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October 23 2004
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Lies & Statistics
October 23 2004
Feedback Peter Brent

Things could have gone even better for the coalition in the election, writes Peter Brent.

From July next year, John Howard will almost certainly become the first prime minister since 1981 to control the Senate. But his probable majority of  39 out of 76 senators could easily have been bigger.

Attempting to follow the Senate count is diabolically difficult, but the concepts aren't.

The basic unit is the quota.

Imagine an election for one member in a seat using a simple vote with no preferences. What would be the minimum support a candidate needed to guarantee a win? Half, of course. And if two seats were on offer, and they went to candidates with the two highest votes?

Then one-third of the vote would do. If you got that, one other contender could get more than you, but two couldn't. If there were three seats, 25 per cent would be enough, and so on.

That's the quota: add one to the number of seats and divide into 100.

Senators are elected for two terms, usually at a half-Senate election, when six seats are filled per state, and the quota is 14.3 per cent. But in a double-dissolution (DD), all 12 seats are up, and the quota is 7.7 per cent.

Two DD quotas make 15.4 per cent. A small party that expected to attract something between 7.7 per cent and 14.3 per cent support would desperately want a DD, but one expecting more than 14.3 but less than 15.4 would prefer two half-Senate elections, because they would expect to get one member elected in one and another in the next, and so enjoy two spots, while a DD would give them only one.

In reality, preferences complicate all this and the primary votes needed by minor parties are smaller, but the concept remains, and the Democrats, for example, before their recent vanishing act, usually preferred half-Senate elections.

Now to the big parties.

In a half-Senate, 42.9 per cent gets you three seats, but 46.2 is needed to win six in a DD. So a half-Senate would be preferred over a DD by a side expecting to get between those two amounts; that's the coalition, which is why a DD in the last term was always unlikely.

But here's the twist. On October 9, the government's Senate vote was higher than anyone expected, and a DD would probably have given them an even bigger Senate majority.

Howard won three Senate positions in every state and a likely fourth in Queensland which, adding to his three in every state from the 2001 election, gives that majority. (The ACT and Northern Territory always contribute between them two Senate seats to each side).

But translating last fortnight's numbers to a DD would probably have yielded him seven seats in at least two state seats.

All academic, but there's one final point. If Labor wins the next election, not as unlikely as most seem to think, they will probably face a coalition and Family First-controlled Senate. That would point to a DD the election after next.

But now we're really getting ahead of ourselves.

Peter Brent is editor of

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