Cars, guns and sport: small parties drive Australian Senate to distraction

CANBERRA Mon Sep 9, 2013 3:34am EDT

Australian billionaire Clive Palmer speaks at a news conference to announce his plan to build Titanic II, a modern replica of the doomed ocean liner, at the Ritz in central London March 2, 2013. Reuters/Olivia Harris

Australian billionaire Clive Palmer speaks at a news conference to announce his plan to build Titanic II, a modern replica of the doomed ocean liner, at the Ritz in central London March 2, 2013. Reuters/Olivia Harris

CANBERRA (Reuters) - It's got guns for everyone and souped-up cars, as well as mechanical dinosaurs and a Titanic replica - welcome to the new dawn of Australian politics.

Almost 15 million voters in sports-mad Australia chose conservative fitness fanatic Tony Abbott as their new leader on Saturday, at the same time heralding in a rag-tag group of "micro parties" set to play a role in the upper house Senate.

At the forefront of the new breed is the Palmer United Party, which is likely to secure at least one Senate seat, set up by the colorful coal mining multi-millionaire Clive Palmer.

Palmer's list of achievements includes plans to build a replica of the Titanic and putting mechanical dinosaurs on a luxury golf resort.

"Who knows where they stand on anything? For most of them, there is no policy platform. It is going to be really interesting times," Greens leader Christine Milne told reporters on Monday.

Abbott won a decisive majority in the lower house over the centre-left Labor government on Saturday but Milne said he would likely need support from six of an expected eight unaligned senators in the upper house.

Markets welcomed a return to majority government after six years of Labor rule, with Australian shares rising 0.4 percent on Monday as investors put their faith in Abbott to deliver promised political and policymaking stability.

ROO POO

One of the likely Senate newcomers whose support Abbott might need is Ricky Muir, leader of the Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party. Muir has featured in a social media video clip taking part in a friendly backyard fight with friends using kangaroo droppings.

His party's website proclaims support for motorists, the right to customize cars and to drive in national parks. Other than that, Muir's party sees no need for other policies.

It was a similar refrain from the previously unknown Sports Party in Western Australia state, which is also likely to win a Senate seat.

"The Australian Sports Party is all about healthy living through sport. We want to make sure everyone has the best opportunity to play sport," likely new Senator Wayne Dropulich told Australian television.

In New South Wales, Liberal Democrat David Leyonhjelm is also on track to win a seat despite doing little public campaigning. Gun ownership is heavily regulated in Australia but he wants to free up gun laws so everyone can carry a weapon.

Leyonhjelm's party, similarly named to Abbott's Liberal-National Party coalition, was the first name on a beach towel-length Senate ballot form.

The unusual Senate results are partly due to king maker Glenn Druery, who set up an alliance of micro parties and helped them work out how to capitalize on the voting system for the Senate, where six candidates are elected from each state.

Under the complicated preferential voting system, the candidates with the lowest votes are eliminated and their votes are re-distributed according to preference deals worked out among the parties.

Druery, for example, helped the Sports Party and Motoring Enthusiast Party understand that they could win a seat if they kept directing preferences away from the major parties, ensuring a slow build-up of votes funneled to them.

He said he helped the micro candidates avoid deals that would favor the major parties.

"I show them how to do effective preference deals. If people follow the guidelines, it can't fail," Druery told Reuters.

Abbott's conservatives expect many of the micro parties to be more sympathetic to their center-right agenda than the current Senate, where Labor and the Greens have a majority.

But that is a moot point for now. Senate election results could take two weeks to finalize and Labor and the Greens will retain their majority until the new senators take their seats from July 1, 2014.

(Editing by Paul Tait)

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