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A once and future Senate

By Ken Wolff

We now know that the Senate elected at the July election comprises 30 Coalition members, 26 from the ALP, 9 Greens, 4 from One Nation, 3 from the Nick Xenophon Team (NXT) and one each from Family First, the Liberal Democrats, Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party and the Jacqui Lambie Network. Thirty-nine votes are required in the Senate to pass legislation, so the government will require either ALP or Green support, or otherwise support from nine of the eleven minor party members. Given that NXT has three Senators and One Nation has four, their support for every Bill opposed by the ALP and the Greens becomes essential. It will be a difficult situation for the government but there is another issue I wish to discuss.

Before the election, the Coalition and the Greens combined to introduce a new voting system for the Senate, the aim being to reduce the number of minor parties or people being elected despite starting with only a handful of first preference votes. It did not work this time, largely due to the election being a double dissolution, but will it achieve its aim in the future when we resume the cycle of half-Senate elections?

Senators are elected for six years but on a rotational basis so that half the Senate faces the electorate every three years. After a double dissolution a decision has to be made as to which of the newly elected Senators will serve a full six-year term and which will serve only three before facing an election. There are two ways of doing this.

The common approach has been to use the order in which Senators from each state are elected and give the first six the six-year term, with those elected from seventh to twelfth to serve three years. In a Senate election those with smaller votes are progressively ‘excluded’ and their preferences distributed and preferences from those who have an ‘excess’ quota are also distributed on a proportional basis: as that process unfolds a clear order of election emerges.

The other way, put in legislation by the Hawke government in 1984, allows the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) to do a recount of the election as if it was a half-Senate election and those ‘elected’ under that count would be given the six-year term. The underlying idea supporting that approach was that using the ‘first six elected’ may have been fair when we had ‘first past the post’ voting but not when we have a proportional representation system: despite that, even after the 1987 double dissolution this method was not used.

Although those two methods are available, the Constitution states only that the Senate itself can decide who will serve six years and who three.

Derryn Hinch had suggested that if he did not get a six-year term he would challenge the decision in the High Court. I am not a lawyer but I don’t like his chances if he carries out that threat. When the Constitution states the Senate can decide, it would seem that it is not even bound to use either of the methods I have described.

It was reported on 12 August that the Coalition and Labor had agreed they would use the ‘traditional’ method of the ‘first six elected’ to determine the six-year Senators. That means the Coalition will have 16 six-year Senators, the ALP 13, the Greens 3 (Di Natale, Ludlam and Whish-Wilson), NXT 2 (Xenophon and Griff) and One Nation (Pauline Hanson) and Jacqui Lambie Network (Jacqui Lambie) one each. So that will be the starting point for a new Senate from 1 July 2019.

At a state level that translates as 3 each from the Coalition and the ALP in NSW; in Queensland, 3 Coalition, 2 ALP and Pauline Hanson; in SA, 2 each from the Coalition, ALP and NXT; in Tasmania, 2 each from the Coalition and ALP, and 1 Green and Jacqui Lambie; and in both Victoria and WA, 3 Coalition, 2 ALP and 1 Green.

I will basically ignore the Senators from the NT and ACT, except in discussing total numbers, because they face election every three years and the territories invariably return one Coalition and one ALP Senator, meaning that we just add two to each major party.

What becomes more important is who will face re-election in three years: 12 Coalition Senators, 11 from the ALP, 6 Greens, 3 One Nation, 1 NXT and Derryn Hinch (Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party), Bob Day (Family First) and David Leyonhjelm (Liberal Democrats). From that list you can see why the Coalition and the ALP agreed to the ‘first six elected’ method: their numbers for re-election are close and 13 of the 20 cross-benchers have to face re-election. In that regard, the government may be relatively content with the outcome from the new voting procedure and see the next half-Senate election as an opportunity to reduce the size of the cross-bench.

To be elected a Senator has to achieve a ‘quota’ which is determined by dividing the total number of votes in a state by the number of Senators facing election plus one. In the recent double dissolution that meant the vote was divided by 13, or in percentage terms a quota was about 7.69% of the vote. In a half-Senate election, the number is divided by 7 and so a quota becomes 14.29% of the vote. While preferences are important in determining who is elected, the quota achieved after first preference votes gives a reasonable indication of who will be elected, with those achieving at least 0.4 of a quota having a higher probability of achieving a full quota after preferences.

Given the results in the 2016 election who is likely to win re-election at a half-Senate election and what will that mean for the Senate from 2019?

Firstly, neither David Leyonhjelm, NSW, (Liberal Democrats) nor Bob Day, SA, (Family First), appear likely to be re-elected: their 2016 vote becomes only 0.2 of a quota at a half-Senate election. They would each require something close to a doubling of their vote and that is highly unlikely.

In Victoria, Derryn Hinch may be in with a chance of being re-elected if he can maintain his vote: his half-Senate quota would start at 0.42 rather than the 0.79 at the 2016 election. My guess is that at a half-Senate election Hinch, if he runs again, may even achieve a slightly higher vote, but even with a starting point of 0.4 of a quota I expect that he could be returned.

Jacqui Lambie was elected in Tasmania at the recent election but will not face re-election at the half-Senate election. The 2016 vote translates to 0.58 of a quota at a half-Senate election but because that vote was for Jacqui Lambie herself, it is unlikely to be repeated when she is not running. So even if she runs a Jacqui Lambie Network candidate, I would expect a very reduced vote and it is unlikely a second Network member would join her in the Senate.

Three One Nation Senators will face re-election with the NSW and WA Senators appearing unlikely to win as their starting quota would drop below 0.3. A Queensland win is possible based on the 2016 vote as it would become 0.64 of a quota at the half-Senate election. Hanson herself will not be running so that could reduce the One Nation vote but it may still be enough to secure a second One Nation member in the new Senate (unless there is a large drop in the vote, which is possible based on the past history of One Nation).

Based on the 2016 vote, NXT could pick up two more Senators in SA at a half-Senate election as it would have 1.52 quotas. As with Lambie and Hanson, however, Xenophon himself won’t be running and that may reduce NXT’s vote. Even so, it seems likely that at least one NXT member will be returned and two can’t be entirely ruled out. So NXT will maintain at least three Senators, and possibly increase that to four, in the new Senate from 2019.

One Green Senator from every state will face re-election. They are likely to have at least four and probably five returned. SA is most problematic for them largely because of the magnitude of the NXT vote. If the NXT vote drops, it may become a battle between the Greens and a second NXT candidate for the final Senate position. So that will not change the number on the cross-bench, just the composition.

So, on my estimation, it is possible that 9 of the 13 cross-benchers facing a half-Senate election could be returned, meaning there would still be 16 rather than the current 20. Counting the six-year Senators, the new cross-bench could comprise 8 (possibly 9) Greens, 4 (possibly 3) NXT, 2 One Nation, Jacqui Lambie and Derryn Hinch.

How the Coalition and the ALP fare at a half-Senate election depends very much on who wins government in the HoR because, obviously, the winning party would probably see an increased vote compared to the 2016 election. An increased vote for either party may also have some influence on the results for the minor parties, with Hinch in Victoria, the One Nation candidate in Queensland and possibly the second NXT candidate in SA being most at risk.

At best, the Coalition could win three seats in each state, although if NXT continues its success in SA it may only be two there. Even with an increased vote, and irrespective of the NXT vote, I suggest that 17 Senators is its very best outcome, for a total of 35 Senators (including the two Territory Senators) in the Senate from 2019, still four short of a majority.

The ALP’s best result, with an increased vote, appears to be 16 Senators for a new total of 31 (also including its two Territory Senators) so, as in the past, it would be reliant on the support of the Greens to pass legislation.

Those ‘best’ results for the Coalition and the ALP include the scenario that Hinch, One Nation and NXT do not win the extra seats I mentioned. If they do win, then the Coalition could expect to win 14 seats and the ALP 13, in which case the 2019 Senate would be 32 Coalition Senators, 28 from the ALP, 8 Greens, 4 NXT, 2 One Nation and Derryn Hinch and Jacqui Lambie.

In that scenario the Coalition would require ALP or Green support, or all but one of the minor party Senators to pass legislation, and the ALP would require the Greens and at least three of the other Senators, which most likely would mean gaining the support of NXT.

There are of course many permutations. Will there be a stronger vote for the Coalition or the ALP in 2019 and, if so, will it be strong enough to reduce the vote for minor parties? Will there be a resurgence in the Greens’ vote? Will the One Nation vote collapse as it has done in the past? Can NXT maintain the very high vote it achieved in SA in 2016? The answer to those questions can change what happens at the next half-Senate election and perhaps re-write my scenarios.

But unless the answer to those questions is ‘yes’, ‘no’, ‘yes’ and ‘no’, then it appears likely that the government’s Senate voting changes will not achieve its intention of significantly reducing the size of the Senate cross bench. It may have to wait until 2022, even 2025, and try, try again.

This article was originally published on The Political Sword

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  1. Jaquix

    Very interesting analysis of the current, and possible future senate! Will be good to compare Ken’s figurings with the actual result, next time we vote a new senate in. In a way, the odds and ends that get elected, provide a bit of colour (some more than others) and although some who have got in with tiny primary votes, like Ricky Muir, who I thought really rose to the occasion, there are others like Malcolm Roberts who get in with 77 primary votes, which clearly is ridiculous and his future contribution to the political scene is highly unlikely to be worth much. Poor old Malcolm, what he has foisted upon himself.

  2. Harquebus

    Just finished reading this and thought I’d share.

    “the majority of complaints about Senate obstruction today come from the same partisans who cheered when the chamber refused to pass Rudd’s electorally mandated emissions trading scheme.”
    “Our Senate was devised before political parties as we know them existed.”

    We need to talk about the Senate

  3. Ken Wolff

    Harquebus: Interesting article by Brent. Yes, it seems obvious that it is whoever is in government that complains most about the Senate but we have only to look at what happened when Howard had control of the Senate. He put through one of the biggest ‘vote losers’ of modern times — WorkChoices. In that regard, it could almost be argued that a ‘hostile’ Senate can protect governments from themselves.

  4. Harquebus

    Ken Wolf.
    I agree. How much worse off would we be without the senate? A whole lot.

  5. Matters Not

    There are of course many permutations

    Indeed! But I think your explorations of same aren’t too far wide of the mark. Roberts, the One Nation ‘lucky dip’, will probably have difficulty if his attempt to ‘differentiate’ fails. But he has at least given himself a chance of political survival albeit via the ‘nutter’ vote. He will become the ‘go to man’ when a ‘clown’ is required to answer eminent scientists in the ‘climate change’ debate. Just jokin …

    You know the need for ‘balance’. Just as we have Professors of Dentistry dragooned to debate the mythical ‘Barry’ who believes that dental problems are best solved via a piece of string and a swinging door, we will have Roberts who will argue that it’s all a plot and the rise in temperature is all down to a failure of the air-conditioner..

    That type of ‘bullshit’ often works. Whether Malcolm Ieuan Roberts can pull it off remains to be seen.

    A this stage, he’s a figure of fun. But then again wasn’t Hanson, Lambie, David Ean Leyonhjelm, .. It’s almost a rite of passage.

  6. Michael Taylor

    “The One Nation ‘lucky dip’.” Love it.

  7. Harquebus

    I will listen to Malcolm Roberts if, he provides the “empirical evidence” to back his claims.

  8. Matters Not

    It may have to wait until 2022, even 2025, and try, try again.

    The notion that ‘politicians’ have ‘visions’ that extend beyond the next election is intellectually ‘courageous’. (And that probably applies to all politicians, across the ideological spectrum). Sure they like to ‘expound’ about the ‘future’, what it should look like, and how to achieve same, but the reality is much more mundane. For most, if not all, politicians it’s all about short-term survival. One election at a time please.

    On the other hand, party ‘strategists’ (usually the ideologues) have a longer term view. The changes to how Senators are elected really matters. The ‘rats and mice’ groupings now face an even steeper uphill battle while the ‘power brokers’ can rest easier. So many more ‘sinecures’ to be distributed. But certainly not to deluded Branch Members. (But don’t tell them because we need them to … )

  9. Ken Wolff

    Matters Not: You are probably right making the distinction between the ‘visions’ of the politicians and the party strategists. On the other hand, I think the Greens would be well aware that their best result in the Senate now will not come until 2022. While they may end up with 8 or 9 Senators after 2019, in 2022 they will have only 3 Senators facing election but will likely pick up another 4 to 6. So in 2022 there will be a minimum of 9 and anything up to 12, with 10 or 11 being the most likely outcome. And I think even the politicians know that they now have to think in terms of 2022 to campaign to get rid of Hanson and Lambie. Of course, they are embroiled in the day to day politics of dealing with the Senate as it is, but I think that in the back of their minds they must have hope of having to deal mainly with the Greens at some time in the future. Although I expect that there are those who would also like to see the Greens reduced to no more than 3-4 Senators but that does not appear likely in the foreseeable future.

  10. Matters Not

    Ken I should’ve drawn a distinction between politicians who have safe seats (more than 15% margin) and those who live in constant fear of an ‘across the board swing’.

    Both Hanson and Lambie will be hard to shift because they have found a ‘niche’. Derryn Hinch will again be the ‘human headline’ and might be hard to shift as well, but I think he’s vulnerable. Generally speaking, the Victorian electorate is more sophisticated than both Tasmania and Queensland and it’s hard to see him getting a full quota. But who knows.

  11. Ken Wolff

    Matters Not: I agree Lambie will be difficult to shift as she has certainly woven herself into the fabric of Tasmanian politics. Hanson, I’m not so sure about. One Nation has a history of strong short-term votes followed by a much reduced vote. Much will depend on the social and economic circumstances prevailing in 2022. If the economy has improved, then issues about multiculturalism and Muslims (or foreignors and migrants taking our jobs) will diminish and so will the support for One Nation as people feel more ‘content’. So much will depend on what governments (of either persuasion) can achieve by 2022.

    Hinch will be interesting. I actually think there is a chance that he may not run again but if he does then another 7% vote is not beyond him – it is not a large vote after all but just big enough to give him a chance. While I agree that Victoria seems a more ‘sophisticated’ electorate than some other states, that 7% vote is quite achievable as not 100% of the electorate is sophistiicated.

  12. helvityni

    MN, funnily enough it was only yesterday that I mentioned to hubby that Victoria seemed so much more sophisticated in many areas than and the other Aussie state.
    I think it was after watching ABC’s show about Arts, the Mix.

    According to him it was to do with having a colder climate. What about Tasmania then…? 🙂

    I don’t know about the rest of NSW, but at least in Sydney, the real estate used to be the main dinner party subject.

    Sorry to be straying away from the topic… politics…

  13. diannaart

    We are lucky to have a senate – with all its accompanying weaknesses and advantages. I believe Queensland is poorly served by having only the HoR.

    Very disappointed to realise that Hanson has a 6 year stint.

    But then, we will see the last of Leyonhjelm and Day. YAY!

    As for Lambie – sometimes and this is very rare, sometimes she actually makes sense – could well prove to be interesting.

    Hinch – ticking time bomb – who will he rat on given the privileges of parliament? Ultimately he will probably side with LNP.

    Xenophon – could provide some balance but he leans more to the right generally.


    Victoria only appears more sophisticated because we all wear black and sit in cafes… 😉

  14. Ken Wolff

    On the issue of Victoria. Historically it has been a bit more progressive than other some other states. At the time of Federation there were three ‘parties’: the ‘protectionists’, the ‘free traders’ and Labour (as it was then). The protectionists were centred in Melbourne and included a small ‘L’ liberal approach on social issues. The free-traders were centred in Sydney but tended to be conservative on social issues. Somewhere around 1909/1910 those two groups merged to present a united front against the ‘threat’ of Labour – they formed the Commonwealth Liberal Party. I think even in more recent times we have seen that the tradition of ‘liberalism’ has been represented more in the Victorian Liberal Party and the more conservative Liberal leaders have come from NSW. So history plays its part.

  15. Michael Taylor

    And when Victorians aren’t sitting in cafes . . . they’re running blog sites. 🙁

  16. Matters Not

    helvityni the notion that a cold climate is beneficial for ‘intellectual pursuits’ was frequently advanced as a reason to establish a University in Toowoomba. Now that it is established, the irony is that most of the student population don’t physically attend, preferring to study via the ‘distance’ mode.

    As for Tasmania, this little anecdote from Mungo provides insight:

    memory of a VIP flight in 1970, which was diverted from Melbourne to Hobart by bad weather. The travelling press corps was seriously miffed; most of us had already made more or less sybaritic arrangements for the forthcoming evening, instead of which we were now to be deposited in the bleak south. The prospect was made worse by the memory of a former Whitlam visit, during which the Labor leader had been accosted by an eager young reporter with the demand: ‘Mr Whitlam, tell us what you will do for Tasmania.’ Whitlam had replied with devastating honesty: ‘What can I do for Tasmania – what can anybody do for Tasmania? I mean, the place is f*cked.’

    There was a feeling that a return visit might not be entirely welcome. But this time Whitlam had words of optimism. ‘There’s one thing about Tasmania,’ he reassured us. ‘With all that inbreeding, there’s always a chance of a bit of double-headed fellatio.’ The trip was made.

    And yet there are those who think Whitlam lost his job because of ‘supply’ issues. Some of us know better. Broken promises. ? ? ? ? ? ?

  17. diannaart


    That’s why good cafes have wi-fi

  18. Ken Wolff

    Diannaart: yes a bicameral system is preferrable to a single house. The exception to that may be if the single house is formed on a proportional representation basis (but I don’t want to get into that argument now). The Senate was meant to be a ‘States’ house’ but modern party discipline has put an end to that. Senators from a particular state voting as a bloc to protect their State’s interests, as could be expected of a ‘States’ house’ is as rare as rocking horse sh**!!! Whether we have lost or gained from the modern approach is a matter for debate.

  19. Matters Not

    believe Queensland is poorly served by having only the HoR

    Between 1860 and 1922 Queensland had a bicameral Parliament – a Legislative Council (Upper House) and a Legislative Assembly (Lower House). On 23 March 1922, legislation to abolish the Upper House was passed and Queensland became the only unicameral state parliament in Australia. Keating’s reference to ‘unrepresentative swill’ was the rationale employed. ? ?

    The Council had opposed many of the reform measures of the Ryan Labor Government which was elected in 1915. This resulted in the government formulating a policy to abolish the Council. This proposal was continually rejected by Upper House Members and was defeated in a referendum. However, the Acting Governor, William Lennon, then appointed 14 Labor Members to the Council giving the Government a majority in the Upper House. The Council sat for the last time on 27 October 1921, where it voted in favour of passing the Constitution Act Amendment Bill, the purpose of which was to abolish Queensland’s Upper House. The Act was proclaimed on 23 March 1922 and converted the Queensland Parliament to a unicameral Parliament.

    The Chamber is still there and is used on occasions such as Estimates hearings. It is still very well maintained but there is no serious ‘push’ for a revival of an upper house.

  20. helvityni

    🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 ,I’ll pass all that to hubby, he knows a bit more than I do about Tassie, after all he walked from Cradle- back Mountain to Lake St. Clear…. Queenstown locals were a bit suspicious of those inner-city trekkers.

    Mungo and Whitlam are/were a bit naughty, but lovable all the same.

    It’s a rainy day in Southern Highlands, and I’m planning a trip to the tropics, or at least as far as Byron Bay…might even meet up with Mungo.

    Michael, you are doing a good job on AIMN.

  21. diannaart

    @Ken Wolff

    Just a bicameral Parliament is complex enough, without embarking upon a study of multi-parties elected by proportional representation. Am learning about this very slowly. :p

  22. Michael Taylor

    Dianna, any cafe with WiFi would have to be better that the pathetic internet speeds I have here at home.

    Thank you helvityni. I appreciate that.

  23. diannaart

    Before we die, we might get optic-fibre Australia wide… Trump will admit he is narcissistic bag of gas, Tony Abbott will come out (with Chrissie Pyne), Michaelia Cash will attend vocal training, Labor will admit it was wrong about offshore detention….

    Managing a blog with lousy internet speeds and remaining reasonable with people like NoS- you are a hero!

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