Both major parties received a kicking from voters in the WA Senate election re-run in March.

In another sign of the anger against the Abbott government, the Liberals suffered a large swing against them of 5 per cent. The Nationals lost another 2 per cent. The Greens and the Palmer Party were the two main beneficiaries.

The result confirms that the Abbott government’s popularity has faded fast. Abbott tried to dismiss the swing, saying it was “the kind of result you would expect in a by-election”. But as Anthony Green pointed out in an analysis of federal by-elections since 1983, “The average swing against first term governments was a smaller 1.7 percentage points.”

It was, however, also a disaster for Labor, who lost a further 4.9 per cent of the vote from their September election tally, polling a pathetic 21.7 per cent. It was their worst result in a Senate election since 1903.

Part of the reason was their choice of lead candidate, Joe Bullock. In a speech so shocking it was almost unbelievable, he told a conservative Christian group late last year that members of the Labor Party were “mad”, described Tony Abbott as “potentially a very good Prime Minister” and made homophobic comments about Labor’s number two candidate, Louise Pratt.

But it also a part of Labor’s tepid opposition to Abbott and their long term decline. Federal Labor leader Bill Shorten addressed 20,000 striking teachers in the run up to the poll, as they opposed $180 million of cuts that threaten 600 jobs.

But Labor’s message in the WA campaign that they would oppose Abbott’s cuts was hardly convincing, hamstrung by the fact they too support a pro-business agenda and attacked university spending, single parents’ welfare payments and public sector jobs while in government.

The Greens’ Scott Ludlam retained his seat with a 5.8 per cent increase in the vote, successfully tapping into anti-Abbott anger and positioning The Greens as an alternative to the major parties. Ludlam’s speech denouncing Abbott went viral on YouTube, with over 800,000 views. There was a groundswell of enthusiasm behind their campaign, with a big mobilisation of supporters to make over 60,000 phone calls.

This is the first major lift in the Greens’ vote since 2010, when they entered their alliance with the federal Labor government.

It is a positive contrast to their approach in the Tasmanian election, or at the federal election last year, where they ran on their record of participating in unpopular, conservative Labor governments.

Clive Palmer’s party was the other big of recipient of discontent. He won a Senate seat and polled an incredible 12.5 per cent. There is no doubt that his cash splash helped; Palmer spent $477,000 on TV ads alone, more than double that of the Greens, Labor and the Liberals combined.

But it was also due to Palmer running a populist campaign in WA, which tapped into bitterness with both major parties. His TV ads declared “Labor and Liberal have destroyed our state” and played into Western Australian parochialism, demanding governments stop “sending our GST to Sydney and Melbourne”. As an added flourish he railed at the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) stuff up which forced WA to vote again, urging voters to “stick it up the AEC”.

As in the federal election, Palmer won votes by capitalising on the disillusionment with politicians and the mainstream parties. His success is a warning of where the disenchantment can go if it is not turned into active opposition and campaigning against the government.

Balance of power

There is much discussion about how the make up of the Senate will effect Abbott’s ability to get legislation through. But in the end the Liberals retained the three Senate seats in WA they won in September.

Clive Palmer’s position has been strengthened, effectively giving him a veto over government legislation. His three Senators will have the ability to block government bills in their own right, where Labor and The Greens also oppose them. To get legislation through without the support of Labor or The Greens, Tony Abbott will need the support of the Palmer Party Senators plus three others.

Clive Palmer’s maverick style might mean the Senate will sometimes be a headache for Abbott.

But as a billionaire mining mogul, Palmer supports the repeal of the carbon tax and the mining tax, and can be expected to favour Abbott’s pro-business policies. Abbott will be able to cobble together a conservative majority, even if the cross-benchers extract some concessions on their pet issues.

The Greens’, or Labor’s, ability to change Abbott’s direction via the Senate will be extremely limited. Mobilising the anti-Abbott anger outside parliament will be key.

By James Supple

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