New England’s nasty battle of flawed men

17 April 2016

 

The retirement of a veteran National ahead of a state election in New South Wales in 1991 set in train a memorable political career.  But nobody would’ve known it at the time.

The Nationals had to hold a preselection vote, to choose someone to succeed the retiring National, Noel Park, who’d held the seat of Tamworth for years.  Although a successor to Park was chosen, a rival beaten for preselection ended up running as an Independent against that chosen National in Tamworth at that 1991 election.  And the rival, named Tony Windsor, won the seat.

Windsor immediately attracted media attention after this, albeit not of his making.  He and another three Independents found themselves holding the balance of power in the NSW Parliament, after the election, against expectations, produced a hung result.

The election cost Premier Nick Greiner his parliamentary majority, and he could only govern with Independent support.  He initially needed only one crossbench vote, and Windsor provided it.  But the loss of a seat in a by-election later left Greiner reliant on more crossbench votes, and he ultimately resigned after a scandal surrounding a former minister.  Meanwhile, Windsor went on to hold Tamworth at elections in 1995 and 1999, winning a large majority of the primary vote there in 1999.

Two years later, widespread rural dissatisfaction with the Nationals prompted Windsor to run for Federal Parliament, and he won the seat of New England, which overlapped much of his old Tamworth seat.  Immensely popular, he held it at the next three Federal elections, the last of them in 2010, but the years following the 2010 election left his reputation somewhat tarnished.

Before the election, the Labor Party had dumped Kevin Rudd as leader and Prime Minister in a surprise coup, and installed Julia Gillard in the top job.  Rudd had led Labor to victory in 2007 and had been very popular among voters, but various dramas sent his popularity plunging and Labor MPs suddenly dumped him.  Anger over this cost Labor its majority at the election, and left Windsor and other crossbenchers with the balance of power.  Despite holding a seat where most voters would’ve preferred the Liberal-National Coalition over Labor, Windsor chose to support Gillard, whom he found more tolerable than Coalition leader Tony Abbott, and Labor was able to continue in office.  Windsor also had little regard for well-known National Barnaby Joyce, and he said as much.

Abbott and the Coalition, and their media cheer squad, subsequently waged a relentless stop-at-nothing war against the Independents, as well as Labor, to try shaming the Independents into tipping Labor out of office.  The Coalition was particularly peeved at Windsor, and ahead of a Federal election in 2013, Joyce chose to leave the Senate, where he’d been since 2005, in order to run against Windsor in New England.

But just before the 2013 election was called, Windsor chose to leave Parliament.  Although he apparently wasn’t in good health when he announced his departure, many people accused him of running away to avoid the wrath of his constituents for backing Labor instead of the Coalition after the 2010 election.

Had Windsor chosen to stay and fight, I suspect that he might’ve beaten Joyce, for reasons that I’ll explain later, and the battle would’ve been nasty.  In the end, with Windsor out of the picture, Joyce unsurprisingly won New England with ease, and the Coalition won the 2013 election.  But three years later, it looks like the nasty battle avoided in 2013 might now happen at the next election, because of what’s happened since.

The issue of mining on prime farmland, which angers many voters in NSW and Queensland, has prompted Windsor to make a comeback in New England, pitting him against Joyce, who now leads the Nationals following the retirement of Warren Truss.  So this coming election will feature New England’s nasty battle of two well-known men, and flawed men at that.

Joyce was a well-known maverick and rogue when only a backbench MP, freely speaking his mind and voting as he saw fit, even if the Nationals or Liberals hated it.  But when he went to the Coalition frontbench, he lost much freedom.  While backbench Liberals and Nationals can vote as they see fit, their frontbenchers must support positions taken by a majority of them.  And Joyce, as a National surrounded by Liberals, many with little or no understanding of the bush, can’t vote on principle unless most Liberals agree with him.

He can groan loudly about mining on prime farmland, or other issues, but if most Liberals want something done, he must toe their line.  He’s now a flawed politician.

Many people also consider Windsor flawed, after he supported Gillard and Labor.  But they forget that he voted against Gillard and Labor at times, including over abolition of a building industry authority, which the Coalition now seeks to revive.  Unlike Joyce, Windsor remains free to act on principle.

Flaws surround both Joyce and Windsor.  But I just don’t see mining on prime farmland, or any other issue, as triggering enough anger all over New England to ultimately bring Joyce down.  Windsor will probably suffer his first loss since that Tamworth preselection vote ahead of the 1991 NSW election.  The battle between those two men, whatever their flaws, will nevertheless be watched keenly.

 

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.

 

Significance of some issues overstated at election time

16 August 2015

This month marks five years since Australians woke up in limbo, after a Federal election which had failed to produce a clear winner.  With the Labor Government of Prime Minister Julia Gillard and the Liberal-National Coalition Opposition led by Tony Abbott both falling a few seats short of winning the election of August 2010 outright, people had to contend with a hung parliament for the first time since the 1940s.  And some people would argue that the Australian political scene has never been the same since then.

After Gillard somehow secured a majority with the support of crossbench Independents and the Greens, who’d won a seat in the House of Representatives and enough seats to hold the balance of power in the Senate, Abbott engaged relentlessly in a campaign of negativity and attacks, to try to convince the crossbenchers to withdraw their support for Gillard and put Labor out of office.  Despite Abbott’s ferocious negativity, Labor managed to govern with crossbench support for three years, until the next election came around its expected time, but Abbott expectedly won the election easily.  Aggrieved at how Abbott became Prime Minister after years of attacks and negativity, Labor has repeated Abbott’s tactics from the Opposition benches, without really inspiring anyone.

What ultimately irked me personally about the 2010 election was Gillard’s promise to fund the missing link of a railway project in northern Sydney.  This shouldn’t really have been for Gillard to get involved in, because responsibility for public transport projects such as railways is normally for state governments.  At that time, Labor was governing in New South Wales, but despite promising a new railway link for northern Sydney and building half of it, paranoia about the cost of building the link had spooked Labor into putting the other half, from Epping to Parramatta, off indefinitely.  So when Gillard suddenly offered funds to build the Epping-Parramatta rail link, it was seen as an attempt to bribe, or “pork-barrel” in political terms, voters in a marginal Labor seat in northern Sydney.  I was annoyed because I’ve long believed this railway to be essential for luring commuters out of their cars – now it’s seen as a joke.

In a sense, this questionable promise by Gillard showed how insignificant public transport would seem in voters’ minds at election time.  Having followed elections for years, I’ve seen few opinion polls suggesting that concerns about public transport would sway voters’ minds.  Strangely, however, the perceived need for more roads and motorways to reduce traffic congestion hasn’t always seemed significant to voters either.  I suspect that transport generally doesn’t register as a high priority for voters at election time, but it’s not the only issue to appear big at election time and end up with its importance looking to be overstated.

More recently, I’ve come to conclude that, despite much media hype, mining and coal seam gas extraction on prime farmland aren’t as significant at election time as they seem.  This year there have been elections in both Queensland and NSW, where there’s been much noise about those issues, but the noise has changed little.  Apart from the loss by the Nationals of one seat to the Greens in northern NSW, neither state has seen other seats change hands because of mining or coal seam gas.

In the Darling Downs region around Toowoomba in Queensland, you’d have thought that the desecration of prime farmland was going to cost the Liberal National Party seats over recent years.  Yet the LNP has won every seat in that region over the last two elections.  Not even the vocal presence of radio broadcaster and mining critic Alan Jones has prevented the LNP from winning seats there.

And there have been other instances when the significance of some issues was overstated at election time.  The forced amalgamation of two local councils in inner Sydney, about fifteen years ago, was thought likely to see seats in that area change hands at the next state election – in the end, nothing happened.  And after questions were raised about the handling of bushfires by ACT authorities in the 2003 Canberra bushfires, I’d thought that ACT voters would revolt against the Labor Government there – yet at the next election in the ACT Labor actually gained a seat and a parliamentary majority, having governed with crossbench support before the election.

These instances show how the media can overstate the importance of some issues.  Maybe voters don’t always think as they might be expected to.  Media hype can sometimes end up meaningless.