NSW voters with a chance to break election rules

28 March 2015

Rarely would there have been an election like what confronts voters in New South Wales today.  Not many governments have gone into elections with popular leaders, massive parliamentary majorities, uninspiring rivals, and controversial policies.  Yet today this is what voters face in the most populous Australian state.

At the last state election in NSW, in 2011, the Liberal-National Coalition scored a monstrous victory.  The Labor Party had governed since 1995, and for years had stunk of such corruption and incompetence that voters were desperate to toss Labor out, although the state economy wasn’t exactly in bad shape.  Ultimately, voters gave the Coalition a whopping 69-20 victory over Labor in the 93-seat Legislative Assembly, with a Green and a trio of Independents winning the few seats that neither the Coalition nor Labor won.  The Coalition also won more seats up for grabs in the Legislative Council than anyone else, though not enough for a majority.

Liberal leader Barry O’Farrell became Premier when the Coalition won office in 2011.  He seemed lacklustre, but the Labor Party was so bad that O’Farrell looked better than he probably was.  But in 2014, O’Farrell resigned after misleading the Independent Commission Against Corruption, ironically at an inquiry which was set to investigate the controversial dealings of some Labor figures but ended up catching out some Liberals in the process.  The shock departure of O’Farrell saw Mike Baird become Liberal leader and Premier, and this ultimately energised the Coalition.

Baird has been almost too good to be true.  He comes across as energetic and likeable.  Compared to many other political leaders, he usually makes an effort to answer questions, without appearing to repeatedly recite lines from some script, and sounds less robotic.  Few political leaders these days come across like Baird in this respect.

As for the Labor Party, it was always going to look lacklustre.  After its 2011 drubbing it looked uninspiring, with little in terms of positive ideas that voters could get behind.  Although Luke Foley has looked good since becoming Labor leader, he’s still heading a dull bunch with little to say beyond opposing Coalition plans and policies.  Nobody really gives Foley a chance to win the election today, though he’ll win back much of Labor’s lost ground from 2011.

Yet despite being a popular leader with a massive majority and a less-than-inspiring rival, as well as a state economy in good shape, problems confront Baird and the Coalition.  There have been dramas over some public sector job cuts, corruption allegations that drove some MPs out of the Liberal Party, and plans for several motorway tunnels to cut congestion on Sydney’s roads – the tunnels in particular have aroused much local resistance because of concerns about pollution from them and losses of homes to tunnel interchanges, although critics have ignored how inadequate public transport in outer suburbs bred much of the congestion that led to the tunnel ideas.  The unpopularity of Prime Minister Tony Abbott and the Coalition at a national level also appears to be hurting Baird’s mob.

However, bothering voters is Baird’s plan for electricity privatisation.  His idea is to lease electricity assets, or “poles and wires” in other words, and use funds from it to upgrade infrastructure like roads and schools and hospitals.  Voters seem opposed to electricity privatisation, because they fear a costlier and less reliable electricity supply if control goes to private operators, especially big corporations, who’d perceivably cut jobs and put off maintenance in pursuit of profits.  But they’re not really warming to Labor’s anti-privatisation messages.  So there’s a chance that they’ll vote for someone advocating a plan that they oppose, which would turn conventional election rules upside-down.

Putting aside popularity and majorities and policies, what’s likely to happen in NSW today?  Opinion polls seem to tip a swing of 9-10 per cent against the Coalition, which in itself looks huge.  But it’d take a larger swing to cost the Coalition its parliamentary majority, and Labor needs a swing twice as big to win outright.

The Coalition will lose many seats today, but should still hold office.  In alphabetical order, I tip the Coalition to lose these seats to Labor – Blue Mountains, Campbelltown, Coogee, East Hills, Granville, Holsworthy, Kiama, Londonderry, Macquarie Fields, Maitland, Monaro, Oatley, Prospect, Rockdale, Strathfield, Swansea, and Wyong.  I also tip the Coalition to lose Tamworth to an Independent.

But I tip the Coalition to win Miranda from Labor.  The Coalition won this seat from Labor with a massive swing in 2011, after popular Labor MP Barry Collier retired.  But when the new sitting member resigned in 2013, Collier came out of retirement to contest a subsequent by-election, and won.  Now he’s retiring again, and Miranda effectively reverts back to the Coalition margin from the 2011 election, which is above the swing expected today, so the Coalition will win it.  Northern Tablelands and Newcastle and Charlestown also changed hands at by-elections during the past two years, and I tip their sitting members to win.  I also tip the Greens to hold Balmain and win Newtown.

The likely NSW election outcome might be 51-37-2-3 in the Legislative Assembly, in a Coalition-Labor-Greens-Independent sequence, while the Coalition will gain some seats but still lack a majority in the Legislative Council.  Given concerns about electricity privatisation, some rules could be broken in this election today.

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Senate crossbenchers can be persuaded

23 March 2015

Quirky fortune got David Leyonhjelm elected to the Senate in 2013.  Now he’s among eighteen crossbench Senators holding the balance of power there, although some people put that number at only eight.  So you might wonder what the fortune was for Leyonhjelm, a Liberal Democrat from New South Wales, whose name is pronounced “Lion-helm” and can be remembered if you think of a “lion at the helm”.

When Australians cast their votes at the last Federal election, in 2013, the Liberal Democrats won 9.5 per cent of the Senate vote in NSW.  This was well above their second-best share of the vote, about 3.5 per cent in South Australia.  At the previous election, in 2010, they won only about 2.3 per cent of the Senate vote in NSW, and then a similar share in Queensland.

How was this surge from 2.3 per cent to 9.5 per cent in NSW possible?  Some people argued that, when parties and groups were drawn to select the order in which they’d be listed on Senate ballot papers in different states, the Liberal Democrats were lucky enough to draw first place in NSW.  Many NSW voters saw the name “Liberal” in first place on the Senate ballot paper in that state and voted “1” in the box under the name – they presumably thought that they were voting for the Liberals and Nationals in the Coalition, led by Tony Abbott, when in fact they were voting for Leyonhjelm’s Liberal Democrats!

This outcome really peeved the Coalition, and particularly the Liberal Party.  I actually thought that I heard speculation of the Liberals apparently seeking to legislate to prevent the use of “Liberal” in the name of any other political group – if true, this sounds petty.

Nevertheless, Leyonhjelm is now among eighteen crossbenchers holding the balance of power in the Senate.  But some people put that number of crossbenchers at only eight, because the Greens hold ten of the eighteen Senate seats not held by either the Coalition parties or the Labor Party, and the Greens are more likely than not to vote with Labor in opposing the Coalition Government on any piece of legislation.

Even so, the Coalition parties only need the votes of six crossbench Senators to get legislation passed.  In a sense, they can afford to ignore Labor and the Greens.  And they’ve managed to get some bills passed, such as the abolition of controversial carbon and mining taxes.  But they’ve failed to get other things passed so far, and it seems frustrating.

My point about Leyonhjelm is that he’s spoken about how the Coalition’s ministers deal with the crossbenchers in seeking to get the votes needed to pass legislation.  Late last year, I saw Leyonhjelm on television, and he said that some ministers were better than others in terms of persuading the crossbenchers and negotiating with them.  He cited Senator Mathias Cormann as the best in that respect, and he also praised Scott Morrison, although he didn’t mention any other names in either a good or bad light.  And last week he reiterated his praise for Cormann and Morrison in a report in a major newspaper.

Admittedly, Leyonhjelm is only one of the Senate crossbenchers, and he can’t necessarily speak for the rest of them.  I don’t know if the other crossbenchers have spoken similarly about the Coalition’s ministers.  But I wouldn’t be surprised if they have similar stories to tell, if they choose to say as much publicly.

The Senate crossbenchers can be persuaded to support legislation, but only if the Coalition plays its cards right.  At least one crossbencher has already indicated that Cormann and Morrison have clearly done some things right.  What have they done right that other ministers have done wrong?  Maybe the way that Cormann and Morrison have gone about their business would need to be used as a guide for their ministerial colleagues.

Hot air from anti-CSG candidates

20 March 2015

The notion of coal seam gas as an election issue seems like nothing more than hot air.  Nobody should tell you otherwise.  Recent history, albeit brief, doesn’t show any elections changing course because of coal seam gas, often referred to simply as CSG.

I’m not downplaying CSG as a public issue.  I don’t like the idea of this gas being extracted from underground, chemically or otherwise, in a manner which potentially releases hazardous chemicals onto surrounding land or into underground soils.  It poses major hazards to rivers and underground water catchments.  And it should be a firm no-no on lands considered perfect for farming, especially for growing crops and fresh produce.

My point is that, as an issue, CSG is yet to swing an election.  For several years, I’ve heard stories about the hazards of CSG extraction on prime farmland in particular, with parts of New South Wales and Queensland being mentioned a lot.  But in that time, there have been elections in those states, along with a Federal election in 2013, and while all have resulted in changes of government, little looks different in relation to whether or not CSG extraction in these areas has begun.  It hasn’t mattered whether the Labor Party or the Coalition parties were in power.  And it isn’t like there haven’t been chances for CSG opponents to make their concerns swing elections.

Realistically, CSG opponents shouldn’t believe a single bit of rhetoric from either Labor or the Coalition parties.  It’s true that when I first heard about CSG becoming an issue of public concern, Labor was in government in most states and nationally.  Certainly it would’ve been Labor giving extraction projects the go-ahead.  But even after governments have changed from Labor to the Coalition parties, the noises still prevalent to this day suggest no change on the issue.  Therefore CSG opponents should seem more inclined to vote for minor political players.

However, this is where problems regarding elections begin.  The Greens have naturally been critics of CSG extraction everywhere.  But they have little traction among voters outside the inner suburbs of state capitals like Sydney and Melbourne and Brisbane – if anything, they’ve often seen rural voters as environmental vandals killing trees and rivers, and rural voters largely hate them.  On the other hand, Federal MP Bob Katter has also been a CSG critic, but even though he set up his own political party a few years and has fielded candidates at several elections, they’ve seldom made any difference in areas where CSG has been an issue.

The recent state election in Queensland showed Katter’s party as almost meaningless.  With much anger surrounding CSG extraction on prime farmland in the Darling Downs region around Toowoomba, to the west of Brisbane, Katter’s party really should’ve won several seats there if voters were so angry about the issue.  But Katter’s party got nowhere in that area.

If unhappy with the major parties’ positions on CSG, voters in the regions would be more likely to vote for Independent candidates, should there be any of substance running around.  And some Independents either against or concerned about CSG are contesting the coming state election in NSW.  But they face the usual challenges faced by Independents at election time – needing to get themselves well known among many thousands of voters across relatively small areas, having personal beliefs that those voters will tolerate, or being able to cherry-pick what voters like and dislike about the major parties’ other policies.  Voters don’t always support candidates simply with the letters I-N-D in brackets after their names, unless they know them well beforehand, and generally they’re unlikely to support single-issue candidates.

Ironically, perhaps also hindering anti-CSG candidates is a vocal CSG industry critic, namely broadcaster Alan Jones.

Thought strongly supportive of the Coalition parties generally and of Prime Minister Tony Abbott in particular, Jones has been part of a long-running war against Independents.  This dates back to late 2010, when Abbott narrowly lost a Federal election to Labor leader Julia Gillard, who managed to govern in a hung parliament with the support of two Independents from Coalition-leaning electorates in the bush, despite the unpopularity of Labor at that time.  Filthy at this result, Abbott and the Coalition have repeatedly used the Independent-Gillard deal to scare voters into voting against Independents, painting votes for Independents as votes for Labor.  These tactics have been dishonest, but they’ve worked, costing many respected Independent MPs their seats.  And Jones has been among the Coalition’s media cheerleaders in that respect.

Coalition bias aside, Jones has been savagely critical of both mining and CSG extraction on prime farmland.  Indeed he’s from rural Queensland himself, and he’s spoken of how mining has desecrated the area where he comes from.  He was very vocal during the Queensland election.  But his words seemingly had no impact in areas where people had concerns about CSG.  In any case, given his leaning to the Coalition, how could he also support anti-CSG Independents?

There might be a first time for everything, of course.  As such, will anti-CSG candidates actually have enough support to win seats in the coming NSW election, or will they be merely letting off hot air?  The day draws closer when CSG will get hot or stay cold.

Labor’s rare ACT casualty

15 March 2015

Smaller populations normally mean small proportions of representation in parliaments and other legislative chambers.  While there’s more than the odd instance of a gerrymander, whereby a government arranges electoral boundaries in a manner allowing its constituency to win more parliamentary seats with less votes than opponents, it’s more common for smaller regions to have smaller degrees of representation than larger ones.  And certainly as far as the House of Representatives in Federal Parliament is concerned, this used to be the case with the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory.

Members of the House of Representatives have varied in number across Australia’s states over time.  But for decades, the territories had such small populations that single electorates covered either territory.  It wasn’t until electoral boundary changes driven by population growth gave the ACT two MHRs for the first time in 1974, while the Northern Territory didn’t have two MHRs until 2001.

These were just some of the facts coming into my head after I heard about the death of Kep Enderby earlier this year.

Enderby was a former ACT MHR and Whitlam Labor Government minister.  He was in fact the territory’s single MHR when the territory was split into two electorates ahead of a general election in 1974.  One of these two new electorates, which Enderby ran for and won, was Canberra, named after the national capital.  The other new ACT electorate was Fraser, named after a former MHR whose death enabled Enderby to enter Parliament via a by-election in 1970.

Interestingly, the ACT has long been considered a very safe region for the Labor Party.  And Fraser has stayed in Labor hands ever since its creation.  But Labor has twice lost Canberra to the Liberal Party, at a general election in 1975 and a by-election twenty years later.

Enderby was the Canberra casualty in 1975, at an election which followed the dismissal of the Whitlam Government by Governor-General Sir John Kerr.  Despite much anger and rage over this extraordinary event, voters ultimately endorsed Kerr’s actions, giving the Coalition parties a whopping 91-36 victory over Labor.  This was Labor’s worst-ever Federal election loss, in terms of its proportion of seats in the House of Reps.  And Enderby was among six Whitlam Government ministers to lose their seats, being Attorney-General at the time.  Indeed Enderby, who also gained a reputation as an advocate fighting to change laws regarding homosexuality, had been Attorney-General for less than a year, getting the job after the departure of the controversial Lionel Murphy.

The Liberal candidate who beat Enderby in Canberra in 1975, John Haslem, held his seat at the next election, in 1977.  But Labor won it back at the election after that, in 1980, with Haslem losing to Ros Kelly, a future minister.

In 1995, in the aftermath of a scandal over government funding for sporting groups, Kelly resigned from Parliament, and Labor lost Canberra again, to Liberal candidate Brendan Smyth in a by-election.  Indeed Labor was largely on the nose with voters around the country at the time.  But Smyth wasn’t in Parliament for long, losing to Labor at the next general election, in 1996.

Because the ACT has long been rated a safe region for Labor in elections, Enderby holds the indignity of being a rare casualty for Labor here.  Seldom does Labor lose seats in this neck of the woods.

Massive election turnaround in Queensland

7 March 2015

There’d been predictions of Queensland having a new person as Premier after the state went to the polls on 31 January.  And so it proved – Premier Campbell Newman lost his seat, as was widely tipped, but it was largely thought that the Liberal National Party Government would hold office and only seek a new leader, while the Labor Party Opposition was tipped to come close but fall short.  I was among perhaps a minority of pundits tipping a hung parliament.

As it turned out, my prediction came true, and the Queensland election produced a hung parliament, but I wasn’t prepared to predict who’d form government, because in a hung parliament the result could’ve gone either way.  Eventually, just three years after losing office and shrinking to a mere handful of MPs at the previous election, the Labor Party retook office in a stunning turnaround, albeit with the help of an Independent after falling one seat short of a parliamentary majority.

The result stemmed from several factors.  Massive public service cuts, privatisation of public assets, and Newman’s abrasive style all turned voters off.  The unpopularity of Prime Minister Tony Abbott and the Liberal-National Coalition at national level also didn’t help the LNP in Queensland.  Thus the LNP lost office after a single term.  Following the defeat of the Coalition after a single term in office in Victoria late last year, the Queensland result saw the second defeat of a first-term government in a short time, and both governments were of the same political colour.

The Queensland election began with the LNP holding seventy-three of eighty-nine seats, Labor holding nine, Independents holding four, and a political party set up by Federal MP Bob Katter holding three.  Various opinion polls indicated a swing of 11-12 per cent against the LNP.

I must point out that when these opinion polls indicate swings, they usually assume uniform swings – in other words, all seats held by margins on or under the indicated swing will change hands.  But election swings aren’t always uniform.  Often seats on margins above the uniform swing fall, and seats on margins below it don’t fall.  So it’s necessary to consider unique factors determining whether or not seats might change hands.  For the Queensland election, while polls indicated a swing of 11-12 per cent against the LNP, I tipped a larger swing in the Brisbane area and a smaller swing outside it.

With the pre-election standings at 73-9-4-3, in the order of the LNP and Labor and Independents and Katter’s mob, I’d tipped this order to finish at 40-44-2-3, which meant Labor winning the most seats but not enough for a majority.  In the end, Labor won forty-four seats and the LNP won forty-two, while an Independent and two MPs from Katter’s mob held the balance of power with the other three seats.  I got the Labor numbers right, but the LNP won two more seats than I’d predicted, at the expense of another Independent and Katter’s mob.  Seven of my tips proved wrong.

I’d tipped Katter’s mob to win Nanango, near the Toowoomba region west of Brisbane.  Here I thought that angst over mining and gas extraction on productive farmland would cost the LNP this seat, and Katter’s mob had a well-known candidate in Ray Hopper running, but the LNP held it.  Further north, I’d tipped Independent candidate and former MP Chris Foley to win Maryborough.  Because voters deserting the LNP weren’t strictly warming to Labor, I’d felt that it could fall to a known quantity like Foley, who’d held the seat since 2003 before losing to the LNP in 2012, but Labor won it.

Another LNP loss was Bundaberg, a bit further north.  This seat was well above the range of the predicted swing, so I’d didn’t tip Labor to win it.  Nor did I tip Labor to win the Brisbane seat of Springwood from the LNP.  Even though I’d tipped a bigger swing to Labor in Brisbane than elsewhere, Springwood was well above that range.

But the LNP held the Brisbane seats of Mansfield and Everton – both were within the uniform swing range that I’d tipped in Brisbane, so I’d expected Labor to win them.  Outside Brisbane, the LNP held Toowoomba North, which I’d tipped Labor to win, because it was within the uniform swing range, and because I felt that Labor candidate Kerry Shine would carry extra credibility as the local MP here from 2001 until being defeated in 2012.

Ironically, the logic behind my incorrect tip in Toowoomba North was behind my tip for the LNP to hold four other seats within the uniform swing range.  The LNP held Burleigh and Broadwater and Albert in the south-east, and Whitsunday in the north, all of which Labor had won in 2001 and held until 2012.  I’d felt that the Labor people defeated in those seats in 2012 were effective people whom Labor couldn’t win without, and it turned out as such.

Summing up, the Queensland election resulted in a massive turnaround.  The LNP had won in 2012 with a majority big enough to assure it of maybe three terms in office.  Labor had been discredited and reduced to a tiny rump.  But so controversial was the LNP that it lost voters’ trust greatly in under three years, and now Labor has retaken office.  Politics rarely saw a turnaround this big.