Barilaro has his work cut out

19 November 2016

 

The result of last weekend’s by-election in Orange in central New South Wales mightn’t have been finalised as yet.  But it already has one major victim.

One of three seats holding by-elections to fill vacant seats in State Parliament, Orange was seen as a test for the Liberal-National Coalition, which has been governing in NSW since 2011.  Lately, rural voters have been angry about various issues, such as enforced mergers of local councils and a ban on greyhound racing.  Both the council and greyhound issues were seen as the work of the Liberals, who dominate the Nationals in the Coalition.

Because of the need for Coalition unity, the largely rural Nationals must often give ground to the largely urban Liberals.  This can be tested when issues have a city-country divide, meaning a difference of opinion between city slickers and rural folk.  Although there’s been anger in both rural and urban areas over local councils, the ban on greyhound racing hasn’t angered urban voters as much as rural voters, and of course many of the latter live in the Orange area, which the Nationals have represented for decades without much trouble – at least until last weekend.

At the by-election last weekend, voters in Orange really let the Nationals have it, to the point where the seat might change hands.

For the record, besides Orange, the two other areas having by-elections last weekend were Canterbury and Wollongong, and the Labor Party won both of those, with the Coalition opting against running in either.

Although not yet final, the result in Orange has triggered the downfall of Troy Grant, who resigned as leader of the Nationals, and therefore as Deputy Premier as well, earlier this week.  It was thought that, had there been a big swing against the Nationals in Orange, Grant might’ve faced a leadership challenge.  And indeed there was a big swing in Orange.  But Grant resigned almost at once, although he might’ve been dumped if he didn’t go first.

Being Deputy Premier comes automatically for the leader of the Nationals, whoever that is, when the Coalition governs in NSW.  This is because the Liberals outnumber, and sometimes dominate, the Nationals in the Coalition.  The same idea applies when the Coalition governs at Federal level – this is why Barnaby Joyce, currently the leader of the Nationals in Federal Parliament, is also Deputy Prime Minister in the Turnbull Coalition Government, and why people from Tim Fischer to Warren Truss have both led the Nationals and been Deputy Prime Minister in Coalition governments at the same time in recent decades.

Mind you, this doesn’t happen after the Coalition loses elections.  When out of office, the Liberals and Nationals go their separate ways, to some extent.  This is why, between the aftermath of the Federal Coalition’s loss of office in 2007 and its return to office in 2013, while the Opposition Leader was always a Liberal, the Deputy Opposition Leader was a Liberal rather than a National.  In this case, holding this role from 2007 to 2013 was Julie Bishop, who’s been deputy leader of the Liberals since that 2007 loss.  This also applies when the NSW Coalition is out of office, as it was from 1995 to 2011.

In the meantime, with Grant resigning as leader of the Nationals, the newly-elected leader is John Barilaro, who holds the seat of Monaro, in the state’s south.  The Nationals also have a new deputy leader, in the form of Niall Blair.

I think that Barilaro has a struggle ahead of him.  Guiding the Nationals through their current troubles is hard enough, but he’ll have another problem in holding Monaro, which hasn’t been easy to hold.  He really has his work cut out because of both the Nationals’ troubles and having to hold Monaro.

Because Monaro has frequently changed hands when governments have changed hands over many decades, it’s very much a swinging seat.  The Coalition held it for years while governing until an election in 1976, when it lost office to Labor.  And among Labor’s 1976 gains was Monaro.  Labor lost both this seat and an election to the Coalition in 1988.  The Coalition held it despite losing office at an election in 1995, and again despite losing an election in 1999.  Labor won it in 2003, two elections after winning office in 1995, and lost it to the Coalition, along with an election, in 2011.

Candidate quality can be a factor in a seat like this.  Peter Cochran won it for the Nationals in 1988, when the Coalition won office, and he held it until 1999, even though the Coalition lost office in 1995.  Although the Nationals held it with Peter Webb in 1999, Steve Whan managed to win it for Labor in 2003.  It was always a marginal seat during these years, but Whan held it despite a swing against Labor in 2007.  It fell to the Coalition in 2011, with Barilaro beating Whan, as the Coalition won office.  But Whan’s effort here might’ve prevented a bigger swing to the Coalition, as Monaro was less marginal than other Coalition gains which had been safer for Labor before.  Unsurprisingly, Whan ran again in 2015, but Barilaro was able to hold him off.

This shows how Barilaro will struggle leading the Nationals at this time.  The job of holding a seat like Monaro becomes harder when the sitting member also serves as Deputy Premier.

 

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By-election forgotten as Liberal fortunes turn

30 October 2015

 

The surprise leadership coup of last month, which saw the Liberal Party dump Tony Abbott as leader and Prime Minister in favour of Malcolm Turnbull, seemed to put a Federal by-election in Western Australia almost in the shade.  The by-election, in the seat of Canning, on the fringe of Perth, was rated as a test of Abbott’s leadership, and some pundits were predicting that the Liberals would lose the seat.  But when they dumped Abbott for Turnbull just days out from the by-election, their fortunes seemed to turn around to the point where the by-election meant little.

Brought about by the untimely death of Liberal MP Don Randall, the Canning by-election should’ve been rated a non-event in the general scheme of things.  The Liberals held the seat by a margin of 11.8 per cent over the Labor Party.  Such a margin normally wouldn’t rate as a winnable seat.

However, the unpopularity of Abbott made Canning look vulnerable.  Opinion polls were showing swings against the Liberals potentially as high as the margin in Canning, which would’ve been disastrous for them and for Abbott’s leadership.  Abbott had never been popular – he was only elected Prime Minister because Labor had become so consumed with infighting that voters were put off.

Many people had long been predicting that Abbott’s leadership would be in trouble, and it looked like the issue would come to a head after the by-election, even if the Liberals had won it.  Governments sometimes get kicks up the rear end at by-elections, if voters are angry enough with them and want to show their anger before general elections come.  In any case, I wasn’t among those expecting a challenge to Abbott, simply because I didn’t see any viable alternatives.

I’d felt that the Liberals would never turn to Turnbull, who holds views on various issues, such as climate change, which are firmly at odds with Liberal MPs.  There was talk of the Liberals turning to either deputy leader Julie Bishop or senior minister Scott Morrison in place of Abbott.  But I didn’t see either as up to the job.  I think that Bishop isn’t cut out for leadership – she lacks the charisma as a speaker, and doesn’t make people snap to attention when they hear her.  As for Morrison, I rate him a better communicator who can get his message across well, but he’s only been in Parliament since 2007 and he probably needs more time before he’s ready for leadership.  Therefore, before the leadership coup, I didn’t see anyone else as able to replace Abbott – hence my surprise when the leadership coup happened, especially with the Canning by-election just days away.

Some people wondered if voters in Canning would react badly to the leadership coup.  Voters across the country had become sick of leadership changes in recent years, especially by Labor, whose MPs seemed to panic over leadership time and again.

In the end, the by-election result was a win to the Liberals, despite a swing of 6-7 per cent against them, which was perhaps in line with predictions.  I’d actually predicted the swing to be a bit larger, especially as by-elections often enable voters to give incumbent governments a collective kick up the rear end if they’re unhappy with them.

I suspect that had Abbott still been leading when the by-election happened, the eventual result would’ve set off leadership speculation in the media.  Given that opinion polls seemed to be showing a swing of 6-7 per cent to Labor on a nationwide basis, a swing in that range in Canning would’ve set the hares running, even though the Liberals would’ve held the seat.

But the leadership coup looks to have been a blessing for the Liberals.  Several opinion polls have shown their support turning around since Turnbull became leader, and they’ve gone from facing election defeat after a single term in office to looking like they’ll clearly win the next election, due in about twelve months’ time.

Until the coup, the Canning by-election was looking likely to give Labor a boost, despite voters’ misgivings about Labor’s performance.  But now it seems as if the by-election has been forgotten as Turnbull has made Liberal fortunes turn in a big way.

How long Turnbull’s popularity lasts will be worth looking at.  Many Liberals still believe in doing things that Abbott was aiming for before he lost the leadership.  Turnbull might change a few things, but he might still believe in other things.  The challenge will be whether Turnbull can persuade voters to accept what they’ve thought to be unpopular policies or plans, at least since the unpopular Abbott had been in charge.

 

Mixed signals likely in Canning

14 September 2015

The recent death of Don Randall has triggered a Federal by-election in Western Australia, which happens this Saturday.  Unsurprisingly, it’s been talked and written about as a test for the Liberal-National Coalition, with its popularity long on the skids, despite an apparent lack of appeal among voters for the Labor Party.

By-elections usually happen when MPs die or resign well before general elections happen.  These are separate elections held only in the seats of former MPs upon their departure.  In the case of the late Randall, the by-election caused by his death will happen in the seat of Canning, based on the southern fringe of Perth.

Randall had two stints in Federal Parliament, albeit without doing much of note.  He was first elected in the seat of Swan, in Perth’s south, in 1996, and was defeated in 1998.  He stood successfully for Canning in 2001, and held that seat until his death.  But the thing for which I remember Randall most was in fact a grubby jibe, which I’ll come to.

At first glance, the Liberal Party really shouldn’t lose Canning.  It holds this seat by a margin of about 11.8 per cent over Labor.  But when I last looked closely at some opinion polls a few months ago, they showed swings to Labor as high as the Canning margin in Western Australia alone – well above a predicted swing of 6-7 per cent to Labor nationwide, as well as the swing about 4.3 per cent needed by Labor simply to win the next election.  I haven’t looked closely at the polls of late simply because they’ve lacked geographic breakdowns, which I see more value in than the nationwide snapshots that most opinion polls focus on.  Anyway, the polls have actually suggested that Canning is more vulnerable than it looks.

Canning has also been something of a swinging seat over the last few decades.  The Liberals held it during the years when Malcolm Fraser was Prime Minister, lost it to Labor when Bob Hawke was elected Prime Minister in 1983, and won it from Labor when John Howard was elected Prime Minister in 1996.  Labor regained the seat in 1998, before Randall regained it for the Liberals in 2001.  In later years he survived one strong challenge from Labor candidate Alannah MacTiernan, a former State Labor Government minister.

When Randall first entered Parliament in 1996, he won Swan from Labor, after Deputy Prime Minister Kim Beazley left that seat to run for Brand, a safer Labor seat at the time.  In the end, Beazley was almost beaten in Brand.  Some observers put his near-defeat down to the reluctance of the Australian Democrats, led by Senator Cheryl Kernot, to direct preferences to Labor, to whom they’d usually directed their preferences at past elections.  Despite this near-death experience, Beazley became Labor leader after former Prime Minister Paul Keating departed.

In late 1997, the highly-regarded Kernot stunned all and sundry when she announced her defection from the Democrats to the Labor Party.  It seemed that Labor figures had been courting Kernot, who was disillusioned with the agenda of the Howard Coalition Government in those days – Labor was trying to distance itself from the unpopular Keating and might’ve seen Kernot as a break from the Keating era.  But Kernot had a hard time in Labor ranks, and was defeated in 2001, before it was revealed that she’d been having an affair with Labor stalwart Gareth Evans.

It was after Kernot’s defection to Labor that Randall did what I remember him most for.  Standing up in Parliament, Randall described Kernot as having “the morals of an alley cat” – a grubby remark.

There might well have been some irony in this incident.  Kernot arguably played some part in almost finishing off the career of Labor stalwart Beazley, but the insulting of her after her defection came from a man who would’ve finished off the career of Beazley if he hadn’t left the seat of Swan to run for Brand.

After this insult, Randall seemingly achieved little else in politics.  He lost Swan in 1998, before returning to Parliament by winning Canning in 2001.

Meanwhile, going back to the by-election resulting from his death, an element of sympathy might save the Liberals in his seat.  By-elections rarely change hands when triggered by deaths, and despite the unpopularity of the Liberals at this time, voters mightn’t be as keen to give them a kick in the rear end as they’d be if MPs call it quits outside election time for no good reason.

Mixed signals await in Canning with this coming by-election.  There’ll be a decent swing against the Liberals, but probably not big enough to lose them the seat, though any swing above 6-7 per cent against them could send Labor cock-a-hoop, despite voters’ doubts about Labor.  My tip is for a swing of 7-8 per cent to Labor, which wouldn’t be too bad a result for the Liberals at this time.  The size of the swing will grab attention, showing whether or not voters might gradually turn back to the Coalition.