Lessons from North Sydney for minor players

27 December 2015


Both sides of politics have much to think about as a new year dawns.  With a Federal election coming next year, the Turnbull Coalition Government looks assured of victory, with the Opposition looking unelectable, at least as far as opinion polls go.  But it won’t be easy for the Liberal-National Coalition, as it’s got to make hard decisions about public spending and employment laws, among other things, even with the Labor Party hardly looking like a viable alternative.

Neither side looks like taking much out of the North Sydney by-election, which happened earlier this month.  Triggered by the resignation from Federal Parliament of former Treasurer Joe Hockey, it resulted in a fairly comfortable win for the Liberals.  There was a swing against them, but because Labor didn’t contest the by-election, conclusions weren’t so clear.

There were also more candidates contesting the by-election than had contested the seat at the last Federal election, in 2013.  As such, the vote went all over the place!  The Liberals had a swing of about 12-13 per cent against them on primary votes, and Independent candidate Stephen Ruff came second with 18-19 per cent of the vote, while the Liberals finished about 60-40 ahead of Ruff after preferences.

The big swing against the Liberals should’ve been troubling for them.  But there wasn’t really an appealing alternative candidate to North Sydney, so the swing seems less damaging.  And with more candidates running, even excluding Labor, voters can look elsewhere if they wish.

The rise in candidates contesting North Sydney made me think of a by-election in Victoria long ago.  It followed the resignation of Pat McNamara, who’d previously been leader of the Nationals and Deputy Premier in Victoria.  At a state election in 1999, McNamara won the rural seat of Benalla fairly comfortably from Labor candidate Denise Allen.  She was actually the only candidate running against McNamara.  When he resigned the following year, several candidates ran in the resulting Benalla by-election against the Nationals and Allen, who again stood for Labor.

With the Nationals out of favour in Benalla, there was a swing against them both on primary votes and after preferences, and Labor won.  However, probably due to the larger field of candidates than in the previous year’s election, Labor’s primary vote also dropped.

Benalla voters clearly had doubts about Labor, although they were unhappier with the Nationals.  It might be that at the previous year’s election, with only the Nationals and Labor to choose from, voters unhappy with both options basically made their choice by first rejecting the option that they disliked more – hardly an inspiring way to vote.  But Labor still finished first on primary votes, ahead of the Nationals, before winning the by-election on preferences, and you can’t fault that.

The Benalla by-election result back then makes me think that this month’s North Sydney by-election, had Labor run, might’ve seen swings on primary votes against the big political players.  When more candidates contest an election, voters have more choice, and if they’re unhappy they can naturally look elsewhere.

However, if there are lessons from this by-election in North Sydney, they’re really for minor players, be they minor parties or Independent candidates.  These lessons are important ahead of next year’s Federal election, especially if voters are unhappy with both the Coalition and Labor.

With Labor skipping the by-election, I’d have expected the Greens to win over people who’d otherwise voted for Labor in North Sydney.  After all, it’s a wealthy electorate with people tending to care more about issues like human rights and environmentalism, as they don’t worry about losing their jobs or their homes.  But support for the Greens barely changed, and their candidate finished behind Ruff.  Are the Greens now less strong than before?

Mind you, because the vote went all over the place, I wouldn’t strictly conclude that Ruff won over those who’d have otherwise voted for Labor.  If Ruff chooses to run as a candidate in North Sydney at the next election, would his vote from the by-election rise or fall?  With Labor having no chance of winning North Sydney, would voters unhappy with the Liberals support an alternative like Ruff?  Most North Sydney people didn’t vote for him in the by-election, so would they even consider him at the next election?

Voters usually don’t support Independents unless they feel like they really know them.  It’s not enough just to have “Independent” or the letters “I-N-D” after your name on a ballot paper.  If voters don’t feel familiar with minor players, even disliking the major parties won’t necessarily sway them.

Federal Independent MP Andrew Wilkie was widely known, as an intelligence analyst, before his election in 2010.  He’d contested several elections before finally winning a seat, and now looks like he’ll hold it for some time.  Having a high profile also helped the late Peter Andren in 1996, when he was elected as a Federal Independent MP.  He was a television newsreader in central New South Wales, so people in that region knew who he was, and he held his seat comfortably until his death.  Of course, countless Independents have lost elections despite being widely known, but being known often helps.

The lessons from North Sydney seem clear.  Minor political players in particular should heed them before the next election comes.



Crossbench negotiations won’t end soon

21 December 2015


The change in leadership in September might’ve been, at least at this stage, the best thing to have happened to the Federal Coalition of late.  With the unpopular Tony Abbott as Prime Minister, polls consistently showed the Coalition heading for a major election defeat after a single term in office.  But after Malcolm Turnbull challenged Abbott for the leadership and beat him, the Coalition’s fortunes have turned around.  Now another Coalition election win looks beyond question.

But one thing won’t change after the next election – the need for the Prime Minister, whoever it is, to negotiate with the Senate, where minor parties and Independents hold the balance of power.  Currently, the Coalition needs support from six out of eighteen Senate crossbenchers to pass legislation.  After the next election, these numbers might change, but the need for crossbench negotiations in the Senate won’t end soon.

To understand the Senate situation, it’s worth noting when the last few Federal elections have happened, in reverse order.  They’ve been held in 2013, 2010, 2007, and 2004.  The reason for noting these election years will be explained shortly.

Elections generally are for all seats in the House of Representatives and a majority of seats in the Senate.  I say “a majority” advisedly, because in theory election include half-Senate elections, meaning half of all Senate seats going up for grabs, but this isn’t totally accurate.  This is because Parliament was set up before the territories, namely the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory, even existed, let alone had representation.

Both the Northern Territory and the ACT have two Senators each, and the Coalition and the Labor Party always win those four seats.  Mind you, had Abbott still been leading, I’d have rated the Coalition’s ACT Senate seat as vulnerable, with the ACT considered less conservative than other parts of Australia, as well as less tolerant of Abbott.  But under Turnbull, the Coalition’s ACT seat looks safe.

The terms of state-based Senators end at every second election, with half of them facing voters on a rotating basis, hence the description of half-Senate elections.  Therefore the Senators who won seats at the last election, in 2013, won’t face the voters at the next election, due next year, but at the one after that, probably coming in 2019.  These Senators include the popular South Australian Independent Nick Xenophon, originally elected in 2007 before being elected again in 2013, so he’s not facing the voters next year.

The Senators who won seats at the 2010 election, the one prior to the last, will face the voters next year.  So we should note what happened with the Senate in 2010, specifically in the states.  The results back then show the Coalition now having little ground available to make up in the Senate.

The 2010 election saw mixed Senate results in the states, which have six seats each up for grabs at election time.  In Tasmania, Labor won three seats to the Coalition’s two, with the Greens winning one seat.  In Victoria, the Coalition and Labor won two seats apiece, with the Greens winning one seat, while another minor player, John Madigan, also won a seat.  In every other state, the Coalition won three seats to Labor’s two, with the Greens winning one seat.

Usually the Coalition and Labor together win five out of six available Senate seats in each state, with minor players often winning the sixth seat.  The stronger of the major parties will likely win three seats in those circumstances, though this varies from election to election and from state to state.

As such, the Coalition can’t increase its Senate numbers by much at the next election.  It’s defending three Senate seats apiece in four states, and it can only improve its numbers by one in both Victoria and Tasmania, where it won only two seats apiece.  I tip the Coalition to pick up those extra seats in those two states, but it won’t get a vote strong enough in any state to win a fourth seat, notwithstanding Turnbull’s popularity.

The Coalition will probably gain its third Victorian seat at the expense of Madigan, who snuck into the Senate on preferences in 2010.  Its third Tasmanian seat will probably come at the expense of Labor, which won three Tasmanian seats in 2010 but is now on the nose with voters.  But this would still leave the Coalition, assuming that it wins the election overall and three Senate seats in every state, needing maybe four crossbench Senate votes to pass legislation.

Turnbull’s rise has left Labor in such bad shape that it’ll probably lose ground in the Senate.  But Labor might only lose one seat in Tasmania, as it won two seats in every other state and isn’t likely to improve or worsen.

The Greens will hold most of their seats, as their vote remains quite strong across the country.  I rate them vulnerable in Queensland, where their vote seem less as in other states, but they may hold, as the major parties together hold five seats there already and no other minor players look that appealing.

Delicate Senate negotiations, with the kind of people once described by one of Turnbull’s predecessors as “unrepresentative swill”, look like continuing beyond the next election.  The rise of Turnbull as Prime Minister hasn’t made this possibility less likely as such.