Senate of the day: South Australia

Nick Xenophon’s seeks re-election with the end of his first six-year term, while Sarah Hanson-Young faces an uphill battle to retain her seat for the Greens.

South Australia’s one extraordinary result in the era of six-seat half-Senate elections came with the election of Nick Xenophon in 2007, and it is this result that is to be revisited at the coming election. Xenophon won almost exactly a quota at the 2007 election with 14.8% of the vote (a quota being 14.3%), comparison of voting patterns for the lower and upper house suggesting he had poached 6% to 7% each from Labor and the Liberals, while the Greens’ Senate vote was stable at 6.5% despite a 1.5% increase for the party in the state’s lower house seats. Labor (0.4933 of a quota), Liberal (0.4698) and Greens (0.4542) candidates emerged with a very similar share of the vote after the top two Labor and Liberal candidates, but Labor thereafter remained becalmed while the Greens absorbed left-wing preferences and the Liberals absorbed right-wing ones. With Labor excluded, their preferences propelled Hanson-Young to a narrow win over Liberal incumbent Grant Chapman.

In Xenophon’s absence in 2010, the vote share for both major parties was up in the upper house (by 2.8% for Labor and 2.1% for Liberal) and down in the lower (2.4% for Labor and 1.6% for Liberal), while the Greens vote more than doubled to 13.3%. Preference from smaller left-wing parties pushed Greens candidate Penny Wright over a quota, winning her a seat at the expense of Labor’s third candidate, incumbent Dana Wortley. The final seat went to the third Liberal candidate, David Fawcett, after he cleared two hurdles: first emerging with 9.1% after the 7.9% right-wing micro-party vote consolidated behind Family First (another minor party founded in South Australia), and secondly emerging ahead of Dana Wortley at the final count by 16.1% to 12.4%.

South Australia had earlier been a stronghold of the Australian Democrats, which had its origins in the state. The Democrats’ strength through what were generally lean years for Labor in the state resulted in consistent results of three Liberal, two Labor and one Democrats from 1990 to 2001. That era ended with the national collapse in support for the Democrats at the 2004 election, their vote in South Australia falling from 12.6% to 2.3% and the six seats dividing between Liberal and Labor. A crucial factor in the Greens’ failure to win the seat that went to Labor number three Dana Wortley was the Democrats’ direction of preferences to Family First, which had they gone to the Greens would have propelled their candidate ahead of Wortley at a key point in the count.

Nick Xenophon is generally reckoned to be an excellent chance for re-election. However, the exact extent of his vote is hard to judge, Senate polling being scarce and generally unreliable. Any surplus he receives will divide between two preference tickets he has submitted, the guiding principle of which is that one favours the left and the other favours the right. However, both favour major over minor parties, which will assist the Liberals in their endeavour to stay in front of the right-wing micro-party preference bloc and give the Greens a higher hurdle to clear to stay ahead of the third Labor candidate. The Greens will be far from assured of putting a quota together even if they do emerge ahead of Labor, a strong alternative possibility being that the final seat will go to the third Liberal candidate. Should the final count be between the Greens and a Liberal, the Greens will at least pick up the half share of Xenophon preferences that went to Labor.

After a controversial preselection process, the Labor ticket reverses the order of the top two positions in 2007 by having Penny Wong in first place and Don Farrell in second. Wong entered parliament from the top position on the Senate ticket at the 2001 election, which was then reserved for the Left under a terms of a Left-Right alliance commonly identified as “the Machine”. The victims of this arrangement were the now defunct Centre Left faction, whose candidate Chris Schacht suffered demotion to the losing number three position after a 15-year career in the Senate. Number two on the ticket was the favoured candidate of the Right, Linda Kirk. Changing factional arrangements caused the Right and Left to swap their places at the 2007 election, resulting in Wong being demoted on the Senate ticket despite her promotion to shadow cabinet in March 2005. The determination of Don Farrell, the powerful state secretary of the Shop Distributive and Allied Employees Association secretary Don Farrell, to take the Right’s Senate seat meant he went straight to the top position. Kirk was required to make way for Farrell, bowing out of politics after refusing the consolation prize of lower house preselection in Boothby. She was variously said to have fallen from factional favour due to her backing of Kevin Rudd’s successful leadership bid in December 2006, her defiance of the SDA faction’s opposition to the RU486 abortion pill, and the dismissal of Farrell’s wife from her office.

By the time of last year’s Senate preselection, Penny Wong had risen to the senior cabinet portfolio of finance and established herself as one of the government’s most popular figures, while Farrell had managed only a parliamentary secretary position. The party’s state conference nonetheless resolved by 112 votes to 83 to maintain the existing factionally determined arrangement where Farrell had top position by virtue of being from the Right. This was widely criticised within the party and without, with NSW Left powerbroker Anthony Albanese declaring it a “joke” and an “act of self-indulgence”. The backlash caused Farrell to back down, agreeing to a swap of positions with a magnanimous Wong. The third place on the ticket has gone to Simon Pisoni, a Communications Electrical and Plumbing Union official and the brother of a senior state Liberal politician, Unley MP David Pisoni.

Preserving the order from 2007, the top two positions on the Liberal ticket are occupied by a noted Christian conservative in Cory Bernardi and a moderate in Simon Birmingham. Bernardi was an investment fund manager and state party president before he filled the Senate vacancy created by Robert Hill’s appointment as ambassador to the United Nations in March 2006. Bernardi’s selection marked a victory of the party’s conservative’s wing over factional moderates, of whom Hill had been a figurehead. The favoured candidate of the moderates was Simon Birmingham, a former staffer to Robert Hill and narrowly unsuccessful candidate for Hindmarsh at the 2004 election (for which Bernardi had again been a preselection rival). Birmingham had to settle for the number two position on the ticket, but entered the Senate earlier than planned when he filled the vacancy caused by Jeannie Ferris’s death in April 2007. Incumbent Grant Chapman was unable to improve upon his third position on the ticket from 2001, which proved to be a losing proposition in 2007.

Cory Bernardi has thus far had two interrupted stints as a shadow parliamentary secretary. The first began after the 2007 election and ended in December 2009 when he related that a Liberal MP had told him he only chose the Liberal Party over Labor “to get into parliament”, and did too little to conceal that he was referring to factional moderate Christopher Pyne. Bernardi returned to the role when Tony Abbott became leader in December 2009, but again resigned in September 2012 after telling parliament that legalised bestiality marked “the next step” after gay marriage. This was deemed “ill-disciplined” by Tony Abbott and “extreme” and “hysterical” by Malcolm Turnbull, but Bernardi has recently defended the comments. Simon Birmingham has had a more stable time of things, serving as a shadow parliamentary secretary since December 2009.

The third candidate on the Liberal ticket is Cathie Webb, a metallurgist and the state party’s vice-president.

Nick Xenophon first entered politics after winning a seat in the state’s upper house on a “No Pokies” ticket at the 1997 election, polling 2.9% and harnessing an 8.3% quota after preferences. Once established in parliament, Xenophon’s deft hand at media stunts facilitated an enormous boost in his public profile, securing him a stunning 20.5% of the statewide vote when he sought re-election in 2006. This was sufficient to elect his running mate Ann Bressington as well as himself, and came very close to electing the number three candidate on his ticket as well. An emboldened Xenophon announced his run for the Senate shortly before the November 2007 election was called, although he was hampered during the campaign by a public falling out with Bressington. Xenophon’s 14.8% Senate vote was some distance short of his state election triumph, but easily enough to win him a Senate berth from which his profile has been enhanced still further.

Sarah Hanson-Young’s win at the 2007 election made her the state’s first Greens Senator and, at 25, the youngest woman ever elected to the federal parliament. Hanson-Young was previously the student association president at the University of Adelaide and had more recently worked for Amnesty International. She twice contested the party’s deputy leadership unsuccessfully during her debut term, the first time after the 2010 election and the second after Bob Brown’s departure in April 2012.

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.

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