Palmer power! Lessons from the Senate by-election


Clive Palmer addresses ParliamentThere 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 in the party, including Shorten, who want to reduce union influence in preselections. Bullock's speech late last year to the Dawson Society, a conservative Catholic group, was made public in the week before the Senate election and became the most spectacularly stupid own goal scored on either side of politics in recent decades. The shop assistants' leader praised Prime Minister Tony Abbott and disparaged party colleagues, including Pratt, who in the Senate re-run was demoted from number-one on the ticket to make way for him.

Retiring WA Labor Senator Mark Bishop joined the chorus calling for preselection reform but went a step further. He raised the prospect of the ALP's eclipse by the Greens as the main progressive force in Australian politics, citing the substantial swing to the Greens last Saturday (6.3 per cent). The remark has delighted Greens supporters around Australia but to take it seriously one has to treat the WA Senate result in isolation from almost everything else that is known about the two parties.

Yes, Greens Senator Scott Ludlam retained his seat through a strong grassroots campaign that was particularly effective in its use of social media. Yes, Ludlam has become something of a poster boy for progressive voters in all states, especially since his Senate speech attacking Abbott became a global sensation on YouTube. And yes, the progressive vote in Australia is now split, with many left-leaning Labor voters inclined to switch to the Greens in times of frustration. That probably happened in WA on Saturday in response to Bullock's tirade, in his Dawson speech, against same-sex marriage.

But none of this changes the fact that the Greens' support remains heavily concentrated in inner-city electorates, among tertiary-educated, middle-class professionals. That means that the fracturing of the progressive vote may well be permanent. It doesn't mean that Labor has no future.

Despite Ludlam's success, the Greens will not wield the influence in this Parliament that they did under the Rudd and Gillard governments. Indeed, WA's Senate re-run confirms that they have been dealt out of power. When the Government presents bills abolishing the mining tax and the carbon price to the new Senate, Abbott will not need to negotiate with the Greens. Depending on who claims the sixth WA Senate spot, he will be seeking the support of either six or seven of the eight crossbench senators, four of whom are from the Palmer United Party.

The most insidious outcome of the WA Senate election is the bargaining power it has delivered to Clive Palmer, the Queensland mining magnate who dominates the party on which he has bestowed his name. He massively outspent all his rivals, raising yet again the question of whether limits should be placed on private financing of political campaigns. It is a question that, because of his newfound clout, will not be answered anytime soon.

In a 7.30 interview this week Palmer dismissed the accusation of vote-buying, saying that if a party's policies have no appeal to voters then advertising will be of no avail. Since he had campaigned heavily on a promise he cannot deliver — increasing WA's share of GST revenues, which would require the consent of the other states — this was disingenuous.

What this Senate re-election that was really a by-election has shown is what happens when a demagogue with an apparently bottomless bucket of money goes chasing the votes of the ill-informed.


Ray Cassin headshotRay Cassin is a contributing editor.

Topic tags: Ray Cassin, Clive Palmer, Senate



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Existing comments

Even if one allows for the proposition that the re-run of the WA Senate election was a sort of by-election and therefore Julie Bishop's claim that the swing against the government was within the normal range, this was a by-election with some big differences. One, it was caused by mal-administration by a government instrumentality. The electorate had four months to simmer on this and to watch the new government in action - mainly setting up inquiries or keeping us in the dark. The shenanigans behind and within the preference deals of the micro-parties were exposed. And since when has a political party ruined its dwindling stock by letting one of its own bullocks loose in its precious china-shop? The most spectacularly stupid own goal indeed! The question I would like to see answered is: Why can't the ALP attract candidates like Scott Ludlam to its ranks? He looks and sounds to me like the Bobby Kennedy of Australian politics. As for Clive Palmer, is he all front? A significant minority of Aussies love a showman. Look at Shane Warne! A bit of a lair, but you'd love him in your side against The Rest Of The World.

Uncle Pat | 11 April 2014  

Why did West Australians need to vote in someone like clive Palmer. Interesting to note that he spent a lot of money advertising on radio stations listened to by young people. The oldies picked out the lies but the youngies didnt /couldnt.

John | 14 April 2014  

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