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Wells Haslem’s Special Counsel, Julie Sibraa, has held senior roles at the highest levels of Federal and NSW Governments. Here she outlines the five things we learned from the recent Federal Election.

1. If you want a more manageable Senate, don’t call a double dissolution
Actually we already knew this, but it seems Mr Turnbull didn’t. What was he thinking? He clearly didn’t heed our issue of the Shell in 2014, specifically the piece entitled “Uncertain times in the Senate; or have we seen it all before?”, where we said:

“Because even if a genuine trigger existed, and [Tony Abbott] believed he would win the election, a double dissolution would most likely only lead to the election of more minor or micro party candidates.  This is because the quota or threshold for a double dissolution is half that of a regular half Senate election”.

We also pointed out that ungovernable Senates are not a new phenomenon; that Australian voters have been quite deliberately denying governments’ control of both Houses for some time.

There’s no doubt that following the 2013 election reform of the Senate voting process was needed to ensure individuals or parties weren’t manipulating the election process, doing backroom preference deals, and ultimately delivering outcomes only a handful of voters wanted. 

And as hasty and half-baked as the reforms were that passed the Senate before the election, they do seem to have eliminated the worst of the secretive preference dealing. Indeed, people voting for the Senate on Saturday 2 July were able to fully express their preference either voting above the line or below. 

And express it they did. We now have the two major parties with fewer Senators (the Coalition lost three Senators, Labor gained one), the Greens down one, Nick Xenophon with two additional representatives, Jacqui Lambie, David Leyonhjelm and Bob Day re-elected amd now joined by Derryn Hinch and four Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Senators. That went well didn’t it?

2.Postal votes gave Malcolm Turnbull his majority
On election night Mr Turnbull declared his confidence that he would be able to form Government. Given the results at that point, it seemed optimistic. But his scrutineers across the country, particularly Queensland, would have told tell him just how many postal votes were still out there.

In the seat of Flynn in Queensland, where the Labor candidate was holding the lead on election night, 12,500 postal votes or 13.5 per cent of total votes cast were yet to be counted. In terms of ordinary votes cast - election day votes and pre poll votes -  the Labor candidate was polling 36.02 per cent of the primary vote to the incumbent LNP candidate’s 35.25. The 12,500 postal vote results however came in at Labor 22.10 per cent to the LNP’s 49.24 – a wildly different outcome which handed the LNP a 1,814 vote victory. 

In the other seats the Coalition was able to retain after initially looking positive for Labor on election night, the postal vote was also very high. In the Victorian seat of Chisolm it made up nearly 15 per cent of the total vote. The Liberal candidate in that seat improved her vote in the postals by six per cent. 

So what have we learned from this? Clearly the Coalition ran a very strong and effective postal vote campaign in the key seats, particularly the Queensland seats which recorded significantly higher than average numbers of postal votes cast. 

The ability to run a postal vote campaign is one of the benefits of being the incumbent government at election time. 

3. It’s not the economy stupid – it’s Medicare (well almost)
We’ve heard a lot about the so-called “Medi-scare” campaign run by Labor and Bill Shorten, with Malcolm Turnbull and his Coalition spokespeople expressing outrage at Labor’s dastardly tactics. 

The outrage was obviously genuine, however it has to be wondered whether it was more about the fact the Coalition’s tried-and-true message about having an economic plan failed to resonate with voters. There was a lot of talk about his plan for the economy and jobs, but really all that was known was there was a plan. Bill Shorten snuck under their guard with an issue of great concern to many Australians.
 
With no other burning issues dominating the endless election campaign did the Coalition just assume it would be all about the economy? 

Because when it comes to managing the economy, it’s almost political convention that, when asked, voters say they trust the Coalition more than Labor. No one did it better than John Howard in a campaign, pulling out the “who do you trust” line every time things got shaky for him. 

Unfortunately for Malcolm Turnbull, he hadn’t yet earned that type of trust. He and his predecessor Tony Abbott had certainly sold the message the budget was in disrepair and in desperate need of fixing, but this only made it more believable when Bill Shorten said that part of their plan to fix the budget was by getting stuck into Medicare. That resonated.

The Essential Poll of 26 July 2016, that is, three weeks after the election, showed 60 per cent of voters saying health policies were very important to their voting intentions, closely followed by Medicare itself on 58 per cent. Economic management came in at equal third as most important issue at 53 per cent with which party was ‘better for me and my family’ also at 53 per cent. 

Bill Shorten and Labor ran a very effective campaign on an issue of deep concern to an ageing electorate increasingly dependent upon publicly-funded health services. It nearly won Labor the election.

4. Tasmanians went below the line to reject Party factional deals
The changes to voting for the Senate described above have (rightly) put the ultimate power in the voters’ hands for determining exactly where their vote will go. The intent of the changes was to eliminate backroom preference deals, but no legislation could address the often ludicrous intra-Party factional deals that determine in which order a Party’s candidates appear on the ballot paper. 

The closer a candidate is to the top of the Party’s list on the ballot paper, the more likely he or she is to be elected. 

Party’s often produce candidate lists that say more about the internal workings of that Party and its factions than who is the best (most popular or credentialed) candidate to lead the ticket. But until now the how-to-vote card issued by the Party was how the candidates were elected. Until this election. In Tasmania.

The ALP’s Lisa Singh was a former State Member of the Tasmanian Parliament representing the area around central Hobart. After losing her seat she ran for, and was elected to, the Senate in the 2010 election (and took her place in 2011). She was factionally unaligned and was given the unwinnable number six position on the ballot paper.
Her cause was reportedly adopted by left wing factional warhorse, Margaret Reynolds, who once represented Labor in the Senate from her home state of Queensland. She decided to run a campaign to save Ms Singh, urging voters to vote below the line and put Ms Singh first. Ms Singh gained 20,740 below-the-line votes and retained her Senate seat.

On the other side, another long serving and popular Senator from the Liberal Party, Richard Colbeck was also relegated to the precarious number five spot on the Senate ballot paper. 

His cause was taken up by a farmer who, while not a Liberal party member, held Mr Colbeck in high regard. Former Senator Colbeck received 13,474 number one votes below the line, although it was not enough to see him re-elected. 

Tasmanian voters demonstrated it is possible to not only express their true preference, but defeat the factional deals. It will be interesting to see if this new trend is replicated in a future election.

5. Every seat needs a celebrity candidate
Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott was always going to be a big target in his safe Sydney seat of Warringah. Among the usual northern beaches lethargy there was a bit of anti-Abbott sentiment, so an array of colourful candidates was gathering to throw their hat in the ring. There were some small rumblings in the local Manly Daily that a group named the People of Warringah (POW) was meeting in a local pub to discuss defeating Mr Abbott.  

The POW put together a campaign to urge voters to “Put Abbott last”. They needed a star candidate to lead the anti-Abbott vote (they obviously could never consider supporting a Labor candidate – even if they did agree with just about all Labor’s policies). With five weeks to go, just as it seemed no messiah candidate was forthcoming and the POW campaign was fizzing away, up popped TV personality James Mathison. 

Mathison was a local. Born and bred on the northern beaches. He made a brief initial appearance announcing his candidature, said he wanted to represent young voters (his TV demographic) and then disappeared again only to pop up occasionally over the new few weeks via social media and the Manly Daily.

So it wasn’t so much a campaign as a series of appearances accompanied by signs pasted around power transmission poles (that looked more like ads for a live concert or circus) than a political message. The signs and leaflets didn’t appear at the pre-poll until a few days before the election, by which time thousands of people had voted.

Having done so very little by way of campaigning Mr Mathison received an astounding 11.41 per cent of the vote in Warringah. At the polling booths he made an appearance, his vote reached as high as 18.55 per cent. The strong, credible and diligent Labor candidate received 14.79 per cent and the popular Greens candidate 12.19 per cent.

What this all shows is everything we think we know about politics and voting trends must be continually reassessed to keep up with the ever changing social and cultural landscape and the increasing volatility and unpredictability of the Australian electorate.