Adam Carr's guide to
The 2007 Australian federal election

Making sense of the Senate

31 October 2007

Everyone hates the Senate. Billy Hughes called it “that tinselled abortion of a House of Lords.” Paul Keating called it “unrepresentative swill.” Governments of all stripes have railed against its bloody-minded obstructionism. For decades it was Labor policy to abolish it. Yet it has survived for 106 years as a central pillar of Australia’s constitutional system, and is no more likely to be abolished than is Christmas.

At this election, as at every election, the question of who will win control of the Senate will be nearly as important as the question of who will get to sit on the Treasury benches. Governing in the face of a hostile Senate is a dangerous business. The authors of the Constitution (not coincidentally a Queenslander, Sir Samuel Griffith, and a Tasmanian, Andrew Inglis Clark) deliberately made the Senate a very powerful upper house, and it has not been shy about using its power. The Senate has destroyed three Australian governments: those of Joe Cook in 1914, Jim Scullin in 1931 and Gough Whitlam in 1975. It has made life difficult for many others.

How we got here

From 1901 to 1946, the Senate was elected on a winner-take-all system – the party which polled a majority of the vote in a given state won all the Senate places. Since half the Senate is elected at each election, this meant that a government which won two elections in a row usually had a large Senate majority. (From 1919 to 1922 the Nationalists had a majority of 35 to one. From 1946 to 1949 Labor had a majority of 33 to three.) The Senate was a threat only to first-term governments, such as those of Cook and Scullin, who inherited a Senate controlled by the Opposition.

In 1948 the Chifley government introduced proportional representation for the Senate, ensuring that the opposition party would always have reasonable representation, and giving minor parties the chance of winning seats, although none did so until 1955. This reform also meant that the Senate would be a menace to all governments, not just first-term ones, since there was always a danger that a minor party or an independent could gain the balance of power.

The Menzies government inherited a hostile Senate in 1949, but solved this problem with a well-timed double dissolution in 1951. Thereafter the Coalition enjoyed a Senate majority until 1961, when the DLP gained the balance of power. The DLP gave the Coalition government a hard time on some issues, but since its main concern was to keep Labor out of office it always supported the Coalition in a crunch. The election of the Whitlam government in 1972 rendered the DLP obsolete, and it lost all its seats in 1974.

After the 1974 election, the balance in the Senate was held by an independent, Steele Hall of South Australia. But the verdict of the voters was subverted by the actions of two state premiers, Tom Lewis of NSW and Joh Bjelke-Petersen of Queensland, who used casual vacancies to replace two Labor Senators with conservative independents. It was this rigged Senate majority that blocked supply in 1975 and precipitated the crisis that led to the fall of the Whitlam government. The events of 1975 led to calls for the Senate’s abolition or radical reform, but the Fraser government’s only response was the 1977 constitutional amendment which prevented a repeat of the abuse of casual vacancies.

Following the dramas of 1975 the Coalition government had a clear Senate majority until 1981, when Don Chipp’s new centre party, the Australian Democrats, won the balance of power. The Democrats retained this position, alone or in combination with independents and latterly the Greens, through the Fraser, Hawke, Keating and Howard years, until 2004, when the Coalition unexpectedly pinched four seats out of six in Queensland and thus gained a majority. That majority was further reinforced by the fluke election of a Family First Senator, Steve Fielding, in Victoria.

Where we are now

In 2001 the Coalition won 20 seats to Labor’s 14. The Democrats won four and the Greens two. These are the seats which are up for re-election this year. In 2004 the Coalition won 21, Labor 16, the Greens two and Family First one. These Senators will not be up for re-election until 2010. Bearing in mind that the four territory Senators only serve three-year terms and thus appear in both lists, the overall Senate numbers are now Coalition 39, Labor 28, Democrats four, Greens four, Family First one. Thus, if Fielding votes with the Coalition and everyone else votes against it, the Coalition’s majority is 40 to 36. If Fielding votes against the Coalition, as he sometimes does, the numbers are 39 to 37. The President of the Senate has a deliberative vote but not a casting vote in the event of a tie.

We can therefore see what the stakes are in this year’s Senate election. There are four possible scenarios:

  • If the Coalition lost no Senate seats, an incoming Rudd government would face a hostile Senate. Even if Fielding supported Labor on a particular bill, the Coalition could still defeat it 39-37.
  • If the Coalition lost one seat, the numbers would be 39-37 the Coalition’s way in votes where Fielding supported the Coalition. If Fielding voted with Labor, the numbers would be tied at 38-all. Since a tied vote in the Senate is resolved in the negative, this would still leave the Coalition with a “blocking majority.”
  • If the Coalition lost two seats, the numbers would be 38-all if Fielding supported the Coalition, and 39-37 Labor’s way in votes where he supported Labor. This would give Fielding the balance of power: a Labor government could pass its bills with his support, but not without it.
  • If the Coalition lost three seats, the numbers would be 39-37 Labor’s way in votes where Fielding supported the Coalition, and 40-36 Labor’s way in votes where he supported Labor.

    (The above scenarios assume that the Greens are voting with Labor. Of course even if the Coalition lost three seats, the Coalition could still outvote Labor if they could get the Greens to support them.)

    Labor thus needs to see the Coalition lose three seats if a Rudd government is to have a friendly Senate. Two Coalition loses would leave Steve Fielding with the balance of power. One loss, or no losses, would leave the Coalition in command, able to block a Rudd government’s bills, set up inquiries into a Rudd government’s activities, and even, in extremis, block supply, as a Coalition-controlled Senate did in 1975.

    At a half-Senate election, such as we are having this year, each state elects six Senators by proportional representation. A quota for election is thus one-seventh of the vote, or 14.28%. Two quotas is 28.57%, three quotas is 42.86% and four quotas is 57.14%. It will be seen at once that in a system where the two major parties usually each poll between 40 and 45% of the vote in each state at each election, winning three quotas is fairly easy, but winning four quotas is very hard. Since the Senate was enlarged to its present size in 1984, there have been 48 Senate contests in the states (eight elections times six states). Only once has one side of politics succeeded in winning four seats: the Coalition in Queensland in 2004.

    From 1977 to 1996, the only significant minor party was the Australian Democrats. Don Chipp intended the Democrats to be a centre party, and usually they were, although they veered to the left under some of their more improbable leaders like Janet Powell and John “Doctor Who” Coulter. They drew their votes more-or-less equally from both sides, and usually issued a “split ticket” how-to-vote card at elections. But the Democrats’ last election as the “major minor” party was 1996, when they polled 10.8% of the Senate vote and won five seats. In 1998 One Nation had a brief surge of popularity and became the largest minor party. The Democrats regained the title in 2001, but even then their vote was declining.

    Since the leadership conflicts which followed the deal between the Democrats and the Howard government which allowed the Goods and Services Tax (GST) bills through the Senate, the Democrats have gone into a steep and apparently terminal decline. In 2004 their vote collapsed and they were displaced as the “major minor” party by the Australian Greens, who are unabashedly a party of the left, drawing most of their votes from Labor.

    The decline of the Democrats has allowed Labor and the Coalition to divide up the centre ground between them. The Democrats always polled better in the Senate than they did in the House of Representatives, because a considerable number of moderate Liberal voters, particularly in Victoria and South Australia, voted for the Democrats in the Senate as a sort of insurance policy against a Liberal government doing anything too radical. In 1996, for example, the Democrats polled 6.8% in the Reps and 10.8% in the Senate. The Greens, as a party of the left, cannot appeal to centrist voters in the same way. In 2004, they polled 7.2% in the Reps and 7.7% in the Senate.

    This decline of the centre can be seen in the last two Senate elections. In 2001 four Democrats and two Greens were elected: in 2004 two Greens, one Family First and no Democrats. Some of the Democrats’ more conservative voters have returned to the Coalition. This is part of the explanation for the Coalition’s success in winning four seats on Queensland in 2004. This has made it harder to dislodge the Coalition from their Senate seats. In 1998, for example, the NSW Senate seats went Labor three, Coalition two, Democrats one. But in 2001 the last seat went to the Greens, at Labor’s expense, leaving the Coalition with three. In 2004 the seats divided three-three, with the minor parties shut out.

    The Senate election system forces all the parties to negotiate preference deals with other parties. These deals frequently ignore ideological considerations, although they are not policy deals, merely agreements to swap preferences out of calculations of mutual electoral self-interest. The prime example of this was the 2004 decisions in Victoria by both the Democrats and Labor to preference Family First ahead of the Greens, in the hope that they would benefit from Family First’s preferences. In fact both Labor and the Democrats polled worse than they expected, and their preferences got Family First’s Steve Fielding elected ahead of the Greens candidate. This produced such a stink in Labor’s ranks that the experiment is unlikely to be repeated.

    This year it seems that a Labor-Greens preference deal covering all states is being negotiated. This will lead to a corresponding preference deal between the Coalition and Family First, and also the Christian Democrats. It is unknown what the Democrats will do, but since they have been campaigning on the need to end Coalition control of the Senate, it would seem incongruous if they didn’t direct their preferences to the Greens and then to Labor.

    So, bearing all the above in mind, let’s look at the contest in each of the six states and the two territories.

    New South Wales

    NSW is historically Labor’s strongest state, but it has been Howard’s success in winning and holding a large slice of traditional Labor voters in NSW that has kept him in office for eleven years. That run now seems to be coming to an end, with polls suggesting a large swing back to Labor. Even during the Howard years Labor has been competitive in NSW Senate elections, winning three of six seats in 1998 and 2004.

    In 2001 the Liberal-National coalition elected three Senators in NSW: Helen Coonan (Liberal), Sandy Macdonald (Nationals), and Marise Payne (Liberal). Labor elected two senators: Ursula Stephens and George Campbell. The Greens candidate, Kerry Nettle, defeated the sitting Democrat Senator Vicki Bourne to win the sixth spot. These Senators face re-election in 2007. Macdonald is retiring and will be succeeded by John “Wacka” Williams. Campbell is also retiring (involuntarily). The Labor ticket is party state secretary Mark Arbib, union official Doug Cameron and Stephens. Nettle is seeking a second term.

    In 2004 the Coalition and Labor won three seats each. The Coalition polled 44.0% of the vote (3.1 quotas), Labor polled 36.4% of the vote (2.5 quotas), the Greens polled 7.3% (0.5 quotas) and the Democrats polled 2.2% (0.2 quotas). In 2001 the Greens polled only 4.3% (0.3 quotas), but won the last seat after receiving preferences from the Coalition and One Nation, which they didn’t get in 2004. In other words, Nettle’s election was something of a fluke, which is unlikely to be repeated. If the 2004 voting pattern is repeated, Nettle will lose her seat to the third Labor candidate, Stephens. If the current polls are anything like accurate, Labor will poll three quotas in its own right.

    The real question in NSW is whether the Coalition vote will fall significantly below three quotas, putting Payne’s seat at risk. The key point here is that Payne is probably the most “left” member of the Liberal Party in the Senate, and takes a very strong pro-choice position on abortion. If she has to rely on Family First and Christian Democrat preferences to get a quota, she may find they are not forthcoming. Of course, Nettle is a long way to the left of Payne (indeed she’s a long way to the left of everyone else in Parliament), but it’s possible that the conservative minor parties will decide that it serves their cause to eliminate a leading pro-choice Liberal, thus pushing the Liberal Party even further to the right, even if it means electing a radical Green.

    Summary: The most likely outcome is still three Labor, three Coalition, but it’s not impossible that Nettle will be re-elected at Payne’s expense. If there’s a Labor landslide it’s possible that Labor could get four quotas with the help of Green preferences, electing its number four candidate, Pierre Esber, but this is unlikely.


    Traditionally a strong Liberal state, Victoria has been trending to Labor since 1980. Victorian voters have never been very fond of the Howard government and even in 2004 Labor retained a majority of Victorian House of Representatives seats. In the Senate, however, Labor has not won three out of six seats at a Senate election since 1998. Victoria was once a good state for the Democrats, but their support has now evaporated.

    In 2001 the Liberals elected three Senators in Victoria: Richard Alston, Rod Kemp, and Kay Patterson. Labor elected two Senators: Robert Ray and Gavin Marshall. The Australian Democrats leader, Lyn Allison, won the sixth spot. Alston resigned in 2004 and was replaced by Mitch Fifield. These Senators face re-election in 2007. Kemp, Patterson and Ray are retiring. The Liberal ticket is Fifield, Liberal State President Helen Kroger and State Vice-President Scott Ryan. The Labor ticket is former Senator Jacinta Collins, Marshall and former Victorian State Secretary David Feeney. The lead Greens candidate is Dr Richard DiNatale.

    In 2004, the Coalition won three seats and Labor won two seats. The final seat went to the Family First candidate, who received preferences from the Coalition, Democrats and Labor ahead of the Greens. The Coalition polled 45.8% of the vote (3.1 quotas), Labor polled 37.9% of the vote (2.5 quotas), the Greens polled 8.7% (0.6 quotas), the Democrats polled 1.9% (0.1 quotas) and Family First polled 1.8% (0.1 quotas).

    If the 2004 voting pattern is repeated, and if preferences were allocated as they were in 2004, Allison would lose her seat to Family First. This year, however, Family First will not be getting Labor preferences and it’s highly unlikely that they can elect another Senator. On current polling Labor seems likely to poll three quotas in its own right. The remaining question is whether the Coalition vote will drop significantly below three quotas, giving the Greens a chance of winning the last spot on Labor’s surplus, producing a three Labor, two Liberal, one Green result. This seems unlikely but is not impossible.

    Summary: The most likely outcome is three Labor, three Coalition. There is some chance of the Coalition losing their third seat to the Greens.


    Queensland has been the Coalition’s strongest state for the last 30 years. At every half-Senate election since the Senate was enlarged in 1984, the Coalition parties have won three out of six seats, and in 2004 they won four. Labor has never managed to win three seats: the sixth spot has usually gone to a Democrat, although in 1998 it went to One Nation.

    In 2001 the Liberal Party elected two Senators: Ian Macdonald and John Herron. The Nationals elected one Senator, Ron Boswell. Labor elected two Senators: John Hogg and Claire Moore. The Australian Democrats’ Andrew Bartlett won the sixth spot. Herron resigned in 2002 and was replaced by Santo Santoro, who was forced to resign in April 2007 following revelations of undisclosed share trading. The Liberal Party chose businesswoman Sue Boyce to succeed him.

    In August the Liberals and Nationals agreed on a joint Senate ticket, the first in Queensland since 1977, with Boswell in third position behind Macdonald and Boyce. The Labor ticket is Hogg, Moore, and Mark Furner of the National Union of Workers. Bartlett will be standing again. The lead Greens candidate is Larissa Waters. The former One Nation leader Pauline Hanson is also running, having formed a new party, Pauline’s United Australia.

    In 2004, the Liberals won three seats and the Nationals one, while Labor won two seats. As expected, the Nationals’ Barnaby Joyce defeated One Nation’s Len Harris, but it was the Liberals’ unexpected success in taking Democrat John Cherry’s seat that gave the Coalition government a majority in the Senate. The Liberals polled 38.3% of the vote (2.6 quotas) and the Nationals polled 7.8% (0.5 quotas). Labor polled 31.6% (2.2 quotas), the Greens polled 5.3% (0.4 quotas) and the Democrats polled 2.2% (0.2 quotas).

    It seems certain that Bartlett will be defeated. His seat could go to the third Labor candidate or the Green candidate. If the Labor primary vote approaches 40%, Labor can expect to win the final seat on Green preferences. Queensland is the Greens’ weakest state, and they will need to increase their primary vote substantially to win a seat. It’s possible, but not likely, that they could win a seat on Labor’s preferences. There is no chance that Queensland will elect both three Labor Senators and a Green.

    There is also a possibility that Hanson, if she can do better than the 4% she got in 2004, will stay in the count long enough to get the Coalition’s surplus and win a seat. She would thus get her revenge on Ron Boswell, who defeated her in 2001. The demise of the Democrats puts the Coalition in the invidious position of having to preference either Hanson or the Greens.

    Summary: The most likely result on present indications is Labor three, Liberals two, Nationals one. But both the Greens and Pauline Hanson have an outside chance.

    Western Australia

    Western Australia tends to swing wildly between Labor and the Coalition. Labor’s support peaked in the Hawke landslide of 1983, then declined steadily until 1996, then revived somewhat while Kim Beazley was Labor leader. But since the Senate was enlarged in 1984 Labor has never won three Senate seats at a half-Senate election in WA. The Coalition has always won three seats, and the sixth seat has gone to the Democrats or the Greens.

    In 2001 the Liberal Party elected three Senators: Alan Eggleston, David Johnston and Ross Lightfoot. Labor elected two Senators: Mark Bishop and Ruth Webber. The Australian Democrats’ Andrew Murray won the sixth spot. These Senators face re-election in 2007. Murray and Lightfoot are retiring. Johnston and Eggleston are leading the Liberal ticket. The third Liberal candidate is Michaelia Cash, daughter of state MP George Cash. The Labor ticket is state MP Louise Pratt, Bishop and Webber. The lead Greens candidate is Scott Ludlam.

    In 2004, the Liberals again won three seats and Labor again won two seats. The final seat went to the Greens’ Rachel Siewert, who defeated the sitting Democrat, Brian Greig after receiving Labor preferences. The Liberals polled 49.4% of the vote (3.4 quotas), Labor polled 32.6% (2.3 quotas), the Greens polled 8.0% (0.6 quotas), and the Democrats polled 2.0% (0.1 quotas).

    If the 2004 voting pattern is repeated, Murray’s seat will go to the Greens. Current polling is showing WA to be Labor’s weakest state, and it is also the Greens’ second-strongest state after Tasmania. The Greens thus have a good chance of winning the sixth seat on Labor and Democrat preferences. WA is also the Coalition’s best chance of retaining three seats. But if Labor’s primary vote rises to something approaching 40%, it could also win three seats, shutting out the Greens. There's no chance that WA will elect both three Labor Senators and a Green.

    Summary: There won't be much in it. On balance the most likely result is three Liberal, two Labor and one Green, but three Liberal and three Labor is a strong possibility.

    South Australia

    South Australia was a strong Labor state from the 1960s to 1993, when Labor’s support fell dramatically as a result of events in state politics. Although Labor has recovered strongly at state level, it has continued to struggle in federal elections. It did not win three seats in a half-Senate election until 2004, mainly because of the strength of the Democrats. South Australia was the Democrats’ strongest state until their vote collapsed in 2004. The Greens are weak in SA, so the demise of the Democrats allowed the major parties to win three seats each in 2004.

    In 2001 the Liberal Party elected three Senators: Robert Hill, Jeannie Ferris and Grant Chapman. Labor elected two Senators: Penny Wong and Linda Kirk. The Australian Democrats’ Natash Stott Despoja won the sixth spot. Hill resigned in 2006 and was replaced by Cory Bernardi. Ferris, who was intending to retire at this year's election, died in April 2007. The casual vacancy caused by her death was filled by the number two candidate on the Liberal ticket, Simon Birmingham. These Senators face re-election in 2007. Stott Despoja and Kirk are retiring.

    The Liberal ticket is Bernardi, Birmingham and Chapman (who has been in Parliament since 1975 without ever leaving the backbench). The Labor ticket is headed by the union official Don Farrell, followed by Wong and Cathy Perry. The lead Green candidate is Sarah Hanson-Young. In October 2007 Nick Xenophon, an extremely popular independent state MP, announced his candidature.

    In 2004, the Liberals and Labor both won three seats, with Labor defeating the former Democrats leader Meg Lees to win the last seat. The Liberals polled 47.4% of the vote (3.3 quotas), Labor polled 35.6% of the vote (2.5 quotas), the Greens polled 6.5% (0.5 quotas), the Democrats polled 2.3% (0.2 quotas).

    If the 2004 voting pattern is repeated, Stott Despoja’s seat will go to Labor, and polling throughout 2007 has suggested that Labor will win three seats in its own right. But Xenophon’s entry into the race has complicated the situation. While most commentators agree that he is likely to be elected, estimates of his possible vote range from 10% to 20%. If he fails to poll a quota in his own right, he will probably get preferences from both Labor and the Liberals. If he gets more than a quota, his surplus may decide who wins the last seat. If Xenophon is elected, it will probably be at the expense of the Liberals. Xenophon’s entry makes it highly unlikely that the Greens can win a seat, although it’s possible that if Labor fails to win three quotas and Xenophon polls very well, he could direct his surplus to the Greens.

    Summary: The most likely result is Labor three, Liberal two, Xenophon one. The only other possible scenario is Labor two, Liberals two, Greens one, Xenophon one, but this is unlikely.


    Tasmanian politics move in long cycles. Labor dominated at both state and federal level until the fall of the Whitlam government in 1975, which ushered in 18 years of Liberal supremacy. Since 1993 Labor has gradually reasserted control. At Senate elections, the situation was complicated by the long tenure of the independent Senator Brian Harradine, who held his seat from 1975 to 2004, and by the rise of the Australian Greens, culminating in Bob Brown’s election in 1996.

    In 2001 the Liberal Party elected three Senators: Paul Calvert, John Watson and Richard Colbeck. Labor elected two Senators: Sue Mackay and Senator Nick Sherry. The Greens Leader Bob Brown won the sixth spot. Mackay resigned in 2005 and was replaced by Carol Brown (no relation). These Senators face re-election in 2007. Calvert, who had already announced his retirement, resigned in August 2007 and was succeeded by David Bushby. Watson is retiring. The Liberal ticket is thus Colbeck, Bushby and Don Morris. The Labor ticket is Sherry, Carol Brown and Catryna Bilyk. Bob Brown is seeking a third term.

    In 2004, the Liberals won three seats, gaining the seat vacated by the retiring independent Brian Harradine, Labor won two seats, and the Greens won the last seat, a gain from Labor. The Liberals polled 46.1% of the vote (3.2 quotas), Labor polled 33.6% (2.3 quotas), and the Greens polled 13.3% (0.9 quotas). If this voting pattern is repeated, there will be no change in Tasmania’s representation. Current polling, however, is showing a strong swing to Labor in Tasmania, and this gives Labor its best chance of taking a Senate seat from the Liberals. A swing from Liberal to Labor of about 7% would probably be enough for Bilyk to be elected at Morris’s expense.

    Summary: Bob Brown is certain to be elected. The most likely result is Liberal three, Labor two, Greens one. But a Labor gain from the Liberals is possible.

    Australian Capital Territory

    At every election since the territories gained representation in the Senate in 1975, the Australian Capital Territory has elected one Liberal Senator and one Labor Senator. The ACT’s Senators are Gary Humphries (Liberal) and Kate Lundy (Labor). They will probably be re-elected this year, but with polls showing both a swing to Labor and a strong Greens vote it is possible that Humphries will fail to poll a quota (33.3%) and that the second seat will go either to the Greens’ Kerrie Tucker or to the second Labor candidate, Peter Conway. In 2004 the Liberals polled 37.9% (1.1 quotas), Labor polled 41.1% (1.2 quotas) and the Greens polled 16.8% (0.5% quotas). A 5% swing away from the Liberals to either Labor or the Greens would probably be enough to defeat Humphries.

    Northern Territory

    At every election since the territories gained representation in the Senate in 1975, the Northern Territory has elected one Country Liberal Party Senator (who sits as a National in Canberra) and one Labor Senator. It certainly do so again in 2007. The Northern Territory’s Senators are Nigel Scullion (CLP) and Trish Crossin (Labor).

    In conclusion

    The only certainty in this year’s Senate election is that the Australian Democrats will lose their four seats. In Victoria, Queensland and South Australia these seats will go to Labor, and in WA either to Labor or the Greens. The Greens will probably lose their seat in NSW to Labor, but they have a good chance of picking up a seat in WA, a fair chance of a seat in the ACT, and outside chances elswhere. The Liberals will probably lose a seat in South Australia to Nick Xenophon. Labor has a fair chance of picking up a Liberal seat in Tasmania, and some chance of doing so in NSW and Victoria.

    Overall, the likelihood is that the Coalition will retain at least a blocking majority in the Senate with the support of Senator Steve Fielding. But the chances that the Coalition will lose three seats and thus control of the Senate have been increased by Nick Xenophon’s intervention, and also by their increasingly precarious hold on the ACT Senate seat.


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