Hell hath no fury like minor players scorned

23 December 2016

 

Varied have been the attitudes of major political parties in relation to minor players over time.  I use the term “minor players” to describe Independents and minor parties, the latter of which are sometimes so small that they’re called “micro-parties”.  There have been times when major parties have become comfortable with them, and times when they’ve been absolutely intolerant of them.

But when major parties become angry with minor players, or fearful of them, they try to make it as hard as possible for them to win seats at elections.  Sometimes they succeed, but at other times their efforts fail, and more minor players emerge.

You’ve probably heard a quote which goes like this – “hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.”  It means that there’s nothing as bad as a woman who’s really angry.  And when talking about a situation where lots of unhappy voters throw in their lot with minor political players, especially when they think that major political parties are trying to make seats harder to win at election time, I could play on that quote and say, “Hell hath no fury like minor players scorned”.

However, if you think that I’m talking about this year’s Federal election, and in particular the minor players in the Senate, of whom there were many before the election and then more after it, you’d be wrong.

I refer in fact to an instance, nearly two decades ago, when the major parties actually colluded to knock minor players out of the parliamentary arena, in Tasmania.

Back in 1996, twenty years ago, the Tasmanian Parliament was in a balance-of-power situation, with governments needing crossbench support to pass laws, for the second time in just a few years.  Previously the Labor Party had governed with crossbench support from 1989 to 1992, after which the Liberal Party governed in its own right for four years.  But the Liberal Government lost its majority at an election in 1996, and ended up governing with crossbench support.

In those days the Greens held the balance of power in Tasmania.  They’d emerged from debates about environmental issues, such as damming rivers and logging forests, over previous years.  And they’d later become the most powerful of minor players in Australian politics for a period of time.

In the wake of that 1996 election, the notion of needing the support of crossbenchers to govern must’ve made both the Labor and Liberal parties frustrated, or possibly scared.

A few years later, the major parties voted to reduce the size of State Parliament, with the number of seats in the House of Assembly, where governments are formed, dropping from thirty-five seats to twenty-five.  This number came into effect at an election in 1998.

The major parties presumably decided that reducing the size of Parliament was the only way to get rid of the Greens.  And at the time, their apparent act of collusion succeeded, with the Greens reduced to a single seat in the House of Assembly.  Labor ended up winning the election with fourteen seats, but one might suspect that the Liberals, who won ten seats, would’ve preferred to lose the election than end up having to get support from the Greens to govern again.  At a footnote, the new Premier of Tasmania was Jim Bacon, who’d entered Parliament only two years earlier and become Labor leader not long before that 1998 election.

But the Greens gradually came back from this 1998 setback.  At the next election, in 2002, they increased their number from one seat to four seats.  They held their four seats when Tasmanians next voted, in 2006.  And in 2010, they gained a fifth seat and ended up with the balance of power once more.

Although the Liberals went on to comfortably win the next election, in 2010, the ability of the Greens to come back after being ganged on shouldn’t be forgotten.  They clearly embody issues that many Tasmanians want addressed, even if the major parties don’t want to talk about them.

Minor players can be regarded as embodying issues that major parties want to ignore, as long as enough voters care.  Major parties may try to freeze them out, but they do so at their own peril, as history has shown.

 

Ghosts from 1998 with Hanson’s return

19 December 2016

 

The rise of Pauline Hanson really shook Australian politics in the 1990s.  Although merely one newly-elected Federal MP at a time when the Liberal-National Coalition had a huge parliamentary majority, she said things that drew both support and criticism from all over the country – to the point where she seemed to setting the political agenda.  The Coalition was somewhat split over how to respond to her, but the Labor Party absolutely refused to tolerate her, even she shared the old-fashioned beliefs of some Labor people in protecting jobs in manufacturing from cheaper imports, among other things.

Hanson was in Federal Parliament for only one term before losing her seat, and over the next two decades she tried, time and again, to win seats at numerous elections.  People stopped taking her seriously after a while, but she never gave up, and this year she made it back, shocking the political establishment – again.

But going back to her first period in Parliament, her high point might well have been June 1998.  By then she’d set up her own political party, and had candidates running in a state election in her home state of Queensland.  Although not a candidate herself, she had quite an influence on that Queensland election.  Candidates from her party ended up winning eleven seats, out of eighty-nine, in State Parliament.

I’m inclined to argue that ghosts from that election in 1998 surround the fortunes of not just Hanson but the major political parties as well.  Hanson’s party effectively imploded in the following years, and those eleven MPs in Queensland ended up leaving, with two of them making it back as Independents.  But Hanson effectively split the Coalition, and she caused some problems from Labor, because many traditional Labor voters actually liked Hanson, even though Labor MPs wouldn’t tolerate her.

The troubles for the Coalition, which in Queensland had the Nationals dominating the Liberals while the Liberals dominated the Nationals elsewhere in Australia, stemmed from a divide between urban voters who couldn’t abide her and rural voters who were largely attracted to her.  Indeed in that 1998 election in Queensland, the Coalition chose to direct preferences to Hanson’s candidates ahead of Labor, and this was partly to blame for the Coalition’s troubles in relation to her.  Labor declared that Hanson’s candidates would be put last at election time, but countless Labor voters ignored this and either voted for them or directed preferences to them.

The Hansonites won six seats from Labor, and five from the Nationals.  To offset the losses to the Hansonites, Labor won six seats from the Liberals, one of which was a seat lost in a by-election two years earlier.  The Nationals also lost a seat to an Independent, namely Peter Wellington.  With neither Labor nor the Coalition having the numbers to govern alone, Labor managed to take office with the support of Wellington, which was enough because Labor had forty-four seats – one seat less than needed for a majority.

It was argued that Labor won seats from the Liberals because urban voters were angry with the Coalition’s decision to direct preferences to the Hansonites.  But I’m not convinced that this was the case, at least considering which seats Labor won from the Liberals.

Labor’s gains from the Liberals were Barron River, Greenslopes, Mansfield, Mount Ommaney, Mundingburra, and Springwood.  Barron River was near Cairns, Mundingburra was in the Townsville region, and the others seats were in Brisbane.

But the Liberals hadn’t held these seats for long.  Apart from Mundingburra, these were seats which Labor lost to the Liberals at the previous election, in 1995.  A year later, Labor lost Mundingburra to the Liberals in a by-election.  In other words, Labor’s gains from the Liberals in 1998 amounted to little more than a reversal of seats lost to the Liberals one election earlier.  If Labor in 1998 had won seats which the Liberals had held prior to the 1995 election, I’d believe the idea of Labor gaining from urban Liberal voters’ anger over Hanson – but that didn’t happen.

Mind you, it was in later years when Queensland’s urban voters revolted against the Coalition’s directing of preferences to Hanson’s candidates.  While the Liberals were against doing so, the Nationals were divided over it, and Labor went on to score a massive election win in 2001.

These ghosts from 1998 come into my mind when considering the prospect for the next Queensland election, especially with Hanson’s return to the political stage.  The next Queensland election might happen next year.  The power of Hanson will go under the spotlight once more.

 

Close call for Oakeshott raises eyebrows

16 December 2016

 

Lots of people probably breathed a sigh of relief on the first Saturday night of July this year, as results came in for a Federal election that day.  Although the election was too close to call on the night, and took a number of days to produce a clear result, albeit a narrow one, many people were worried about results in two particular seats during the election campaign, and only when the results became clear did they settle down.

One seat making people uneasy was New England, in northern New South Wales, where Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce faced a challenge from a former Independent MP of some repute.  The former Independent, Tony Windsor, had held New England for about a decade before retiring in 2013, and had previously sat in State Parliament for years before then, but decided to come out of retirement because of local concerns about mining on prime farmland, among other things.  As an observer, I didn’t believe that Windsor would win, because he’d upset many people when he chose to support the Labor Party while holding the balance of power in Federal Parliament from 2010 to 2013 – being in a rural seat, he’d have been expected to support the Liberal-National Coalition in a balance-of-power situation, where neither Labor nor the Coalition had a parliamentary majority and the ability to govern alone.  When he retired, he looked like he was running away to escape the anger of voters.  It also looked to me that, for this year’s election, there was more support for him outside New England than inside it, with that support probably coming from people who admired him for opting against supporting the Coalition in 2010, when the polarising Tony Abbott led the Coalition.  These were my reasons for doubting that Windsor would beat Joyce.  And indeed Joyce won pretty comfortably.

But the other seat worrying people in that Federal election in July was Cowper, on the northern NSW coast.  Standing in that seat was another former Independent MP who came out of retirement to run for the seat.  This Independent sat with Windsor on the crossbench during those balance-of-power years in Federal Parliament, and had also upset many people in choosing to support Labor instead of the Coalition in 2010, before retiring in 2013, supposedly to escape the anger of voters.  With those things in mind, this Independent, who didn’t choose to run until the last possible moment, shouldn’t have been in with a chance of coming back – but the election results came uncomfortably close to proving this assumption wrong.  The name of this Independent was Rob Oakeshott.

How could this happen?  Oakeshott copped much flak for supporting Labor instead of the Coalition while holding the balance of power from 2010 to 2013, just as Windsor did.  He looked like something of a coward when he retired, just as Windsor did.  And his last-minute decision to contest this year’s election looked a lot like the action of a person trying to make mischief.  Nobody would’ve given him a chance.  Yet he came within striking distance of winning the seat of Cowper – in fact, he came closer to beating the sitting MP, Luke Hartsuyker, than Windsor came to beating Joyce.  He mightn’t have won, but he certainly left many people unsettled.

I’ve lost count of the number of times in politics when the unexpected has happened.  To be fair, long-time political junkies should be used to expecting the unexpected.  But even they witness or hear things from time to time which raise more than a few eyebrows.  And if I had to pick eyebrow-raising moments from this year, the close call for Oakeshott was one of them.

Oakeshott had held the seat of Lyne, next to Cowper, before retiring in 2013.  When he decided to contest this year’s election, he ran for Cowper, because his support base in Port Macquarie was moved into Cowper in electoral redistributions.  People in Port Macquarie probably knew him better than elsewhere.

Given his reputation, and the anger stemming from his decision to support Labor in 2010, as well as his last-minute decision to run, he shouldn’t have been in with a chance of winning Cowper.  Yet despite winning just over a quarter of the primary vote in Cowper, he pushed Hartsuyker more than Labor could have done.  Hartsuyker ended up holding his seat by a margin of about 4.6 per cent after preferences.  If Oakeshott hadn’t run, official election results suggest a margin of about 12.9 per cent over Labor for Hartsuyker.

The close call for Oakeshott suggests greater anger with the Coalition among voters on the northern NSW coast than otherwise thought.  It’s a region where voters traditionally support the Coalition, and non-Coalition voters end up supporting Labor because they have nowhere else to go.  Oakeshott clearly won lots of those non-Coalition voters, and probably won over many who stick with the Coalition because of disliking Labor.  I doubt that Oakeshott would win if he runs again.  But the closeness of his run this year would’ve raised eyebrows and made the critics think hard about why it happened.

 

Nationals juiced in Orange as worse looms

5 December 2016

 

The next state election in New South Wales might be more than two years away.  It’s fixed for March 2019.  But I’m already prepared to tip that the election will see a new person as Deputy Premier, regardless of who wins.

I make this tip after recent events, including a by-election for the seat of Orange, in the central region of the state.  The by-election triggered a leadership change.  Although there’s a lot of prestige in leadership for politicians, it doesn’t always ensure local success at election time.  And there are people who’ll tell you as much.

John Howard was one such person for whom leadership wasn’t necessarily a guarantee of success at a local level.  You don’t need to remind the Liberal Party of that.  Despite many years as Liberal leader, including eleven as Prime Minister, Howard lost his own seat as well as a general election in 2007 – it was only the second time in Australian history that the Prime Minister of the day was among MPs to lose their seats in a general election, the first time being in 1929.  Nearly a decade after departing politics in such an unceremonious manner, Howard remains widely respected among both MPs in the Liberal-National Coalition and their supporters.  And to this day, many Liberals in particular are still bitter over Howard’s loss of both the 2007 election and his own seat.

Similarly, the prestige of leadership didn’t save Charles Blunt in his own seat at a Federal election in 1990.  Blunt had become leader of the Nationals the previous year, while the Coalition was battling to return to office for the first time since 1983.  The Coalition ended up falling just short, but Blunt was among several Coalition MPs who lost their seats.  If he’d held his seat and the Coalition had won the 1990 election, he’d almost certainly have become Deputy Prime Minister.

You might wonder how the fate of both Howard and Blunt matters in relation to the state by-election in Orange, which the Nationals narrowly lost.  The answer is the difficulty confronting John Barilaro, who became leader of the Nationals after the resignation of Troy Grant in the wake of the by-election.

The Nationals held Orange very comfortably for decades until the by-election, which took place last month.  With voters across rural NSW angry about issues such as the merging of local councils and a ban on greyhound racing, a revolt was predicted in Orange, and it came in a big way.  Support for the Nationals halved from what it was at the last general election, in 2015, to less than a third of the vote, although they were still ahead of their rivals.  In the end, preferences ended up narrowly electing a candidate fighting for shooters and fishers and farmers – this candidate finished ahead of the Nationals by less than a hundred votes.

You could argue that the Nationals were juiced in Orange, if you’ll pardon the pun – even though it mightn’t be that funny because the Orange region isn’t renowned for growing citrus fruits like oranges!  But I think that the backlash against the Nationals in Orange might’ve been just a start, as worse arguably looms in the years ahead.

The problem is that Barilaro now leads the Nationals while defending a marginal seat, namely Monaro, in the state’s south.  Becoming leader of the Nationals automatically makes Barilaro Deputy Premier, as happens when the Coalition governs in NSW.  But Monaro has been a swinging seat for several decades, going with governments at all except two elections during that time.  And with the Nationals holding it by a margin of about 2.5 per cent over the Labor Party, Barilaro already has a tricky job in holding his own seat.

Despite having prestige, leadership can bring pressures if politicians have to defend marginal seats.  In the case of Monaro, its history makes it very much a “litmus test” seat at election time, meaning that whichever way voters here go, voters in other marginal seats are also likely to go.

How Barilaro juggles leadership with his marginal seat remains to be seen.  The problems shown in the Orange by-election imply tough times for the Nationals, unless there’s a swing back to the Coalition in the years ahead.  While a year might be a long time in politics, I can’t see too much changing in terms of what’s troubling the Nationals at the moment.  The road seems to continually get harder for Barilaro as time passes.