With several wildcards expected, the senate’s next crossbench will be instrumental for whoever forms government. By Karen Middleton.

Election ’22: What will happen in the senate?

Independent candidate for the senate David Pocock.
Independent candidate for the senate David Pocock.
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While most focus during the six-week election campaign has been on lower-house seats, the senate race is also a nailbiter that could deliver surprising results.

The Australia Institute’s executive director, Ben Oquist, who previously worked for the Greens and has studied senate voting for two decades, says too little attention has been afforded what is an important contest.

“Despite the possibility of a hung lower house, we know for certain that the senate will not deliver a majority,” Oquist says.

“Who holds and shares the balance of power is very much up for grabs and will ultimately determine the fate of the government’s legislative agenda.”

The biggest shock could come in the Australian Capital Territory, with former Wallabies captain David Pocock posing a serious threat to both major-party incumbents, the Liberals’ Zed Seselja and Labor’s Katy Gallagher.

While Seselja has been Pocock’s target, Labor fears his strong support could split the progressive vote in the Labor-leaning ACT and see Gallagher fall short of a quota.

Pocock is recommending voters put another independent candidate, high-profile constitutional lawyer and citizenship specialist Kim Rubenstein, second. Rubenstein is recommending the same in reverse.

This week, former prime minister Julia Gillard wrote to ACT voters urging support for Gallagher and on Thursday they received a video message from shadow Foreign Affairs minister Penny Wong.

“Every election is tough, but this one is a really tight race,” Wong says. “… No other progressive candidate in the ACT senate race can deliver what Katy can in government.”

The Northern Territory is expected to deliver a status quo result, with its two seats going one apiece to the major parties.

But there are other close contests around the country. The Greens appear likely to improve their overall senate numbers, from their current 10 to possibly as many as 12, including those not facing voters at this half-senate election.

In Queensland, Labor and the Coalition appear likely to secure two seats each of the six up for grabs, with the Coalition possibly losing the fifth to Pauline Hanson’s One Nation and the Greens a chance for the sixth.

In New South Wales, analysts suggest the Coalition will likely retain three seats, Labor two and the Greens one, although there is also a chance that another right-wing party – One Nation or the United Australia Party – could take a spot off the Coalition.

In Western Australia, Labor’s campaign work aimed at lower-house marginal seats could also deliver senate benefits, with the possibility of securing a third senate seat beyond the usual two. The Greens are likely to win one, with the Coalition expected to take at least two but having to fight it out for what is usually its third.

In South Australia, the return of former senator Nick Xenophon to the contest has made it more difficult for his former colleague, Rex Patrick, to get back in. In Tasmania, Jacqui Lambie is not facing voters at this election but solid support for her Jacqui Lambie Network may see her staffer, Tammy Tyrrell, join her in the senate, winning a seat that would otherwise go to the Coalition. Long-time conservative Eric Abetz, who has been dropped from the top spot on the Liberal ticket, is running a below-the-line campaign encouraging Liberal voters to break away from his party’s how-to-vote recommendation and put him first.

In Victoria, the impact of Covid-19 lockdowns may affect the senate vote, with The Australia Institute’s polling showing strong support for Clive Palmer’s United Australia Party and its “freedom” message.

Oquist says it’s a fascinating contest, nationwide. “Can Nick come back? Can Jacqui clone herself? Can the Greens get to a record? Can UAP surprise? And can the polls convert to Labor shifting the balance of power in the senate by winning three seats, somewhere like WA, SA or Victoria?”

When the drama of the lower house count is done, the senate may yet deliver a whole new soap opera.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 21, 2022 as "Upper limits".

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Karen Middleton is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.

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