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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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.

 

Lessons from North Sydney for minor players

27 December 2015

 

Both sides of politics have much to think about as a new year dawns.  With a Federal election coming next year, the Turnbull Coalition Government looks assured of victory, with the Opposition looking unelectable, at least as far as opinion polls go.  But it won’t be easy for the Liberal-National Coalition, as it’s got to make hard decisions about public spending and employment laws, among other things, even with the Labor Party hardly looking like a viable alternative.

Neither side looks like taking much out of the North Sydney by-election, which happened earlier this month.  Triggered by the resignation from Federal Parliament of former Treasurer Joe Hockey, it resulted in a fairly comfortable win for the Liberals.  There was a swing against them, but because Labor didn’t contest the by-election, conclusions weren’t so clear.

There were also more candidates contesting the by-election than had contested the seat at the last Federal election, in 2013.  As such, the vote went all over the place!  The Liberals had a swing of about 12-13 per cent against them on primary votes, and Independent candidate Stephen Ruff came second with 18-19 per cent of the vote, while the Liberals finished about 60-40 ahead of Ruff after preferences.

The big swing against the Liberals should’ve been troubling for them.  But there wasn’t really an appealing alternative candidate to North Sydney, so the swing seems less damaging.  And with more candidates running, even excluding Labor, voters can look elsewhere if they wish.

The rise in candidates contesting North Sydney made me think of a by-election in Victoria long ago.  It followed the resignation of Pat McNamara, who’d previously been leader of the Nationals and Deputy Premier in Victoria.  At a state election in 1999, McNamara won the rural seat of Benalla fairly comfortably from Labor candidate Denise Allen.  She was actually the only candidate running against McNamara.  When he resigned the following year, several candidates ran in the resulting Benalla by-election against the Nationals and Allen, who again stood for Labor.

With the Nationals out of favour in Benalla, there was a swing against them both on primary votes and after preferences, and Labor won.  However, probably due to the larger field of candidates than in the previous year’s election, Labor’s primary vote also dropped.

Benalla voters clearly had doubts about Labor, although they were unhappier with the Nationals.  It might be that at the previous year’s election, with only the Nationals and Labor to choose from, voters unhappy with both options basically made their choice by first rejecting the option that they disliked more – hardly an inspiring way to vote.  But Labor still finished first on primary votes, ahead of the Nationals, before winning the by-election on preferences, and you can’t fault that.

The Benalla by-election result back then makes me think that this month’s North Sydney by-election, had Labor run, might’ve seen swings on primary votes against the big political players.  When more candidates contest an election, voters have more choice, and if they’re unhappy they can naturally look elsewhere.

However, if there are lessons from this by-election in North Sydney, they’re really for minor players, be they minor parties or Independent candidates.  These lessons are important ahead of next year’s Federal election, especially if voters are unhappy with both the Coalition and Labor.

With Labor skipping the by-election, I’d have expected the Greens to win over people who’d otherwise voted for Labor in North Sydney.  After all, it’s a wealthy electorate with people tending to care more about issues like human rights and environmentalism, as they don’t worry about losing their jobs or their homes.  But support for the Greens barely changed, and their candidate finished behind Ruff.  Are the Greens now less strong than before?

Mind you, because the vote went all over the place, I wouldn’t strictly conclude that Ruff won over those who’d have otherwise voted for Labor.  If Ruff chooses to run as a candidate in North Sydney at the next election, would his vote from the by-election rise or fall?  With Labor having no chance of winning North Sydney, would voters unhappy with the Liberals support an alternative like Ruff?  Most North Sydney people didn’t vote for him in the by-election, so would they even consider him at the next election?

Voters usually don’t support Independents unless they feel like they really know them.  It’s not enough just to have “Independent” or the letters “I-N-D” after your name on a ballot paper.  If voters don’t feel familiar with minor players, even disliking the major parties won’t necessarily sway them.

Federal Independent MP Andrew Wilkie was widely known, as an intelligence analyst, before his election in 2010.  He’d contested several elections before finally winning a seat, and now looks like he’ll hold it for some time.  Having a high profile also helped the late Peter Andren in 1996, when he was elected as a Federal Independent MP.  He was a television newsreader in central New South Wales, so people in that region knew who he was, and he held his seat comfortably until his death.  Of course, countless Independents have lost elections despite being widely known, but being known often helps.

The lessons from North Sydney seem clear.  Minor political players in particular should heed them before the next election comes.

 

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.

 

Maverick Joyce now just another politician

22 November 2015

 

Very few politicians of late have matched Barnaby Joyce for making an impact of sorts.  A National from Queensland, he entered the Senate in 2005, and he declared that he’d be his own man and he wouldn’t always toe the line with his colleagues.  His form has been as he intended, at least until lately.

The Liberals and Nationals let MPs “cross the floor” in parliamentary votes.  They can vote against their colleagues, in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, if they disagree with them over some issue or policy.  Over time, many of them have crossed the floor, and Joyce has done so a few times.

This freedom doesn’t exist in the Labor Party.  Instead, it gets its MPs to vote internally on issues, and then takes the position voted upon by a majority of MPs, even if the majority is tiny.  Labor expels MPs from its ranks if they cross the floor.  The only way for Labor MPs to express opposition to what most of their colleagues support is to abstain, or decline, from voting on the parliamentary floor.

But the reputation of Joyce isn’t confined to crossing the floor.  He’s also got quite a turn of phrase, probably the best in Australian politics since Paul Keating departed two decades ago.  Although Keating was hardly popular when he was Treasurer in the Hawke Labor Government and subsequently Prime Minister, he could definitely cut through with his words, sometimes well and other times badly.  He compared one political rival to a souffle rising twice, described a surprise election win as one for “true believers”, and had lots of memorable quotes.  Joyce has a knack for saying similar things.  I’ve seen him talking to live television audiences a few times, and he’s regularly made them laugh and even burst into applause, no matter whether they agree with him or not.  Few people can say that they haven’t heard of him.

Joyce had been in the Senate for eight years when he switched to the House of Reps in 2013, and he switched states as well.  Representing Queensland when elected to the Senate, he made the decision to run for the seat of New England in northern New South Wales, and had to both leave the Senate and leave Queensland in order to do this.  With the Liberal-National Coalition winning office in 2013, Joyce became Agriculture Minister, as well as deputy leader of the Nationals, and will likely success Warren Truss as leader when Truss departs.

However, this is where trouble has started for Joyce of late.  Coalition MPs may be free to cross the floor, but not if they’re ministers, who have to abide by the decision taken by a majority of them – just like Labor MPs must abide by a majority vote among their ranks.  Joyce is a National in a Coalition ministry full of Liberals, some of whom know nothing about rural Australia.  He might disagree with the majority of ministers, but he can’t vote against them.  And people can tell if he’s unhappy with a decision, no matter how much he tries to hide his annoyance.  In a sense, while he can still cut through with his turn of phrase, it almost changes from a strength to a weakness, and he can sound more like a “spin doctor”.

Now Joyce faces difficulties of mining on prime farmland.  The prospect of a major mine opening up on farmland in the Liverpool Plains, around Joyce’s neck of the woods, has people up in arms.  They’re worried about how mining would affect the area’s water resources, with any mishap potentially making the water unsuitable for agriculture, thus wrecking the area’s economy.  Joyce might be unhappy about the mine, but if the Liberals want it, be they Federal Liberals or State Liberals governing in NSW at the moment, he’ll struggle to change their minds.

The issue of this mine has bred speculation of former Independent MP Tony Windsor coming out of retirement to run against Joyce at the next Federal election.  Windsor retired in 2013 after over ten years of holding New England.  His last three years were hard, as a balance-of-power MP whose support put Labor in office after it nearly lost an election to the Coalition.  This brought him much criticism and vitriol, particularly from conservative commentators who accused him of betraying his voters, who’d have otherwise supported the Coalition over Labor.  His health wasn’t the best when he retired, but critics called him cowardly for walking away.

I’m not convinced that Windsor will return.  He’d been in politics for two decades when he retired, and I’m not sure that a few years away would’ve recharged his batteries sufficiently.  He can oppose the mine more credibly than Joyce can, but bad memories might scare voters away from him, or any other Independent candidate who runs instead of him, no matter how strong the opposition to the mine.

Mining on prime farmland has exposed some cracks within the Coalition.  This issue makes the maverick Joyce now look like just another politician, and a compromised one at that.  Unless enough Liberals agree with him, he can’t oppose mining on farmland without jeopardising his political career.  The maverick streak hitherto making him popular now looks less credible.

More value in polls with geographic breakdowns

31 July 2015

Boredom might be the feeling that many people get when they hear or see news stories about opinion polls.  Such is the saturation of polls in today’s media cycle that countless people just tune out at the mere mention of them.  Except when parliaments are hung, meaning that no side of politics can govern in its own right without the need for support from crossbenchers and one single resignation or death could potentially change governments, why should it matter so much what the polls say, especially when no election is clearly around the corner?

On my part, I only pay close attention to opinion polls every three months or so.  The reason is that one of the main polling entities, Newspoll, publishes its findings with geographic breakdowns every three months, or on a quarterly basis in the context of a year.  Throughout the rest of the year, Newspoll will publish findings every fortnight, albeit with less detail than when it does geographic breakdowns, but reading fortnightly polls won’t matter too much.

There are three lots of findings that I like looking at, two of which are published in major newspapers.  You can read the findings from Newspoll in the AUSTRALIAN.  There are findings from another polling entity, Ipsos, in several newspapers published by Fairfax Media, and they are published as Fairfax/Ipsos polls – of the Fairfax newspapers, I go to the AUSTRALIAN FINANCIAL REVIEW because it includes geographic breakdowns.  And another long-running polling entity, Roy Morgan Research, used to publish its findings in print but now only publishes on electronic pages, with some geographic breakdowns in its findings.

As such, the most recent opportunity to compare findings with geographic breakdowns was in June this year.  And the Newspoll and Fairfax/Ipsos and Morgan findings made for interesting reading.  My focus for the moment is on the two-party-preferred vote, meaning whether voters ultimately prefer Labor or the Coalition, especially if their first choice for voting isn’t either Labor or the Coalition.  The findings of all pollsters in June showed a swing of 6-7 per cent to Labor, thus implying an easy Labor at the next Federal election.

In the House of Representatives, where governments are formed, there are 150 seats.  The Coalition governs with a 90-55 lead over Labor, with a quintet of crossbenchers also there.  In that quintet are Adam Bandt of the Greens, Bob Katter and Clive Palmer of political parties respectively bearing their surnames, and Independents Cathy McGowan and Andrew Wilkie.

Based on the results of the last election, a swing of about 3.1 per cent to Labor would cost the Coalition its majority, but Labor needs a swing of about 4.3 per cent its way to win with a majority – I refer to having a majority because this means being able to govern without the need for support from the Greens or Independents or anyone else, and the memory of the minority Labor Government from 2010 to 2013 is still fresh in many people’s minds, sometimes uncomfortably so.

Within or under the predicted swing 6-7 per cent to Labor, as per the polls’ findings, there are thirty-one Coalition seats across the country.  New South Wales and Queensland have ten seats apiece, Victoria has four seats, Tasmania has three seats, Western Australia has two seats, and South Australia and the Northern Territory have one seat apiece.  Going back to the needed swing of 4.3 per cent to Labor, NSW and Victoria would both shed one seat less, but Queensland would shed six seats less, while WA would see no Coalition seats lost.

However, at election time, swings aren’t always uniform, and often seats within range of the predicted swing actually don’t fall.  And sometimes there are varying factors in each state or region.

For example, the Morgan findings actually showed a swing to the Coalition in Tasmania, with no seats lost there.  The Newspoll and Fairfax/Ipsos findings showed a swing of 6-7 per cent to Labor in Victoria, but the Morgan findings showed a swing of only 2-3 per cent to Labor and hence no seats lost there.  The Newspoll findings showed a swing of 8-9 per cent to Labor in WA, but the other polls’ findings showed a much larger swing and more seats lost there.  And while the Newspoll and Morgan findings both showed figures implying a loss of thirty-one seats for the Coalition, as would occur in a uniform swing, the Fairfax/Ipsos findings seemed to show fewer seats lost.

These findings show why more value appears in polls with geographic breakdowns, although they don’t happen very often.  But publishing them more often mightn’t be ideal, given how bored people seem with them nowadays.

Some surprises in Baird’s unsurprising triumph

31 May 2015

The recent state election in New South Wales turned out pretty much as predicted.  Premier Mike Baird and the Coalition parties survived a large swing against them to win the election with a comfortable majority.  They were always going to suffer a large swing, since the previous election in 2011 had seen a massive swing to the Liberal-National Coalition as voters comprehensively tossed the Labor Party out of office amid a stench of incompetence and scandal, but the swing to Labor now wasn’t thought likely to defeat the Coalition.

It’s not uncommon for a large swing in one direction at one election to be followed by a large swing the opposite way at the next.  I saw such swings and reversals in the Federal elections of 1996 and 1998, and more recently in the Queensland elections of 2012 and this year, so I expected this to happen in NSW.  Mind you, the Queensland scenario was different because both elections saw the governing party lose office, both the Labor Party in 2012 and the Liberal National Party this year – it’s probably rare to see two consecutive elections resulting in big swings and changing of governments.

Nonetheless, the NSW election had the Coalition fighting for privatisation of electricity assets to fund upgrades to roads and schools and other things.  Voters weren’t keen on electricity privatisation, which they might’ve perceived as resulting in higher electricity charges under private operators who cared more about profits than providing a reliable electricity supply, but an anti-privatisation campaign by Labor didn’t really scare voters away from the Coalition.  There was talk about other issues possibly biting, like the unpopularity of some planned road tunnels in inner Sydney and concerns about alleged corruption by MPs, but they turned out to be local issues in just a few seats.

The unpopularity of Prime Minister Tony Abbott and the Federal Coalition was also tipped to hurt Baird.  Indeed both Baird and Abbott represent the same region in different parliaments – Baird holds the State seat of Manly and Abbott holds the overlapping Federal seat of Warringah.  And after Queensland’s election had earlier seen the defeat of the Newman LNP Government, whose leader was an attacker like Abbott, many tipped an “Abbott factor” to hurt Baird.  But this didn’t occur.

Helping the Coalition was a whopping parliamentary majority – it won the previous election 69-20 over Labor in terms of seats, and the loss of a few seats in by-elections, as well as several MPs over corruption allegations, didn’t reduce the Coalition’s majority by much.  The Coalition also had a popular leader in Baird, who seems more energetic and likeable than many other leaders.  Having a popular leader and a strong parliamentary majority shielded the Coalition from any major backlash, over electricity privatisation or corruption or whatever.

In the end, unsurprisingly, the Coalition won comfortably, albeit just in the Lower House of Parliament, namely the Legislative Assembly.  It didn’t win enough seats to control the Upper House of Parliament, the Legislative Council – here it won nine out of twenty-one available seats, and its legislation won’t get through here without enough minor parties’ support.

Out of ninety-three Assembly seats, the Coalition won fifty-four and Labor won thirty-four, while the Greens won three and Independents won two.  In terms of my predictions, the Coalition won three more seats than I’d tipped and Labor won three less, while my prediction of two seats for the Greens and three for Independents turned out to be the reverse.

I correctly tipped Labor to win Blue Mountains, Campbelltown, Granville, Londonderry, Macquarie Fields, Maitland, Prospect, Rockdale, Strathfield, Swansea, and Wyong from the Coalition.  My tips for the Coalition to win back Miranda from Labor after losing it in a by-election, and for the Greens to hold Balmain and win Newtown, were also correct.  And I got right three seats which had changed hands at by-elections in the previous two years – as per my tips, the Coalition by-election winner in Northern Tablelands was returned, as were the Labor by-election winners in Newcastle and Charlestown.

But I also made many incorrect tips, and some results were surprises.  I didn’t tip the Coalition to hold off Labor in Coogee, East Hills, Holsworthy, Kiama, Monaro, and Oatley – some of these seats should’ve gone to Labor quite easily.  Nor did I tip the Coalition to hold off a well-known Independent in Tamworth.  I also didn’t tip Labor wins in Gosford and Port Stephens and The Entrance, where Labor had swings above the predicted statewide swing of 9-10 per cent from the Coalition.  And I never expected the Greens to win the rural seat of Ballina, because the Greens seldom poll well outside inner suburbs of capital cities and I doubted that they’d win in the bush, notwithstanding their strong opposition to coal seam gas, a major issue in some regions.

The result of the NSW election shouldn’t have surprised anybody.  Baird now has a fifteen-seat majority in the Lower House, though he needs crossbench support in the Upper House to pass legislation there.  But in Baird’s unsurprising triumph there were definitely some surprises, so Baird may have to address issues that he might’ve preferred to avoid.  His popularity remains strong, though how he handles some issues will direct where that popularity goes.

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.

NSW voters with a chance to break election rules

28 March 2015

Rarely would there have been an election like what confronts voters in New South Wales today.  Not many governments have gone into elections with popular leaders, massive parliamentary majorities, uninspiring rivals, and controversial policies.  Yet today this is what voters face in the most populous Australian state.

At the last state election in NSW, in 2011, the Liberal-National Coalition scored a monstrous victory.  The Labor Party had governed since 1995, and for years had stunk of such corruption and incompetence that voters were desperate to toss Labor out, although the state economy wasn’t exactly in bad shape.  Ultimately, voters gave the Coalition a whopping 69-20 victory over Labor in the 93-seat Legislative Assembly, with a Green and a trio of Independents winning the few seats that neither the Coalition nor Labor won.  The Coalition also won more seats up for grabs in the Legislative Council than anyone else, though not enough for a majority.

Liberal leader Barry O’Farrell became Premier when the Coalition won office in 2011.  He seemed lacklustre, but the Labor Party was so bad that O’Farrell looked better than he probably was.  But in 2014, O’Farrell resigned after misleading the Independent Commission Against Corruption, ironically at an inquiry which was set to investigate the controversial dealings of some Labor figures but ended up catching out some Liberals in the process.  The shock departure of O’Farrell saw Mike Baird become Liberal leader and Premier, and this ultimately energised the Coalition.

Baird has been almost too good to be true.  He comes across as energetic and likeable.  Compared to many other political leaders, he usually makes an effort to answer questions, without appearing to repeatedly recite lines from some script, and sounds less robotic.  Few political leaders these days come across like Baird in this respect.

As for the Labor Party, it was always going to look lacklustre.  After its 2011 drubbing it looked uninspiring, with little in terms of positive ideas that voters could get behind.  Although Luke Foley has looked good since becoming Labor leader, he’s still heading a dull bunch with little to say beyond opposing Coalition plans and policies.  Nobody really gives Foley a chance to win the election today, though he’ll win back much of Labor’s lost ground from 2011.

Yet despite being a popular leader with a massive majority and a less-than-inspiring rival, as well as a state economy in good shape, problems confront Baird and the Coalition.  There have been dramas over some public sector job cuts, corruption allegations that drove some MPs out of the Liberal Party, and plans for several motorway tunnels to cut congestion on Sydney’s roads – the tunnels in particular have aroused much local resistance because of concerns about pollution from them and losses of homes to tunnel interchanges, although critics have ignored how inadequate public transport in outer suburbs bred much of the congestion that led to the tunnel ideas.  The unpopularity of Prime Minister Tony Abbott and the Coalition at a national level also appears to be hurting Baird’s mob.

However, bothering voters is Baird’s plan for electricity privatisation.  His idea is to lease electricity assets, or “poles and wires” in other words, and use funds from it to upgrade infrastructure like roads and schools and hospitals.  Voters seem opposed to electricity privatisation, because they fear a costlier and less reliable electricity supply if control goes to private operators, especially big corporations, who’d perceivably cut jobs and put off maintenance in pursuit of profits.  But they’re not really warming to Labor’s anti-privatisation messages.  So there’s a chance that they’ll vote for someone advocating a plan that they oppose, which would turn conventional election rules upside-down.

Putting aside popularity and majorities and policies, what’s likely to happen in NSW today?  Opinion polls seem to tip a swing of 9-10 per cent against the Coalition, which in itself looks huge.  But it’d take a larger swing to cost the Coalition its parliamentary majority, and Labor needs a swing twice as big to win outright.

The Coalition will lose many seats today, but should still hold office.  In alphabetical order, I tip the Coalition to lose these seats to Labor – Blue Mountains, Campbelltown, Coogee, East Hills, Granville, Holsworthy, Kiama, Londonderry, Macquarie Fields, Maitland, Monaro, Oatley, Prospect, Rockdale, Strathfield, Swansea, and Wyong.  I also tip the Coalition to lose Tamworth to an Independent.

But I tip the Coalition to win Miranda from Labor.  The Coalition won this seat from Labor with a massive swing in 2011, after popular Labor MP Barry Collier retired.  But when the new sitting member resigned in 2013, Collier came out of retirement to contest a subsequent by-election, and won.  Now he’s retiring again, and Miranda effectively reverts back to the Coalition margin from the 2011 election, which is above the swing expected today, so the Coalition will win it.  Northern Tablelands and Newcastle and Charlestown also changed hands at by-elections during the past two years, and I tip their sitting members to win.  I also tip the Greens to hold Balmain and win Newtown.

The likely NSW election outcome might be 51-37-2-3 in the Legislative Assembly, in a Coalition-Labor-Greens-Independent sequence, while the Coalition will gain some seats but still lack a majority in the Legislative Council.  Given concerns about electricity privatisation, some rules could be broken in this election today.