Turnbull set to make it home

2 July 2016

 

Busy days and a twisty campaign for the 2016 Federal election have kept me away from commenting on it of late.  And today the campaign has come to its end, with Australians voting whether to continue with the Liberal-National Coalition Government or change direction.

Having looked at the last opinion polls ahead of voting, I’m predicting a swing of 3-4 per cent against the Coalition nationwide, but it looks like Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull will lead the Coalition to a narrow win in the House of Representatives.  Swings aren’t always uniform at election time, meaning that some seats within the range of a uniform swing don’t necessarily fall, and some such seats unlikely to fall.  That’s why I believe that Turnbull is set to make it narrowly home.

The last election, in 2013, saw the 150-seat House fall comfortably to the Coalition over the Labor Party, with a 90-55 win, while a quintet of crossbenchers won the other seats.

Since the 2013 election, there have been electoral redistributions in several places, which have changed the numbers there.  Brought about by population changes, with the aim of giving as near as possible to an even number of voters in every seat in selected states or territories, the redistributions have notionally given the Coalition a new seat in Western Australia, notionally given Labor a trio of Coalition-held seats in New South Wales, and taken away one Labor-held seat.  As a result, the House now shows the Coalition 88-57 ahead of Labor.  This has reduced Labor’s task of a 21-seat target to a 19-seat target.

While this year was always going to be an election year, three years on from the last election, the last year has been been full of twists and turns.  The Coalition had won the last election largely off the back of massive voter dissatisfaction with Labor, but voters themselves didn’t like Tony Abbott, who was then the Coalition leader, and they only voted for because they were fed up with Labor.  It only took a few months for their dissatisfaction with Abbott to really show in the polls, and for month after month one poll after another showed voters ready to throw the Coalition out of office, after a single term there.  This brought about a leadership challenge in September last year, with Abbott dumped in favour of Turnbull.  But after enjoying much bigger approval ratings among voters for several months, Turnbull also lost favour with them, and in the first six months of this year he’s nosedived from looking unbeatable to looking vulnerable.

The amazing thing is that many people, myself included, didn’t expect Labor to be in with a shout after its 2013 election loss.  Even though voters hated Abbott, it seemed hard to believe that they could want to go back to Labor after throwing Labor out in a big way in 2013.  The switch from Abbott to Turnbull initially sent Labor’s stocks into freefall, but Labor has come back in a big way, and now looks to be in with a chance.

The trouble, as I see it, is that the Coalition has upset many people with its policy agenda, particularly when it comes to reducing public spending and a massive budget deficit that Labor had left behind.  Voters didn’t like Labor’s deficit, but they’ve been uneasy about how the Coalition intends to deal with it.  They’re afraid that spending cuts will leave them worse off and unable to spend more, and they’re afraid that the Coalition might try to return to a deregulated system of employment laws, which cost countless people a good chunk of their income and left them worried about of losing their jobs to people willing to accept less pay for work.  I could sum up their thoughts as saying, “We don’t like Labor’s clumsiness, but we also don’t like the Coalition’s stinginess.”

Those circumstances make the 2016 election interesting.  My prediction is for an overall swing of 3-4 per cent against the Coalition, but not all Coalition seats within that range will be lost, because of differing attitudes across different states and territories.  So my seat tips are as follows, albeit not without some close calls.

The Coalition will end up losing the seats of Petrie, Capricornia, Lyons, Solomon, Hindmarsh, Eden-Monaro, Lindsay, Robertson, Page, Reid, Macarthur, Bonner, Brisbane, and Cowan to Labor – 14 seats in all.  But on the other hand, the Coalition will end up winning McEwen and Chisholm and Bruce from Labor – a trio of Victorian seats.  Also, the Coalition will win back Fairfax in Queensland, with the departure from politics of mining tycoon Clive Palmer.  This points to a result of 78-68 to the Coalition over Labor, with a quartet of Independents holding the remaining seats.

I tip the Coalition to hold the seats of Braddon, Banks, Deakin, Gilmore, Corangamite, La Trobe, Bass, Forde, and Macquarie in the face of challenges.  Most of these seats are within the uniform swing range, with some above, but I think that the Coalition will hold them.

As for the Senate, it’ll be a lottery.  I won’t predict numbers, but I’m predicting the Coalition to face having to deal with balance-of-power crossbenchers in the Senate, just like previously.

This election will probably see Turnbull make it home.  But few would’ve tipped him to struggle before now.

 

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.

 

Freedom lost when you vote above the line

28 March 2016

 

Hardly anybody would’ve heard of the Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party, or of Ricky Muir, until after the last Federal election, in September 2013.  Running for a Senate seat in Victoria in that election, the AMEP and Muir only won a tiny proportion of votes, but preferences from other political parties and groups enabled Muir to leapfrog his way to a Senate seat, ahead of those who’d won considerably more votes than him.

Many regard the presence of Muir in Federal Parliament as an insult to democracy.  They don’t like the idea that he could’ve been elected when hardly anybody voted for him, and that so-called “gaming” got him there.  But while the criticism of Muir’s election has some validity, some critics are being disingenuous about it.

There’s nothing new in candidates winning seats in elections with less votes than their direct rivals.  How many people remember that Independent candidate Andrew Wilkie, running for the seat of Denison in the House of Representatives a few elections ago, actually finished third in the initial counting of votes, and won the seat with preferences from other candidates?  He might’ve been lucky to be elected back then, but he won the most votes in the initial count at the next election that he contested, and he’ll probably hold Denison forever if he wishes.

The difference between Wilkie’s initial election and Muir’s 2013 election is in relation to preferences.  When you vote to elect someone to the House of Reps, you have to mark “1” and “2” and so on against every candidate on your ballot paper for that chamber.  If your first choice candidate is eliminated, because of having the least votes at the end of any count, your vote goes to whichever candidate you mark “2” against on your ballot paper, unless your second choice of candidate has been eliminated already, in which case it goes to your third choice or higher if required.  Here, if your preferred candidates are eliminated from the count, you choose where your vote goes.  But this isn’t the same when you vote in Senators.

Until some decades ago, you had to mark “1” and “2” and so on against every candidate on your ballot paper for the Senate, which has usually been a larger paper than that for the House of Reps.  This process was later changed, and a thick black line was added to each ballot paper for the Senate.  Now when you vote to elect people from your state to the Senate, you have a choice of voting “above the line” or “below the line”.  If you vote below the line, you must put numbers in every box below it.  If you vote above the line, you need only mark “1” against your choice of political party, and then that’s it.

Not surprisingly, most Australians vote above the line when voting for Senators.  But this option has a dark underside, and not many people knew about it until some time after the option of voting above the line was introduced.

Before a Federal election, all political parties are required to state where they will direct preferences in Senate contests, as far as votes above the line go.  But they’re the ones who decide where votes and preferences go, rather than the voters, who probably don’t know where preferences are going, notwithstanding that this stuff is made public.  As a voter, you still have the freedom to choose where your vote goes if you vote below the line on your Senate ballot paper – but this freedom is lost when you just vote above the line.  It might be more convenient for you, but it’s also a touch undemocratic.

To illustrate my point, I refer to the Greens, and to controversial political figures Pauline Hanson and Fred Nile, as well as the major parties.  Hypothetically, you’d expect the Liberal Party to direct preferences to Nile ahead of the Greens, and the Labor Party to direct preferences to the Greens ahead of Hanson.  But not all voters like this.

What if you’re a Liberal voter preferring to give the Greens your preference ahead of Nile, or a Labor voter preferring Hanson to the Greens?  Unfortunately, when you vote above the line, you lose your say here.  Your vote goes where the parties decide, whether you like it or not.

It took the emergence of Hanson in the 1990s to expose this undemocratic side of voting for the Senate.  She formed her own political party, which finished third in several states at a Federal election in 1998, but other players won Senate seats with less votes, because Hanson had such controversial views that many political parties agreed to direct Senate preferences to each other and away from her mob.  This leapfrogging occurred on a few occasions at later elections.

My feeling is that, before the 2013 election, minor players came to understand that they could, and should, direct Senate preferences to each other and away from the major parties.  And that was exactly what they did – with Muir winning as a result.

Reforms to Senate voting since then might’ve resulted from a desire to prevent wins with tiny votes.  But they look driven by resentment.  Senate voting will have changed due to annoyance of big players over this kind of loss.

 

Costly election hurdles highlighted by Palmer

19 April 2015

The last Federal election was notable as one in which a wealthy business figure bought parliamentary power.  Although not the main story of the election, it was far from insignificant.  What drew more attention was the election as Prime Minister of a man whom most Aussies disliked, some more vocally than others, all because his rival was part of a long-running leadership squabble that turned people off everywhere.

Elections in which voters can’t abide either government leaders or their opponents aren’t unheard of as such.  In those circumstances, voters invariably look elsewhere.  And sometimes minor players get elected, occasionally with the balance of power in parliaments and virtually the final say on whether or not government legislation is passed.

Over time, various minor political players have ended up with power over parliamentary chambers and the passage of legislation.  The Democrats enjoyed such power for many years.  Of late the Greens have enjoyed such power.  Both federally and at state level, various minor players have enjoyed this kind of power at one time or another.

But has anyone ever known of advertisements, either on television or radio, going to air for these minor players at election time?  Until 2013, I’d never seen or heard such ads, so I suspect that they’ve never been made, although I stand to be corrected on this.

What made the 2013 Federal election so different was the airing of ads for a minor player on the political scene.  Normally at election time we regularly see and hear ads for the major political parties, namely Labor and the Coalition parties.  But in 2013, voters saw and heard lots of ads for a political party set up by Clive Palmer, a billionaire who made his wealth in the mining industry.  Given his immense wealth, he ended up highlighting what’s long been a costly election hurdle for minor political players.

Palmer’s ability to spend a fortune to get his political party much airtime, especially during television news bulletins, when people were most likely to be watching television, was arguably an advantage unprecedented for minor players.  Getting a television ad to air must cost a fortune, especially during the most watched periods of the day, even if the ad itself costs little to make.  I lost count of the number of times that I saw Palmer talking, straight to a camera, in television ads during news bulletins.  Palmer just said a variety of simple sentences, strung together by blurring images, to make voters think that he could do a better job of running the country than either Kevin Rudd or Tony Abbott.  I’d never before seen so many ads for a minor party, though there weren’t more of those than there were for the major parties.

Voters were definitely disillusioned with Rudd and Abbott.  Rudd was popularly elected as Prime Minister in 2007, and he remained popular for years, but after a few months of sliding popularity, Rudd was rolled in a surprise coup in 2010, with Julia Gillard becoming Prime Minister.  Because the coup was such a shock and never really explained, voters hated it, and they revolted to the point of almost tipping Gillard out of office at an election soon after – disliking Abbott probably stopped voters from throwing Gillard out.  Brooding over the coup, Rudd sniped away and undermined Gillard’s leadership, though Gillard herself didn’t do a good job of winning voters over to her, and Rudd ultimately won a leadership challenge to return as Prime Minister.  Having almost beaten Gillard in 2010, and embittered at only just failing, Abbott went on to behave with relentless opportunism and negativity.  Abbott had long peeved voters with his combative style as a minister in the Howard Government, but after he’d become Opposition Leader, the Rudd-Gillard saga made people look at Abbott more often.

In the meantime, Palmer became disillusioned with governmental processes and saw fit to start his own political party.  Using his wealth and capitalising on voters’ disillusionment, he won a large chunk of the vote across the country – enough to win three Senate seats among what became a crossbench of eighteen Senators.  Several other minor players also won seats.

Since then, two of Palmer’s Senators have left his party for various reasons.  Time will tell whether they end up as credible politicians.  But they wouldn’t have entered Parliament without support provided by Palmer.  Some irony would probably exist in the notion, which may or may not come to pass, of two respected political careers having begun because of a man whose wealth highlighted a costly election hurdle that minor political players invariably face.