Coalition Senators under a Rudd government

A long succession of very bad polls – with another reported today – has Liberals starting to talk about Opposition (I’m a pessimist; I started in January). One Liberal-supporting blog reader emailed me last week wondering about how the party would operate in the Senate under a Rudd government.

He was right that the good 2004 result would see the Coalition in less trouble in the Senate than the House of Representatives, but very optimistic that it would be in a position, on its own, to stop Labor legislation over its first term.

To do that, it would need 38 of the 76 Senators. Assuming that the 2 Senate places in each of the ACT and the NT will as usual go equally to the ALP and the Liberals/Country Liberal Party (in the NT), it will have the 21 seats it won in 2004. With half the seats in the six states going up for re-election, the Coalition would need to pick up 17 of the 36 seats up for grabs.

The one poll specifically on the Senate published so far suggests that the Coalition is assured of only 12, with perhaps another from Queensland – still four short. On some issues, Family First’s Steve Fielding will vote with the Coalition, but he still leaves them three short. With the Democrats due to disappear, the balance of power will be held by the Greens, who are well to the left of the ALP.

However, as the terms of the state Senators elected in late 2007 won’t actually start until 1 July 2008 the Coalition could be obstructionist for the first seven or eight months of a Rudd government. While this is a legal possibility, I doubt that it would be a political possibility on anything that the ALP had made central to its election campaign. Though ‘mandate theory’ has its conceptual problems, as the Senate exists as a brake on the House of Representatives, it is often used as an argument for the Senate passing legislation for which the government is said to have electoral support (there is a chapter on it in Stanley Bach’s useful book about the Senate). The Coalition parties, already electorally battered, aren’t likely to risk further alienating voters by obstructing key Labor bills.

Indeed, I’d expect Labor to have a pretty easy time in the Senate. Either the Liberals or the Greens are likely to broadly support most of what the ALP has announced so far.

Update: If I had been reading Crikey’s new blog, I’d have realised that Charles Richardson also discussed this issue last Friday.

15 thoughts on “Coalition Senators under a Rudd government

  1. Andrew,

    an error on the maths – if you assume the Coalition picks up two territorial senators, it would only require a further 15 of 36 to have 38.

    That’s only 2 from each state plus one more from three of them. Each of NSW, Vic, SA and WA have delivered three Senators each election since 1993, and Qld as well except for the One Nation blip (not exactly a trend to the left) and last time it being 4. Accept that we would expect the majority gained at the previous election to drive a lot of voters away from the Coalition in the Senate at this election, as well as Workchoices, but still…

    I mean, its difficult to say, obviously, but I wouldn’t be extremely surprised if Labour/Greens/Democrats couldn’t form a combined majority in the Senate after the election. Perhaps I’m just a naive optimist, but I haven’t conceded defeat yet.


  2. James – I counted the two territorial Senators in the starting 21. In 2004 the Coalition won 3 Senators in each state except Queensland, in which it won 4. This creates 19 continuing state Senators.

    There are 36 state Senators up for re-election plus 2 each from the ACT and NT, so a total of 40.

    There is no polling on the ACT or NT, but assume that they are divided equally re-electing 2 Coalition Senators. This gets back to the starting point of 21.

    The Morgan Poll from March/April put the assured figure at 12, taking us to 33. Let’s say Queensland is a strong possiblility, 34. To get to 38, four of the five remaining states need to return a third Coalition Senator. As you say, there is a history of getting 3/6, but the problem is that Liberal-National primary support is low in all the recent House of Reps polls, and the Coalition normally gets lower support in the Senate than the Reps.

    I hope things improve, but I would not put any money on it.


  3. Sorry, I understand now. And yes, that is a rather more dire situation.

    Its a pity there isn’t a market for it. Would be interesting to see the odds.


  4. Off-topic, but it’s funny how the Government goes around saying that it doesn’t expect an immediate bounce in the polls straight after a Budget (and indeed the lack of an immediate bounce is the norm), but then when the bounce doesn’t come straight away, it panics. Human nature hasn’t changed over night. The tax cuts and benefits will come in July, the pork will flow in September and the votes will arrive. If I could butcher a line from Sex and the City, first the Budget, then the pork, then the people. At the least, it will be close and the Coalition should get at least 17 seats in the half-Senate election.


  5. Not terribly convinced by that Morgan Poll, and not just because it is a Morgan Poll!

    Consider Victoria, for example. We can pretty much guarantee that 2 Liberals and 2 ALP Senators will get up. The Democrats currently hold one of the final two, which they are likely to lose. Family First was an aberration in 2004, though they will probably poll enough to have a big influence on preference flows.

    That leaves Greens, ALP and Liberals to fight it out for two remaining positions. The chances of both of those seats going to the left is extremely low, especially if Family First polls around 4-5%. To get 4 Senators up, you need approximately 58% of the vote, and even according to this Morgan poll (which puts the ALP at the highest vote in years – 10 points higher than in 2004!) combined ALP-Greens is still 1% short of that tally.

    Expect the Victorian Coalition Senate vote to stabilise closer to 37-38%, plus a few percent to Family First and you’ve got your quota for 3 Senators.


  6. Rudd would be hoping like mad that the liberals have a majority in the senate.

    When they reject the IR laws under peter Costello they would be decimated in a double dissolution.


  7. Homer – An unlikely scenario, at every level.

    a) Rudd will hope to get a working left majority (ALP plus Green) in the Senate from 1 July 2008 to ensure the smooth functioning of his government.

    b) If he does not, the the Liberals are likely to cooperate on ‘mandate’ legislation and much else (indeed, the Senate rejects few bills outright)

    c) Rudd like every PM will be very reluctant to call a double dissolution election – it would increase the number of minor party Senators, which is bad news for the ALP as it tries to stem the loss of its support to the Greens; and elections impose significant personal costs on pollies and financial costs on their parties, not to mention the problems caused by uncertainty in the community.


  8. In the event of a hostile Senate I think Rudd would most likely provoke a double-dissolution trigger early to keep his options open, but I doubt he’d want to fire the gun if he could help it (for the reasons Andrew outlines). He’s actually a very cautious personality (which is why I have trouble warming to him, and also why a coalition scare campaign about him would be doomed).

    I think given the opportunity the Libs would be every bit as obstructionist as they were under Whitlam. Facing the certain alternative of a long spell in opposition there’s no reason they wouldn’t throw caution to the wind and play hardball.


  9. derrida derider wrote:
    Facing the certain alternative of a long spell in opposition there’s no reason they wouldn’t throw caution to the wind and play hardball.

    It’s a possibility, but unlikely. They didn’t play hardball much during the Hawke/Keating years, I think we can view the Whitlam stuff as an aberration. Despite my issues with the coalition, I don’t think an opposing majority in the senate is any bad thing, so long as they are removed from the reps and their dunderhead foreign, education, defence and AG ministers are sent to the naughty corner for a long, long time.


  10. According to ABC News Online, John Howard appears to agree with you Andrew. Surely, if the prospect is so bad for the Liberals, it is time to change the leader?
    The tendency for more people to vote for minor parties in the Senate would not surprise me, given that voting about the line for the major parties can lead to odd choices, as we have seen.


  11. wmmbb – I don’t think so. In the Newspoll series, satisfaction with Howard is still higher than it has been at many other times during his long term in office. And the various polls of other Liberals suggest that he is much preferred among the possibilities.

    Voting for minor parties doesn’t fix the above-the-line preference flow issue – to the contrary, they are more troublesome for voter because most minor parties don’t win, so all that matters is their preferences, which the voter normally has no idea about. Generally, a vote for a major party will contribute to them winning a seat, and the preferences will usually flow in more ideologically predictable ways.


  12. Never been convinced about mandate theory. The govt. claimed it had a mandate on the GST but Labor didnt play ball on that, and the Democrats didn’t either, they made sure they got concessions.

    Mandate theory is rubbish, in short..


  13. Andrew,

    you are kidding if you think a double dissolution wouldn’t decimate the liberals.
    As for ‘independents getting more seats. more for them I say.
    My guess is that Rudd would prefer that to the liberals.


  14. Homer – If Rudd has a comfortable working majority, he would have no interest in a large backbench of duds with nothing to do. Double dissolutions are rare for a good reason – the costs and risks are rarely worth it.


  15. if you change the Senate in your favour ie you negotiate with people who agree mostly with your key policy and you decimate the Opposition because they had to reject the bill.
    you then get an Opposition with quite a few retirees and a whole new frontbench.

    Menzies was quite a hand at it.


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