Liberal squabble aborted by ill health

30 August 2015

Few things might annoy politicians like electoral redistributions.  Necessary because of population change, these can leave politicians’ hitherto-safe seats suddenly more vulnerable to their rivals, or they can abolish seats altogether.  When these things happen, politicians sometimes play a game of musical chairs to find another seat, and sometimes they’re forced to retire prematurely.

In one redistribution of Federal electorates in the Australian Capital Territory during the 1990s, the Labor Party found itself in such trouble.  Population change in the ACT had led from the number of electorates there rising from two to three before a Federal election in 1996, at which Labor won all three electorates.  But with more change, the third electorate was subsequently abolished ahead of the next election, in 1998, and one Labor MP had to retire after being left stranded.

Another redistribution almost pitted two Liberal politicians against each other in a preselection battle ahead of a Federal election in 2001.  This came into my head when I heard about the recent death of Alby Schultz, who represented the Liberal Party in the New South Wales Parliament and then Federal Parliament.  But this particular redistribution almost made Schultz’s stint in Federal Parliament very brief.

What’s an electoral redistribution?  In political terms, it means a redrawing, or changing, of the boundaries of electorates within any given state, so as to given electorates as near as possible to an equal number of voters.  Redistributions often happen every 5-10 years.  Naturally, over time populations grow in some areas and shrink in others – right around Australia, it’s long been a case of city populations growing and rural populations shrinking.  Population change often leaves some electorates with thousands more voters than the rest, and some electorates with thousands less voters than the rest.  As a result, an electoral redistribution needs to be undertaken to correct the imbalances and ensure that all electorates have roughly the same number of voters, based not just on actual population change over time but also on predicted population change in the near future.

As an example, there was a redistribution of state electorates in New South Wales ahead of an election in March this year.  Major population growth in inner Sydney over a number of years resulted, more or less, in one urban electorate being divided into two – the existing electorate of Marrickville was abolished, and within its locality two new electorates were created, namely Newtown and Summer Hill.  On the other hand, population decline across rural NSW resulted in the three westernmost electorates in the state dropping from three to two.  The most westerly electorate, Murray-Darling, was abolished, as was neighbouring Murrumbidgee.  Another neighbouring electorate, Barwon, was enlarged to take in the northern half of the former Murray-Darling electorate, whose southern half was merged with much of the former Murrumbidgee electorate to create a new electorate named Murray.  The Nationals held all three of those former electorates, so one of them ended up running for a seat in the Upper House of Parliament at the next election, leaving the other two Nationals, both ministers, to contest Barwon and Murray.  This gives you an idea of what electoral redistributions can do to politicians.

Going back to Schultz, a redistribution almost saw him out of Federal Parliament soon after he got there.  He was first elected to State Parliament in NSW in 1988, winning the southern rural seat of Burrinjuck, and held it until 1998, when he resigned to run for Federal Parliament and won the seat of Hume, which he held until retiring in 2013.  But because of a redistribution after 1998, he was almost pitted in a fight for Liberal preselection with John Fahey.

Formerly Premier of NSW from 1992 to 1995 and in State Parliament since 1984, Fahey had left for Federal Parliament in 1996, winning the seat of Macarthur, and he became a senior minister in the Howard Government.  The redistribution after 1998 saw Macarthur lose much of its Liberal-leaning voter base to neighbouring Hume and take in many Labor-leaning areas, to the point of making it notionally a Labor-held seat. Indeed Fahey’s own home in the Southern Highlands was also moved into Hume.

So Fahey sought to leave Macarthur and run for Hume, which Schultz had won not long ago, leaving the Liberal Party with trouble over preselection.  In political terms, preselection means the choice of a person by a political party to represent it in a general election.  As a minister, Fahey had more seniority than Schultz, but Schultz wasn’t willing to make way, and he even considered leaving the Liberals.

In the end, ill health ended this preselection squabble.  Because of cancer, Fahey announced his retirement from politics in mid-2001, so the squabble with Schultz never eventuated.  With Fahey gone, Schultz went on to hold Hume for another fifteen years.

The passing of Schultz thus reminds political followers of this Liberal squabble brought about by an electoral redistribution, and only aborted by ill health.  How quaint the winds of fate must seem, as Fahey remains alive and well and doing other work away from politics.

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Significance of some issues overstated at election time

16 August 2015

This month marks five years since Australians woke up in limbo, after a Federal election which had failed to produce a clear winner.  With the Labor Government of Prime Minister Julia Gillard and the Liberal-National Coalition Opposition led by Tony Abbott both falling a few seats short of winning the election of August 2010 outright, people had to contend with a hung parliament for the first time since the 1940s.  And some people would argue that the Australian political scene has never been the same since then.

After Gillard somehow secured a majority with the support of crossbench Independents and the Greens, who’d won a seat in the House of Representatives and enough seats to hold the balance of power in the Senate, Abbott engaged relentlessly in a campaign of negativity and attacks, to try to convince the crossbenchers to withdraw their support for Gillard and put Labor out of office.  Despite Abbott’s ferocious negativity, Labor managed to govern with crossbench support for three years, until the next election came around its expected time, but Abbott expectedly won the election easily.  Aggrieved at how Abbott became Prime Minister after years of attacks and negativity, Labor has repeated Abbott’s tactics from the Opposition benches, without really inspiring anyone.

What ultimately irked me personally about the 2010 election was Gillard’s promise to fund the missing link of a railway project in northern Sydney.  This shouldn’t really have been for Gillard to get involved in, because responsibility for public transport projects such as railways is normally for state governments.  At that time, Labor was governing in New South Wales, but despite promising a new railway link for northern Sydney and building half of it, paranoia about the cost of building the link had spooked Labor into putting the other half, from Epping to Parramatta, off indefinitely.  So when Gillard suddenly offered funds to build the Epping-Parramatta rail link, it was seen as an attempt to bribe, or “pork-barrel” in political terms, voters in a marginal Labor seat in northern Sydney.  I was annoyed because I’ve long believed this railway to be essential for luring commuters out of their cars – now it’s seen as a joke.

In a sense, this questionable promise by Gillard showed how insignificant public transport would seem in voters’ minds at election time.  Having followed elections for years, I’ve seen few opinion polls suggesting that concerns about public transport would sway voters’ minds.  Strangely, however, the perceived need for more roads and motorways to reduce traffic congestion hasn’t always seemed significant to voters either.  I suspect that transport generally doesn’t register as a high priority for voters at election time, but it’s not the only issue to appear big at election time and end up with its importance looking to be overstated.

More recently, I’ve come to conclude that, despite much media hype, mining and coal seam gas extraction on prime farmland aren’t as significant at election time as they seem.  This year there have been elections in both Queensland and NSW, where there’s been much noise about those issues, but the noise has changed little.  Apart from the loss by the Nationals of one seat to the Greens in northern NSW, neither state has seen other seats change hands because of mining or coal seam gas.

In the Darling Downs region around Toowoomba in Queensland, you’d have thought that the desecration of prime farmland was going to cost the Liberal National Party seats over recent years.  Yet the LNP has won every seat in that region over the last two elections.  Not even the vocal presence of radio broadcaster and mining critic Alan Jones has prevented the LNP from winning seats there.

And there have been other instances when the significance of some issues was overstated at election time.  The forced amalgamation of two local councils in inner Sydney, about fifteen years ago, was thought likely to see seats in that area change hands at the next state election – in the end, nothing happened.  And after questions were raised about the handling of bushfires by ACT authorities in the 2003 Canberra bushfires, I’d thought that ACT voters would revolt against the Labor Government there – yet at the next election in the ACT Labor actually gained a seat and a parliamentary majority, having governed with crossbench support before the election.

These instances show how the media can overstate the importance of some issues.  Maybe voters don’t always think as they might be expected to.  Media hype can sometimes end up meaningless.