Refuting self-interested garbage in the SMH

In yesterday’s Herald, Heath Aston ran an ‘exclusive‘ publishing supposed modelling from a couple of so-called “veteran players in minor party preference negotiations” claiming that Senate GVT reform would deliver the Coalition a majority in the Senate.

There’s a lot of massive problems with this prediction, and I’ll try to lay them out.

At the end I will apply some of the same logic, but using real polling data and come up with my own less sensationalised conclusion, which suggests a Coalition win would lead to Xenophon balance of power, but if Labor recovered to a winnable position then the Greens would likely win the balance of power.

Firstly, sensible people should know not to trust the predictions of two people who are active participants in a system which Senate reform would abolish, particularly when they don’t provide the data or assumptions they used to come to their conclusions.

Firstly, it’s amusing how confident they are in their conclusions. Any sensible analyst would need to build in a high degree of uncertainty, due to polling, but also because we don’t know for certain how a new system will play out – how much preferences will flow, and how well the microparties will be able to cooperate.

We have no idea how much preferences will flow under a minimum-six-preference system. Will 5% exhaust? 20%? 50%? That makes a big difference, and in part will depend on how parties act.

It’s silly how confident these analysts are in predicting that the Greens would only win a single senator in WA, SA and NSW.

According to PollBludger’s quarterly state breakdowns of his BludgerTrack polling average, the Greens are currently sitting on 1.55 DD quotas in Western Australia, and 1.52 in South Australia and New South Wales. Sure, none of these are enough to guarantee two seats, but it’s easy to imagine the Greens managing to win in one of these states (although Nick Xenophon will presumably be a barrier in South Australia).

The quotas from the two “experts” also take a condescending tone in assuming that the Greens are acting against their interest. Whatever way you run the next election (GVTs or not, half-Senate or double dissolution) there’s a high chance the Greens will lose seats. In the case of a half-Senate election, the Greens will struggle to hold on to seats in NSW and Queensland in particular, and more generally would be at some risk in WA and SA. In the case of a DD under the GVT system (which wouldn’t happen) the Greens would be under severe risk of losing their second seats to microparties, possibly in all four states where the Greens have two seats.

Their analysis seems to assume that no minor parties apart from the Greens and Nick Xenophon’s team will have a chance of winning any seats.

With a lower 7.7% quota, it’s easy to imagine some of the medium-sized minor parties such as Family First or the Shooters and Fishers winning a seat. You could imagine a small party winning say 3%, particularly if other front parties drop out in the absence of GVTs, and making their way to something just short of 7% and winning the final seat.

I’m not saying it will happen, but it is a realistic possibility. In the long term, you would expect to see parties consolidate and campaign differently – the current set-up of microparties has evolved over 30 years to take advantage of the current system. Sure, you won’t see parties winning on tiny votes, but the capacity is still there for real minor parties who poll around 5% to win, particularly if they can attract preferences.

Finally, it’s easy to disprove some of the nonsensical claims about the Coalition’s chances. The modelling supposedly shows the Coalition winning seven senators in New South Wales, Queensland and Western Australia.

Again, I looked at PollBludger’s BludgerTrack polling average, broken down by state in December. In reality, it’s likely the major parties would probably underperform the polls in the Senate, but let’s give the Coalition credit for all its polling. The Coalition reaches six quotas in four states, and gets to 5.8 quotas in Victoria, which would probably be enough. They get to 5.55 quotas in South Australia, which could get them enough theoretically, but they are probably right to assume this will get hit by Nick Xenophon.

But in the states where they give the Coalition seven seats, the Coalition is polling no more than 6.28 quotas (in NSW), and only 6.05 quotas in Western Australia. In Western Australia, the second Green has 11 times more votes than the seventh Liberal in the race for the final seat.

At the moment, on average ‘others’ is polling at 1.41 quotas. We don’t know what will happen to those voters – it’s unlikely those voters will go back to the major parties. It’s likely some of these votes will end up exhausting and not playing a role, and others will flow to the Greens and the major parties, but this so-called “modelling” basically assumes that all the seats you would expect to go to ‘others’ ends up favouring the Coalition, not the Greens or Labor.

After reading this analysis, I went through and made my own estimates.

I decided to adopt the same approach as Breen and Askey, but using actual current polling data. Since we have no idea whether minor parties will have a chance, where there was a final seat I gave it to Labor, Greens or Liberal if they were over half a quota in any state. Basically I assumed that a minor party can win if no big party is within striking distance but they can’t get enough preferences to close a big gap.

In Queensland, none of the big three had a half-quota left over as surplus, so I granted the last seat there to an unknown ‘other’ – possibly Lazarus. I also accepted their guess that Xenophon would poll much higher than the ‘others’ vote in the House, which seems reasonable, so took one seat each off Labor and Liberal.

I got to a result of:

  • NSW – LNP 6, ALP 4, GRN 2
  • VIC – LNP 6, ALP 4, GRN 2
  • QLD – LNP 6, ALP 4, GRN 1, OTH 1
  • WA – LIB 6, ALP 4, GRN 2
  • SA – LIB 5, ALP 3, XEN 3, GRN 1
  • TAS – LIB 6, ALP 4, GRN 2
  • Territories – 2 LNP, 2 ALP

This gives a total of 37 Coalition, 25 Labor, 10 Greens, 3 Xenophon and 1 QLD other. In this case, we would end up with Nick Xenophon in the balance of power, which seems like a reasonable reflection of the current polling environment.

To win a centre-left majority, Labor and the Greens would need to gain four seats – which would be a swing of around 8% in four states, which could come about through a national swing of maybe 4% – which would also put Labor in a winning position nationwide.

Update: Heath Aston on Twitter has suggested that the two analysts who provided the data based on their predictions on the Coalition two-party-preferred vote – which doesn’t have any relevance for Senate elections. Let’s just say it’s a brave call to assume the Coalition could pull it’s entire 2PP vote in a Senate race.

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About Ben Raue

Ben Raue is the founder and author of the Tally Room.

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