Winning a place in the Australian Senate will be difficult for Julian Assange but his candidacy has much stronger prospects of success than much of the early analysis suggests. And a strong performance at the upcoming Half-Senate election that doesn’t result in an Assange win will still place him and his WikiLeaks Party in prime position for success in the event a future Abbott government calls a Double Dissolution as has been suggested if Labor Senators block the Coalition’s abolition of the Carbon Tax.
The potential of a Double Dissolution in the near future makes Assange’s current candidacy look strategically smart. A vote share of even 3-4% would indicate Assange could expect to win a seat at a Double Dissolution and even 2-3% of the vote has the potential to have a major impact on the Senate election.
Assuming the Prime Minister also calls a Half-Senate election to coincide with the election of the House of Representatives, Victoria will elect six Senators in September and the quota a candidate needs to reach to achieve election is a vote share of around 14.28%. That’s likely to be close to half a million votes and a big challenge for Assange but far from impossible.
The key to achieving this for the new WikiLeaks Party will be community support and the ability to turn this support into votes – meaning people on the ground at polling booths to distribute Assange how to vote cards; plus sensible preference arrangements with other parties. It is these preference arrangements that will determine whether Assange can build on his primary level of voter support and be competitive in the race.
Assuming the WikiLeaks Party is unlikely to achieve a quota (14.28%) in its own right it is worth remembering all that needs to happen to be elected to the Senate is for Assange to achieve enough primary votes to avoid elimination in each round of counting and then harvest preferences from eliminated candidates.
Building a preference ladder and winning a Senate seat does not require a huge vote share initially – in recent elections both Family First and the Democratic Labor Party have done precisely this. Starting with relatively small shares of the vote but gathering the votes of eliminated candidates and parties. The vast majority of Australian voters opt to ‘above the line’ Senate vote – indicating their vote for a party ticket and giving the political party they choose the ability to distribute any unused votes according to that party’s wishes.
In 2004, Family First’s Steve Fielding achieved just 1.9% of the vote but received enough preferences to be elected – notoriously it was preferences from the Labor Party to Fielding preventing a Greens candidate being elected. And in 2010, the Democratic Labor Party’s John Madigan received 2.34% of the vote and still managed to win a seat.
This year’s Victorian Senate race is likely to throw up some interesting dynamics.
Current published opinion polls suggest this federal election will see a sharp decline in Labor’s vote and a rise in the Coalition’s support. The most recent Newspoll places Labor’s primary vote at 32% down 6% from the 2010 election while the Fairfax/Nielsen poll places Labor on 30%. The Coalition is polling 48% (up from 43.6%) according to Newspoll and 47% in the Fairfax/Nielsen. The Greens are trending down 1-2% on their 2010 result. Although Fairfax/Nielsen places them at 11%.
So…Labor is losing around 5%, the Coalition is gaining around 5% and the Greens are dropping a little.
But it is also worth taking a look at the ‘other’ category that has jumped from 6.6% in 2010 to 11% in the Newspoll – this growth is quite likely a result of the emergence of Katter’s Australia Party (KAP). My reasoning here is the states where KAP could expect a stronger vote are indicating the biggest growth in support for the ‘other’ category.
It is difficult to gauge the impact of Assange’s candidacy from published polls but it’s reasonable to assume his appeal will be greatest among the voter groups who support the work of WikiLeaks and this comprises mainly Greens, Labor and some inner-city Liberals. So Assange’s votes should be expected to come at the expense of their Senate support. Based on the vote shares of newer parties in recent Senate races and Assange’s media profile and appeal, it is possible to see an Assange candidacy winning upwards of 3% and this will mean he and the WikiLeaks Party will, at least, be influential on the eventual Senate race outcome.
Here’s what I think this might all mean in Victoria’s Senate race:
Labor: going into this election with three Senators to defend and a declining vote means Labor could expect one Senate seat to be in jeopardy. In 2007 Labor’s vote put them just shy of 3 quotas but battled it out with the Greens for the last position. The question is just how far Labor’s vote will fall – this will have implications for the Greens (assuming a preference swop between Labor and the Greens). If Labor’s vote drops a lot then any surplus after the election of Labor’s first two Senators, will elect the lead Green. However…if Labor’s surplus (beyond its top two candidates) is around 3-4% then the Labor #3 candidate will stay in the race for a while longer and could of course, depending on their preference arrangements, be successful.
Coalition: in 2010 the Coalition’s Victorian Senate vote share was 34.4% which netted them two Senators, this time they can expect this vote to be higher and would expect to retain the three Senate seats they are defending from 2007.
Greens: based on current vote trends Greens candidate Janet Rice looks unlikely to achieve a higher vote than Richard Di Natale’s 2010 effort. This places the Greens below quota and at the mercy of their own and other Party’s preference deals.
Katter’s Australia Party: it is very difficult to assess the prospects of KAP in Victoria but if Bob Katter gains anything close to the share of the election media that he did during the 2012 Queensland State election come Federal election time there is every prospect KAP could achieve a vote share of over 5%. I also expect a good proportion of Family First’s vote to head towards KAP in these circumstances but acknowledge there will be competition for this from the DLP.
Democratic Labor Party: it is difficult to gauge whether support for the DLP is rising for falling but with a sitting Senator yet without any hot-button issue drawing voters towards the DLP it is safe to assume they could achieve a vote above 1.5% but below 3%.
Australian Sex Party: are without the federal election media attention their strong showing in the Melbourne State by-election should have earned. Fiona Patten’s third place in the Melbourne by-election surely left the ASP optimistic of achieving a high watermark vote in the 2013 federal election. In 2010 the Sex Party achieved 2.27% of the vote in Victoria’s Senate ballot and could realistically expect to build on this result and be competitive for the final Victorian Senate seat. At the very least, ASP preferences will be crucial to the outcome of this last seat as they were at the Melbourne by-election.
In summary, Labor will almost certainly win at least two Senators, and the Coalition three, leaving one seat up for grabs with the Greens closest to a quota but with Julian Assange, Labor, KAP, the DLP, and the Australian Sex Party all well in the race.
At this stage it is difficult to predict these Parties likely preference arrangements, especially since the order of their preferences will be of as much importance as their final destination. I do expect Labor and the Greens to do a preference swop but if either party plans to ‘park’ their votes with a third party before they flow to the other, there could be major implications for the eventual outcome.
There has been some comment about Assange struggling to pull together useful preference deals but if he looks like polling anything above 2% then it will be in the interests of other candidates to deal with the WikiLeaks Party. Australian election history shows preference deals that one party perceive to be solely in their interests can backfire spectacularly to the benefit of the other party. This means, in circumstances like the next Senate election look likely to be fought, the WikiLeaks Party and Julian Assange will well and truly be in the thick of the competition to win a Victorian Senate seat.
* Questions of Julian Assange’s legal right to contest an Australian election are beyond the scope of this post. As are matters relating to his current residence in the UK Ecuador Embassy. I have simply assumed he will be a Victorian Senate candidate and the WikiLeaks Party will be registered in time to contest the upcoming election.