After a lot of sound and fury, the end result for the much ballyhooed ACT Senate race turns out to be …nothing new. At the time of writing, Katy Gallagher has been easily re-elected and Senator Zed Seselja is within spitting distance of his required quota as counting continues.
So what happened to the Dump Zed campaign and to independent candidate Anthony Pesec? Months ago, local journalists were briefed on Unions ACT polling by Reachtel indicating a major drop in support for Seselja. The proposition was that there was momentum for change and that progressive Canberra voters were ready to toss out the notably conservative senator.
While the Greens ran a strong campaign for candidate Penny Kyburz, hopes centred on pro-climate change businessman Anthony Pesec. Although pre-polls and below the line votes are still in the mix and Pesec cleared the 4 per cent vote barrier for electoral funding, he’s garnered just over 7,600 votes at this stage or .15 of a quota and his election is therefore impossible.
Pesec campaign chief and candidate Gary Kent says that confusion over the Senate ballot may have been one factor: Pesec and Kent were grouped below the line but the lack of a name in the box above the line appears to have muddled many would-be voters.
“We understand that the AEC is taking these concerns seriously and will monitor any unusual trends in regard to Anthony’s’s ballot papers when counting for the Senate begins again,” Mr Kent said.
But he concedes that the idea of an independent toppling the Liberal candidate was “always an uphill battle”. He says that “Anthony ran an excellent campaign but did not have the opportunity to demonstrate his qualifications for the position in an electorate the size of three federal electorates.
“Independents probably need to start months or years beforehand to build recognition. There’s definitely resistance in the population against voting independent and we were up against a ruthless party machine in the Liberals with full-time staffers working around the clock with taxpayer funding.” Mr Kent said that outside RiotACT and ABC Radio, Pesec also struggled to access other mainstream local media.
The ANU’s Emeritus Professor John Warhurst says that whatever candidate a major party puts up, “even if it’s someone out of kilter with the electorate” there will always be a “rusted-on group of people” who identify with a party and will always vote for them.
Only a landslide against a major party is likely to put the ACT’s second Senate seat up for grab, Warhurst says. “There were lots of factors working against Zed with a pro-climate change centrist independent, a strong Green campaign, Unions ACT and Get up. The only thing that was missing was a very strong anti-government vote across the nation and you can’t unseat Zed without that.”
Warhurst says that while it might seem logical for the ACT to have a Liberal senator in the mould of Margaret Reid or Gary Humphries, or former chief minister Kate Carnell, the battleground is inside the party, not among the ordinary voters.
“The fact is, Zed Seselja represents the majority view within the local Liberal party. Pre-selection is where the action is. Around the country, the Senate is determined by the pre-selectors. If you’re on top of the list, you will get in.”
He described Senator Seselja’s campaign strategy as defiant in the face of strong dislike in many quarters of the community. “He’s got a memorable name and he doesn’t step away from that. You could say he brazens it out,” Professor Warhurst said.
Alex White from Unions ACT says the Dump Zed campaign “had a material impact on Zed’s vote. Looking at the current count, the Liberal Senate vote is considerably below the Liberal lower-house vote, both in the raw number of votes and percentage terms”.
He disputes that moderate Liberals stayed loyal to Zed, noting “the -3 per cent swing against Zed and the increase in the Greens vote, the independent vote and Labor’s vote. It’s notable too that Zed’s other campaign, in Warringah for Tony Abbott, saw a massive swing against the Liberals”.