OPINION / Crispin Hull on Senators and Pre-Selection

woman with a sign

While everyone tuned in (either in glee or horror) as Liberal Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells delivered her excoriating character reference on Prime Minister Scott Morrison, an underlying equally significant matter was virtually ignored.

Morrison’s defence was that hell hath no fury like a senator who has lost a pre-selection fight and been relegated to an unwinnable position on the Coalition’s NSW Senate ticket.

The pre-selectors had voted Fierravanti-Wells third among Liberals, behind Foreign Minister Senator Marise Payne and former Army general Senator Jim Molan.

But if truth be told, even if she had been pre-selected ahead of Molan, her position would still have been almost certainly unwinnable.

This is because the Liberal Party is so beholden to its socially and economically troglodyte junior Nationals partner that it hands to the Nationals the second spot on the ticket in the three states where the Nationals have a presence: NSW, Victoria and Queensland.

At the half-Senate election in May (when six senators have to be elected from each state) three Coalition senators come up for election in five states, including NSW, Victoria and Queensland. They were elected in 2016 when the Coalition did quite well.

Remember, 2016 was a double dissolution in which 12 senators get elected from each state. The 12 then have to be divided into two: half having six-year terms and the other half having only three-year terms. The Constitution gives the Senate itself the power to determine which six senators for each state will get a six-year terms and which get three-year terms.

There are two ways of doing this. The fair way or the unfair way. The latter rigs things in favour of the major parties. So, in 2016 the major parties in the Senate chose the unfair way which favoured them, especially the Coalition.

As a result, in 2016, the Coalition got three long-term (six-year) senators in five states.

Now the chooks come home to roost. Those three Coalition senators in five states (all but Tasmania) are now up for re-election. And the way the Coalition is polling, a betting person would not put their money on the Coalition winning three of six senate seats in any of those five states, with the possible exception of Queensland.

The likelihood is that the Coalition will get only two senators in each of those states and will lose five senators.

The arithmetic is worth a moment’s attention. With six senators up in each state the quota for a Senate seat is 14.3 per cent (one seventh plus one, because if six candidates get that, there is not enough vote for any other candidate to better them).

So, to get three quotas to elect three senators a party needs three times 14.3, which is, in round terms, 43 per cent of the vote. And that has to be pretty much all first-preference vote because the minors and independents swap preferences among themselves to the bitter end.

The Coalition is not polling anywhere near 43 per cent of the primary vote.

But the really surprising thing is that the Coalition, faced with the reality of only getting two senators elected in each of NSW, Victoria and Queensland, has handed one of those two precious seats in each state to the National Party.

In short, this arch-conservative National Party rump gets fully half of the Coalition’s Senate seats down the eastern seaboard.

In NSW, the National Party’s former director Ross Cadell goes to the No 2 spot on the Coalition ticket. The Liberals’ Molan, who one could easily argue is the better credentialed candidate, goes to No 3 where he faces the strong likelihood of defeat.

So, Fierravanti-Wells had not been demoted from a winnable to an unwinnable position, but from a near impossible position to an utterly impossible position.

Nonetheless, her character reference on Morrison was spell-binding.

In Victoria, the winnable (let’s face it, unlosable) second place on the Coalition is again handed to the Nationals on a plate. It goes to Senator Bridget McKenzie.

You will recall that, in 2020, the Auditor-General found her administration of the Community Sport Infrastructure Program wanting. She used her ministerial discretion to favour marginal or targeted electorates in the allocation of grants in the lead up to the 2019 election. It became known as the Sports Rorts scandal. Why does the Liberal Party give the Nationals so much leeway?

In Queensland, the Nationals’ Senator Matt Canavan gets the unlosable second Coalition spot. Canavan has been spruiking coal and supporting hand-outs to fossil interests for as long as he has been in Parliament. He has pushed the Liberals’ Senator Amanda Stoker to what will be a very difficult third position this election, even in Queensland.

In effect, the Liberals’ coalition Senate arrangement with the Nationals has put three sitting Liberal senators into severe jeopardy, while giving two sitting National senators and one National candidate an easy ride to the red chamber.

The Liberals are likely to lose up to six Senate seats given their first preference polling. The Nationals will lose none and in fact gain one at the expense of the Liberals.

This in turn means the Nationals will get more frontbench seats (in government or opposition) and more influence beyond what their support (or lack of it) in the community should command.

The answer to this idiotic concession by the Liberals is for voters to vote below the line the Senate. Not just Coalition voters, but Labor and teal voters, too.

When voting below the line, a voter can rearrange the order within the Coalition column and can put all the Liberal candidates above the National candidates. This is even if a voter has put Labor, the Greens, a minor party or independent as their first choice.

This is particularly true in Victoria, which is generally more progressive than other states and deserves a Liberal senator in preference to the Nationals’ architect of the Sports Rorts scandal.

This article first appeared in The Canberra Times and other Australian media on 5 April 2022


Crispin Hull BA, LLB (Hons) | Property Convenor  |  ANU School of Legal Practice Lawyer of the Supreme Court of the ACT, on the Register of Practitioners kept by the High Court of Australia


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