Senate of the day: the territories

Wrapping up our guide of the Senate with a review of the two territories, which are unlikely to turn up any surprises on Saturday night.

The two territories have each been represented by two Senators since the 1975 election, following Whitlam government legislation which survived High Court challenges in 1975 and 1977. Whereas the state’s Senators serve six year terms which are fixed but for the possibility of a double dissolution, the territory Senators’ terms are tied to the House of Representatives, so that the Senators facing re-election had likewise done so in 2010.

The formula for election is the same as for the states, but it has very different consequences given that two Senators are elected rather than six. The quota in either case is one divided by the number of seats up for election plus one, so a territory election quota is 33.3% rather than 14.3% at a half-Senate state election, or 7.7% at a double dissolution. A party is thus guaranteed of a seat if it wins a third of the primary vote, which the major parties have only failed to manage on a small number of occasions: the Liberals in the Australian Capital Territory in 1983, 1984 and 1998, and the Country Liberal Party in the Northern Territory on the one occasion they faced opposition from the Nationals in 1987. On each occasion, preferences were easily enough to get their candidates over the line.

Consequently, none of the territory Senate elections has produced a result other than one seat each for Labor and the main Coalition party. The most likely scenarios to disturb this would involve one or other major party winning both seats, in effect requiring it to win two-thirds of the two-party preferred vote, or one party failing to reach a quota and the preferences of minor parties and the surplus of the other major party coalescing behind a minor candidate. The only credible contender for the latter in the ACT is the Greens, whose task has been made more difficult by the Liberals placing them last on their preference order, such that it will no longer be enough for them to simply overtake the Liberals. However, as Antony Green notes, Labor could potentially face that difficulty in the Northern Territory, with all preferences favouring the Australian First Nations Political Party, an Aboriginal rights party which polled rather modestly at last year’s Northern Territory election. It would first need to get ahead of the Greens, whose own chances are negated by the Coalition having them last on preferences.

Australian Capital Territory

Labor’s Senate seat in the AUstralian Capital Territory has been held since 1996 by Kate Lundy, who became the party’s youngest ever female member of the federal parliament with her election at the age of 28 (since surpassed by Kate Ellis). Lundy served in opposition as parliamentary secretary from August 1997 and a junior minister from after the 1998 election, but was dropped when Labor came to power in 2007, perhaps going some way to explain her steadfast support for Julia Gillard during subsequent leadership battles. She recovered her parliamentary secretary status under Gillard after the 2010 election, then returned to the junior ministry in the sport, multicultural affairs and industry and innovation portfolios following Rudd’s failed leadership challenge in February 2012. After Rudd’s return in June she was dropped from sport, but retained her other portfolios. Lundy is a member of the Socialist Left faction.

The Liberal candidate is Leader Zed Seselja, who led the Liberals in the territory parliament from December 2007 and February 2013, including during the unsuccessful 2008 and 2012 election campaigns. Seselja secured preselection at the expense of incumbent Gary Humphries, whom he defeated in a party ballot in February by 114 votes to 84. Humphries had held the seat since 2003, earlier serving as the territory’s Chief Minister from OCtober 2000 to November 2001. Humphries supporters called a general meeting of the territory branch in response to his defeat, complaining that party members had wrongly been excluded from the motion to overturn it was defeated by 168 votes to 138. Success for the motion would reportedly have meant a new ballot encompassing 400 extra party members who were denied the first time around as they had not attended a branch meeting in six months.

The candidate for the Greens is Simon Sheikh, who has achieved a high profile as the founding director of GetUp! Other contestants for the preselection were Kate Hamilton, a former councillor in Leichhardt in inner Sydney, and local party member Stephen Darwin.

Northern Territory

Nigel Scullion has held the Country Liberal Party’s Northern Territory seat since the 2001 election. He had a brief spell as a junior minister in the Howard government, serving in the community services portfolio from January 2007 until its defeat the following November. Scullion sits in parliament with the Nationals, having joined it for parliamentary purposes in 2006 to prevent the Nationals from losing party status after Victorian Senator Julian McGauran defected to the Liberals. He became the Nationals’ deputy leader and Senate leader after the 2007 election defeat, but lost the latter position to Barnaby Joyce at the time Malcolm Turnbull became Liberal leader in September 2008. In opposition he assumed the agriculture, forestry and fisheries portfolios, moving to human services under Turnbull and indigenous affairs when Tony Abbott became leader in December 2009.

Labor’s candidate for the coming election is Nova Peris, who became nationally famous under her married name Nova Peris Kneebone when she became the first Aboriginal woman to win an Olympic gold medal as part of the women’s hockey team. She then switched to athletics and competed in the 400 metres individual and relay teams at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Peris was contentiously anointed as a “captain’s pick” by Julia Gillard in January 2013, redressing the party’s long-running failure to achieve Aboriginal representation in the federal parliament.

Coming in the wake of Labor’s disastrous showing in remote communities at the Northern Territory election the previous August, Gillard’s move seemed well timed. However, it came at the expense of Trish Crossin, who had held the seat since 1998 and was not of the view that the time had come for her to move on, and was achieved by overriding local preselection processes. It was also very widely noted that Crossin had been a supporter of Kevin Rudd’s February 2012 bid to return to the leadership. Vocal critics of the move included two former Labor Deputy Chief Ministers, Marion Scrymgour and Syd Stirling, along with Left faction powerbrokers Doug Cameron and Kim Carr. Scrymgour and another former Territory minister, Karl Hampton, expressed their displeasure by nominating against Peris for the vote by the party’s national executive, and it was reported that “at least two” of its 24 members voted against the Prime Minister’s wishes. There was speculation that Kevin Rudd might overturn Peris’s preselection upon his return to the leadership in June, but this did not transpire.

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.

13 comments on “Senate of the day: the territories”

  1. I’m putting on Greens picking up the ACT seat. I’m tempted to also back the indiginous party candidate for NT if Labor’s vote keeps diving.

  2. I think it was a mistake by the Whitlam government to give each territory 2 Senator, rather than 3.

    It would have made the prospect of a half-Senate election in late 1975 making the Senate easier.

    It may have made the Democrats more stable (by giving them an extra Senator).

    It would have made the Rudd government`s first term more manageable.

  3. You’ve missed probably the most interesting aspect of the Territory senate elections, which is that in the NT, Labor only just squeaked over the line at the last election with 34.3% of the vote. If they drop below the 33.3% quota (not as crazy notion) then there’s a decent chance that Rosalie Kunoth-Monks from the Australian First Nation’s Political Party could get over the line thanks to nearly everyone preferencing First Nations ahead of Greens and Labor.

    At least this is what Antony Green reckons:

  4. The major parties will get lower Senate votes than expected due to PUP / KAP however if the ALP drop below 33% they should still squeak over the line due to the large number of BTLs in the NT.

  5. Thanks for drawing that to my attention, Wamut. An oversight indeed. I have amended the intro to accommodate it, and will add Rosalie Kunoth-Monks to the candidate details when I get time.

  6. I think your assessment of the ACT contest is a little bit off…

    “The only credible contender for the latter in the ACT is the Greens, whose task has been made more difficult by the Liberals placing them last on their preference order, such that it will no longer be enough for them to simply overtake the Liberals.”

    The Greens are effectively a contest with the Liberals for the second senate seat, so the flow of Liberal preferences weren’t ever going to be a factor.

    Likewise, the Greens don’t necessarily need to beat the Liberals on first preferences. If the Greens were to win, the Liberals would first need to fall below quota (33.33%). As long as the Greens are close enough, they could win on the basis of minor party preferences, combined with surplus ALP votes.

  7. Abbott firing a bunch of public servants might seem bad for Zed but that third of the population that votes for them election in, election out won’t care. They’ll get their 33.3% on primary on the back of a stronger perfomance nationwide than 2010. The Greens won’t get near this time. Now, the next change-of-government when the Liberals lose, that could be interesting.

  8. The Territories are captive to the Wasted Quota generated by the Droop Quota system x/(y+1) A preferred option would be just x/y but this would result in the last seat being determined by a preference fold up to the end.

    In an STV ballot it is best to have more than 5 and preferably an odd number to elect

    There are some, myself included that believe Tasmania should be a territory not a state.

    NT use to be part of South Australia’s Senate team…

    The Wasted “Droop’ quota distorts the proportionality of the system with up to 33% locked into the wasted quota going unrepresented. There vote just sits there. If it was a pure proportional system then they would have a say in who is elected to the last position. Why divide the cake by three and then throw away a slice?

  9. William, I think you’ve made a mistake.

    “The only credible contender for the latter in the ACT is the Greens, whose task has been made more difficult by the Liberals placing them last on their preference order, such that it will no longer be enough for them to simply overtake the Liberals.”

    Liberal preferences are irrelevant in the ACT as the Greens and Liberals are competing for the final seat. The Greens rely on preferences from Labor and other minor parties to have a chance of winning, but Liberal preferences don’t matter.

  10. 9

    I agree that 33% is far too high a proportion to not be electing anyone.

    I do not think there is a reasonable prospect of ether territory getting more than 3 Senators to elect in a half-Senate/house only (Territory senators term`s are currently linked to house terms to Senate terms) election. There is a chance that in future they could elect 6 each in a DD if they were switched into having split Senate representation like the states. This would have to happen to the NT if it became a state and it would not be fair on the ACT to elect fewer Senators with a greater population.

    I agree about the odd numbers being better than even numbers. The even number of senators from each territory was a mistake by the Whitlam Government.

  11. Solution! Combine the ACT and NT into one jurisdiction for the Senate and give ’em five Senators.

    Okay, it would never work, but it’d be cute.

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