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Our fate rests in the West

At the Side Project blog, Warwick Holt looks at whether those wacky Senate preference deals could bite again

Image: Will the HEMP Party form a Joint Parliamentary Committee?

The 2013 election was perhaps the weirdest ever for the Senate. And this Saturday, the whole bizarre saga is set to come to a climax in an election that will determine how much control the Abbott government has over the upper house.

And it all rests in the hands of Western Australians – along with the unpredictable and often surreal results of a Senate ballot paper that has outgrown the voting system.

The Australian Senate calculus is now an arcane branch of maths, illustrating the difficulty of designing a fair voting system to elect six winners. Last year saw an upswing in minor party registrations, and a huge increase in their votes, with seats going to a brace of minor parties on tiny primary votes, giving an upper house more closely than ever resembling Paul Keating’s tarring of “unrepresentative swill”.

This is largely due to the Minor Party Alliance set up by Glenn Druery, also known as “The Preference Whisperer” (don't think too hard about it). Druery’s system of getting minor parties to preference swap led to seats from small primary votes for Family First, the Liberal Democratic Party and the Australian Motoring Enthusiasts Party.

But it was in the West that the vote was most bizarre. The unheard of Australian Sports Party looked like getting Senator Wayne Dropulich elected with less than 3000 primary votes, before a late change in voting patterns saw two seats flip – going to Labor and the Palmer United Party rather than the Greens and the Dropulich, with the crucial margin being just 14 votes.

With the margin being so narrow, the AEC called for a recount, which reversed the results – a 12 vote margin led to the Greens and Sports Party winning - only for it to emerge that 1375 votes had gone missing between the two counts.

(Which sounds like a lot, but the actual number that would have impacted the election result was a small percentage of that. In fact one election-watcher calculated that if the 1300 votes had’ve remained as they were in the first count, the final result – for the pair of seats at stake – would’ve been just 1 vote.)

So a re-election has been called, a fresh round of preference whispering done, and on Saturday it all happens again. And everyone’s wondering what surprise might be in store.

Could the Sports Party do it again? Even though Dropulich now has a public profile, which might be expected to increase his primary vote, the party haven’t been able to secure as strong a flow of preferences this time around, so it’s extremely unlikely.

Election calculators allow us to determine that if first preferences were cast in the same proportion that they were last September– but with the new preference tickets - the result would be the same as the initial September count: 3 Liberal, 2 Labor and 1 Palmer United.

But Palmer’s seat is on a knife-edge, just as in September. Tiny adjustments in the vote could see the seat fall to the Greens. And Greens Senator Scott Ludlum has bolstered his support markedly, particularly with his recent speech "welcoming" Tony Abbott to WA attracting over 800,000 views on YouTube.

In fact Newspoll published a poll yesterday which accumulated polls from January through March, which showed votes of 46% to the Coalition, 29% to Labor, 15% to the Greens and 10% to others. With each Senate seat requiring 14.3% of the vote, if this was replicated on Saturday, the result would be simple: 3 Coalition, 2 Labor, 1 Greens, with no need to even look at preferences.

But Clive Palmer is spending an enormous amount on advertising, and some polling suggests his party may stand to get 10% of the vote itself, and could easily snatch a seat from the Coalition or the Greens.

And there’s another enemy the Greens have to battle - a party many may consider natural allies of the Greens: the Help End Marijuana Prohibition (HEMP) Party.

HEMP has done deals to score a stash of good flows from minor parties. And the losers out of those deals are the Greens, occupying spots 52-57 (out of 77) on the HEMP ticket.

If they stay in the count, HEMP could preference surf their way into the Senate themselves. Totally tubular. And if not, their preferences could help Labor, if they’re struggling to get two seats in their own right – otherwise, they’ll help PUP.

Results like this could have a massive impact in what our Parliament looks like and the chances of the Senate being effectively a rubber stamp for the Abbott government.

The 70 Senate seats already determined for the 2014-17 term are made up of 30 Coalition, 24 ALP, 9 Greens, 2 PUP and 5 others (including the Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party's Ricky Muir, who has agreed to vote with PUP).

The six WA Senators could tip the balance of power – or leave us looking for more colours

The six WA Senators could tip the balance of power – or leave us looking for more colours

The Coalition and Labor look almost certain to add at least two seats each to their tallies. The remaining two seats looking like being fought out between the Coalition, the Greens, Palmer United, and the ultimate smokeys: HEMP.

So, Western Australians, choose your votes carefully. And maybe hope that the AEC don’t get any help keeping track of their ballots from the HEMP Party.

As well as being The Project’s writer and Web Producer, Warwick runs a Media Empire, and occasionally tweets @wokholt.
The opinions expressed in The Side Project blog do not necessarily reflect those of The Project or the Ten Network.