Accidental Senator a Kingmaker in Australia Micro Party Era

David Leyonhjelm realized he could win an Australian Senate seat when his small Liberal Democratic Party scored the plum spot for the Sept. 7 election -- the top, left-hand corner of the ballot sheet in New South Wales state.

“That was just complete luck,” said the 61-year-old former veterinarian, who said he wants to broker deals with the Liberal-National coalition government if his place in the 76-seat upper house is confirmed. Some “confused” voters may have mixed up his group with the Liberal party of Prime Minister-elect Tony Abbott, he added.

Leyonhjelm and six others from tiny, mostly center-right parties are set to hold the balance of power in the upper house from July 1, complicating Abbott’s legislative agenda even as his coalition won a majority in the lower house. While they may back Abbott on his promise to repeal the previous Labor government’s carbon price mechanism and mining tax, his maternity-leave plan costing A$5.5 billion ($5.1 billion) a year could be blocked.

The success of the parties dubbed the “micro right” in the Senate, plus a greater share of the primary vote in the lower house, reflects a drift from the major political groupings at the election as voters tired of years of Labor infighting and a lack of policy heft from the coalition.

“Abbott will be under pressure to build relationships with these people to get deals done,” said Haydon Manning, a politics professor at Flinders University in Adelaide. “While their agendas are vague at this stage, it’s fair to say most of the parties seem right of the center. The result shows voters are a bit disenfranchised with the major parties.”

Labor Woes

The micro parties benefited from voter dissatisfaction with Labor in particular, as it earned its smallest primary vote in the lower house in almost eight decades, according to University of Western Australia data. Australia’s oldest party was hurt by infighting that saw it swap leaders twice in three years. Outgoing education minister Bill Shorten today said he will vie for the leadership, which may be decided as early as tomorrow.

Forty of the 76 Senate seats were up for grabs, with the new-look upper house to take its place on July 1. Until then the balance of power is held by the Greens, giving them final say over legislation introduced by the new government.

Australian Electoral Commission preliminary results point to the coalition holding 34 Senate seats from July 1, Labor 25, the Greens 10, and micro parties seven, according to Australian Broadcasting Corp. calculations. They include Bob Day from the Christian-right Family First party, re-elected independent Nick Xenophon and newcomer Wayne Dropulich of the Australian Sports Party.

Tea Party

Glenn Lazarus, a former rugby league star dubbed “The Brick With Eyes,” of the nascent Palmer United Party, is set to win a Senate seat in a bid bankrolled by mining magnate Clive Palmer. Palmer himself may win a place in the lower house after his party secured 5.5 percent of the primary vote nationally, compared to the more established Greens on 8.4 percent.

Palmer, 59, who plans to build a full-scale replica of the Titanic, claimed voters were tired of the major parties, creating his party in April and mustering candidates for all 150 lower-house seats, as well as 18 Senate positions.

“Palmer’s rise looks a bit like a Sarah Palin-style surge in the politics of personality,” said Ron Levy, a lecturer in law and politics at Griffith University in Brisbane. “The step away from the major parties to the right-wing fringe could also be interpreted as an Australian-version of the Tea Party phenomenon in the U.S.”

‘Unrepresentative Swill’

Leyonhjelm, who supports lower taxes and the repealing of restrictions on gun ownership, saw his party win 8.9 percent of the primary vote for the upper house in New South Wales state, where 42 parties vied for six Senate seats, leading to a ballot paper that sprawled over 3 feet, 3 inches (1 meter).

Joining Leyonhjelm may be Ricky Muir of the Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party, which claimed just 0.5 percent of the vote in Victoria state and campaigns to take souped-up vehicles on roads. Muir declined to be interviewed after he was shown in a Youtube clip throwing kangaroo feces at friends.

The make-up of the Senate, where a state such as New South Wales has the same amount of representatives as Tasmania despite a population that’s about 15 times larger, has long been a bone of contention among politicians in the major parties. In 1992, then-Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating referred to the members of the upper house as “unrepresentative swill.”

Abbott Negotiations

While Abbott has indicated he will consider any proposed changes from a parliamentary committee report on the Sept. 7 election to the system for selecting members of the upper house, he’s indicated the make-up of the Senate should be workable.

“I’m confident that we will return to strong and stable government that calmly, purposefully, methodically sets about implementing its commitments,” Abbott said in a Sept. 10 Nine Network television interview. “Elections do sometimes throw up quirky and interesting characters. That’s not always a bad thing.”

While Leyonhjelm’s position on the paper was an advantage - - the ordering is randomly done -- his bid was aided by his ability to negotiate with other candidates on the sharing of preferences. Australia’s complex system sees Senate contenders ranked from highest to lowest, with preferences cascading to other candidates as those with fewer votes are knocked out. Voters can either rank the contenders themselves, or tick just one box on the ballot paper and let their preferred party decide on how the preference votes are distributed.

Tiny Fractions

“That we can elect the parties that get tiny fractions of the primary vote to our parliament, seemingly by accident, is a scandal,” said Graeme Orr, an electoral law analyst at the University of Queensland and the author of “The Law of Politics.” “It’s becoming more of a problem.” The number of registered parties more than doubled from the 2010 election.

To outsiders the system looks chaotic, said Canadian-born Levy. “While it’s good that marginal voices are represented, the downside of these preference deals is they don’t feel very democratic.”

One beneficiary of the process may be Dropulich, who is set to represent Western Australia state despite his Australian Sports Party winning just 0.2 percent of first-preference votes. Beyond promoting physical activity among school children to discourage obesity, he says he has no political agenda at this stage.

Better Chance

Before the election, the 42-year-old former American Football state representative spoke with other micro parties and decided they had a better chance if they asked supporters to preference the major parties last.

While he’s working as an engineer creating a new iron ore mine, he says people shouldn’t assume that means he will support Abbott’s bid to scrap the carbon price and mining tax. “We’ll listen to all the arguments and make an informed decision,” he said.

Leyonhjelm and Family First’s Day have already said they’ll probably support Abbott’s bid to scrap the carbon price.

Pressure will be on Abbott, whose negotiations to form a minority government with independents in the lower house in 2010 failed, to get his pledges through. Leyonhjelm, who said he hopes to form a type of caucus of minor parties to vote “reasonably consistently” on issues, is adamant he won’t support a parental leave program that would pay some high-earning new mothers up to A$75,000 over six months.

“If it doesn’t get through, Abbott will just be able to blame us dirty rotten little parties,” Leyonhjelm said. “That doesn’t worry me, I’ve got a thick skin. At the end of the day, we may have our own barrows to push but it’s in our own interests to make the new government work.”

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