Election 22 / 26 April 2022

The Senate race

The House of Reps gets a lot of attention because it’s where the government is formed – but we’ll also cast a vote for candidates to represent us in the Senate. So let’s get across what that’s about, and what’s happening in the race for the Senate this time around.

Remind me about the Senate…
It’s the upper house of the Australian Parliament – also known as the house of review and the state’s chamber. It’s not just a tick and flick body, it’s where a lot of the big political battles and negotiations take place.

It’s a bit off-broadway though… 
It is – the House of Representatives that gets all the attention because that’s where the PM and Opposition Leader go head to head. But nothing gets done in parliament without the Senate.

How’s that? 
For a bill to become law, it must be agreed to by a majority vote in the House of Representatives and the Senate, and be given Royal Assent by the Governor-General. That should be easy work in the House of Reps because the government usually has a majority. But in the Senate, it’s a different story because the government of the day rarely also has a majority in the upper house. 

How rare? 
It’s only happened twice in our history – the last time was under John Howard between 2005-07.

Why is that the case? 
So there are a couple of things to note there. The first is that we Aussies are a cautious bunch… It is very common for voters to not vote for the same party or type of independent candidate in both chambers – it’s Australians exercising their own bit of a check on power. And the second thing to note is the voting method is different for each chamber. 

Oh hell no… 
In the Senate, it’s proportional voting.

Just remind me about how we vote for a member of the House of Reps?
That’s preferential voting – one candidate is elected from each electorate and that’s the person with the majority of votes. 

And in the Senate? 
In the Senate, you’re choosing more than one representative per area… At a run of the mill federal election, we’re electing 6 senators from each state and 2 in the ACT and Northern Territory. 

Hang on, I thought you said there are 12 senators representing the states and 2 from each of the territories… 
The Senate works on a system of rotation which sees half of the Senate up for election every 3 years. The only thing to note with that is senators from the territories get 3-year terms, not 6 years like those from the states, so they’re up every election. But long story short, what we’re facing this time is a stock standard half-Senate election with 40 of the 76 spots up for grabs.

Ok. And how do we elect them?
The system Australia uses to elect senators is called proportional voting. To be successful, you don’t need to be supported by the majority of voters in your state or territory; you need to receive a quota – which is a set percentage of the vote.

Which means? 
We see more independent and minor party senators being elected – it’s a system that supports that sort of outcome. 

Where do we start? 
The Coalition had 35 seats and Labor had 26. The next biggest party is the Greens with 9. And then we get into the minor parties and independents – Pauline Hanson’s had 2 seats, the Jacqui Lambie Network with one, Liberal Democratic Party’s one (that’s the NT’s Sam McMahon who defected from the Coalition), the Centre Alliance’s Griff Stirling, and Rex Patrick from South Australia who used to be with Centre Alliance.

How do you win the Senate? 
You would need 39 seats, so the Coalition is closest with 35. What that’s meant is the government has to get at least 4 of those crossbench senators onside to get legislation through.

That sounds hard… 
Well, in the last term 378 bills have been assented to, and 71 were knocked back. And because the work of the parliament is never done, there were 195 bills before the parliament in various stages when the election was called. It will be up to the new government to sift through that.

So how do the parties decide who gets to be a senator? 
Like preselections for the House of Reps seats, there’s a process the parties go through to pick the candidates for their Senate ticket. It can be a tricky process because measuring their performance can be tricky. Because senators don’t have an electorate that they are directly responsible for, their measure of success can come down to pure politics within the party at the time.

So the parties effectively decide who many of our senators will be? 
Yep. That’s because they do a calculation about how many votes they are expected to get, and how many quotas they think they will receive.

Is that what all the fuss on winnable Senate seats is about?
It is – so those preselections are essentially the days when the candidates find out if they have a job for the next 6 years or not because the major parties have a strong sense on how many of their candidates can win a Senate seat. 

So what happens when a sitting senator who wants another term isn’t given a winnable spot? 
Sometimes there are fireworks – we saw that with NSW Liberal Senator Connie Fierravanti-Wells a few weeks ago when she had a spray at her party and PM Scott Morrison… 

So the Coalition includes the Libs and Nats – how do they run their Senate campaign? 
They tend to run a joint ticket – so they have to divvy up the spots between the Liberals and the Nationals, and that means some candidates are pushed down the ticket when they believe they should be much higher – and therefore, have a chance to win a quota.

What are the things to note in this election? 
The race in the ACT is very interesting. It usually elects a Labor and Liberal candidate, but this time there are some prominent independent candidates. There’s academic Professor Kim Rubenstein and former Wallaby-turned-activist David Pocock. 

Anywhere else?
In South Australia, Nick Xenophon is back. He’s been blasted by Senator Rex Patrick, his former running mate, for working for Chinese telco Huawei.

The ACT and South Oz – who knew they’d be beds of Senate intrigue… 
There you go.

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