Double Dissolution, Double Jeopardy: The Senate

A chaotic Senate was one of the defining characteristics of the Coalition’s term in government. It was a key motivating factor in Malcolm Turnbull’s decision to trigger a double dissolution election, which puts all 76 Senators, rather than just half, up for election. The early results, however, suggest this move might have backfired. The Senate’s makeup might be even more chaotic than before. However, Senate counts are complex beasts, particularly in light of recent changes to the voting rules. It can be difficult to understand what’s going on.

Here’s how it works.

The Senate uses a voting system known as single transferable vote. It is a combination of proportional representation (% of vote determines % of seats), and the ‘first past the post’ voting that is used in the lower house.
Every candidate needs a quota of votes to win election, which is equivalent to the total number of votes divided by n+1 (+1 to ensure a majority), where n is the number of seats to fill (12 in a double dissolution). As a percentage, that quota is 7.69%. In a normal half-Senate election, it would be double that.
Senate votes are conducted by state. The candidates are chosen prior to the election by the parties, who place their candidates in their preferred order on the Senate ballot paper. Hence, candidates in the same party will jockey for position in pre-selection to give themselves the best possible chance of being elected.
A candidate that reaches quota is automatically elected. The remaining seats are then determined through the allocation of preferences. Prior to the 2016 election, voters only had to number one box for their preferred party, which meant the allocation of preferences was determined by parties prior to the polling day and would prove extremely powerful in determining who won the available seats. Reforms to the Senate election process were passed in March 2016 to limit this power, especially among minor parties. By having to number at least six boxes above the line (which lists parties) or twelve below the line (which lists candidates sorted by party), voters could control the flow of their preferences in the same way as in voting for the House of Representatives.
Due to this complicated process, we are unlikely to know the exact makeup of the upper house for a fortnight.

How the early results look

The Senate is made up of 76 members, 12 per state, plus two each for the NT and ACT. 39 senators are required to pass legislation.
The most recent Senate, for comparison with its likely successor, comprised the following:

  • 33 Coalition
  • 25 ALP
  • 10 Greens
  • 8 crossbenchers:
    • Bob Day (Family First)
    • Zhenya “Dio” Wang (Palmer United)
    • John Madigan (elected as Democratic Labour, switched to John Madigan’s Manufacturing and Farming Party)
    • Nick Xenophon (Independent, now Nick Xenophon Team)
    • David Leyonhjelm (Liberal Democrats)
    • Ricky Muir (Motoring Enthusiast)
    • Glenn Lazarus (elected as Palmer United, switched to Glenn Lazarus Team)
    • Jacqui Lambie (elected as Palmer United, switched to Jacqui Lambie Network)

All crossbench Senators ran for re-election, but some on different party platforms to when they were first elected in 2013. Several founded new parties in their own names, leveraging their increased public profiles. Senator John Madigan ran as a member of John Madigan’s Manufacturing and Farming Party. Senator Nick Xenophon ran as the leader of his centrist Nick Xenophon Team (NXT). Senator Glenn Lazarus had the Glenn Lazarus Team, Senator Jacqui Lambie the Jacqui Lambie Network.
The 2013 Senate elections were controversial in that minor party candidates – in particular Motoring Enthusiast Senator Ricky Muir – were elected thanks to preference deals with other minor parties despite winning only 0.51% of first preferences, a result of the arcane process. With support from the Greens and Nick Xenophon, the Government passed aforementioned legislation in March 2016 reforming Senate voting to end group voting tickets and hence preference deals.
However, due to the fact that twice the number of Senators are up for election as per normal, the number of votes required to enter Parliament is halved, which makes it easier for some minor parties to gain Senate seats. This seems to have cancelled out the effect of the legislation. There may be more minor parties in this Parliament than the last.
According to the ABC’s tally, the latest results are:

  • 28 Coalition (-5)
  • 25 ALP (no change)
  • 6 Greens (-3)
  • 3 NXT (+2, counting Nick Xenophon as an NXT incumbent)
  • 1 One Nation (+1)
  • 1 Jacqui Lambie Network (no change, counting Jacqui Lambie as an JLN incumbent)
  • 1 Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party (new party)

This leaves 11 seats still in doubt, likely to be determined after many rounds of preference allocation. According to projections from the Guardian Australia, the Greens will pick up three more seats after preference counts, bringing them to 9 seats, while the Coalition ought to win one more and Labor two more, leaving five more seats for various minor parties, including possibly One Nation and the Christian Democrats, led by Fred Nile.


Victoria’s Senate results are perhaps most notable for the fact that, with his eponymous “Justice Party” currently sitting on a provisional quota of 0.77, self-proclaimed “Human Headline” Derryn Hinch looks likely to take one of Victoria’s Senate seats on an anti-paedophile platform. Hinch, a longtime journalist and broadcaster has a colourful history of defying gag orders by publicly naming sex offenders, and has in the past been jailed for contempt of court. Both Labor and the Coalition will win at least four seats apiece, while the Greens will win at least one seat. Depending on how preferences flow, one of the minor parties, such as NXT, Family First or the Australian Sex Party may win one of the remaining seats. However, there will be no clear indication of who has won a seat for some time, as the AEC only has first preference votes available.
4 Labor
4 Coalition
1 Greens
1 Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party
2 undecided

New South Wales:

Based on the provisional quota from first preferences, the Coalition is likely to win around five seats in NSW, with Labor collecting four. With close to a full quota of first preference votes, expect the Greens to collect one seat quite easily on second preferences. With 0.51 of a quota just on first preferences, and the fourth highest primary vote, far-right One Nation looks on track to possibly win a seat in NSW to join Pauline Hanson from Queensland. The Christian Democrats, led by Fred Nile MLC, a right-wing Christian minister, also look likely to win the remaining seat, but again it must be stated that this does not take preferences into account.
5 Coalition
4 Labor
1 Greens
2 undecided


Arguably the biggest news of the night was a stunningly successsful performance by One Nation, led by former MP for Oxley Pauline Hanson, who appears to have made a dramatic political comeback. Hanson and One Nation ran on an anti-Islam, anti-immigration message, and has succeeded in winning a full quota in their own right, with 9.14% of first preferences, forcing the Greens into fourth place. The Liberal National Party is set to win four seats on first preference quotas, but has suffered a dramatic swing of -7.69%, with One Nation being the main beneficiary. Sitting on a first preference quota of 3.53, Labor will hope to collect four seats after preference flows. The Greens have come up just short of a full quota on first preferences, with 0.98 of a quota, but are very likely to win one seat after preference flows.
Likely results:
4 Labor
1 One Nation
1 Greens
2 undecided

Western Australia

Senate first preference results in WA appear to have bucked the national trend away from both major parties, with swings towards both the Liberal Party and the ALP. This is most strongly explained by the collapse of the Palmer United Party, which polled over 12% of the vote in the 2014 WA Senate special election. WA is set to elect five Liberal Senators, based on first preferences, with Labor likely to win four. Despite a swing against them in WA, the Greens have polled strongly enough to win a quota comfortably in their own right with first preferences, and might win a second depending on how preferences flow. One Nation have polled strongest out of the minor parties, but minor parties in general have not performed as well in WA.
5 Liberal
4 Labor
1 Greens
2 undecided

South Australia

South Australia’s results can be defined by one man; Nick Xenophon. The popular centrist Independent Senator drew on his high personal popularity to create the Nick Xenophon Team (NXT) in 2014, building on the Nick Xenophon Group that ran on the SA Senate ballot paper in the 2013 election. With current results showing NXT with close to 22% of SA first preferences, and likely to win three of SA’s Senate seats, Xenophon’s party has made a stunning debut in its first federal election, even while recording a negative swing in the upper house (down 3% from Xenophon’s 24.9% of the vote in 2013). With NXT candidate Rebekha Sharkie winning the seat of Mayo in the House of Representatives, Xenophon and his Team are now set to wield formidable leverage over the next Government. Both the Liberal Party and the ALP should collect four seats apiece, while the Greens will most likely win the final SA Senate seat.
4 Labor
4 Liberal
1 Greens


As in the lower house, where all Tasmanian Liberal MPs lost their seats, the Liberal Party has seen a considerable swing against it in upper house voting. Despite this, the Liberals will still win four Senate seats in Tasmania. The Greens have secured a Senate seat in their own right, with a chance of winning a second. Jacqui Lambie has also won a seat on first preferences. The ALP has finished first in first preference voting, and will win at least four seats. Tasmania’s Senate results are complicated by the fact that Labor Senator Lisa Singh, relegated to sixth on the party’s official Senate candidate list, has campaigned extensively for voters to vote below the line for her. Senator Singh could secure Labor’s fourth Senate spot, depending on how many below the line votes there have been cast. It is unlikely we will know which party or candidates have won the last remaining Tasmanian Senate seats for several weeks.
4 Labor
4 Liberal
1 Greens
1 Jacqui Lambie Network
2 undecided

Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory

With only two seats up to grab in each of the territories, results almost always see one Senator from each major party elected. Despite big swings against the NT’s Country Liberals, both parties should collect a seat each in the NT and the ACT, based on first preferences.
2 Labor
2 Liberal

What does it all mean?

The most startling figure, obviously, is the dramatic rise in support for One Nation, particularly in Senator-elect Hanson’s home state of Queensland. Perhaps it is now Australia’s turn to see the anti-immigration, anti-Islam right rise to greater political prominence, following the success of UKIP, various European far-right parties, and the presidential campaign of Donald Trump. The scale of One Nation’s victory will ultimately be determined by how many Senate seats the party collects in the weeks of preference counting to come.
In South Australia, the NXT political earthquake has arrived. While NXT had a lower share of the vote than Nick Xenophon himself collected in 2013, this can probably be ascribed to Xenophon becoming a formal political party, and hence becoming a serious threat to the major parties.
Whichever way you look at it, the results in the upper house will prove a spectacular headache for Malcolm Turnbull if he manages to form government. Far from cleaning out the so-called Mos Eisley Cantina that was the 44th Parliament, the 45th appears to have a bigger and more controversial crossbench than any in Australian history. Whatever effect the Government’s reforms to the Senate voting system have achieved has been well and truly cancelled out by a movement away from the major parties, aided by a double dissolution election. Turnbull’s gamble appears to have backfired in dramatic fashion.

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