Regret likely after Dickson’s switch

30 January 2017


Defections in politics have often killed careers off.  Those who’ve followed politics and elections for longer than me would know of countless instances of politicians, mainly from major political parties, defecting to minor parties or just quitting to sit as Independents, only to lose their seats when elections have come.  When politicians defect, they’re either having to stand on their own two political feet or joining mobs with weaker organisations than what they leave behind.

I can remember a few politicians leaving major parties for minor parties, and losing at subsequent elections.  I even remember such politicians serving as Independents between switches, and ultimately becoming Independents again.

Such thoughts came into my head earlier this month, when I heard about the defection of Queensland politician Steve Dickson to the mob of controversial figure Pauline Hanson.

Dickson is a former minister who’s been in State Parliament for many years, representing the Liberal National Party in a region on the Sunshine Coast, north of Brisbane.  But this month he announced that he was joining Hanson’s mob, amid preparations for a general election due next year, although it’s been suggested that the election might actually take place this year.

Having shaken national politics after winning a Senate seat in a Federal election last year, thus ending a long run of unsuccessful election runs which followed a brief period in Federal Parliament in the 1990s, Hanson clearly intends to shake the political scene more.

There are echoes of her parliamentary stint from the 1990s in her presence on the scene now.  Back then, she had enough support across the country, and in Queensland in particular, to form her own political party, which ended up winning seats at an election in that state in 1998.  But Hanson’s party imploded after that, with all bar a few MPs from 1998 coming back at the next election, in 2001.  The party continued to exist in name, but was largely ignored.  By then, Hanson had lost her seat in Federal Parliament, and tried numerous times to win seats at different elections, before her success last year.

Her parliamentary return has revived interest in her and her mob, and people are talking about what impact she’ll have on elections in various states, especially Queensland.

And the defection of Dickson will help her, to some extent, because she’s now got a voice in the Queensland Parliament, which is already fragile because crossbenchers hold the balance of power there.  The Labor Party has governed in Queensland since the last election, in 2015, after obtaining crossbench support, and the LNP is trying to return to office.  Somehow, despite this fragility, Labor has managed to govern without too much trouble – and it has to govern responsibly, because even the slightest hint of improper behaviour can prompt crossbenchers to withdraw their support, thus tipping Labor out.

But will Dickson make it back to Parliament at the next election as a Hansonite, if I could describe him that way?  My suspicion is that he won’t make it back.

Support for Hanson doesn’t seem to have been overly strong in Queensland’s urbanised south-east, taking in not just Brisbane but the Gold Coast to the south of it and the Sunshine Coast to the north of it.  Hanson’s support has largely been in regional areas, and while Hansonites won a couple of seats on Brisbane’s fringes in 1998, they seemed to be in poorer areas than elsewhere.  And the Sunshine Coast, where Dickson is based, doesn’t strike me as a region of battlers, even though it has many retirees who seem very supportive of Hanson.  I think that Hanson’s mob could win seats, but not around there.

The relative lack of support for Hanson on the Sunshine Coast makes me predict regret as likely after Dickson’s switch to Hanson’s mob.  Dickson’s career will probably end as a result of his switch.  The strength of his personal vote, regardless of which banner he runs under, might be the only thing to save him when Queenslanders cast their votes.



Liberals unlikely to face dark times

27 January 2017


The political scene never really has been, or will be, short of surprises.  And nearly four decades ago, a state election in New South Wales produced results which surprised many.

Only those who have long memories and follow politics closely would know of the Labor Party winning some unlikely seats in a big election win in 1978.  After narrowly winning office in NSW at an election in 1976, Labor was able to increase its majority two years later.  Among the seats going to Labor in 1978 were Manly and Willoughby – the very seats held at the start of this month by, respectively, the man who resigned as NSW Premier and the woman now replacing him.

This isn’t to suggest that Labor could win either seat nowadays.  You’d have to be a one-eyed Labor supporter to think that.  But both seats have been vulnerable to changing hands at one time or another over the years.

Back in 1978, Neville Wran was proving very popular as Premier.  He’d been elected Labor leader after an election loss in 1973, and led Labor to victory in a close election result in 1976.  The final result wasn’t known for a little while, with almost two weeks passing before the Premier at the time, Sir Eric Willis, conceded defeat to Wran.  From there, it seemed like Wran could do no wrong.  Although he didn’t have to call the next election until 1979, he went to the polls a year early, and he won handsomely.

The election was dreadful for the Liberal Party, which didn’t seem to cope well with losing office in 1976, despite the closeness of the result and the possibility that one defection or resignation or death could potentially tip Wran out of office.  In that 1978 election, the Liberals lost many seats which wouldn’t have thought of as possible Labor gains.  Worse still, among the defeated Liberals was Opposition Leader Peter Coleman, who’d become Liberal leader less than a year earlier.

In fact the election came just months after the resignation from Parliament of Willis, who’d been Liberal leader for less than two years, thereby triggering a by-election in his old seat of Earlwood, in Sydney’s south.  Labor candidate Ken Gabb ended up winning the by-election, and would hold the seat for about a decade.  Wran might well have decided to call a general election early as a result of this by-election.

It’s worth noting that the Liberal candidate for this by-election, and indeed for the general election later in the year, was none other than Alan Jones, nowadays a controversial radio broadcaster in Sydney.

Under Wran’s leadership, Labor gained not only the seats of two Liberal leaders in Coleman and Willis, but seats including Manly and Willoughby, both in Sydney’s wealthy northern suburbs.  Nowadays you’d probably do a double-take if you were told that Labor had previously won those seats.

They didn’t stay in Labor hands for very long.  Willoughby returned to the Liberal fold at an election in 1981, but it wasn’t until 1984 that Manly returned to the Liberal fold.  Since then, only once has Willoughby come close to changing hands – this was in 2003, upon the retirement of Peter Collins, who’d regained the seat for the Liberals in 1981.  When he retired, an Independent candidate split the local vote, and the Liberals came close to losing the seat.  In the end, however, the Liberal candidate, Gladys Berejiklian, only just won, but she’s since held the seat comfortably.

But Manly has changed hands a few times since 1978.  Labor lost it to the Liberals in 1984, who in turn lost it to an Independent in 1991.  It stayed in Independent hands until 2007, when the Liberals regained the seat through Mike Baird.

History shows that Baird and Berejiklian would go on to be ministers after an election in 2011.  After a scandal brought down Barry O’Farrell as Liberal leader and Premier, it was Baird who succeeded him.  He won an election in 2015, and was immensely popular for many months.  But after some tough decisions, his popularity waned, and amid some concerns for family health, he resigned this month, with Berejiklian succeeding him.

These past events show how the unexpected happens in politics.  Years ago, the Liberals lost seats to Labor which arguably shouldn’t have fallen.  Of course, nowadays it seems that the Liberals are unlikely to face these dark times again.  But the surprising element of politics can make almost anything possible.


Danger not obvious in Ley’s seat

22 January 2017


Ministerial and parliamentary entitlements have constantly made bad names out of politicians.  There’s a blurry line between what they can and can’t claim taxpayer funds for, in terms of trips taken for work and various allowances of all sorts.  I’ve lost count of how many times they’ve ended up in news headlines because of questions over their entitlements, often referred to as lurks and perks.

I don’t need to go into details about what triggered the resignation of Federal Health Minister Sussan Ley earlier this month.  Enough has been written and said of that, and most people as such would know that she’s just another politician to have crossed some ethical line regarding lurks and perks, perceived or otherwise.  Of course, for many years, public cynicism of politicians has grown and grown, and lurks and perks have been part of the reason for that growing cynicism.  Admittedly, some politicians have taken stands against lurks and perks, but they’ve been far and few between.

Questions unsurprisingly loom over what the future holds for Ley, a senior minister in the Turnbull Government until she resigned.  Although it’s not unheard of for ministers to come back after resigning in the wake of scandals, it doesn’t appear likely that Ley will return as a minister.  Whether she remains in Federal Parliament is yet to be seen, given that she’s been there for the best part of two decades.

But I doubt that her trouble over lurks and perks will cost her as far as the next election is concerned.  Although she might retire, I can’t her seat falling into other hands – at least not at this stage.

She holds Farrer, a rural seat in southern New South Wales which has been in the hands of the Liberal Party for much of its existence.  Created in 1949, Farrer takes in the regional centre of Albury, and runs along the northern side of the Murray River, which makes up much of the state’s border with Victoria.  It’s fair to assume that a seat like Farrer would more likely be in the hands of the Nationals rather than the Liberals.

When Ley entered Federal Parliament in 2001, she won Farrer for the Liberals upon the retirement of Tim Fischer, a National, who’d held the seat since 1984.  Fischer, who was the leader of the Nationals for most of the 1990s and Deputy Prime Minister for several years, is in fact the only non-Liberal to have held Farrer since its creation.

Over time, despite the existence of the Liberal-National Coalition, there have been times when the Liberals and Nationals have run against each other in some seats – hence the existence of three-cornered contests, when you add the Labor Party to the mix.  Generally, however, they don’t run against each other where there are sitting members.  This means that the Liberals won’t run against sitting Nationals, and the Nationals won’t run against sitting Liberals.  A three-cornered contest is possible, though, when a sitting Liberal or National retires at election time.

If Ley, a Liberal MP, retires at the next election, the Nationals might field a candidate in her seat of Farrer.  But if she chooses to stay on, the Nationals won’t run against her.  In seats like Farrer, Labor has never been regarded as a threat, and only the most incredible circumstances would give Labor a chance there.

Perhaps only a well-known Independent candidate could threaten Ley in Farrer if she stays on.  Given the past success of Independents like Peter Andren and Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott, in rural seats where Labor was never really going to threaten the Coalition, Ley’s seat could fall in that category.  The next election won’t be for some time, and there’s no sign of Independents looking to threaten Ley, so if there’s any danger in Ley’s seat, it’s not obvious at the moment.  The likelihood will probably be survival for Ley in the short term.


Close strengths of the third kind

20 January 2017


Results of elections sometimes make people wonder what impact they’ll have on future elections.  And one question to come out of a Federal election last year relates to the Senate, where the Coalition Government needs support of crossbenchers to get laws passed.  The next election isn’t due until 2019, so the Government almost certainly has two more years of negotiating and persuading ahead as it seeks to implement its policies.

The Government holds only a tiny majority in the House of Representatives, which makes governing hard enough.  Having to negotiate with Senate crossbenchers makes it harder still.  We’ve seen in the past how negotiating and persuading and making deals put off many politicians, not to mention the voters.  But they have to learn to live with it somehow.

In terms of last year’s election, there were mixed fortunes for Senators generally, and for crossbenchers in particular.  Some lost their seats, but more were elected, so the number of Senate crossbenchers grew from eighteen to twenty, out of seventy-six available.  The Coalition won thirty seats, and the Labor Party won twenty-six.

As far as the Senate vote was concerned, the Coalition finished first and Labor second in every state.  But different minor players finished behind them in third.  At least in terms of merely finishing third, the Greens fared best, beaten by others in only two of six states, namely Queensland and South Australia, where Pauline Hanson and Nick Xenophon were respectively the best of the rest.

Xenophon was by far the most outstanding of the minor players, as he and his mob won about 21.8 per cent of the vote in South Australia.  More than one in five South Australians voted for him.  So strong was this vote that Xenophon had two running mates elected to the Senate on his coattails.

The Greens finished third in four states, winning about 11.2 per cent of the vote in Tasmania, 10.9 per cent in Victoria, 10.5 per cent in Western Australia, and 7.4 per cent in New South Wales.  In Queensland, it was Hanson and her mob finishing third with about 9.2 per cent of the vote.

Already you can see how astonishing the appeal of Xenophon was – at least in South Australia.  His share of the vote in that state was about twice as big as that for the next best of those finishing third elsewhere, namely for the Greens in Tasmania.

Also, the vote for Xenophon was astonishing in terms of those finishing third and fourth in each state.  In South Australia, the Greens finished fourth behind Xenophon with abour 5.9 per cent of the vote – less than a third of what Xenophon got.  In no other state was the gap between third and fourth as big as that.  Additionally, I note that the share of the vote for the Greens in South Australia was similar to that in Victoria for controversial broadcaster Derryn Hinch, who finished fourth behind the Greens in that state.  And in Tasmania, Jacqui Lambie and her mob finished fourth behind the Greens with about 8.3 per cent of the vote.

Interestingly, the Greens won a similar share of the vote across three states, and Hanson’s share of the vote in Queensland was not much smaller.  I suspect that if not for Xenophon, the vote for the Greens in South Australia would’ve been similar to what it was in other states, though it might’ve been a little bigger in Tasmania if not for Lambie.

In this context, when you look at these third players, their strengths appear similar across the states, even though they’re at different ends of the spectrum.  I’m tempted to play on a film title and describe this as a case of close strengths of the third kind.

The next election won’t involve some of these Senate crossbenchers, because of how Parliament is constituted.  It’s been decided that of each state’s twelve Senators elected last year, the first six elected will have the next election off, and will instead face the voters at the election after next, due in about 2022.  Seven crossbenchers are among those to have won enough votes to earn the next election off.  The other thirteen crossbenchers will face the voters at the next election.  Xenophon and one of his running mates, Stirling Griff, will have the next election off, as will both Hanson and Lambie, along with three of the nine Greens in the Senate.

Some in the Government will be relieved to see off more than a few crossbenchers at the next election.  But those remaining will still have to be dealt with.


More global tremors to come in 2017

8 January 2017


Lots of people would’ve regarded 2016 as a turbulent year politically.  Australia began the year with a Federal election coming, and after it came and went, the Liberal-National Coalition Government only just won.  It governs with a narrow majority in the House of Representatives, and can’t pass legislation without support from a bigger number of crossbenchers in the Senate.  But this election was only part of the year’s events.

Among the crossbenchers with whom the Coalition must at least consider dealing with is the long-derided Pauline Hanson, elected to Parliament this year after many failed attempts to win a seat over many years.  Although widely ridiculed and hated, she has much support among unhappy voters who fear losing their jobs and feel somewhat like aliens in their own country.  And they often blame political and business leaders, and immigrants, for their ills.

Despite the close election result, the Coalition managed to pass some legislation with support from enough Senate crossbenchers.  But it’s still struggling to get support to reduce public sector debt.  And it’s rumoured that some Coalition MPs might break away, because they distrust the motives and beliefs of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.  Mind you, at the moment I don’t see this or any other issues potentially bringing down Turnbull, or the Coalition, so I don’t see an election coming earlier than when it’s due, in 2019.  As such, the state of Australian politics doesn’t seem too bad.

But I can’t help wondering if 2017 will make 2016 appear less turbulent.  Notwithstanding the events in Australia, there was more turbulence elsewhere in the world in 2016.  In the context of both years, however, I expect more global tremors to come.  If you consider 2016 turbulent, politics might get rougher in 2017.

The main talking point at the end of 2016 was in the United States of America, where elected as President, against most expectations, was larger-than-life businessman and loudmouth Donald Trump, of the Republican Party.  In a presidential election in November, Trump comfortably defeated veteran politician Hillary Clinton, of the Democratic Party.  Trump was a political “outsider” running against an “insider”, and a distrusted one at that, but few tipped him to win, because of his tendency to offend and upset people everywhere, which happened a lot both before and during the election campaign.  Despite this, he won, shocking both his country and the world, and leaving many wondering how it could happen.

In US elections, presidential candidates don’t strictly need to win more votes than their rivals across the country.  They just need to win more votes than their rivals on a state-by-state basis, and ideally in bigger states.  And wins in some bigger states enabled Trump to defeat Clinton.

I watched the election on television, following the coverage of it for hours.  As a pundit, I’d tipped Trump to win two states from Clinton, namely small Iowa and big Ohio, but I’d also tipped him to lose big North Carolina to Clinton – hence a clear win for Clinton.  After many hours, Trump looked to have held North Carolina, and gained not only Iowa and Ohio but also big Florida, always a battleground state at election time.  But even with those extra states, Trump still looking like losing.

What I didn’t see coming was Trump defeating Clinton in three big states, Michigan and Pennsylvania and Wisconsin – states not won by the Republicans since the 1980s.  These states’ votes got Trump home.

It seemed like voter anger with established politicians, including Clinton, was greater than doubts about Trump.  And many backing Trump feared for their future, largely blaming business and politicians for their ills – similar to Hanson backers in Australia.

Outside the US, the other shock of 2016 occurred across the Atlantic Ocean.  It might’ve surrounded only a referendum, rather than an election, but it was still significant.

Voters in the United Kingdom were asked to choose whether to leave or remain in the European Union, which enabled people to travel and business to operate with more freedom across European countries.  This freedom also existed for immigrants from outside the EU.  Widely thought was that the UK would vote to remain in the EU.  But by a narrow majority, people in the UK voted to leave.  Like Hanson backers in Australia and Trump backers in the US, those voting for the UK to leave the EU feared for their futures, again largely blaming business and politicians for their ills.  What this does to the UK in terms of business and people’s freedom to move remains to be seen.

But if events in the UK and the US shocked the world, I tip more to come in 2017.

Similar anxieties are apparent in some European countries.  These look like featuring in elections happening in France and Germany and the Netherlands.  Two of those countries have big-name political figures who could win over lots of unhappy voters.  Although elections are coming up elsewhere in the world, these ones will be watched.

There would’ve been shocks from political events in some countries in 2016.  But more shocks from elections elsewhere in 2017 might make 2016 seem tame.  And at least they have elections, when some countries across the world have no democracy at all.  This stuff makes me, as an Australian, grateful to be in a stable country with elections held freely.