CANBERRA OBSERVED: by News WeeklyNews Weekly
The 'other' election on November 10
, October 20, 2001
The "other" election being contested on November 10 is that for the Senate which, while failing to attract the same media attention as the contest for control of the Treasury benches, is vitally important in deciding who will control the balance of power in the Upper House for the next few years.
The half of the Senate contesting this election is the half which was selected during the 1996 landslide win to the Coalition. At that poll, both the Coalition and the Australian Democrats secured exceptional results in the Senate contest at the expense of the Labor Party, whose Senate vote was dragged down by the overall anti-Keating sentiment. In every state except Tasmania, the Liberal/National Parties gained three Senators, while the Democrats picked up five Senators.
Labor's result was the worst for many elections, when it gained only two out of six Senators in every state.
As a consequence of that result, and the subsequent defection of Senator Mal Colston from the Labor Party a few months later, the Coalition was able to put through much of its legislative program largely unimpeded during its first term.
Until the 1998 election, the balance of power was held by Colston together with Independent Tasmanian Senator Brian Harradine. However, the second term of the Howard Government saw Colston replaced by a Labor Senator and Senator Harradine's position of power suddenly evaporate when the Australian Democrats doubled their numbers from two to four.
That second term also saw the arrival of One Nation's Len Harris in the Senate.
Going into the November 10 poll the current make-up of the Senate is as follows:
- Liberal - 31
- National Party/Country Liberal Party - 4
- Labor Party - 28
- Australian Democrats - 9
- Pauline Hanson's One Nation - 1
- Australian Greens - 1
- Independents - 2
In short, the Senate has never been more fractured and, with the recent resignation of Tasmanian Labor Senator Shayne Murphy, has the potential to deliver an unpredictable mix of shifting alliances over the coming few months which will cause considerable problems for the incoming government.
Several things need to be noted about the coming Senate election. First, the "new" Senate will not actually sit until June 30 next year, so the power of the Senate will remain in the hands of the Democrats until that time.
The only exception to that is if there is an upset result in either of the territories, where new Senators assume office immediately, in the same way as House of Representatives MPs do.
For example, an Independent could be elected in the ACT, or two Country Liberal Party Senators elected in the Northern Territory. Admittedly this is a remote possibility, but one which cannot entirely be ruled out.
Because of the voting system in every other state, the Coalition and Labor parties are assured of getting a minumum of two Senators each and a maximum of three at the coming poll.
The real interest is whether Labor or Coalition pick up a third Senator each or whether one of the minor parties gains a Senator.
In Tasmania, Senator Bob Brown is almost certain to be re-elected. This means that Labor and Liberal (who are each assured of getting two Senators) will fight it out for the sixth Senate position.
Then there are the forces unleashed by Senator Murphy in Tasmania. Murphy's recent resignation from the ALP surprisingly failed to raise much publicity - but then again neither did the resignation of Senator Colston prompt any immediate heat either.
It was only when Colston voted against his old party that the ALP went feral against its old comrade.
When Murphy quit there were mutual expressions of regret from Murphy and party leader Kim Beazley, and talk of "irreconcilable differences" over forestry, but certainly not anger, or accusations of the Tasmanian "ratting on the party".
Murphy, who is a right-wing official of the Construction Mining Forestry and Energy Union, has been unhappy with the party's position on forests and on bank privatisation.
The former forestry union official's position on Tasmanian forests is complex, but broadly, he believes Tasmania should not be woodchipping and should be be doing more instead in the downstream processing of timber to create more jobs.
Murphy's was also very angry about the Tasmanian Government's decision to sell off the State's Trust Bank.
For its part, his ALP critics say Murphy has lost interest in politics and had become frustrated when he realised he had no prospects of promotion. This is much reminiscent of Colston, whose resignation was provoked by what he thought to be the party's failure to recognise his talents.
At this stage, Murphy is likely to vote Labor on most issues, but if he turns, Labor's retribution will be swift and savage.
On the other hand, if the Howard Government is re-elected and it thought it could help its chances, it could offer special pro-Tasmanian inducements to Murphy in much the same way it did to Brian Harradine and Queenslander Colston.
The Democrats are the party most vulnerable to losses this time around, particularly in the light of calamitous events overseas which normally cause voters to polarise to the major parties.
On the other hand if you talk to the Democrats themselves, they believe fervently they will do well again this time because they are the only party offering an alternative on refugees and the terror war.
In New South Wales Senator Vicki Bourne is up for re-election, in Victoria Senator Lyn Allison, Queensland Senator Andrew Bartlett, and in Western Australia Senator, Andrew Murray.
It is fair to say all four are vulnerable, despite the party's own optimism. The only Senator who seems absolutely assured of re-election is party leader Senator Natasha Stott Despoja in South Australia. If any or all four Democrats were to lose, they could be replaced by either Labor Senators or possibly One Nation Senators in Queensland and Western Australia.
While One Nation has suffered humiliation, setback, splits and court cases, residual support somehow remains. Even Pauline Hanson's oblique anti-American stance after the terror attacks will not dissuade many of her supporters, and it is still possible the party could succeed in getting former ALP member Graeme Campbell into the Senate in Western Australia.
One Nation appears to be better organised and more professional in WA than anywhere else, and while this is no great feat, Campbell has a good feel for the electorate.
The end result is impossible to predict, but it is certainly not out of the question that One Nation's Senate team will double to two, and that the Democrats could could go from nine Senators down to five or six. The situation is very fluid and highly volatile, but the result of such a shift in the Senate could mean that conservative-leaning Senators (if you count One Nation as conservative) could regain control of the upper house from the Democrats.
But the result would not be pretty, and the negotiations with the minor parties when important legislation was being considered, would resemble a mad hatter's tea party.