Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Psephology And "Total Control"

(Now includes updates for episodes two and three, but I haven't changed the title for site statistics reasons.)

Episode One

I don't watch a lot of TV drama really (too much else to do).  However, yesterday some tweets regarding electoral situations in the ABC's new political drama "Total Control" attracted my attention and I decided to watch an episode to see what its representation of Australian politics is like.  I may do this for future episodes too, either as updates to this article, or if there is enough material as separate articles.  Warning: spoilers will be posted without restraint and commenters are welcome to post spoilers likewise.

This article and any that may follow it are not intended as reviews as such, though like the reviewers I have noticed that these are tough times for political drama generally as it struggles to keep pace with the outlandishness of the real thing.   Rather, what I'm doing here is purely commentary on whether the series' representations of Australian politics, and especially electoral politics, are accurate.  Some people think such commentaries about fiction are pointless because "it's fiction", but others enjoy political fiction more when they are able to suspend disbelief and think they are watching something that could really happen, and that as such is an insight into our actual political condition.  I don't personally care at all about the plot holes and contradictions already evident in this series, because I wouldn't have watched it except to write about it, but others may find them irritating.

Also in a world where many people take their political cues from dispersed, self-selected and frequently non-credible/biased sources, it's not that unlikely that someone out there who sees something in an ABC drama production will assume that that is how things actually work.  So far as Episode One is concerned, it isn't ...

Slim majorities in both houses?

The series follows Alex Irving (Deborah Mailman), initially a regional health worker and three-term local councillor in outback Winton (Queensland), who rises to national prominence after heroically facing down a deranged gunman who then shoots himself in front of her.  Irving, a plain-talking Aboriginal single mother, seems quite strongly inspired by Nova Peris' ill-fated Senate career.  Some comparisons might also be drawn (for different reasons) with Jacinta Price and Jacqui Lambie, but the series is also evidently inspired by issues with the treatment of women in politics generally.

Irving is recruited by sweary Prime Minister Rachel Anderson (Rachel Griffiths) who is seeking to fill a casual vacancy created by a previous Senator who has inconsiderately died. This action has "left the party without a majority in the Senate" ahead of an election that is six months away according to staffer Jonathan Cosgrove (Harry Richardson), or seven months away according to PM Anderson.  Anderson tells Irving that she has a "majority of one in the House" and a "hung Senate".  Anderson's party has not thus far been named beyond that it is "right-wing" and that Irving is assumed supportive in part because her father was a Nationals supporter.

Senate majorities are rare creatures because of the use of proportional representation in the Senate, and also because (double dissolutions excepted) each election represents a combination of two results.  Proportional representation was introduced in 1949 with the Senate fully elected by PR from the 1951 double dissolution.  Since that time Labor has never held a Senate majority.  The Coalition has held Senate majorities from 1951-1956 (1951 double dissolution and 1953 half-Senate), 1959-1962 (1955 and 1958 half-Senates), 1975-1981 (1975 DD and 1977 half-Senate) and 2005-2008 (2001 and 2004 half-Senates).  The Coalition also acquired a crucial temporary majority in 1975 when Senator Albert Field, appointed by the Queensland government to replace a Labor Senator but committed to voting against Labor, was on leave while his eligibility was challenged.

The number of Senators is even, because there are six states, each of which currently elects an even number of Senators, as well as two territories, which each elect two.  The Senate President has a vote on motions, unlike the House of Representatives Speaker who votes only to break ties.  Therefore a Senate majority (for a government that has one) is almost always an even-number majority (two, four, six etc).  A one-seat majority isn't normally possible.

Of course, media often refer to two-seat majorities (and even three-seat majorities in the Reps) as "one-seat majorities", but even allowing for that,  the death of a single Senator will not normally cause a government that has a Senate majority to lose it.   If a party has 39/76 seats and drops back temporarily to 38/75, the latter is still a majority, and in the Senate an effective one. The only circumstance under which one casual vacancy would normally change the government's majority status is if there was another casual vacancy at the same time, most probably arising from an impass between the State and a party over its filling.  (The changes made as a result of the 1975 crisis have not closed off all possibility of a state parliament blocking a party's desired casual vacancy appointee, and indeed there has been one case since where this did happen briefly). 

Leaving this aside, is it plausible that a government would at the same time have a wafer-thin majority in both houses?  There are ways this might happen, but all of them are unlikely at present.  Some example scenarios are as follows:

1.  The government was advantaged by small-state malapportionment, winning more than half the Senate seats in one state despite a lacklustre performance overall.  Differences in voting patterns by state recently have usually not been strong enough to fuel this scenario off a low primary vote.

2. The government won the previous election comfortably and its majority is a result of hangovers from that election despite the more recent one being closer.  Since minor parties started winning more than the odd seat this hasn't happened, but it isn't impossible.  The difficulty is that usually these days a government that only wins narrowly in the Reps would fail to secure a full set of three-seat slates at a half-Senate election, so would have to have at least two four-seat slates carrying over from a previous election.  It would be slightly less difficult if, as used to be the case, the number of Senators elected per state at a half-Senate election was odd.

3. The Houses are out of sync as a result of standalone half-Senate and House elections, and as a result the makeup of the House doesn't reflect any concurrent Senate elections at all.  However if this is to be the case late in a government's term, this would probably involve a government with a narrow House majority having done surprisingly well at a mid-term half-Senate election, which seems unlikely.  Also, Cosgrove's threat to Irving that she needs to read his boring prepared first speech if she wants to "stick around" is most consistent with the duration of Irving's term being short, ie she will soon be up for re-election at the same time as the House election.

4. The government has gained Senators by mid-term defections, possibly from the crossbench.  In the previous term the government gained two Senators and lost one in this manner, but prior to that governments had not gained in this way since 1976.

It should also be kept in mind that the majority in the Senate was, according to the PM, for her party.  Unless there has been a post-election national merger of the Coalition parties, this takes out of play the 2005-8 scenario in which the Coalition achieved a majority by the clever use of split tickets.  Aside from that case, there hasn't been a Senate majority for nearly 40 years by any combination of election results, let alone a close one, so this whole idea is rather improbable.

Contradictions re Senate majority

As has been noted above, Irving's predecessor's death cost the government its Senate majority.  Therefore the appointment of Irving should restore the government's Senate majority.  However, Cosgrove informs Irving that "the crossbenchers will need wrangling as usual ... fortunately the PM has a degree in herding cats".  Hang on, the government is getting its majority back, so why do the crossbenchers need herding? Perhaps someone is crossing the floor, but there is no suggestion of it.

Anderson's use of the term "hung Senate" also makes little sense.  Quite aside from a borderline loss of majority in a Senate with many crossbenchers being hardly a political crisis, politicians generally don't say "hung Senate" in these days of it being so normal. Hansard shows only five hits - Mark Latham in 1995 referring to "the inevitable prospect of a hung Senate" for a future Coalition government, and four hits in 1983 during discussion of the expansion of Parliament. The term isn't used all that much in general Australian political discussion either, though I did find some recent Google hits for it (including The Australia Institute, who else).

Swearing in

"In a shock move, she was sworn in today as a Senator for Queensland [..]"  But before she could be sworn in, Irving would typically have had to be approved by the Queensland Parliament, so by the time of her swearing in, her impending appointment would be known and would hardly be a shock anymore.  Even if she had been appointed without recourse to a full state parliament sitting (as has happened to avoid recall costs at least once) the news would be bound to be signalled in advance some other way.

However we then find that Irving has to go and see the Governor-General to swear allegiance to the Queen.  This makes no sense given that she has already been reported as sworn in (one would think the media could at least get that right), but also, Irving is just a Senator, not a Minister.  As such she would be sworn in on the Senate floor.  (Here's Nick McKim getting sworn in after filling a casual vacancy while Eric Abetz looks concerned.)

First speech and voting

Cosgrove tells Irving that she will have to make her "maiden speech" before she can vote.  This is simply silly nonsense, and I'm assuming it's a deliberate scripting contrivance to force Irving to choose between two speech drafts on the floor of the Senate without any time to think about it.  Not only do MPs frequently vote before making any speeches but they also frequently speak before they have made the first speech in which they tell their life story, set out their aims and so on.  Hence MPs often get early practice for a long career of lying when they say "This is not my first speech" the first time they speak on an issue.

Also, "maiden speech" is anachronistic (having been replaced by "first speech").  It is still used now and then and maybe Cosgrove is a Rees-Mogg or a Bullbars Bennett (RIP) type who likes to fight against politically-correct language, but one would think he'd be careful about it around a new female Senator.


Anderson asks a colleague to organise an internal poll "preferred PM, issues in the marginals".  However as "preferred PM" polling involving a PM and Opposition Leader is a media fixation and hence seldom in short supply, this only makes sense if she is seeking preferred PM polling between her and her hard-right leadership rival.  Even then just conducting such a poll would be risky because it might add fuel to the fire. Perhaps we will see more on this later.

Irving arrives to find herself saddled with staff appointed without her knowledge, at least one of them a hangover from (emotionally and perhaps romantically involved with?) her predecessor.  In theory a PM might insist on such controlled appointments, especially with a drop-in appointment made in haste, but the latter example shows exactly why it wouldn't be a good idea and MPs typically have more control over their own staffing.

I think that's enough for one episode.  One wonders what strangeness the next five have in store ...

Episode Two

There was almost no pseph content in the second episode, but there could well be a lot more in the third, when Bauer (the hard-right rival) challenges for the leadership and the suggestion is that the numbers for the deal Irving has done with Winton's Aboriginal communities might be trashed by a mutiny (I'm just going off the trailer).  We did get confirmation that alas the commissioned preferred PM polling is PM vs Opposition Leader (and the LO has just hit the lead, which probably means the PM is in serious bother.)

There was also a comment from Cosgrove re the deal "Now we've just got to get it through the House".  Presumably it would have to actually get through both houses.  Whether the Reps would pose a difficulty with a one-seat majority isn't clear as we've had no information about the crossbench or about the behaviour of the Speaker.  A one-seat majority could be tricky if the Speaker was a stickler for chairmanship conventions, but these are normally suspended when a government was elected with a majority of that size.

And also Bauer declares that he is challenging for the leadership of the Coalition.  That's wrong; a party member challenges for the leadership of his party (presumably the Liberal Party) and then it's up to the other coalition partner to decide if they are happy to serve under that leader.  Lately this is pretty much trivial so far as the Nationals go, but the old Country Party was known to flex its muscle concerning who the Liberal (or proto-Liberal) leader was from time to time, disposing of Billy Hughes as PM and also for a while vetoing Billy McMahon.

Episode Three

I found this episode to rather compellingly capture the feel for what politics is like when everything goes chaotic and wrong all at once.  And I agree with those who say that Mailman's performance in particular is excellent. However, as usual, some of the fine detail didn't stack up.

In this episode we see via a social media screenshot that the Government is indeed a Liberal Government.

A leaked online poll - presumably the one commissioned for no idea what reason in Episode One (see above) - is released which reports that the government has lost the 2PP lead for the first time in more than three years, as well as the Opposition Leader taking the lead as preferred PM.  This isn't likely; because of the incumbent PM's advantage on preferred PM polling, the 2PP lead would have been lost long before the Opposition Leader poked his nose in front, unless there was a very sudden crash in the 2PP vote standings.

Bauer (for whom read Peter Dutton) launches a leadership challenge, which "fails" 45-38, though as all Canberra-watchers know, a margin this close usually means the PM is terminal and will be finished off at the second attempt.  Noting the issues in Episode One regarding whether the government really had a Senate majority or not, this is much more consistent with the answer being no (indeed, it is the same number of MPs who voted in the original Turnbull-Dutton spill, and two fewer than voted in the Turnbull-Dutton-Bishop one.)

Prior to the leadership challenge both Bauer and Anderson walk in with small retinues of supporters.  However what is surprising about this is that Anderson's supporters who walk in with her are all male.

The main developments in this episode concern the defence Bill (which we see quite a detailed draft outline of) which Senator Irving's deal with the native title holders was included in.  This goes through preparation during the episode, with Irving particularly keen to have it introduced to the Senate before Bauer becomes party leader and presumably pulls it.  A Bill can originate in the Senate provided it isn't a money bill (see Section 53) but even so it would still have to clear the House of Representatives.  So it's not entirely clear why getting it through one House so fast is going to make the difference unless it is a matter of such extreme urgency that there isn't time for the Bill to be amended in the House then return to the Senate for concurrence.  Cosgrove also says (to Irving's phone message bank, "Senator, call me when you get this, the bill's gone through to the Senate".  Hang on, I thought it was there already, awaiting debate on its second reading?

(A further comment on Twitter highlights another issue here - that Irving is a backbencher so the Bill if moved by her would be introduced as a Private Senator's Bill.)

A nice touch involves Senator Irving communicating on something that is evidently Twitter, except instead of  "Tweets" we get the word "Murmers".  However the realism of the racist tweets abusing the Senator is somewhat undone by several of them each having 1.0K, 1.1K and 2.0K replies, retweets and likes respectively - at least until she replies to one, at which point it jumps unevenly to 2.2K/1.6K/2.1K (and a racist attacking an Aboriginal or any left-wing Senator would probably get ratioed a lot harder than that anyway.)

Episode Four

Very little pseph content of note to detract from Mailman's performance in this episode.  We do see concern that if Senator Irving resigns the government will be down a vote in the Senate (but surely she could resign once a replacement has been lined up).  There was also some mention of hits being taken in polls over the scuttled deal with Irving's community, though only one bad poll was previously referenced so there seems to have been some stretching of time here.  And one other thing I noticed was the staffer Tracey describing Alex as the only genuine politician she'd known, which doesn't particularly gel with having hung on emotionally to a portrait of Alex's predecessor.  More political fun next week I suspect.

Episode Five

Not a huge amount to add in this article's purview in episode five either.  I thought that for someone who's pretty skilled at manipulation and lying when she wants to be, Irving was remarkably trusting of Cosgrove after finding out he was soon to be working for Cartwright.  There were more references to numbers in the Senate but the issues there are much the same as before (again, if getting one crossbench Senator to join the Government would make Irving disposable, then why does the PM need a degree in herding cats?)   A good touch was a reference to a bad poll that was taken before a news event being reported at the same time.

Episode Six

In the final episode of this season numerous liberties were taken with parliamentary procedure.  For instance there was voting immediately after a speech concluded rather than with a one minute or four minute ringing of the bells, the Senate President saying "the house will come to order", the Ayes dividing to the left instead of to the right, Senator Mortensen making a statement "following the third and final reading" of the Supply Bill (if it's had its third reading then it has been passed and cannot be defeated, etc).

In dealing with Opposition Leader Martin, Irving is offered the number two position on Labor's Senate ticket, which sounds like a more secure position except that Labor actually managed to lose it in the real-world 2019 election.

The Government's supply bill is defeated in the Senate after Irving and three Bauer supporters cross the floor, and then the Prime Minister loses a no-confidence motion 76-74 after Bauer and two supporters do the same (the Bruce and Scullin governments fell on the floor in such a manner with each going to an election).  For these numbers to add up we must assume that two crossbencher exist who has voted against the no-confidence motion (or one if the one-seat majority is only a floor majority).  The Senate numbers (40-36 against supply) would require some crossbencher alongside Mortensen to vote for the supply bill unexpectedly.

After Anderson loses the no-confidence motion the media report refers to her as the now ex-PM and speculates on what she will advise the Governor-General, but in fact if Anderson is no longer formally PM she cannot advise the GG of anything as she is no longer the adviser.  The no-confidence motion itself does not dismiss her, but she would by convention see the GG to resign and provide various advice at the same time (which might be who her successor should be, or to call an election immediately, for instance.)  It took me a little while to establish how Irving becomes Prime Minister at the end (as signified by Anderson saying "enjoy my office") but it appears that she does so as the new Coalition PM supported by Bauer solely desiring revenge against Anderson.

Irving can be made PM as a Senator a la John Gorton, but by convention would need to cross to the House within three months.   However this convention isn't immutable, and in any case it would be possible for Irving to transfer to the Reps (possibly filling the seat of Kevin Cartwright).  However she would have to win a by-election, which depending on the safety of Cartwright's seat could be very difficult in the circumstances.

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