Another place

Many thanks to the various readers who pointed out that I had failed to appreciate the significance of Liberals for Forests in my first version of this post. What follows is a revised version, now even longer than the original.

The Poll Bludger’s Senate election guide is starting to show its age, and what better time for a review than with the release of the group voting preference tickets by the Australian Electoral Commission. These record the preferences that the 90 per cent of people who vote above-the-line will be agreeing to whether they realise it or not, and which will have a crucial bearing on the final outcomes. That so much should ride on this little-understood process, in which private negotiations between the interested actors are everything and the conscious choices of voters are nothing, raises obvious questions about its democratic merits. Furthermore, the architects of this fiddle (namely the first Hawke Government) allowed parties to submit three separate tickets and have their supporters’ votes doled out proportionately, like so many poker chips.

That however is a matter for another post. Today we look at what this particular set of deals means for the 78 Senate hopefuls in New South Wales (with other states to follow in posts over the next fortnight or so). Leaving out obscure independents and micro-parties, the following list presents the various groupings and how they have ordered the parties who can realistically win (being generous here to the Democrats and One Nation):

Labor: Two-thirds: Liberals for Forests; Greens; Democrats; Fred Nile; Family First; Coalition; One Nation. One-third: Fred Nile; Greens; Democrats; Family First; Coalition; One Nation.

Coalition: Fred Nile; Family First; Liberals for Forests; Democrats; Greens; Labor; One Nation.

Greens: Democrats; Labor; Liberals for Forests; Coalition; Family First; Fred Nile; One Nation.

Family First: Fred Nile; Democrats; Liberals for Forests; One Nation; Coalition; Labor; Greens.

Fred Nile (Christian Democratic): Family First; two-thirds Coalition, one-third Labor, with Liberals for Forests in between; One Nation; Democrats; Greens.

Democrats: Family First; Liberals for Forests; Fred Nile; Greens; half-Labor, half-Coalition; One Nation.

Liberals for Forests: Family First; Democrats; Fred Nile; Labor; Coalition; One Nation; Greens.

One Nation: Family First; Fred Nile; Liberals for Forests; Coalition; Democrats; Labor; Greens.

Socialist Alliance: Greens; Labor; Democrats; Liberals for Forests; Coalition; Fred Nile; Family First; One Nation.

David Ettridge: Liberals for Forests; Family First; One Nation; Democrats; Fred Nile; Coalition; Labor; Greens.

Firstly, some political observations. The Australian Democrats seem to have had a death-bed religious conversion, with Family First and Fred Nile favoured ahead of all comers. This is frankly a rather sad sign of the weak position the party finds itself in, and the party can only hope that its liberal support base fails to notice that their votes are almost certain to be passed on in full to strict social conservatives who stand a real chance of getting elected. Fred Nile also seems to have cut an interesting deal with Labor where Nile gets a third of Labor preferences ahead of the Greens and only two-thirds of Nile’s preferences go to the Coalition ahead of Labor.

Now on to some psephological observations (readers with interesting lives might care to skip to the next paragraph). The above list obscures some unimportant technicalities, such as preference sequences that pick favourite candidates within given party lists, or between them by jumping around from one party to another. A number of groups seem to have it in for lead Greens candidate John Kaye, who has been put behind all his party colleagues by Labor, New Country, the Non-Custodial Parents Party and the Outdoor Recreation Party. It also appears that the New Country Party have tried to make it look like they are preferencing the Coalition ahead of Labor when they aren’t really – the top two on the Coalition ticket are ranked much higher than the third place-holder, who is the one that matters since those in the top two places will be elected long before preferences come into play.

So what will all this mean on election night? Labor and the Coalition will as always have no trouble scoring two quotas on the primary vote. That established, the count will move to the other end of the ledger where the dozens of under-performers will be eliminated and their preferences distributed. Antony Green, whose efforts in examining these entrails put the Poll Bludger’s to shame, notes that those who will be first to go will mostly send their preferences to Glenn Druery of Liberals for Forests, who has emerged as a "huge dark horse". Druery has form as an unapologetic but unsuccessful player in the game of preference-harvesting that has blighted elections for the New South Wales Legislative Council, where parties with names like "Wilderness Party" and "Gay and Lesbian Party" have appeared on ballot papers and funneled preferences to entrepreneurial candidates with miniscule public support (more on that from Scott Bennett and Gerard Newman at the Australian Parliamentary Library). Reader John Humphreys has passed on a list of 14 minor players who are giving Druery their preferences, mostly single-issue parties with catchy grievance-based names like "No GST" and "Australians Against Further Immigration". Also on the list is the Fishing Party, with whom Druery ran as a candidate at last year’s state election – they have evidently parted on amicable terms. The Poll Bludger would love to know how Druery ended up with the Liberals for Forests handle, as this is the name of a group of Perth "doctors’ wives" plus male fellow-travellers that won a seat in the 2001 Western Australian state election at the expense of a senior Liberal minister.

Taking the combined micro-party vote from 2001 and factoring in a bonus for his politically effective new brand name, Druery could well gather as much as 5 per cent of the vote. That should bring him through to the final few rounds along with the third place-holders on the Coalition and Labor tickets, plus those heading the Greens, Fred Nile, Family First, Democrats and One Nation tickets. On present indications the latter two will not last long beyond that, and their preferences should ensure that Family First candidate Joan Woods finishes clear of Nile and Druery (Antony Green puts it mildly when he says preference harvesting is "much more difficult with the 14.3% Senate quota", which compares with 4.5 per cent for the NSW Legislative Council). Woods will then be in contention for one of the two final positions along with the Labor Senator Michael Forshaw, the Greens’ John Kaye and the National Party’s Fiona Nash. No permutation of the four is technically impossible, but the most realistic scenarios involve a left-right cleavage with the Greens against Labor for one position and the Coalition against Family First/Fred Nile for the other.

Many observers of this contest will be assuming a normal outcome in which only one seat will be won by a minor party, but there are good reasons to think otherwise. The non-major party vote in New South Wales was 25 per cent in 2001, which could well have been enough to have deprived the Coalition as well as Labor of a third quota given the right circumstances. Instead the Coalition’s only natural predator on the right, One Nation, was ruled out of contention as no significant party would touch them when it came to preferences. The contrast with the Family First/Fred Nile bloc, which is ahead of the Coalition on every conservative voting ticket plus that of the Democrats, is quite stark. Unless the Coalition can maintain its primary vote at or near the 41.6 per cent it recorded in 2001, Fiona Nash will struggle. By the same token, Labor will need to improve substantially on its 33.4 per cent from 2001 to take the seat now certain to be lost by Democrats Senator Aden Ridgway.

Author: William Bowe

William Bowe is a Perth-based election analyst and occasional teacher of political science. His blog, The Poll Bludger, has existed in one form or another since 2004, and is one of the most heavily trafficked websites on Australian politics.