Gazing at the entrails of elections results and attempting to foretell the future in some way used to be one of my pastimes. In the case of the ACT it is always a tad more difficult than elsewhere because of the Hare-Clark system used there. Three seats elect 17 MLAs, five each in two seats and seven from the other. While it is easy enough to count first preferences, it is the allocation of second and later preferences that is crucial to the election of the candidates who did not secure a quota in their own right, and that won’t be finished for a few days.
What is a quota? It is a fraction of the vote that is one more than the number of member to be elected. In the biggest seat, Molonglo, with seven MLAs, the quota is one eighth, or 12.5 per cent. Labor’s Katy Gallagher secured that easily, and the votes she didn’t need, after she has been elected, are distributed to the rest. And if necessary, and in time, the votes of the least successful candidates will be redistributed too, until the seventh elected candidate has a quota. Complicated? Yep. Time-consuming? Yep. Advantages? Well, proportional representation (PR), as its name suggests, gives parties in parliament much the same proportion of seats that they won in votes. That is fairer than our more familiar system of preferential voting in single-member seats, which usually gives a substantial bonus to the party that wins a greater proportion of votes. But PR can often give you minority governments. Some people don’t like them. They seem fine to me.
So, for the moment, we can’t do much more than look at the likely outcome and at the shift in voting for the parties. The most likely outcome is the continuation of a Labor Government with Green support, as before, though with Green support halved from four MLAs to two. The Liberal Opposition will be a third stronger than it was, moving from six seats to eight. As I wrote the other day, Zed Seselja has done well in uniting his team and campaigning well, and he deserves the accolades that he has been receiving. He can lead a formidable Opposition, if that is the way the election pans out.
What, if anything, can we learn from the votes? The totals have an obvious message: there was a big swing to the Liberals, of the order of seven per cent. On the face of it, the Liberal gain was at the expense of the Greens and the minor groups, for Labor’s share of the vote is much as it was. We are back, not quite to a two-party system, but to something very like it, for the Greens seem to me to represent a set of Labor voters who see the real issues not in ‘class’ terms but in ‘environmental’ terms. If I am on the mark there, then Labor+Green has 50 per cent of the vote to the Liberals’ 40 per cent, with the others at 10 per cent.
Do these results tell us anything about the likely result next year, when the federal elections will be held? Not really. Yes, the Liberal Party is the clear winner in terms of shifts in votes, and that outcome is consistent with all the other elections that have occurred since the last federal poll in 2010. But ACT voters, who have two parliaments in their city, can and do distinguish between them. ACT Labor held on to its own, but that does not mean that it will do so next year. Federal Labor is just on the nose — there is no hiding it — and unless some miracle happens in the next few months, it will go to a great defeat.
I would expect the two Labor sitting members in the ACT to survive, but if the Liberals can retain their strong vote in the south then Gai Brodtmann MP will struggle there. Nationally, I think the Greens can worry. Canberra is a city with a strong Green sentiment, but their vote was halved, despite an impressive performance by the Green MLAs. For the moment, at least, the Green tide seems to me to have passed.
Finally, it looks as though Simon Corbell, the Labor Minister and MLA, may fail to gain re-election. That would be a pity. I have known him for twenty years since he was the President of the Student Association at the University of Canberra and I was its Vice-Chancellor. He was impressive then, and seems to me to have been a good Minister as well as an able MLA. He is, however, young enough to decide whether or not he wants to continue in the political arena, and to start a new and successful career elsewhere if that is his decision. He has what it takes to do so.