It all started on another election night — September 7, 2013 — as progressives Australia-wide stared into their own drinks to better avoid looking at the TV screen, where Antony Green was pronouncing unimaginable doom. Faced with the looming prospect of a Prime Minister who described himself as “the guy with the not bad-looking daughters,” they clung to meagre trophies like Cathy McGowan’s unlikely triumph over Sophie Mirabella in Indi as proof that the world hadn’t gone entirely mad. But it wasn’t looking good for the Left.
Andrew Bolt and the rest of News Corp had spent the last few weeks declaring, again, that the Greens were a political force soon to be consigned to history’s dustbin. It’s a claim that’s only gotten stronger since the hearty bollocking Tasmania’s voters handed the party on March 15 — the seventh straight election that saw the Greens vote go down. It wasn’t a good look for a party with not that much vote to spare.
Adam Bandt’s surprise win in Melbourne notwithstanding, the Greens did not have a fun time that night. In two states, New South Wales and Queensland, they not only failed to get a single Senator elected, but they polled a dismal fourth behind such political heavyweights as the Liberal Democrats — who people had mistakenly voted for thinking they voted Liberal — and former Australian prop forward Glenn Lazarus, a Palmer United Party candidate from Queensland known in his footy days as “the brick with eyes”.
While the Greens Senators up for re-election looked like they’d done well enough to hold their seats thanks to Labor preferences — even picking up a seat in Victoria — their bread and butter, the all-important Senate primary vote, was slashed by almost a third. As results trickled in from Western Australia, where a young first-termer was struggling to keep his seat against a conservative whitewash, the news looked grim for Scott Ludlam.
It all came down to fourteen votes — fourteen, out of over 1.3 million, that would decide the fate of four potential Senators and the balance of power for the next three years. On the first count, the Shooters and Fishers beat fellow microparty the Australian Christians by fourteen votes; the Christians were knocked out of the race, and their preferences flowed (eventually) to Labor Senator Louise Pratt and the Palmer United Party’s Dio Wang — both of whom were declared elected. Ludlam and the Australian Sports Party’s Wayne Dropulich, who both would have been elected if the Shooters had been knocked out first, challenged the result. After initially being knocked back, a recount was eventually ordered.
A ridiculous scenario, but there was a system in place to deal with it, which kicked into gear. The ballots would be painstakingly recounted by a crack team of well-meaning retirees. Panellists on ABC 24 would cross to bored correspondents standing outside community halls, and nod seriously at each other. Clive Palmer would rumble and boom that a conspiracy was afoot, as vague as it was omnipresent. The script was already written.
Then the Australian Electoral Commission sheepishly announced that it had lost 1,370 WA ballots, and everything went to shit. The recount continued, despite now being obviously useless, and eventually found that the Christians had gotten more votes than the Shooters, and Ludlam and Dropulich had won after all — at least on the count that didn’t include those missing votes. The original result was officially overturned, even as the head of the AEC admitted to a colossal balls-up and resigned in disgrace. Ludlam was a Senator again. Only he wasn’t.
After a few months of weary pondering, the High Court took the only option: the long-suffering voters of Western Australia would have to do it all again. A half-Senate by-election was ordered — the first in the country’s history — and each of the 62 candidates, plus 15 new names, would have to fight it out one more time for the six seats on offer.
Three seats were certain to be picked up by the major parties, two by the Liberal Party, one by the ALP — but the other three were up for grabs. At least four candidates — Ludlam, the ALP’s Louise Pratt, PUP’s Dio Wang and the Liberal Party’s Linda Reynolds — would be fighting for one of those seats, with the added possibility of a microparty securing a sweet enough preference deal to put themselves in play.
At risk was the balance of power in the Senate, and with it the Abbott government’s ability to implement its agenda. With Labor and the Greens opposing major government policies — repealing the carbon and mining taxes, defunding the Clean Energy Finance Corporation — the government already needs to negotiate with crossbench Senators who might not be that easy to negotiate with. A bad result for the government in WA would make it that much harder to convince crossbenchers they were worth supporting. A bad result for the Greens would see them spend the next few years watching everything they’d worked for be pulled apart before their eyes.
With the stakes so high, the Greens needed their lead man in WA to have his head in the game; to be focused, driven, ruthless. All business.