Why we need fewer progressive ACT senate candidates

Art by Natasha Tareen

With the usual flurry of policy announcements from both the government and opposition, preparation for the 2022 federal election is well underway. This year’s preparations extend beyond the major and minor parties, with increased numbers of independent candidates declaring they will run for both house and senate seats.

These independents aim to draw on previous successes by the Voices campaigns, running socially-progressive and pro-climate campaigns in what are traditionally safe liberal seats. While the likely successes of these candidates are mixed (in the last election only Zali Steggall and Helen Haines were elected) it is clear that there is a growing trend of high-profile independent candidates who want their voices heard. The ACT is no exception.

In recent weeks rugby hero turned climate activist David Pocock has announced that he will run for a senate seat in the ACT, joining an already crowded independent field which includes Professor Kim Rubenstein and her campaign: Kim4CBR. Professor Rubenstein, an Honorary Professor at the ANU College of Law and Director of the 50/50 Foundation at the University of Canberra, has expressly stated that her aim is to “topple” long-standing ACT-Senator Zed Seseljja. Pocock has similarly targeted Seselja, noting his long-standing opposition to permitting the ACT to debate (and vote on) laws on voluntary assisted dying.

While both independent candidates have publicly stated they believe they can win, does past electoral data support these claims? And would it be better to have fewer progressive candidates running for the ACT Senate?

To be elected to the senate a candidate needs to secure a quota, which, in the ACT, reflects 1/3 of the formal votes plus one vote. At the 2019 election the quota was 90,078 votes.

As Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) data shows, at the last federal election the Liberal Party secured 87,492 first preference votes (or 0.97 quotas). In contrast, the Greens received 0.53 quotas, and the Labor Party 1.18 quotas. This elected Senator Katy Gallagher on first preferences, before a flurry of counting occurred with Gallagher’s remainder doled out to its next preference and the candidate on the lowest votes eliminated (with their vote then being redistributed and the process repeating).

To get the rest of the story, we have to turn to the full AEC preference distribution data. As the data reveals, after 25 counts Seselja was elected with 92,278 votes after the first United Australia Party candidate’s preferences were distributed. At the time of that last count the remaining candidates (by order of count at that time) were:

  1. Zed Seselja (Liberal) – 92,278 votes.
  2. Penny Kyburz (Greens) – 51,780 votes.
  3. Nancy Waites (Labor) – 19,780 votes.
  4. Anthony Pesec  – 15,999 votes.

Anthony Pesec (who claimed to be the best chance to challenge Seselja) campaigned on a pro-territory rights and pro-climate change platform and seems the most likely indication of how Professor Rubenstein and Pocock would (collectively) poll. As is apparent, it seems unlikely that they can topple Seselja.

One key difference between Professor Rubenstein’s and Pocock’s campaigns and previously successful independent candidates is that they are running for one of two ACT Senate spots, rather than a lower house seat. This means that rather than dropping the liberal party vote below 50%, they will need to drop it below 33% and secure a very heavy preference flow.

For an independent in the ACT, this seems an unenviable task – and one that would be more likely to be achieved by a strong Greens candidate (in cohort with a centre-right independent member). While both Professor Rubenstein and Pocock have existing platforms to draw on, it does not seem that either candidate will be attracting many traditionally conservative voters.

The more likely scenario is that they will pull votes that would have otherwise flowed to Labor or the Greens, dividing the primary vote and increasing the likelihood of Seselja’s re-election. While time will tell, on a preliminary view, those that wish for a new second ACT Senator (one perhaps more in favour of supporting territory rights and climate change action) may well be better served by fewer candidates.

In the case of Professor Rubenstein and Pocock, one might also fairly ask that if they genuinely wished to be elected, why are they not running for a lower house seat with a comparatively easier pathway into Parliament?


Originally published in Woroni Vol.72 Issue 1 ‘Evolution’

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