Darling Downs champion yet to be seen

28 November 2016


The best part of a decade has passed since I first heard about the issue of mining on prime farmland.  I’m not from a rural region, but I’ve come to regard this issue as really serious, as far as food security goes.

Initially I heard about how some of Australia’s best farmland was under threat from mining, and from coal seam gas.  In those days there was a boom happening as far as minerals and energy were concerned, and mines and gas sites were appearing in lots of places all over the country.  At first I didn’t think too much of them, until I heard about what mines and gas could do to the surrounding land.  It was worrying to think that extraction of various minerals could do major, if not permanent, damage to land where farms have flourished for generations.  Nowadays it’s an issue that generates discussion even in big cities well away from the regions.

However, the issue of mining on prime farmland doesn’t seem to have made a big impact on elections or politics.  Admittedly, some politicians have taken stands on protecting our best farmland from the threat of mines and gas, but there doesn’t seem to have been much of a difference made.

Nowhere would this seem truer than in the Darling Downs, a rich agricultural region in southern Queensland, taking in the city of Toowoomba and surrounding areas to the west of Brisbane.  The threat to quality farmland from mines and gas has generated much attention over the years.  But in political terms, it hasn’t resulted in much, as least as far as general elections go.

Over the last five years or so, voters in the Darling Downs have been given plenty of chances to express their true feelings on what’s been happening to their farmland.  But when you look at the results of elections, both at national and state levels, you’d probably be forgiven for wondering what the fuss was about.  The Liberal National Party, long accused of being closer to mining and gas companies than to farmers, has held every parliamentary seat in this region since 2012.  If voters were as worried about losing their farmland to mines and gas as some believed, the LNP wouldn’t hold a single seat.

It’s almost like voters have, reluctantly, stuck with the LNP because of an absence of credible alternatives.  Some alternatives have popped up, but they’ve never appealed to enough voters to make a big difference.

There might well be credible alternatives in other parts of rural Australia, standing up for farmers whose land is in the sights of mining and gas companies.  There might well be out there somewhere a Darling Downs champion, for want of a better term.  But from what I can gather, such a person is yet to be seen.

Five years of elections seem to confirm this.  Back in 2012, when Queenslanders cast their votes at a state election which the LNP won comprehensively, many unhappy voters in the Darling Downs threw their support behind a political party set up by Federal politician Bob Katter.  But despite strong showings, Katter’s party didn’t come close to winning seats in the Darling Downs, all of which went to the LNP.  A year later, at a Federal election, the LNP comfortably held the seat of Groom, which takes in much of the Darling Downs, even though sitting MP Ian Macfarlane was thought to be much closer to mining companies than to the region’s farmers.  Queenslanders next went to the polls in early 2015, and even though the LNP lost office, it again won all Darling Downs seats, while the support for Katter’s party collapsed.

And in July this year, Darling Downs voters had two chances to show what they thought of what was happening to their farmland.

First came a Federal election, at which Macfarlane was retiring after nearly two decades of holding Groom.  If ever there’d been a chance for an alternative voice to be heard, and perhaps really shake the LNP, this was it.  But the LNP comfortably held Groom, with the successful candidate having left State Parliament to run.  This in turn triggered a by-election for a Toowoomba seat in State Parliament, just weeks later.  But despite the fact that voters have often used by-elections to “send a message” to governments and their rivals, the LNP won this by-election fairly comfortably.

The threat to quality farmland from mines and gas really should be costing the LNP seats in the Darling Downs region, both at national and state level.  But it happens to be holding every seat, probably because of a lack of credible alternatives.  The defence of quality farmland will continue, but the lack of alternative voices makes this battle harder.



Barilaro has his work cut out

19 November 2016


The result of last weekend’s by-election in Orange in central New South Wales mightn’t have been finalised as yet.  But it already has one major victim.

One of three seats holding by-elections to fill vacant seats in State Parliament, Orange was seen as a test for the Liberal-National Coalition, which has been governing in NSW since 2011.  Lately, rural voters have been angry about various issues, such as enforced mergers of local councils and a ban on greyhound racing.  Both the council and greyhound issues were seen as the work of the Liberals, who dominate the Nationals in the Coalition.

Because of the need for Coalition unity, the largely rural Nationals must often give ground to the largely urban Liberals.  This can be tested when issues have a city-country divide, meaning a difference of opinion between city slickers and rural folk.  Although there’s been anger in both rural and urban areas over local councils, the ban on greyhound racing hasn’t angered urban voters as much as rural voters, and of course many of the latter live in the Orange area, which the Nationals have represented for decades without much trouble – at least until last weekend.

At the by-election last weekend, voters in Orange really let the Nationals have it, to the point where the seat might change hands.

For the record, besides Orange, the two other areas having by-elections last weekend were Canterbury and Wollongong, and the Labor Party won both of those, with the Coalition opting against running in either.

Although not yet final, the result in Orange has triggered the downfall of Troy Grant, who resigned as leader of the Nationals, and therefore as Deputy Premier as well, earlier this week.  It was thought that, had there been a big swing against the Nationals in Orange, Grant might’ve faced a leadership challenge.  And indeed there was a big swing in Orange.  But Grant resigned almost at once, although he might’ve been dumped if he didn’t go first.

Being Deputy Premier comes automatically for the leader of the Nationals, whoever that is, when the Coalition governs in NSW.  This is because the Liberals outnumber, and sometimes dominate, the Nationals in the Coalition.  The same idea applies when the Coalition governs at Federal level – this is why Barnaby Joyce, currently the leader of the Nationals in Federal Parliament, is also Deputy Prime Minister in the Turnbull Coalition Government, and why people from Tim Fischer to Warren Truss have both led the Nationals and been Deputy Prime Minister in Coalition governments at the same time in recent decades.

Mind you, this doesn’t happen after the Coalition loses elections.  When out of office, the Liberals and Nationals go their separate ways, to some extent.  This is why, between the aftermath of the Federal Coalition’s loss of office in 2007 and its return to office in 2013, while the Opposition Leader was always a Liberal, the Deputy Opposition Leader was a Liberal rather than a National.  In this case, holding this role from 2007 to 2013 was Julie Bishop, who’s been deputy leader of the Liberals since that 2007 loss.  This also applies when the NSW Coalition is out of office, as it was from 1995 to 2011.

In the meantime, with Grant resigning as leader of the Nationals, the newly-elected leader is John Barilaro, who holds the seat of Monaro, in the state’s south.  The Nationals also have a new deputy leader, in the form of Niall Blair.

I think that Barilaro has a struggle ahead of him.  Guiding the Nationals through their current troubles is hard enough, but he’ll have another problem in holding Monaro, which hasn’t been easy to hold.  He really has his work cut out because of both the Nationals’ troubles and having to hold Monaro.

Because Monaro has frequently changed hands when governments have changed hands over many decades, it’s very much a swinging seat.  The Coalition held it for years while governing until an election in 1976, when it lost office to Labor.  And among Labor’s 1976 gains was Monaro.  Labor lost both this seat and an election to the Coalition in 1988.  The Coalition held it despite losing office at an election in 1995, and again despite losing an election in 1999.  Labor won it in 2003, two elections after winning office in 1995, and lost it to the Coalition, along with an election, in 2011.

Candidate quality can be a factor in a seat like this.  Peter Cochran won it for the Nationals in 1988, when the Coalition won office, and he held it until 1999, even though the Coalition lost office in 1995.  Although the Nationals held it with Peter Webb in 1999, Steve Whan managed to win it for Labor in 2003.  It was always a marginal seat during these years, but Whan held it despite a swing against Labor in 2007.  It fell to the Coalition in 2011, with Barilaro beating Whan, as the Coalition won office.  But Whan’s effort here might’ve prevented a bigger swing to the Coalition, as Monaro was less marginal than other Coalition gains which had been safer for Labor before.  Unsurprisingly, Whan ran again in 2015, but Barilaro was able to hold him off.

This shows how Barilaro will struggle leading the Nationals at this time.  The job of holding a seat like Monaro becomes harder when the sitting member also serves as Deputy Premier.


Queenslanders revisit the past

14 November 2016


Might Queenslanders be heading to the polls for an early election?  There was speculation earlier this year of one, although I haven’t heard more since then.  But it could happen, if Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk decides to call it early.

Barely two years have passed since the last Queensland election, in January 2015.  It saw the Labor Party return to office after a single term out, albeit only after getting support from the crossbench.  Labor had been comprehensively voted out of office at an election in March 2012, fourteen years after winning office, again with crossbench support, in June 1998.  Mind you, before 2012, Labor hadn’t lost an election in Queensland since November 1986.  Starting in 1989, Labor won eight Queensland elections in a row, the last of these elections being in 2009.  But Labor had a short stint out of office during this long period.

An election in 1995 left Labor governing with a majority of one seat in Parliament.  Early the following year, Labor lost one of its seats in a by-election, leaving both it and the Coalition deadlocked on forty-four seats each, while one Independent, Liz Cunningham, held the balance of power.  Despite coming from a regional area whose voters normally supported Labor, Cunningham gave her support to the Coalition, thus tipping Labor out of office – no governments have been tipped out of office in non-election periods since then.

Labor regained office when Queenslanders next went to the polls, in June 1998.  By then, politics had seen the rise of Pauline Hanson, who really polarised voters across the country.  But it seemed that she polarised voters in Queensland, her home state, more than anywhere else.  After forming her own political party, Hanson watched with pride as her party won eleven seats in the 1998 election in Queensland.  But the new MPs ended up leaving Hanson’s party, and Hanson herself, then a Federal MP, was later voted out.

Both Labor and the Coalition lost seats to Hanson’s party, but Labor gained seats from the Coalition, to the point of ending up one seat short of a majority, and was able to return to office with the support of a newly-elected Independent, Peter Wellington, even though Wellington held a seat in a region where voters favoured the Coalition.

Interestingly, although both Cunningham and Wellington might’ve been seen as betraying their constituents, in giving support to governments of the wrong “colour”, it seemed like their constituents didn’t actually mind.  Both Independents kept holding their seats at one election after another.  Cunningham retired in 2015, but Wellington’s still there now.

After initially needing crossbench support to take office in 1998, Labor went on to win big majorities at the next four elections.  But by 2012, Labor had become incompetent and scandal-plagued, and voters reduced it to a mere seven seats, out of eighty-nine available, when the election came.

Some years earlier, the Liberals and Nationals in Queensland had merged, to form the Liberal National Party.  It took two elections for the LNP to win office, albeit due largely to voters really wanting to rid themselves of Labor, but after winning in 2012, the LNP went on to be immensely unpopular, and was voted out after a single term, in 2015.

At the time, nobody really expected Labor to win, and indeed not many people knew the name of the Labor leader, who was Palaszczuk.  But the 2015 election left crossbenchers holding the balance of power, and Labor got back with crossbench support.

When Hanson first arrived on the political scene in the 1990s, the Queensland Parliament had a crossbencher holding the balance of power.  An election then came, but the balance power was again in the hands of the crossbench after that election.

Two decades on, after contesting several elections without success, Hanson has returned to the political scene, and people are talking about what impact she’ll have on the next Queensland election.  And now, like then, the Queensland Parliament again has the balance of power in the hands of the crossbench.

I don’t know how many Queenslanders remember that period of the 1990s when Hanson was wreaking havoc on the political scene, given that it all happened two decades ago.  But those with long memories probably wouldn’t have expected to revisit the past, as they now look likely to do.

The next Queensland election won’t have to happen until about January 2018.  But because Queensland doesn’t have fixed parliamentary terms, like most other Australian states have, the Premier of the day can call the election at will.  How Hanson impacts on that next election remains to be seen.  There might be thoughts on whether crossbenchers will again hold the balance of power after the election, but many voters will find themselves remembering that they’ve been down that road before.


Lessons unclear in NSW by-elections

12 November 2016


From time to time voters use by-elections to “send a message” to governments, and to their rivals for that matter.  They sometimes punish one side of politics if they’re unhappy with it, by voting it out at a by-election, although often at the next general election the seat lost in the by-election goes back.

Over the years I’ve seen the major parties lose seats in by-elections, sometimes to their main rivals, and occasionally to minor parties and Independents.  For instance, I can remember the Labor Party losing a safe seat to the Greens in a by-election in the Wollongong region south of Sydney in late 2002, and I can remember the Coalition losing a safe seat to an Independent in northern Sydney’s Pittwater region in a by-election in late 2005.  Mind you, in both by-elections the major parties’ main rivals didn’t actually run, and this ended up getting alternatives elected.  I also remember by-elections costing Labor a safe seat to the Coalition in Canberra in 1995, and two seats to the Coalition in different parts of Brisbane in 2005.  In every one of these cases, however, the by-election result was reversed at the next general election.

These by-elections have come into my mind because of three by-elections happening in New South Wales today.  They’re for seats in State Parliament, and two of them are to replace sitting members who’ve gone to Federal Parliament.  However, I reckon that any lessons in these NSW by-elections will be unclear, for various reasons.

One of these by-elections is for the safe Labor seat of Wollongong, the same area where that Federal by-election of late 2002 took place.  The Coalition isn’t running in this seat, but in previous state elections Independent candidates have fared better than the Coalition, so one suspects that the Coalition wouldn’t have done that well had it chosen to run here.  Having said that, the absence of the Coalition could make Labor more vulnerable in this by-election.

The lesson from that 2002 Federal by-election, when Labor lost in the absence of the Coalition candidate, is that voters here probably either support or oppose Labor.  I suspect that a good deal of the Coalition’s support stems purely from disliking Labor, and they’d support anybody other than the Labor candidate.  In that 2002 by-election, Labor was falling out of favour with voters, and they probably just went for whatever non-Labor candidate seemed the best option available.  In this case, the by-election winner was a candidate from the Greens, and I suspect that Coalition voters here threw in their lot with the Greens, as did unhappy Labor voters.  Although Labor still finished first on primary votes, the Greens took the seat on preferences, as every other candidate seemingly directed preferences away from Labor.

Coming back to today’s state by-election in Wollongong, with the Coalition missing, its traditional supporters would probably back whatever non-Labor candidate seems best in their minds.  If Labor voters are unhappy with Labor for whatever reason, they might do the same.  As a result, Labor might be more vulnerable in this safe seat than it should be.

A similar story might loom in another of today’s by-elections, in Canterbury, in Sydney’s inner south-west.  This is also a safe Labor seat.  And again, the Coalition isn’t running in the by-election.  But with only the Greens and the Christian Democrats running against Labor, I don’t expect anything other than a Labor win.

The last of today’s by-elections is in Orange, in central NSW.  This is a safe Coalition seat, so naturally the Coalition is running.  But while the Coalition is skipping the Wollongong and Canterbury by-elections, therefore preventing a conventional Coalition-Labor contest in either of them, Labor is running in Orange, so this is the only conventional contest out of today’s three by-elections.

Although Orange is a safe Coalition seat, the Coalition is on the nose with voters to some degree.  It’s been reported that rural voters are very unhappy with the Baird Coalition Government because of forced mergers of local councils and ban on greyhound racing, one of the only forms of “entertainment” available to rural people but also an industry with many rural jobs.  This by-election is seen as a test of the Coalition’s popularity on that score.  There are many candidates running in Orange, with Labor and the Greens and others among them, so any unhappy Coalition voters have plenty of options in terms of candidates to vote for.

However, I suspect that the Coalition will still win the by-election.  I haven’t heard about any non-Coalition candidates really proving to be really popular in that neck of the woods, to the point of really troubling the Coalition.  There definitely will be a swing against the Coalition, but I suspect that it won’t be enough for a loss.

The lack of Coalition candidates in today’s three by-elections will make lessons unclear to judge.  My tip, however, is for the seats to stay as they are, with the Coalition holding Orange, and Labor holding both Wollongong and Canterbury.  Nothing seems like to change after voters have a chance to send a message of some sort.


US election circus about to end

6 November 2016


This election tragic from Australia had to “venture out” to the broader world sooner or later.  And now the time to do has come, with a presidential election to take place in the United States of America in this coming week.

You probably don’t need reminding of what this coming US election might be like.  It’s a battle between two major parties, the Democratic Party and the Republican Party, both with candidates considered unpopular.  This election will see a new person become President, be it established politician Hillary Clinton of the Democrats or larger-than-life businessman Donald Trump of the Republicans.

Clinton and Trump seek to replace Barack Obama, a Democrat, who was elected President in 2008, won a second term in 2012, and is retiring after serving two terms, the maximum allowed under American law since the 1950s.  Both candidates are controversial – Clinton is seen as very much a part of a political establishment now regarded with much dislike by Americans, and Trump is seen as a loudmouthed buffoon who offends all sorts of people.

But US election campaigns go well beyond elections themselves, which come every four years.  Right throughout an election year, if not before it, political parties have numerous people running to win support among rank-and-file members, and to be chosen as their candidate for the presidential election.  Candidates go all over America, with votes held in various states at various times, and during the year would-be candidates drop out, often due to a lack of popular support, as well as campaign funds.  These campaigns cost a fortune to undertake.  And they often see would-be candidates attacking each other, sometimes nastily, as has been happening among Republicans this year, with Trump rated a master of insults.  They seem very much like circuses, in a sense.

Although election campaigns everywhere have degrees of nastiness and even dishonesty about them, this US election circus has seen more negativity than many can remember, probably because the main contenders are widely disliked.  But at least with the election coming this week, the circus is arguably about to end.

However, the election itself isn’t as democratic to me as it might seem, even though Americans regard their country as the beacon of democracy worldwide.  In elections here you don’t need to win a majority of the nationwide vote, or even a majority of legislative seats, to win overall, like you do in other countries.  Instead, you have to win a majority of votes in a body known as the “electoral college”.  This is where things get undemocratic.

Unlike in Australia, people in America only vote for the one candidate of their choice, and amid a field of several candidates, the winner just needs more votes than any other candidate – not strictly more than every other candidate put together.  This arrangement can be called “first past the post”.

If you’re first past the post, it doesn’t matter whether you beat your rivals by a big margin or a small margin.  To illustrate this point, I’ll use numbers as “scores”, to represent percentages of the vote, rounded to the nearest whole number.

In America, it doesn’t matter if, for argument’s sake, you win 35-30 or 75-20 over your nearest rival, with the rest of the vote split among your other rivals.  Your objective is to win states, which have groups of votes in the electoral college.  States with big populations have more electoral college votes than those with small populations.  And this is where things become undemocratic.

In a big state you might win 35-30 over your nearest rival, who might win 75-20 over you in a small state nearby.  But the size of the states would give you more electoral college votes than your rival, despite fewer actual votes across both states.

There are 538 votes in the electoral college, spread across 50 states and a territory housing the national capital Washington, and you need 270 votes to win.  The biggest state is California, with 55 votes.  Following are Texas with 38, Florida and New York with 29 each, Illinois and Pennsylvania with 20, Ohio with 18, Georgia and Michigan with 16, North Carolina with 15, and New Jersey with 14.  These states together – numbering less than a dozen in all and making up less than a quarter of all states – will win you 270 votes, and thus an election, if you merely finish first in them, even with a narrow 35-30 win in each state, in which case it doesn’t matter if your nearest rival beats you 75-20 everywhere else.  In my opinion, this makes US elections rather undemocratic.

That aside, I’m tipping Clinton to win in a close contest.  At the last election, in 2012, the Democrats won 332 electoral college votes to 206.  Clinton can lose a few states, and thus groups of votes, without losing the election.  Trump needs to win several large states to close up on Clinton, and I can’t see him winning them.

Judging by various opinion polls, I see only three states changing hands.  I tip Trump to gain small Iowa and big Ohio from Clinton, but I tip him to lose big North Carolina.  And Clinton should hold battleground states like Florida, Colorado, Virginia, New Hampshire, and Pennsylvania.

The circus in the US will end with Clinton becoming President.  The long road will end to the relief of so many.