The Senate: New South Wales

Welcome to the first in a seven-part series in which each state’s Senate contest will go under the microscope in turn, with a bonus post at the end to cover the territories. As we will proceed in descending order of population, the series begins with New South Wales.

Six elections have been held since the first six-seat half-Senate election in 1990, with minor parties winning seats in New South Wales on four occasions – the Democrats in 1990, 1996 and 1998 and the Greens in 2001 – and the other two resulting in even splits between Labor and the Coalition. The minor party seats came at the expense of third seats for the Coalition in 1990 and 1998 and for Labor in 1996 and 2001. The 1998 and 2001 results were heavily influenced by One Nation, who polled 9.6 per cent and 5.6 per cent respectively. With all major players putting them last on their preferences, this was well short of what was needed to win a seat. In 1998 Aden Ridgeway of the Democrats narrowly won a seat after overtaking the third Coalition candidate, Sandy Macdonald of the Nationals (who returned at the 2001 election), while David Oldfield of One Nation remained stranded in seventh place. The lower One Nation vote in 2001 allowed the Greens to overtake them after absorbing preferences from left-wing minor candidates, so that One Nation preferences decided the result between the Greens candidate, Kerry Nettle, and Democrats incumbent Vicki Bourne. These were directed to the Greens ahead of the Democrats in New South Wales, presenting Kerry Nettle with the irony of a Senate seat which she owed to the caprice of her most bitter ideological foes.

With current polling from New South Wales consistently pointing to an increase in the Labor vote upwards of 10 per cent, scenarios in which Labor wins only two seats can probably be written off. The challenge for minor parties is to overcome the Coalition’s surplus above the 28.6 per cent they will need to win their second seat. By far the most likely contender is the Greens incumbent, Kerry Nettle. The Greens’ New South Wales Senate vote in 2004 was 7.3 per cent, which was supplemented only by a small handful of preferences from marginal left-wing parties before their lead candidate was eliminated. This time Nettle is likely to enjoy a large flow of preferences from Labor, who on current indications will have a significant surplus above the 42.9 per cent required for a third seat. In other words, the Greens are shooting for a result where: (Greens vote) + (Labor vote minus 42.9%) + (vote for others who have Greens and Labor ahead of Coalition) > (Coalition vote minus 28.6%) + (vote for others who have Coalition ahead of Labor and Greens). Another possibility is that Labor will overtake the Greens to win the fourth seat itself, which is intuitively unlikely but possible if the polls are correct. Yesterday’s Newspoll state breakdown had Labor at 52 per cent in New South Wales, which would leave their fourth candidate on a formidable 9 per cent (remembering that Labor’s Senate vote in 2004 was only fractionally lower than for the House).

Under the Senate system of staggered six-year terms, Senators whose terms are soon to expire are those who were were chosen at the election before last, on 10 November 2001. Labor’s successful candidates on that occasion were Ursula Stephens (right), who is facing re-election, and George Campbell, who is retiring. Campbell announced his decision to retire in April after it became apparent he would lose preselection to Doug Cameron (centre), who had succeeded him as national secretary of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union. Cameron will take the unloseable second place on the ticket, which by factional agreement is reserved for the Left. Stephens has been demoted to number three after her Right faction colleague, state general secretary Mark Arbib (left), used his considerable political muscle to secure top billing. The identity of a fourth candidate seems to be a mystery at this stage, but that will no doubt change with the declaration of candidates later today.

The Liberal Party and its conservative predecessors have run joint Senate tickets with the National/Country Party at every election since 1925. At elections since 1977 the Nationals’ candidates have alternated between the unloseable second and shaky third positions. This time they take the second place, which goes to Inverell businessman John “Wacka” Williams (centre) following the preselection defeat of incumbent Sandy Macdonald. This result was reported in terms of a desire to follow the example of Barnaby Joyce, who has demonstrated the electoral value of a stance independent of the Liberal Party. Some Liberals were so displeased with this outcome that there was talk of an end to the joint ticket arrangement, which the Prime Minister refused to countenance. The Liberal-held first and third positions are unchanged from 2001, being respectively filled by Communications Minister Helen Coonan (left) and Marise Payne (right). As part of the much-discussed rise of the state party’s Right faction, Payne faced a preselection challenge earlier in the year from party rural vice-president Scot Macdonald. This was knocked on the head by Senator Bill Heffernan, acting on instructions from the Prime Minister, who creatively had Macdonald’s nomination rejected by the nomination review committee, a body designed to vet candidates on grounds of character or ethics.

After emerging an unexpected Senate winner in 2001 at the age of 27, Kerry Nettle (right) of the Greens now faces the difficult task of achieving the NSW Greens’ second ever Senate win. She is unlikely to be seriously challenged by the Democrats, who have nominated clinical and forensic psychologist Lyn Shumack. The success of Liberals for Forests candidate Glenn Druery in making the final counts in 2004 off 0.5 per cent of the vote suggests a micro-party boilover cannot be entirely ruled out, but a direct exchange of preferences between the Greens and the Democrats has made it much less likely. Much attention has been given to the campaign of the Climate Change Coalition, headed by Patrice Newell (partner of broadcaster and columnist Phillip Adams) – partly on account of its celebrity number two candidate, science commentator Dr Karl Kruszelnicki. There appeared earlier this year the very strong possibility that independent Calare MP Peter Andren would succeed in his declared bid for a Senate seat, but he sadly had to withdraw in August after being diagnosed with cancer.

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.