning in seats the anti-privatisers won 11 to 10.

Notwithstanding the Liberal Party’s disappointment in not getting Holly Hughes elected (she was tenth on the Coalition list) I still think it is sensible to say that Baird had a “resounding” win. Consequently, those supporters of the Liberal Party who were getting depressed may be interested in this description of the most recent state election results. The three Liberal wins (Western Australia in March 2013, Tasmania in March 2014 and NSW in March 2015) were each “resounding”. By contrast the three Labor wins (South Australia in March 2014, Victoria in November 2014 and Queensland in January 2015) were each “poor”. That may sound an odd description for Labor’s victory in Queensland. The point is simply that the magnitude of Queensland Labor’s defeat in 2012 made it the worst defeat (in terms of seats) for any government in Australian history.

However, coming back to the Legislative Council elections it is interesting to note how much attention was given to the upper house election in NSW and how little attention in Victoria. That was fortunate for me because that part of the Victorian election is the one where my predictions went badly astray. Whereas the NSW Legislative Council election is from the state as a whole, in Victoria it is for regions. In NSW there is rotation so members elected serve for eight years, 21 having been elected in March 2011 and another 21 elected in March 2015, these latter replacing those who had been elected in March 2007. The result for the whole Council is 13 Liberals and seven Nationals giving the Coalition 20, Labor 12, Greens five, Christian Democrats and Shooters/Fishers two each and one for the Animal Justice Party which secured just 1.8 % of the vote.

Victoria

In effect that gives the Baird government control of the upper house. Contrast that with Victoria where the numbers are 14 each for Labor and Liberal, five Greens, two each for Nationals and Shooters/Fishers and one each for the right-wing Democratic Labour Party, the Sex Party and the micro party which calls itself “Vote 1 Local Jobs”. The interesting question is why Daniel Andrews and his Labor Party could win government quite easily and get such an awful result in the upper house election.
 
And it WAS an awful result for Labor! In the Council elected in November 2010 the result was 18 Liberal, 16 Labor and three each for Nationals and Greens. Consequently Andrews finds himself in something of the same position as Tony Abbott, namely sweeping into government but with nearly as bad a position in the upper house as could be imagined. If you look at the figures given above you will notice that the combined number of Labor and Greens stayed the same (19) but with the Greens taking two seats from Labor. So, why am I disappointed? It certainly is not because I think the Andrews government deserved a better position in the upper house, the result of which merely reflects the vote in a proportional representation system. My disappointment comes from predicting it quite so badly. And that – alas! – feeds into the hands of my critics.

A systemic review

In my next article I plan to discuss in detail the relevance of all this to the question of reform of the Senate electoral system. Regrettably I shall need to engage in a personal attack in that article. It will be on ABC election analyst Antony Green. He is an excellent analyst who has greatly improved the ABC’s election coverage and his blog is very useful to the psephological community. He is a hard worker who is an even bigger walking encyclopaedia on these subjects than I am.

However, he has abused the power given to him by his employer by engaging in editorials in his television commentary. These have had a bad effect on the debate. So my attack will not be on Antony the man, but on his views on this subject. Antony’s proposed Senate reform is diametrically opposed to mine. That which he says MUST be done I say to the contrary: it MUST NOT be done his way. In practice the federal Liberal Party will decide, which leads me to the hopeful prediction that I shall enjoy a win. However, there is one thing I know from experience about the federal Liberal Party. It can always be relied upon to do the right thing – but only after exhausting every alternative.