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Palmer power! Lessons from the Senate by-election

  • 11 April 2014

There are two types of elections: those that decide who will govern, and those that don't. The Senate re-election that took place in WA last weekend was in the latter category, and pundits rushing to find the key to future politics in the election result should keep that in mind when drawing conclusions.

Re-election? Strictly speaking this was not a by-election but a re-run of last November's Federal poll, at least so far as half of WA's Senate representation is concerned. But since government was not at stake, it was for all practical purposes a by-election, and by-elections often yield results that would not be duplicated in a general election. Voters feel free to send a message to those who govern or aspire to govern, without having to worry whether the lineaments of power will be altered.

So was there a clear and consistent message in the voters' verdict? The multitude of conflicting interpretations that has appeared since the poll by itself suggests that the short answer must be 'no'. The commentariat, and politicians too, are finding what they wish to find in this election of six senators from a single state with slightly less than a tenth of the national population.

Nonetheless some messages in the voters' decision are clearer than others.

Both major parties suffered swings against them, and the swing against the Liberals (5.6 per cent) was bigger than the swing against Labor (4.8 per cent). But Foreign Minister Julie Bishop is correct is saying that the outcome for the Liberals is within the normal range of swings against a governing party in by-elections.

Labor, however, with less than 22 per cent of the vote had its worst result in a Senate election since 1903. Only one member of the party's ticket, right-wing union leader Joe Bullock, is assured of a seat in the new chamber, with the Liberals having taken two and the Greens and the Palmer United Party one each. ALP Senator Louise Pratt is slugging it out for the sixth seat with the number-three on the Liberal ticket, Linda Reynolds.

That said, WA has never been an ALP stronghold and predictions that Bill Shorten's leadership is now on the line reveal only the relish of Canberra journalists for internecine party struggles. If Shorten is losing support among his colleagues, it is for reasons that were already apparent before the WA poll.

The election outcome does, however, strengthen the hand of those