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The Balance of Power in the Senate

The Federal election has made little change to the composition of the Senate. However, some interesting possibilities exist in the next six months before the new senators take up their places.

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There are 12 senators per State, regardless of the size (population or geographic) of the State. The Australian Capital Territory and Northern Territory have 2 senators each.

Senators are elected for fixed six-year terms. Terms commence on July 1 and run until June 30 six years later. Half of the Senate face the people every three years, although ACT and NT senators serve the same term as members of the House of Representatives.

Senators elected at the elections on October 3, 1998 took up their places on July 1, 1999. They expire on June 30, 2005.

Senators chosen on November 10, 2001 take up their places on July 1, 2002. Until then, senators elected on March 2, 1996 (who took up their places on July 1, 1996) will remain in place until June 30, 2002.

Of course, many Senators were re-elected, so little will change next year. Senators who were defeated on November 10, such as Vicki Bourne (Democrats, NSW) or Chris Schacht (ALP, South Australia) know that they have a job until midnight on June 30, 2002.

The Senate uses a system of proportional representation where each State is treated as one multi-member electorate. This allows minor parties and independents to win seats because they need only acquire a quota of 14.3% of the vote in a particular State in order to win a seat. A half-Senate election elects 6 senators in each State. Because of the way proportional voting works, the ALP and coalition will win two seats each, with the remaining two seats being fought out between ALP, Coalition, Democrats and Greens. In every State at the 2001 election, the coalition won 3 Senate positions, the ALP 2, with the sixth position going to either the Democrats or Greens. In the territories, the ALP and Coalition win one seat each.

The House of Representatives, by contrast, uses a preferential system of voting in single-member electorates, where successful candidates have to win 50% plus one of the total vote, either on primary (number 1) votes or after the distribution of preferences. Each State has a number of seats in proportion to its population (eg. NSW – 50, W.A. – 15).

The Democrats, Greens and One Nation have no members in the House of Representatives because they are unable to garner 50% plus one of the total vote in individual seats, but they are able to reach the 14.3% quota statewide in the Senate.

The table shows the composition of the Senate at present and the numbers from July 1, 2002.

The table shows that the Howard government lacks a majority in the Senate. There are 76 senators, so 39 are required to pass legislation. A tied vote of 38-38 means the vote is lost.

At present the coalition has 35 members and needs 4 more votes to pass legislation. Until recently, this meant that the balance of power was held by the Australian Democrats. Their 9 votes were enough to get the government over the line, as was seen with the GST legislation in 1999.

The ALP had 29 senators, but just a few weeks before the 2001 elections, Senator Shayne Murphy (ALP, Tasmania) resigned from the ALP and will now sit as an Independent.

From February 2002, when the Senate resumes, the combination of the government members (35), plus Murphy, Harradine (Independent), Brown (Greens) and Harris (One Nation) would be enough to sideline the Democrats. This unlikely to happen, though, because Murphy will side with the ALP on crucial issues, as will the Greens.

The Howard government’s total of 35 senators will be unchanged on July 1, 2002. The government retained all its Senate seats at the November 10 election. It has particular cause to be pleased with Senator Ron Boswell’s performance in Queensland, where he defeated One Nation’s Pauline Hanson for the last position.

Given these numbers, the balance of power from July 2002 will be technically shared between the Australian Democrats (8), Greens (2), Senator Brian Harradine and Senator Shayne Murphy.

In practice, it is highly unlikely that the two Greens senators will support the more contentious aspects of the government’s legislative agenda, such as industrial relations changes or the sale of Telstra. Murphy is also unlikely to support the government, since his resignation from the ALP is based on particular issues to do with forestry and resource usage.

Hence, the effective balance of power in the Senate will remain with the Australian Democrats. Their support will allow the government to pass legislation.

The ALP (28), Democrats (8) and Greens (2) have an effective blocking majority in the new Senate.

Other permutations and combinations are possible, especially given that the Democrats allow their senators a conscience vote on all issues. In 1999, for example, 5 Democrats senators supported the government’s GST legislation and two opposed it.

The more interesting feature of the new Senate will not be the raw numbers, but the interaction of the Australian Greens – Bob Brown from Tasmania and Kerry Nettle from NSW – with the Democrats, the ALP and the government.

The Greens doubled their vote in the election, picking up support from disgruntled Labor voters disappointed with the Opposition’s stance on refugees and lack of clear policy alternatives. They may also have picked up some votes from moderate Liberals alienated by the social conservatism of the party under John Howard.

The relationship between the Greens and the government, the two groups now referred to as the winners out of “conviction” politics, will be intriguing. More so, the relationship between the Democrats – its party-room divided over Stott Despoja’s leadership – and the Greens will be interesting to observe, especially now that Brown has a colleague to second his motions on the floor of the chamber.

The ALP, smarting over its third successive electoral defeat, divided over internal party reform and policy directions, squeezed by its disenchanted progressive/liberal wing on the one hand and its more conservative base on the other, will also play a delicate juggling game in the Senate.

The psychology of the new Senate may thus be just as significant as the actual numbers.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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