Why the WA re-election matters

The Australian Solar Council’s solar scorecard.

Western Australia will go back to the polls tomorrow for a rerun of last year’s Senate election (due to the count having been bungled in that state). The re-election will be critical in deciding the makeup of the new Senate from July this year, and is a key opportunity for the Greens.

To pass legislation in the Senate requires 39 votes. The original election delivered 41 of the 76 Senate seats to anti-climate forces: Liberal/National Coalition 33, Palmer United 3, Motoring Enthusiasts 1, Liberal Democrats 1, Family First 1, Democratic Labor 1, and independent Nick Xenophon 1 (note Xenophon, like the Coalition, claims to accept the science of climate change, but supports only incentive-based policies). The only genuinely pro-climate party, the Greens, won only 9 seats; while Labor, who at least oppose the repeal of their own weak climate policies, won 26 seats.

In WA, the Liberal/National Coalition won 3 seats, Labor 2, and Palmer United 1, with the Greens losing their WA Senator Scott Ludlam. That’s 4 seats for anti-climate parties and only 2 for anti-repeal ones. The re-election could shift the balance to 3-3 or even 2-4, which would reduce the dominance of anti-climate forces, and increase the chances that the Abbott government could run into opposition from some of the more unpredictable crossbenchers on certain issues. At the very least, it should save the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, whose abolition is opposed by Xenophon and Democratic Labor. (On the downside, it might force the government to negotiate with Xenophon, who would greenwash rather than improve climate policy.)

Several leftish micro-parties, bruised by the controversy about their preferencing right-wing parties last year, have reverted to preferencing other left-wing parties. The Wikileaks Party has scored first place on the ballot paper, and this time around is directing preferences straight to the Greens. On the other hand, many others are preferencing Labor before the Greens, and Labor is preferencing several leftish and libertarian parties ahead of the Greens. It’s been suggested that Labor may be intentionally trying to sabotage Ludlam’s chances of being elected.

The new preference tickets mean if people vote the same way they did in the original election, they should reproduce the original outcome: Coalition 3, Labor 2, and Palmer United 1. However, it would take only a 3.5% swing to change the right-left balance of seats to 3-3. Given the preference ticket changes favour Labor, the Greens presumably need to increase their vote by more than 3.5% in order to triumph over Labor as well as the right-wing parties.

The Coalition won the last election merely by being not-Labor, rather than on their own merits. Abbott promised to govern for all Australians, but in reality his every decision makes the rich richer, the privileged more privileged, and the powerful more powerful. For examples, see my summary of Abbott’s first seven months, and Sally McManus’s popular list of “Abbott’s wreckage”. It is now obvious Abbott intends to transform the once-egalitarian Australia into a world of dog-eat-dog.

The scariest thing about this government is that while they have been taking all the unpopular actions they’ve taken in the last six months, they have been expecting this WA re-election to come up at some point – which means they are still holding back. The real, unfettered Abbott will not emerge until after the re-election, when his government will release its first budget and a number of reviews will report back. Those reviews are being undertaken by Abbott government appointees who appear to have been specifically hand-picked to deliver predetermined conclusions. The reviews include the Renewable Energy Target review, which will recommend halting the deployment of renewable energy by scrapping or sabotaging the target; the Commission of Audit, which will recommend massive budget cuts hurting the poor but not big business; and the Fair Work Act review, which will recommend restrictions on workers’ rights and reductions in wages and working conditions. Any decent policies left standing will no doubt be finished off by other reviews of all regulations and taxes. Abbott’s vision for Australia seems to be along the lines of the Institute for Public Affairs’ 75 (now 100) “radical ideas to transform Australia”.

Meanwhile, Palmer United has flooded WA with advertising, spending over ten times more than either major party. I find myself in the rare position of agreeing with Tony Abbott: Clive Palmer is trying to buy votes, and Western Australians shouldn’t allow themselves to be bought.

The election could also be influenced by the not-for-profit Australian Solar Council’s “Save Solar” campaign, which is spending $1 million in an attempt to copy the mining industry’s strategy “for the good guys”. It has even hired someone who worked on the campaigns against the carbon and mining taxes (although I think it is a mistake that the TV ads focus on financial self-interest instead of the climate crisis).

Save Solar asked each of the four largest parties whether they support the Renewable Energy Target (RET). Unsurprisingly, the Greens and Labor support it, while the Coalition hides behind its stacked review. One Palmer candidate briefly claimed to support the RET, until Palmer himself clarified they actually want a voluntary renewable energy target (whatever that means).

I think Scott Ludlam is right when he says “Australia is suffering from a remarkable case of political buyer’s regret”. So is Greens leader Christine Milne in detecting a “vibe” of despair at “what the Abbott government is doing to our country and the speed with which it’s doing it”. This is the least popular incoming government in four decades, and 100,000 Australians protested against it at the March in March. The question is who will benefit from the government’s unpopularity.

According to opinion polls, since the last election voters have swung toward Labor and the Greens, while the Coalition, Palmer United, and others have lost votes. Tony Abbott personally is particularly unpopular with female voters. Yet despite Labor’s recovery, Labor leader Bill Shorten’s personal popularity has plummeted along with Tony Abbott’s. And although nationwide polls show a much larger swing to Labor than the Greens, a WA-only poll shows almost no swing to Labor and a 5% swing from the Coalition to the Greens. Both major parties, but particularly Labor, are worried they will suffer from an expected low turnout at the WA re-election.

In my opinion, the Greens are proving a much more effective opposition to the Abbott government than Labor. Because modern Labor has little philosophical difference from the Coalition, they can only make the weak argument “Abbott is doing a bad job of running the government”, picking on minor charges of bad management and criticizing policies that are already unpopular. Western Australia needs a Senator prepared to mount a more substantive ideological critique: “Abbott is acting based on misguided ideas and values, and here’s why”.

The Greens’ Scott Ludlam is putting forward such a vision.

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