By-elections say nothing of Labor

26 March 2017


The shock resignation in January of Mike Baird as Premier of New South Wales, and from State Parliament altogether, triggered a by-election for his old seat.  In the wake of his exit, one of his long-serving ministers, Jillian Skinner, also resigned from Parliament, amid speculation that she’d be dumped from the ministry, thus bringing about another by-election.  Now both by-elections will held in the coming month, in the northern Sydney seats of Manly and North Shore.

A third by-election will be held at the same time, in the seat of Gosford, to the north of Sydney.  It follows the resignation of Kathy Smith, who only entered Parliament at the last election, in March 2015, but is now battling ill health.

People argue that these by-elections will give voters a chance to state what they think of the Liberal-National Coalition, which won office in a big way in March 2011 but has since lost much of its gloss.  The Coalition then lost many seats when voters went to the polls in 2015, but it still had a comfortable majority.  However, some controversial decisions have upset voters in many parts of NSW, and late last year the Coalition lost one of its safe seats in a by-election in regional NSW as a result.  And it’s been suggested that the Coalition could face trouble as far as both Manly and North Shore are concerned.

It’s worth noting that the Labor Party, which lost office in 2011 after years of scandal but then won back a lot of lost seats in 2015, isn’t running candidates in either Manly or North Shore.  On the other hand, Labor will defend Gosford, which Smith won from the Coalition in 2015 after it’d been lost in 2011.  There’ll be a Liberal candidate in Gosford, but nobody expects that candidate to win.

When you consider the absence of Labor candidates in Manly and North Shore, and the fact that Gosford is a Labor-held seat, you can’t really see these by-elections as indicating where Labor stands with the public in NSW.  Although they’ll give a section of the public to express any anger with the Coalition in general and the Liberals in particular, they’ll say virtually nothing of the public view of Labor.

Although Manly and North Shore are considered safe for the Liberals, at least as far as running against Labor is concerned, both seats have fallen to Independents at one time or another over previous decades.  There are Independents and minor parties running in both seats, as well as in Gosford, but there doesn’t appear to be any outstanding candidate for whom people in those seats would vote if they’re unhappy with the Liberals.  Had there been any such obvious candidates, I’d rate the Liberals vulnerable.  That said, given the by-election loss last year, which was something of a surprise, I’m not totally writing off the idea of a non-Liberal win in either Manly or North Shore as such.

Mind you, it’s hard to see what a non-Liberal win in either of those seats would mean for Labor.  The presence of minor players in Parliament actually makes it harder for Labor to win the next election, which comes in 2019, although the paradox is that their presence will make it easier for the Coalition to lose.

A loss of less than ten seats would cost the Coalition its parliamentary majority at the next election, and force it to rely on crossbenchers to govern.  But Labor needs to gain almost twice as many seats in order to win a majority.

At the last election, the Coalition scored a 54-34 win over Labor in the 93-seat Lower House.  The remaining seats went to a trio of Greens and a pair of Independents.

The result meant that the Coalition would lose its majority if it lost eight seats.  But it left Labor needing to gain thirteen seats to win a majority.

So far, Labor hasn’t shown much to indicate that voters are really warming to it generally, or to Labor leader Luke Foley in particular.  The Coalition might be unpopular, but Labor isn’t really winning over unhappy voters.

This story has played out quite frequently in politics across Australia.  Voters have been unhappy with governments, but they haven’t really found inspiring alternatives who can be trusted to govern.  Two years remain before NSW voters can inspire stick with or dump the Coalition.  But there seems to be little inspiration for Labor, so any change at the next election might result from voters simply wanting any alternative to what they have at the present time.



Success of Xenophon elusive to others

18 March 2017


The phenomenal story of South Australian politician Nick Xenophon began exactly eleven years ago today.  It was on 18 March 2006 when South Australian voters went to the polls for a state election, and about one in every five voters supported Xenophon.

Admittedly, Xenophon had been elected to State Parliament during the late 1990s, but back then he’d arguably been just another politician, narrowly elected with the help of preferences from elsewhere.  From then until 2006, you’d been forgiven for ignoring him, although on various issues he’d taken stands at odds with those of the main political parties, to the point where they directed preferences away from him at election time.

With virtually everyone else directing preferences away from him, he wouldn’t have been expected back in Parliament.  As an outsider visiting SA for the first time, I knew little about him, and I took the view that he wouldn’t be back.

But SA voters decided otherwise.  And that night was the start of something incredible.

Xenophon only needed to win about 8.3 per cent of the statewide vote to hold his seat in that 2006 election.  He ended up with a vote more than twice as big, which enabled him to get a running mate elected on his coattails.  With only his principles to stand on, he was surely facing a mammoth challenge of holding his seat – or so you’d have thought.  Voters in SA clearly decided that they’d support him if they couldn’t abide other political parties, especially the main ones, namely the Labor Party and the Liberal Party.

This is why I consider Xenophon’s story to have really begun in 2006, rather than at the time of his original election to Parliament.  And events since then confirm this.

A year after Xenophon had that 2006 success, he ran for Federal Parliament, and won a Senate seat.  When he next faced the voters, in 2013, he won almost one in every four votes across SA, and came close to getting a running mate elected.  At last year’s Federal election, although support for Xenophon fell back to about one in every five votes, he held his seat again.  And because he’d formed his own political party, support for him was such that several members of his party won seats as well.

It’s true that when it comes to politicians who aren’t from major parties, they form their own political parties, thinking that support for them will lead to the people running under their “umbrella” – for want of a better term.  But it doesn’t always work out that way.

However, to some extent, Xenophon seems to be enjoying success here.   When you compare him with the likes of Pauline Hanson and Bob Katter and Clive Palmer, all of whom formed their own political parties with the thought of getting people elected on the basis of their own popularity, he looks to be doing right what they’re doing wrong.  To be fair, Hanson and Katter and Palmer all had people elected at one time or another because of their popularity, but nothing more has come of them.

In a way, the success of Xenophon has been elusive to others, although how long this situation lasts is anyone’s guess.

Hanson’s party had some success at elections, particularly in Queensland, but the elected people all fell out with Hanson after their election.  Katter’s party had a few successes in Queensland, but the party’s support base seems non-existent beyond the state’s far north and west, which Katter himself represents in Federal Parliament.  Palmer’s party won a few seats at election time in 2013, before virtually imploding.

I think that Xenophon is taking a steadier approach with his political party.  At last year’s Federal election, the party ran candidates in a few places outside SA, but they had little support.  The support for the party seems very much in SA.  Xenophon probably won’t try to win over voters in other states, unless he thinks that he might have a chance.

You can contrast Xenophon’s approach with that of Hanson, who’s constantly gone across the country to gather support, but often failing to spend enough time in places where her support is strong enough to potentially win seats.

The success of Xenophon hasn’t come easy, and nor has it come by visions of grandeur as such.  Having taken a steady approach, Xenophon and his party might succeed where others have failed.


Wild west looks like electing McGowan

11 March 2017


Lots of political eyes face west today.  They’re watching with interest a state election in Western Australia, where Colin Barnett seeks a third term as Premier, with his challenger being Mark McGowan.  Whatever the result, people will argue over whether there are any implications for the Federal Government and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

WA isn’t in good shape at the moment.  After years of riding high on a boom in the mining industry, the end of the boom has brought hard times, with both budget deficits and high unemployment causing major concern.

The Liberal Party, led by Barnett, took power in the wake of a close election result in September 2008.  They actually needed the support of crossbenchers to govern, because nobody had a parliamentary majority after the election.  And Barnett went on to gain a majority with a comfortable election win in March 2013.

Now Barnett looks like losing today, after almost nine years as Premier.  Various opinion polls suggest a swing of around 10-11 per cent against him, which is very big.  His time in office and the state of the economy will work against him.  There are also concerns about plans to privatise electricity distributor Western Power, and to build a major freight link, both of which the Labor Party, led by McGowan, will oppose.

That said, McGowan hasn’t exactly won over voters as Opposition Leader.  He was in this role when Barnett won comfortably in the 2013 election, with Labor losing plenty of seats in that.  Even though he’s remained in the leadership, many doubts have loomed over him over time – to the point where there was talk of bringing former Federal minister Stephen Smith into State Parliament to take over as Labor leader, which didn’t happen.  It seems like McGowan appears more popular simply because voters want Barnett gone.

To be fair, although opinion polls predict a big swing against Barnett and the Liberals, this will be some sort of correction to 2013.  They had a big win then because Labor was very unpopular, albeit due to factors outside WA.  Voters were very angry with Labor at the national level, when Julia Gillard was Prime Minister and had policies which made Labor unpopular.  And as State Labor leader, McGowan bore voters’ anger over Gillard.  With Gillard now gone and Labor more popular at the national level, McGowan no longer has the external factors from 2013 to worry about.  And regardless of what the opinion polls were predicting for today’s election, there was always going to be a swing back to Labor after the big swing away from it in 2013.

The other surprise factor in the election has been controversial politician Pauline Hanson, whose popularity in WA is stronger than in any other state except Queensland.  With her own political party fielding candidates, she’ll have some sort of influence on the election outcome, although her support won’t win her party more than the odd seat at today’s election.  The Liberals will swap preferences with Hanson’s candidates in places, even at the expense of the Nationals, who formed an alliance with the Liberals in the wake of the 2008 election, which enabled Barnett to take power.  Labor, on the other hand, has no tolerance of Hanson whatsoever.

Hanson’s presence gives this election a “wild” feel, on top of the poor shape of the WA economy and voter dissatisfaction with many things.  It’s fair to argue that WA might look like the wild west, and today the state looks like electing McGowan.

In terms of the last election, the result was a comfortable win for the Liberals, who won thirty-one seats out of fifty-nine in the Lower House, where governments are formed, while Labor won twenty-one seats and the Nationals won seven.  But these numbers have changed following an electoral redistribution, which came about to ensure as near as possible to an equal number of voters in each electorate.  Population changes naturally bring about electoral redistributions after elections.  This latest redistribution gives the Liberals an extra seat at the expense of Labor.  Today, Labor needs to gain ten seats to win the election outright, without needing crossbencher support to govern.

I’m tipping Labor to win thirteen seats from the Liberals, mostly in suburban Perth.  Two seats, West Swan and Collie-Preston, have Labor members but are notionally Liberal-held because of the redistribution – I tip Labor to take both seats.  My other Labor gains are Balcatta, Belmont, Forrestfield, Joondalup, Kalamunda, Morley, Mount Lawley, Perth, Southern River, Swan Hills, and Wanneroo.  This result would give Labor thirty-three seats over nineteen for the Liberals.  However, the Liberals should regain Hillarys from an Independent who’s quit the Liberals.

The Upper House will be more interesting.  Last time, the Liberals won seventeen seats out of thirty-six, ahead of eleven for Labor and five for the Nationals and two for the Greens, while the Shooters and Fishers also won a seat.  While I’m tipping some chopping and changing among the established players, I also tip one of Hanson’s candidates to win a seat here, in either the state’s south-west or the agricultural region east of Perth.

The wild west looks like turning to Labor, and this could hurt Turnbull and the Federal Liberals.  But should the result be close, the lessons might be less clear.


Possible leader lost around Gosford

5 March 2017


Politicians always come and go.  Sometimes, they go before people even notice that they’ve been there.  But occasionally you see politicians come on the scene, and others rate them as worth looking out for in future, whether as future ministers or leaders or whatever.  And then, all of a sudden, they go, for one reason or another.

This thought crossed my mind when I heard about a by-election soon to happen in the Gosford area north of Sydney.

But I’m actually making mischief here!  I don’t know if Kathy Smith, the outgoing politician responsible for this by-election, was considered someone to look out for.  Only those close to Smith would’ve known if she was one to look out for, until ill health forced her to leave the New South Wales Parliament just two years after entering it.

I was actually thinking about when voters in the Gosford area had to vote in a by-election more than thirty years ago, following the untimely death of a politician who might well have become a leader if fate hadn’t intervened so tragically – Paul Landa.

For sure, it’s only speculation to suggest that Landa might’ve ended up a leader.  But his death, from a heart attack, didn’t come long after he’d positioned himself to lead.  Given what he did before then, I’m inclined to wonder if he was a possible leader, until he was suddenly lost to politics, in late 1984.  This loss triggered a by-election around Gosford.

Landa entered the Upper House of State Parliament in 1973.  Also there at the time was a certain individual named Neville Wran.  Before the end of that year, Wran left the Upper House to run for a seat in the Lower House at a state election, and after winning that Lower House seat, he became leader of the Labor Party.

Wran led Labor to an election win, and became Premier, in May 1976.  And Landa was one of his ministers.  Despite winning only narrowly in 1976, Wran became very popular, and went on to win three more elections, before resigning in 1986.

It’s important to note that Wran couldn’t have become Labor leader, let alone Premier, if he’d still been in the Upper House.  Constitutionally, governments in New South Wales are formed in the Lower House, of which the Premier must be a member.  This is also the case in most parliaments across Australia, as well as in Federal Parliament, where the Prime Minister must be a member of the Lower House.  Although Wran came to be rated as a possible Labor leader while in the Upper House, he had to transfer to the Lower House if he was to lead.  This he duly did – and the rest is history.

As for Landa, who’d been among Wran’s minister since his 1976 election win, he made the decision to transfer to the Lower House ahead of an election which was due in late 1984, but actually came earlier that year.  It’s fair to assume that he must’ve considered himself a possible successor to Wran – otherwise, why would he have transferred?  Landa duly left the Upper House, and in that 1984 election, he won the Lower House seat of Peats, in the Gosford area.  But by year’s end, he was gone, having died of a heart attack.  A by-election was subsequently held in Peats early in 1985.

Given what happened to the Labor Party after Landa’s death, one can only wonder what the Wran Government lost when it lost Landa.  When Wran ultimately decided to resign, many of his ministers had bad reputations at the time, though one of them might well have seemed likely to succeed him.  In the end, it was a minister from the Upper House, Barrie Unsworth, who ended up succeeding Wran as Labor leader and Premier, but he had to leave the Upper House and attempt to win a seat in the Lower House in a by-election, in order to be in the job.  This he duly did, but he came close to losing the by-election.  And Labor lost office two years later.  Might this have happened under Landa?  We’ll never know that one.

But the Peats by-election in the Gosford area from long ago came back to my mind when I heard about the resignation of Smith.  As it turns out, the by-election for her old seat will happen at the same time as by-elections are happening in two other seats.  The results of these by-elections will be watched, even though one of them came about for unfortunate reasons that nobody could’ve foreseen.