Reading the Tea Leaves – WA Senate Rerun

17 / 04 / 2014

By Sarah Capper

Following an Australian Electoral Commission bungle after the federal Senate count last September, West Australians were forced back to the polls earlier this month, in what was supposed to represent either an endorsement for Tony Abbott’s Government and policies – or it would instead show an improvement in Labor’s poor vote in the State last September and suggest the Opposition was on the right track.

It did neither. Neither of the major parties truly succeeded in their campaigns, both losing around 5 percent of their share from the September result.

This desertion of voters from both major parties went to the Greens and the Palmer United minor parties – the Greens up by almost 6 percent, and the Palmer United Party, which spent the most in terms of the campaign, up by almost 7 and ½ percent. In raw terms, as of publication, the Liberals had secured 396,905 votes, while Labor secured 250,915. The Greens and PuP secured over half of the Labor vote each, with 176,534 and 143,467 votes respectively (the Greens recorded 15.3% of the vote count, trailing Labor’s 21.7%).

Abbott dismissed the swing against the Government (a 5% swing down to 34.3% of the vote) as “typical”, but with the swing to the Greens he can hardly now claim what he did prior to the election – that it was a referendum on removing the Carbon price and mining tax in the resources rich state.

As more recent opinion poll results have also demonstrated, there’s a greater message for both major parties – with record swings continuing towards minor parties like the Greens, voters are turning off the style and substance of the major parties, and how they do politics.

The question remains – how low does the bar have to go before the major parties will do anything about it?

While Abbott was quick to dismiss the WA result as “typical”, many in the Australian Labor Party are at the very least being a little more realistic in realising the poor results the party secured, and in particular, in examining their preselection process of candidates and how to connect better with rank and file members.

That is, except their number 1 candidate on their WA Senate ticket, Joe Bullock, who it appears has secured the only seat for Labor, and seems oblivious to the need for some serious reflection of the results. 

“I don’t know what this compulsion is to look at the party’s rules,” Bullock declared earlier this week, as reported in the Australian.

That compulsion, may be the hammering the ALP received at the April 5 rerun poll, winning just over 21% of the vote – a record low for the Party.

Or, that compulsion might be due to Bullock’s comments emerging from a speech he gave in November, the details of which emerged the day before polling day.

Bullock was forced to issue an apology over the said speech – a speech in which he mocked the sexuality of his number 2 on the ALP ticket, current Senator Louise Pratt (referring to her as the “poster child” for gay marriage, while questioning whether she was still a lesbian “after her partner’s sex change”), in which he referred to ALP members as “mad”, in which he said Tony Abbott could make a good prime minister, and in which he admitted he didn’t always vote Labor.

As Daily Telegraph columnist and Insiders regular Malcolm Farr said on the ABC program last Sunday:  “If the debacle of a chap being put in the Senate representing the Australian Labor Party, a chap who doesn’t feel particularly beholden to vote for the Australian Labor Party, doesn’t spark at least a [party reform] conversation I don’t know what will.”

And it’s got a lot of people talking, particularly about the process (in this case, left to the WA branch of the Labor party) in selecting federal Senate candidates. Bullock, a former head of the powerful right-wing and socially-conservative Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Union (otherwise known as the SDA, or ‘Shoppies’ union), controversially won the number 1 Senate spot ahead of Pratt in the lead-up to last year’s September poll.  Controversially, as he won the spot following a deal with the United Voice Left faction (which has since called for him to stand aside for Pratt in the wake of his speech remarks being made public – they could install him, but now it seems can’t remove him).

In mid-May, Opposition leader Bill Shorten publically supported Bullock as the number one candidate after suggestions Bullock had not made one media appearance on the campaign trail (at that stage, a bit over two weeks out from the poll).

And over the weekend, a Fairfax story by Jonathon Swan reported that Shorten ignored warnings over Bullock remaining as the number 1 candidate on Labor’s ticket at a National Executive meeting last November. 

But in light of the poor results, it seems Shorten has had a change of opinion.  It should be added that following the result, Shorten has taken leave due to the sudden death of his Mother, but not before extracts of a reform speech he was to deliver were circulated. He is due to give the speech when he returns to work.

In the extracts circulated, Shorten wrote: “It’s more serious than this,”

“We need to change ourselves. We need to change our party.”

Some proposals were outlined – including an aim of 100,000 party members, suggestions of more power to rank and file members over preselections, and the removal of the requirement of ALP members to join a union. Of the proposals, Michael Gordon argued in Fairfax newspapers:

It seems like a no-brainer – given that the party has already embraced the idea of giving members a vote for the federal leader and moved towards giving them a say in local preselections – but faces resistance because it would mean factional leaders giving up one of their greatest sources of power.

“The challenge for Shorten is to transform the rules and practices of an elite club that concentrates power in the hands of a few into those of a genuine mass-participation party. The aim would be to do it so that changes can be endorsed nationally at the conference due in July next year.”  

Some senior ALP figures have since come out in support of reform to the party in the wake of the poll, including ALP National President Jenny McAllister who wrote in an opinion piece in the Australian last week:

“Labor’s vote in the West Australian Senate re-run election suggests we have a long way to go to meet our two goals – winning elections, and fighting and winning the battle of ideas.”

While McAllister agreed with proposals to remove Labor’s requirement for union membership, she also suggests that “union members need to know we want them in our tent”.

She called for Labor’s National Conference next year to “debate measures to introduce broader participation in all candidate selection, including the Senate.”

Her calls were supported by respected Party elder Senator John Faulkner, who was part of Labor’s 2010 election review. Faulkner told the Australian of plans to ‘open the party’s preselection processes for the NSW Legislative Council and the Senate to all members “so as to transfer the power of preselection from just a small number of faction leaders into the hands of all the members of the party”.

Qld right-faction leader Senator Joe Ludwig also supported the notion of more rank and file power in choosing Senate candidates (Queensland branch members now have a say in Senate selections, but Ludwig supports a national roll-out), but this is not a universally held view – with opposing opinions reported from National Vice President and Transport Workers Union national secretary Tony Sheldon (of the NSW right). 

And, fresh from book promoting, former premier and Foreign Minister Bob Carr told the Oz, “I can understand after Saturday’s election in Western Australia many people being drawn to preselection of Senate candidates by the party rank and file,”

“It is attractive, but you wouldn’t want every senator pandering to branch sentiment instead of appealing to the broader electorate.”

Unsurprisingly the same report said that SDA National Secretary Joe DeBruyn is against moves to give rank and file more power, arguing it was just people “manoeuvring for factional advantage”.  Uh-huh.

The debate will continue with many vested interests buying into it. As Malcolm Farr stated, it’s a debate that needs to be had. 

Labor has only secured Bullock’s seat, with Pratt conceding defeat yesterday.  

The irony being that in below the line voting, Pratt out-polled Bullock, something ABC election analyst Antony Green doesn’t believe has happened in Labor’s history:

“It’s highly unusual for the second candidate on a party ticket to out-poll the first candidate on below the line votes – highly unusual. In this case, there’s clearly been controversy over who the candidates were and different factions of the Labor Party supporting one candidate over another.” Green said.

The final results are expected to be declared next week, with the likely make-up being the Liberals securing 3 seats (the third with Pratt’s defeat), and Labor, the Greens and the Palmer United Party with one seat each.

Many people agree Senator Pratt has been a good Senator since 2008 (and was elected the youngest member to WA’s Legislative Council in 2001, until 2007).

It is a particular shame to lose her given the tea leaves – or writing was on the wall last September which showed Pratt was already in doubt – securing a seat but only in one of the contested recounts.  If only the Party had heeded the message from voters last time around. Going as low as 21% of the vote begs the question whether it can go any lower. Certainly inaction over this message from voters indicates that it possibly could.  

The whole situation also unfortunately demonstrates yet again, that powerful forces can install a factional heavyweight ahead of a current, effective and by many respects good female Senator. That she can be smeared in the days leading up to the poll from within her own party. That she can initially grin and bear it – she initially said she was not offended by the remarks and said she could work together with Joe Bullock. That she chose not to smear this candidate back – despite reports of an assault conviction emerging from 1996.

Louise Pratt has since broken her silence on Bullock, yesterday stating:

“The prospect of being replaced by Joe Bullock who is someone who has proven himself, over many decades, to be deeply homophobic, anti-choice and indeed disloyal to the very party he has been elected to represent.”

She also criticized the powerful and Shoppies (SDA) Union, which for a long time has acted as the ALP’s socially conservative voting bloc (Gough Whitlam once described its leader, Joe de Bruyn, as “a Dutchman who hates dykes“). The right-wing socially conservative SDA has long begged the question as to whether the leadership of this powerful group is truly representive of its members – who largely work in retail.  As Pratt said in her statement yesterday:

“We know the SDA, has a large voting block within the ALP. The leadership of the SDA consistently used their block to preselect members of Parliament who are anti-marriage equality and who are anti-choice and I believe that this does not reflect the views of their membership.

“My first job off the family farm was in 1990 it was as a Coles shop assistant. The young man on the check out next to me was gay as was another young woman in the variety section.

“And I know that the overwhelming majority of people in retail support the rights of their gay work mates.

“Joe Bullock as their union leader clearly does not. Far from my views on these issues being fringe, as he has claimed, it is Joe Bullock and other members of the SDA leadership who are on the fringe of mainstream views.”

Put bluntly, Pratt said she was “ashamed that a factional power grab was privileged over principles held by an overwhelming number of party members in Western Australia.”

She said the poll earlier this month spelt “a disastrous result that goes to the heart of the need for reform of the Labor Party”.

Indeed.

Postscript – Watch this space:

A debate over party reform is possibly the least of Labor’s woes following the Senate rerun.

Seeing parallels with Mal Colston, a Labor Senator who went Independent over a deal with Howard to act as Deputy President of the Senate, and a possible leap for Bullock to the crossbenchers, Paula Matthewson wrote on ABC Drum:

“Depending on the final outcome of the WA ballot, Abbott may need up to seven of the eight crossbench votes in the Senate to pass his totem bills. If we are to believe media reports, Bullock and Abbott were once good friends with similar political philosophies but who ultimately took divergent paths once they left university. Considering their comparable views, the defection of Bullock to the crossbench could make Abbott’s negotiation task just that little bit easier.”

Such a move would ultimately leave Labor with 0 of the 6 WA senate seats in this half-Senate election – and a pretty bloody good argument to have a serious conversation about party reform.

sarah@vwt.org.au

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